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Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

Apr 18, 2013, 8:49 AM EDT

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

  1. kb2408 - Apr 18, 2013 at 8:58 AM

    I agree the Spurs have the best chance, but they might not even get past the Lakers.

    • andyhr17 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:21 AM

      That’s like saying I think the Heat have a great chance to beat the Spurs…but they might not get past the Bucks.

  2. jrod2go - Apr 18, 2013 at 9:04 AM

    The Wiz have a better shot at beating the Heat than the Lakers, Hawks or Bucs.

  3. 1972wasalongtimeago - Apr 18, 2013 at 9:06 AM

    What a season! More great moments/games/streaks/players than any sports fan can ask for. Thanks to the Heat for making the last 6 meaningless months meaningful.

    Now it’s time. Going to be Great!

    • southbeachtalent - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:52 AM

      Great season but will be empty without the O’Brien.

      • 1972wasalongtimeago - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:23 PM

        Wouldn’t want it any other way.

  4. cj1403 - Apr 18, 2013 at 9:26 AM

    That last bit about Milwaukee was funny.

  5. paulhargis53 - Apr 18, 2013 at 9:30 AM

    kb: You’re an idiot. You actually think the lakers, without Kobe, beat the Spurs?! Good God some of you l.a. fans are hopeless. I’ve seen some delusional stuff on here, but this is just flat out idiocy.
    Lakers will be lucky to win 1 game. They are atrocious on the road and will head back to l.a. behind the 8 ball.

    I see a sweep in your future, but I will give them 1 game to be nice. Spurs in 5.

  6. aboogy123456 - Apr 18, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    Spurs or Grizzlies have a legit shot to beat miami. They both have big men that can dominate miami inside, and I think a team needs that badly to beat miami. I don’t see how miami can stop marc gasol and randolph going down low all day, and memphis also matches up well defensively against miami. I think the thunder are the most likely to come out of the west, but they have no shot against miami. Before we start crowning miami as some historically great team, let’s see them actually overcome some challenges. Haven’t seen it yet..

  7. siege102 - Apr 18, 2013 at 10:40 AM

    The Milwaukee bit was funny but in all seriousness, no one in Milwaukee thinks the Bucks have any shot

    • muhangis - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:26 PM

      Milwaukee has got enough talent, it’s coaching that’s their issue

  8. honeyboywilson - Apr 18, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    Come on. As much as I like the Spurs, they have become a regular season team. They will quickly run out of gas and be eliminated in the playoffs.

  9. jimsjam33 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    The Griz at number three is a real question mark . The Clippers have beaten the Memphis team 5 out of their last six meetings . Blake Griffin usually dominates Zac and Jordan is okay with Gasol . The Clipper advantage is not only Chris Paul , but Eric Bledsole and Jamal Crawford . In other words the Clipper backcourt is way superior to Mike Conley and company . The Griz have the best defense in the NBA at 89.5 points per game and wants to slow games down . The Clippers are not far behind at 5th …… They have a very limited three point game and in no way can they keep up with the Clippers speed .
    This match-up is an easy call since the Clippers have home court advantage . The Griz did not want to see the Clippers again this year and they are moaning and groaning , ” Oh no , not the Clippers again . They would have preferred the GS Warriors in the 3 vs. 6 slot . That series goes to the Nuggets . Then it’s the Nugs vs. SA and the Clips vs. OKC . Fasten your seat belts ..This is gonna be good .

    • asimonetti88 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:34 AM

      Did you just say that the Clippers are not that far behind Memphis defensively?

      • jimsjam33 - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:19 PM

        Clippers are fifth at points allowed per game at 94.8 . The Clippers are far ahead of the Griz on points scored per game . It’s a good matchup favoring LA.

  10. jr420eightball - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:04 AM

    DA BUCKS!!!!!!

  11. chrisco716 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    Once again Denver gets no respect. All they do is win. Denver would easily have the 2nd best record (if they were) in the Eastern Conference. Denver has the best home record in basketball. Denver is a league best 40-10 this year. Denver is the second hottest team in basketball in the last 10 games. Denver loses Ty Lawson. All they do is win. Denver loses Gallo. All they do is win. Denver loses the Manimal. All they do is win. Apparently all Denver can do is win. They sure can’t get any respect.

