Jones on NBA: Are Heat still team to beat?

January 18, 2013, 3:16 PM

We’re approaching the halfway point of the NBA season and there are still questions to be answered, the biggest one being, is Miami still the best team in the NBA? In fact, are they even at the head of the class of the Eastern Conference?

What has become clear is that the East has been divided into two tiers, the haves and have nots. With half the season to play it seems as if the eight teams holding playoff spots — Miami, New York, Indiana, Chicago, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Boston — may just shuffle positions but stay bound for the post-season. Atlanta and Milwaukee are the most likely candidates to relinquish their post-season passes but injuries and just not being good enough may just keep the other seven squads from breaking through.

So let’s look at the top eight. It says here that the East still looks to belong to the Heat but there are some potentially difficult matchups.

Initially there could be the Boston Celtics. True the aging Celtics are currently the eighth seed but they have a ton of experience and although they can’t take down Miami in a seven-game series, they could take something out of the Heat and soften them up for the next opponent. If Boston manages to extricate itself from the final playoff position, which is a definite possibility, with their experience and championship savvy, they would be a difficult first-round opponent for any of the top-four seeds.

Are the Knicks for real? Can they sustain what they have done in the first half of the season? They may just do that with the addition of a now-healthy Iman Shumpert, and the imminent return of their point guard Ray Felton, sacrificing egos, a willingness to play together and chemistry may be the only things standing in the way of an appearance in the Finals.

The Pacers are lurking like that quiet hitman in a gangster movie. They don’t seem to be garnering publicity but then again, that’s probably just fine with them. The Pacers are a tough squad who play coach Frank Vogel’s smash-mouth-style basketball and had some success last season in the playoffs. Remember they had Miami down two games to one in the conference semi-finals and couldn’t finish what they started.

What about the Bulls? They are the mirror image of the Pacers. They will grind you in the half court. The Bulls are always amongst the best defensive teams and are currently staying in the mix without Derrick Rose. The former MVP is on the mend and working out following last season’s playoff injury and Chicago is ready to take a jump if/when he returns.

The Brooklyn Nets have suddenly found their groove under interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo. The Nets have something you need in the playoffs. Like the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony and Bulls’ Rose, Brooklyn’s backcourt pairing of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams can take over a game. In the playoffs, where scouting reports can concoct defences to stop every option on every play, you need a guy who can simply make a play, and the Nets have not one, but two. Add that to a skilled frontcourt, which features a couple of big men in Brook Lopez and Andray Blatche, and the Nets have the kind of team that could pose some problems for the Heat.

But Miami is still the class of the east. They have the best player in the game in LeBron James. Recently, the Heat has favoured the line-up that features James playing point forward. The only Miami player taller than James on the floor is usually Chris Bosh. The Utah Jazz showed everyone the blue print to defeat this particular Heat in Miami’s recent West Coast swing but very few teams possess a rotation of skilled, tough and athletic big men like those on the Jazz roster.

And then there is the qualitative psychological element. Everyone knows James is the best player in the game and although the Heat occasionally resemble some of the old Cavs teams with the “let LeBron do it” approach, the supporting cast is much better.

One Eastern Conference coach recently told me that after the title last season, Miami has that championship gear and they know how and when they have to use it. In short, they have another level of play that they plan on getting to in the postseason or whenever they need to do so. Just ask the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s not as if they are dismissing the regular season but this team knows it will be judged solely on what happens in April, May and ultimately June.

Until someone knocks the champ on his wallet for a 10-count, it’s still his title. Miami will have challengers but for now they are still the team to beat.

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