The NBA schedule is building to the All-Star break, with the festivities being down in New Orleans this weekend. TheSportsNotebook will be running a series of NBA articles between now and next Monday that will take specific looks at some of the most interesting stories on the landscape. For those who have had basketball tuned out until football season was over, here’s an NBA overview.
*The smart money has narrowed the championship race to three teams, and not surprisingly those are the Miami Heat, the Indiana Pacers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The value of experience is seen in the NBA championship betting odds. Even though Miami has the third-best record of the trio, at 35-14, the Heat are a 2-1 betting line favorite to win a third straight title.
*The strength of the Western Conference is reflected in the odds. On the one hand, the West has six of the eight teams that are priced at 25-1 or lower to win it all. The flip side of that means the two East teams, Miami and Indiana, have much easier paths and the odds also reflect that. The Pacers are narrowly behind the Heat, at 11-5 odds to win the championship. It’s a little sharper drop to Oklahoma City at 11-2.
*Portland continues to be the most pleasant surprise in the league. I was skeptical of their fast start, given that the defense hasn’t played at a championship level. And I suppose I still am skeptical that the Blazers can make a deep run in a stacked West. But with a 36-15 record, #3 in the West and right on the heels of the San Antonio Spurs, Portland has already lasted longer than I thought they would.
*If there’s any hope for creating some drama in the Eastern Conference playoffs prior to the conference finals, that hope has to come out of Brooklyn. The Nets, after a woeful start, have found themselves and have nudged up to the #7 spot. The record is still 23-26, but with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, this remains the team with the veteran cache to give the Heat or Pacers a serious fight.
*Another pleasant surprise is the Charlotte Bobcats. Being the #8 seed in this year’s Eastern Conference doesn’t mean one is all that good—the Bobcats are 22-29—but this franchise was an abject joke just a couple years ago, arguably the worst team in all of professional sports. If they beat out New York, Detroit and Cleveland for a playoff berth, it’s a significant milestone and perhaps a sign that Michael Jordan can make this ownership thing work for him in Charlotte.
*The bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket also offers some intrigue. Golden State got off to a slow start, but the Warriors are 30-21, and now #8 in the West. With Steph Curry leading up the fast-paced attack that lights it up from behind the arc, does any favorite want even the slightest thing to do with the Warriors as early as the first round?
*Golden State will likely move up as high as #6. Phoenix and Dallas have been nice stories, particularly the Suns. Those teams hold the #6 and #7 spots respectively, but these are the two teams in the West that have no realistic shot at winning a postseason series. It would make for a better bracket if they slipped to the final two spots.
*The middle of the Western Conference is going to be where the fun is in the first round. The bracket as of today offers a LA Clippers-Houston Rockets battle, pitting Doc Rivers against Kevin McHale, as a couple old Celtics match wits on the sidelines. Golden State sliding up to #6 sets them up with either Portland or San Antonio. The winners of these series are all more than capable of continuing to advance, which is why OkC’s road to the Finals is so much tougher than Miami or Indiana’s.
*If you haven’t heard this last point, you’ve really had the NBA tuned out—but Kevin Durant is destroying the league. Durant had a recent run of twelve straight games of 30-plus points, including a demolition of Miami on the road. Russell Westbrook has been out with a knee injury since the early part of the season, but Durant has elevated his already fantastic game to a surreal level and the Thunder’s 41-12 record is the best in the NBA. He’s got a wide lead in the race for the MVP award.