As the N.B.A season trundles along towards the playoffs, the usual suspects and big hitters are positioning themselves for an assault on the biggest prize of all, the Championship.
With only a matter of weeks remaining before the Playoffs begin, both the Eastern and Western Conferences are beginning to take shape. Despite many teams already having played at least seventy games, the season, like the weather, is only beginning to warm up now. Whether or not the sheer number of games serves to dilute the quality of fare on offer is open to debate with all teams playing 82 regular season games before the playoffs begin. Although the N.B.A’s heavy schedule has its detractors, it also means heightened anticipation of the playoffs, where television audiences and media coverage grow substantially as the also-rans are whittled away leaving the cream of the N.B.A crop to fight it out.
Last summer was dominated by LeBron James’ relocation from Cleveland to the sunnier climes of Miami. Combined with resident Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade and fellow new arrival Chris Bosh to form the “Big Three“, the path appeared clear for LeBron and co. to dominate the N.B.A for seasons to come.. Despite some early season difficulties and series defeats to the Boston Celtics(2008 Champions) and the L.A Lakers(2009 and 2010 Champions), the Heat’s galaxy of individual talent appears to be clicking at the perfect time. They have won seven of the last eight and in Sunday’s game against the Houston Rockets each of the “big three” finished the game with at least thirty points and ten rebounds each, the first time this has being achieved since 1961. The victory leaves the Heat sitting atop their division in the Eastern Conference and thoughts in Miami are undoubtedly turning towards the playoffs. Despite Miami’s recent form the two other division leaders of the Eastern Conference will relish the opportunity to prevent the big three and their supporting entourage from reaching the Championship series. The Boston Celtics have already clinched the eastern division and possess Championship winning pedigree, having being crowned Champions in 2008 and runners up to Kobe Bryant’s dominant L.A Lakers last year. Under the stewardship of Doc Rivers and containing All Stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajan Rondo, they represent a formidable unit who would undoubtedly love to extract revenge on the Lakers for their tight defeat in the Championship series last year.
While LeBron James’ former team-mates at the Cleveland Cavaliers wallow at the bottom of the Eastern Conference’s central division, fellow new Miami arrival Chris Bosh’s former team-mates at the Chicago Bulls have flourished since his departure and have sealed victory of the central division. The Bulls, driven by point guard Derrick Rose currently hold the best record in the Eastern Conference, having won fifty three and lost nineteen so far. Their impressive recent form allied with the home court advantage they will take into the playoffs makes them a dangerous proposition for any side. It is extremely difficult to see past these three for the Eastern Conference Champions. The bookies back up this contention, offering 6/4 for Miami to claim the prize with Boston and Chicago nearly impossible to separate at around 9/4. The daunting task facing other playoff hopefuls in the Conference is reflected by the bookies with Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic, deemed the next most likely contenders available at a juicy price of 9/1.
While most of the talk and hype is directed towards South Beach and the “Big Three”, Kobe’s L.A Lakers, the reigning champions, are positioned nicely for a run to regain their crown. Having won their last seven, the Lakers are perched atop the Western Conference’s Pacific Division and retain the core squad that has led them to the three previous Championship Series. With Kobe Bryant’s experience(five Championship Rings to Lebrons’ zero) and a powerful supporting cast including Spaniard Pau Gasol and Ron Artest, the Lakers are odds on to be involved in the Western Conference finale. Joining them there could be the San Antonio Spurs who currently have the best record in the entire league. Despite their impressive 57-16 winning record the Spurs would appear to lack a player of the points scoring ability that their main rivals for the N.B.A title possess. They are however formidable at home, having lost only three at the AT&T Center all season and remain the biggest threat to three consecutive conference final wins for Kobe and the Lakers, especially with the home court advantage they will receive as probable number one seeds in the conference. The other contenders in the Western Conference include Oklahoma City Thunder who made their inaugural appearance in the playoffs last year, losing to the Lakers at the first hurdle. They will be looking to improve upon that showing and in the impressive Kevin Durant they have the leading scorer in the league with 27.7 points per game. Questions remain about his supporting cast and it would appear likely that the Thunder will struggle against the big hitters of the Western conference. Joining the Thunder in the Western Conference playoffs will be the Dallas Mavericks, alongside the aforementioned Lakers and Spurs. This leaves four playoff spots available with seven teams having realistic ambitions of filling these berths.
There are three spots left to be decided in the Eastern Conference but two of these appear sealed by the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers who look set to join the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Braves in the eastern Conference Playoffs. This leaves one spot, with the Indiana Pacers in pole position with their 32-42 record just ahead of the Charlotte Hornets who still have a reasonable chance at 30-42. Over the next few weeks the final contenders and seedings will be decided. The possibility of a dream Lakers vs. Miami grand final remains a very real possibility but the Celtics, Spurs and the other playoff contenders will be determined to prove the bookmakers wrong. The long winter is over and the excitement is about to begin.