The playoffs are coming upon us in a few weeks. Even though I’m pretty critical of how predictable the NBA is these days, the playoffs are still always exciting. Anytime you have a series that can go up to seven games, it’s more than likely going to be a great series.

The main storyline for the playoffs will be which teams can actually challenge the Heat. Unfortunately, the Eastern conference is lacking of capable teams to challenge Miami. There a lot of solid teams in the East, but there isn’t a team like the 2011 Chicago Bulls or 2012 Boston Celtics. Those were two teams that were clearly championship contenders.

What team in the Eastern conference this year can be truly classified as a championship contender? I’ll be making a top five list on what teams can take down the Heat in a seven game series. Most of the teams will be from the Western conference because everyone knows how the West is far superior to the East in the amount of great teams that they have.

It will be ranked as the first team being the most capable team to beat Miami to the fifth most capable team to beat them. Miami is clearly the best team in the league right now and will be favored to win the championship. They are beatable though, this isn’t like the 2000 Los Angeles Lakers. A lack of a true center is the one true flaw that they have and that can be a difference maker.

 

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

They may not be the number one seed, but Oklahoma City is still the biggest threat to Miami. The loss of James Harden has hurt a bit, but the emergence of Serge Ibaka’s offensive productivity has helped the loss. This is the first season that he’s averaging double-digits offensively, along with becoming a favorite to win defensive player of the year.

Ibaka has always been a great defender, but now he’s improved as an inside scorer to give Oklahoma City a major boost. Kevin Martin has been as good as advertised, including shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. Durant and Westbrook have been fantastic as usual to give them two players that can carry their offense.

People may say that they haven’t changed from last year, but that doesn’t mean much. If James Harden played up to his standards, the finals would have lasted longer. They are still an elite team that is still the favorite in the West. They are still young, explosive, and are capable of giving Miami’s offense problems with their elite defense. The bench is just as good as Miami’s bench as well; it will just come down to how the stars perform.

2. San Antonio Spurs

The first reaction to this will probably be that they couldn’t beat Miami when they didn’t have LeBron James or Dwayne Wade. It was a fluke loss and the Spurs shouldn’t be written off like that. The Spurs championship chances will come down to Manu Ginobili’s health. He is an essential part to the Spurs success with his shooting ability, along with his craftiness. They may have great outside shooters in Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, but they don’t have the ability to drive to the hoop like Ginobili.

Tony Parker continues to prove that he’s a top five-point guard, while Tim Duncan is starting to become the “Tony Gonzalez” of the NBA. Duncan is an ageless wonder that is having his best season since the 2009-2010 season. He has been mostly healthy this season for a change, along with carrying the Spurs at times. He’s averaging a double double, along with averaging over two blocks a game.

It seems like every year that the Spurs are supposed to fall off and become too old to contend for a title. Then they go win 55 to 60 games and prove the critics wrong. I’m not sure if they can beat Oklahoma City, but San Antonio can’t be forgotten about. They are still an elite defensive team that can challenge both top teams.

3. Denver Nuggets

It’s funny how the Nuggets bandwagon has grown over the past month. In the past, many people didn’t believe in Denver because they don’t have a “true star”. They have many core players, but they don’t have a Kevin Durant or LeBron James. It was becoming annoying to continue to hear about that.

My only question about Denver wasn’t about the roster, but if they were going to stay healthy compared to other years. Other than Ty Lawson’s recent injury issue, they have stayed healthy and have become a major threat in the West.  This is a team that can go nine players deep led by Lawson and Danilo Gallinari. With their depth and explosiveness, this team can make a long playoff run.

They had the quietest 15 game winning streak in history to go along with their great season. Corey Brewer has finally started to play consistently, while Wilson Chandler has started to play better. With a frontline of Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, and Kosta Koufos, this team can give Miami serious problems by controlling the boards and their wide variety of scoring options. If McGee can keep his head on straight, he could dominate in that series and take full advantage of Miami’s undersized lineup.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers were very close to being third. They are very similar to the Nuggets by going nine players deep, along with being even more athletic and explosive. We’ve seen how the Clippers have been a weekly feature on highlight shows every week. This is a team that can play against anyone, but their lacking youth and good defenders.

 Now the Spurs are an old team, but at least they have small forwards like Green and Leonard that can defend to go along with the three-point shooting. When you look at the Clippers, their main flaw other than being inconsistent is their small forward situation. Caron Butler and Matt Barnes aren’t good enough to defend the likes of James and Durant.

They are still a threat with their dynamic duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but can they stay consistent? The lack of three-point shooting is another problem compared to the other main contenders. I’m still a believer in the Clippers to compete against the best, but they are still missing a few pieces. As long as they have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin continues to improve, they always have a chance. The addition of Jamal Crawford has also given them a major lift this season, but they need more.

5. New York Knicks

It was a difficult choice, but I’m going to choose the Knicks. I’ll explain why the other two teams I considered didn’t make it below. I’m still skeptical of the Knicks due to their old roster and their tendency to rely on Carmelo Anthony on too many occasions, but they have shown that they can compete with anyone.

When the Knicks get hot, they are almost unstoppable especially when the three pointers are falling. When they aren’t shooting well, then they struggle to stay competitive. The thing that separates the Knicks right now from the pack is how Anthony is playing. He’s been playing at an MVP level this season and has had some huge performances against Miami this season.

If inconsistent talented players like J.R Smith and Raymond Felton can be efficient, then they can give the Heat a tough series. It’ll come down to them shooting well, along with Tyson Chandler being an enforcer down low. They have shown that they can play with Miami, but it’ll be on the other players that play over 30 minutes a game to step up that aren’t named Carmelo Anthony. I have more faith in them to do that than Indiana or Chicago.

 

The Teams That Just Missed Out

If there was a clear report on Derrick Rose and he stated that he was coming back for the playoffs, the Bulls would have made it over the Knicks. For now though, the future of Rose is unclear and it makes Chicago a team that can make it to the second round at best.

As for Indiana, they are in a similar predicament. They have played well without Danny Granger this year, but they have benefited for a weak Eastern conference. They are a physical team that can make it to the Eastern conference finals, but they don’t have a player that can take over. You need that player, while playing against the Heat. Paul George is talented, but he isn’t good enough to carry the scoring load for Indiana in a seven game series.

In my season preview from last October, I had the Nets and 76ers coming up to push the Pacers down to the sixth seed. That didn’t happen due to the lack of chemistry in Brooklyn and Andrew Bynum being injured for the entire season. Indiana has been gritty and has played well under the circumstances without Granger, but they aren’t much of a threat to Miami.

The same can be said for Chicago without Rose. Even with Rose, it’ll be a long shot that they can beat Miami. Still with their physical style and being a great defensive team, they shouldn’t be ruled out if Rose comes back. They need his scoring because without him it puts too much pressure on Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to carry the scoring load against a top defensive team like Miami.

 

Hopefully, each playoff team can avoid injuries since these next few weeks consist of just battling for higher seeds. The only battle to get in the playoffs is the eighth seed in the West. I’m going to dread listening to people calling the Lakers “the most dangerous eighth seed ever” if they make the playoffs.

The Lakers are still among the biggest punch lines in the league and will get eliminated in five games by a team like Oklahoma City or San Antonio. Other than that, I’m sure that Michael Ryne and I will do a playoff preview in a few weeks with predictions. Until then, enjoy your weekend and I’ll be back Tuesday for a review of the end of the NCAA tournament.

 

You can follow me on twitter at @Allen_Strk or if you don't use it, then you can e-mail me at AStrk19@gmail.com to discuss the upcoming NBA playoffs or the NCAA tournament.