    • asimonetti88 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:35 AM

      Denver would be my pick out of the West if they were healthy, but they aren’t. It’s going to be tougher in the playoffs with all those injuries. By the way, how did Denver play 50 home games this season?

      • chrisco716 - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:19 PM

        Denver is 40 -10 since January 1st 2013. The best record in basketball in 2013. They’re only 38-3 at home for the entire 2012/2013 season. Records don’t lie. No one seems aware of that because the media ignores Denver. They are the Rodney Dangerfield of basketball. They don’t get no respect.

      • Kurt Helin - Apr 18, 2013 at 3:22 PM

        They were getting a lot of respect until injuries knocked them down a peg or two.

      • chrisco716 - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:44 PM

        2nd best record in basket6ball in 2013 behind the Heat. Nobody is better than Miami. But media needs to start recognizing just how good Denver is.

      • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:08 PM

        Not healthy? Faried has a sprained ankle that will be fine by round 2 when they’ll need him. And please if one more outsider who hasn’t watched more then 5 Nuggets games comments about how “irreplaceable” Gallanari is, I’m going to puke.

        Wilson Chandler has taken Gallanaris starting spot and OUTPRODUCED him. Had it not been for a slow recovery from a hip injury early in the season, Wilson probably takes Gallo’s job away from him anyway.

        BTW Gallanari was HORRIFIC in the playoffs last year. Including a 1-9 outing with a costly 4th quarter turnover in Games 7 against the Lakers. He is such an average player with above average hype.

        TY Lawson has no limitations and deemed himself 100%.
        Iguodala is the best perimeter defender in the game.
        Corey Brewer is “sixth man of the year” snub.

        Nuggets will win and win big. To the surprise of no one who actually watches them.

      • asimonetti88 - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:15 PM

        I think Denver will beat Golden State because they are a much better team. I’m not sure who they’d play in the next round (OKC or SA?) but I’d have to reserve judgment on that until I know who it is. Whether or not Gallinari had a bad playoffs last year (which I’m not sure how that relates to the playoffs this year?) he is one of their starters and losing him hurts depth. Ankle and foot injuries are nagging and these players will still have to catch back up to speed, while in the middle of the playoffs nonetheless. I like the Nuggets and thought they were a very underrated team all year but they caught the injury bug at the wrong time.

    • gmsingh - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:16 PM

      Denver is one of those teams that’s never picked to win, and look how high a seed they are. Meanwhile, the Spurs are constantly being touted as the best team with the best coach, etc. and where are they when the Finals come around?

      • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:44 PM

        Spurs looked like world beaters last year and fizzled like they have every year for the last 5.

        No one is afraid of the Spurs like they were in 2005. Not having the mental edge of “oh no the Spurs” is huge in the mind of young teams. Couple that with injury concerns + age. Spurs are ripe to be upset.

    • savvybynature - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:24 PM

      You have to win something of consequence to be respected and taken seriously, it’s not that complicated. Winning the “best home record in the regular season” title, well, no one cares.

      Nuggets fans are both entitled and whiny in my (admittedly limited) experience. It’s a shame too, as I really like that roster. Oh well, will be fun to see the Spurs destroy two obnoxious fan bases: The Lakers and Nugs.

      • asimonetti88 - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:11 PM

        I don’t understand the obsession on PBT with rooting for/against fanbases rather than teams.

      • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:14 PM

        How can a team that has never gotten any respect be entitled?

        Whiny? How about defensive because our basketball team had the best season in franchise history but because we have no “superstar” we get written off as a gimmick.

        Savvy basketball fans know that defense wins in the playoffs and the Nuggets play great defense.

      • savvybynature - Apr 19, 2013 at 1:03 AM

        That’s a good question. How can a fan base that has never won anything, oh excuse me I meant to say that is “constantly disrespected,” be so entitled and whiny? I’d love an answer.
        And I don’t think the rooting for or against fan bases is all that complicated. You want good fans to be rewarded, and you don’t want obnoxious fans to get pleasure from being obnoxious. Seems reasonable to me.
        It’s not a big passion of mine though. I still like Denver’s roster and wouldn’t be upset at all to see them do well. Honest assessment though? The injuries will make a difference whether their fans want to admit it or not.

  12. jimsjam33 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:35 AM

    Sorry Denver ,

    You lose Gallonari and have an injured Faried . Maybe Lawson is okay . The Milwaukee game showed your weakness . That shot saved your team from being the 5th seed instead of three . You would have lost to the Griz in the 4 vs, 5 . Good news . You will beat the Warriors and advance to play the Spurs . End of season .

    • broncobeta - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      So your logic is that the Milwaukee game showed their weakness? So did the Heat show their weakness when they lost to the Wizards?

      They would have lost to the Grizz? You mean, because they had beaten them 3-1 this season. If you’re going to be jackass at least have some logic.

    • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:11 PM

      Ha you mean the Spurs team we lost to by 1 point on the road without our best player Ty Lawson?

      Your point regarding Denver’s injuries doesn’t take into account how banged up the Spurs are.

      Spurs will lose round 1. Mark it down.

    • jimsjam33 - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:13 PM

      Just doing some critical thinking . If Denver was 100% healthy I think I would pick them to win it all . George Karl is the best coach for your style of play . Run and Gun . Miami would match up , but the X’s and O’s would be on the Nuggets side. Plus , the mile high altitude would be a major plus for Denver . They need only win one game in Miami to take it all .
      It probably won’t happen because you needed Gallinari and Faried healthy . After Golden State comes the Spurs , Clippers , Memphis or OKC . The West is unbelievable !

      • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:23 PM

        Another person saying we NEED Gallanari. People talk about him like he was an all-star.

        NEWS FLASH: Don’t let the pundits fool you into thinking Gallanari was more then just another good player. Not great. And certainly not irreplaceable.

        FACT: Wilson Chandler has taken his spot and outproduced him. And on a minute by minute comparison, has so all year.

        Gallanari only gets hyped up because he played in New York at one time. Had he came to Denver via a trade with Minnesota, no one would even know who he was.

    • chrisco716 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:27 PM

      …let me see… Nuggets beat Bucks on Buck’s homecourt after a horrific last second call when Fournier didn’t touch Monta Ellis. Hmmm. And what was Nuggets record last 10 games? And what was Buck’s record last 10 games? Hmmm. Let alone season record comparisons. I guess good teams can overcome bad calls on opponents home court. Unlike the Bucks. BTW… John Henson’s going to be a great player. So the Buck’s have some hope in the future.

  13. max20characters - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:38 AM

    These rankings are an absolute joke

  14. jimmymarlinsfan - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    Nobody

  15. monte01 - Apr 18, 2013 at 11:49 AM

    Denver Nuggets home record — 38-3, best in the NBA (and even better than Miami’s)
    Denver’s last home court loss — January 18. Miami’s last home court loss — April 2>
    Denver’s record vs. San Antonio — 2-2
    Denver’s record vs. Oklahoma City — 3-1
    Denver’s record vs. Memphis — 3-1
    Denver’s record vs. NY Knicks — 1-1, including a blitzing 117-94 victory on March 13
    Denver’s record vs. LA Clippers — 2-1
    Denver’s record vs. Indiana — 2-0

    Denver’s record vs. every team ranked ahead of them in this poll — 13-6

    Denver and Miami last played each other on November 15 — 5 months ago. Both games between the teams were decided by five points or less. If any team is going to beat Miami, it MUST hold home court, and no team in these rankings has a better home court record than Denver. That’s because no team in the NBA, including Miami, has a better home court record than Denver.

    Do I think Denver can beat Miami? No. Do I think Denver has a better chance of beating Miami than several, if not all, of the teams rated higher than them in this poll? Yes, and the statistics bear that out. It is those statistics that make them the “dark horse” liked by other pundits. Why then Kurt do you dismiss them?

    Oh yeah, a few more stats — Denver’s record since Danilo Galinari was lost: 6-1. Denver’s record between March 21 and April 10, while Ty Lawson was out: 7-2, including a victory over San Antonio. Denver’s record without Kenneth Faried since his injury: 2-0, both games being critical to clinching the 3 seed.

    Sorry Kurt, but ranking them where you do is non-sensical when actual performance is weighed.

    • Kurt Helin - Apr 18, 2013 at 3:32 PM

      As I said in the post, if the Nuggets were healthy they’d be higher, but their leading rebounder and second leading scorer are out.

      Also, as I have said many times lately, I put no stock in regular season meetings reflecting what would happen in a playoff series.

      • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 7:16 PM

        I read your last sentence as saying “I don’t let facts get in the way of my opinions.”

      • savvybynature - Apr 19, 2013 at 12:52 AM

        Except facts don’t support the notion that small samples of regular season games have much if any bearing on a playoff series.

    • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 7:19 PM

      Great stuff here. A rare post with facts to back up an opinion, not just biased-homer crap.

      Do yourself a favor and avoid sportsillustrated.com where they have Denver losing in 7 to the Warriors. What a joke. Lack of respect has reached comical levels.

  16. unxpexted1 - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    Honestly, i think Memphis would have a excellent chance of beating the heat because they have athleticm on the wing and two defenders they can throw and lebron and wade. Plus they beat them up inside. Only problem….memphis wont come out the west

    • savvybynature - Apr 19, 2013 at 12:53 AM

      This. Couldn’t agree more.

  17. oside760 - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    no way in hell the grizzlies and knicks are ahead of the clippers

    • Mr. Wright 212 - Apr 18, 2013 at 1:36 PM

      You act like the Clippers are really that good. They still cannot play when Chris Paul is not on the court.

      • jimsjam33 - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:00 PM

        Good analogy . Using your logic let’s analize the Grizzlies . Alot of people think the Grizzlies are good . They still cannot play when Marc Gasol is not on the court . Pretty dumb isn’t it ?

      • Mr. Wright 212 - Apr 18, 2013 at 8:32 PM

        Except they can and HAVE, jimsjam. Don’t try to correct me when you’re off-base with your assertions.

  18. fats84 - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    Bucks will win in 6. Ill have a beer in my hand every step of the way! Go Bucks!

    • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 7:20 PM

      Think you’ve had enough already buddy. After that prediction, time to cut you off.

  19. caeser12 - Apr 18, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    “The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success.”

    Ok, so what is this article based on? ALL of these scenarios or “predictions” are based on regular season play, because none of these teams have beaten Miami in the playoffs yet (this year) have they? Bueller, Bueller, Bueller.

  20. Mr. Wright 212 - Apr 18, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    Regular season is not a harbinger of things to come, but matchups are matchups. You who keep trying to hand titles to Miami and make them out to be the ’96 Bulls will just have to learn the hard way.

    • jimmymarlinsfan - Apr 18, 2013 at 1:28 PM

      No one is saying this years heat is the 96 Bulls. We are saying there currently isn’t a team with the talent, experience and luck to beat the Heat

    • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:18 PM

      Injuries are the ultimate equalizer. Not saying it will happen but a turned ankle could spell doom for the Heat.

      Wait what am I saying, it’s the eastern conference.

      Pretty sure the Heat could get to round 2 sitting the Big 3.

  21. Mr. Wright 212 - Apr 18, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    Knicks. The arrogance will be humbled.

    • 4thquartermagic - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:16 PM

      I agree. With tougher opponents night in/night out, Knicks would be 7th in the West.

      But don’t say that out loud as the East coasters will jam all that hype down your throat.

    • Kevin S. - Apr 18, 2013 at 2:30 PM

      Yes, your arrogance will most certainly be humbled.

  22. wwttww - Apr 18, 2013 at 6:04 PM

    Hawks continue to strive in nba purgatory.

  23. thegloriousone - Apr 18, 2013 at 8:40 PM

    As a resident of one of the 24 cities whose NBA team has no chance of ever winning a championship, I’d like to be the first to congratulate whichever team wins The NBA playoffs. I’m looking forward to the season ending so that pro basketball can stop clogging up SportsCenter.

  24. txnative61 - Apr 19, 2013 at 1:48 AM

    I answered nobody, which doesn’t really answer the question. Tricky question because while the Spurs, Grizzlies, or Nuggets might pull it together and stay healthy enough to win a Heat matchup, the Thunder is most likely to come out of the West, and lose again. Actually I favor watching the aging veteran’s excel, so wouldn’t mind Ray Allen driving the final nail, if the Heat repeat. Of course with Pop, the Spurs may really be following a grand plan, and after looking unstoppable last year and losing, really are trying to just look vulnerable.

  25. mazblast - Apr 20, 2013 at 2:43 PM

    I loathe and despise the Heat. Smug Patty Riley, LeBron, Dyane Wade, their phony wannabe-celeb fans, trying to be the old Lakers.

    That said, they’re a heck of a team, and I don’t really see anyone beating them. I just hope they do it legitimately and don’t have to hope for David Stern to ride to the rescue if they’re playing the Spurs and it’s close. Not that I see the Spurs getting that far.

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