It’s the longest dress rehearsal in sport. But after six months of jostling for position and fighting for form, the NBA’s regular season has reached its end and the real business of the play-offs can begin. And there’s really only one question to be asked: can anyone stop the Miami Heat from blazing a trail all the way to their second successive title?
Back in late autumn, there were doubts and whispers that the champions had lost a step. However, 27 consecutive victories – the second longest streak the league has ever seen – spurred them to the franchise’s best-ever record and into the top seed overall as we head into the post-season which gets under way on Saturday.
That’s why Miami are 1.20 to reach the Finals by winning the Eastern Conference and 1.72 favourites to bring the trophy back to South Beach in June.
Such is their dominance that you can back anyone else to deny them the championship at 2.05. With LeBron James a certainty to win the MVP prize for the fourth time, who would bet against them? Yet nothing in basketball, as in life, is ever guaranteed.
The case for Miami
First, the case for the (successful) defence. James has been spectacular, producing the fourth-best player efficiency rating in history due to his all-round brilliance while his side’s reserves have underlined the strength in depth available.
Over the whole campaign, Miami have been winning games by an average of 7.8 points, and making 112.4 points per 100 possessions, second-most overall. With such efficiency proven, Florida’s finest will be tough to stop.
The contenders from the East
So is anyone up to that task? With a superlative 40-11 record over its Eastern rivals, it seems likely that we will see Miami in the finals. But others will beg to differ. The New York Knicks, seeded No.2, won three of their four meetings with the Heat this year, while Indiana and Chicago, took the spoils in two out of three.
The Knicks – who have an awkward opener with Boston - are priced at 8.00 to steal the East and while a lengthy injured list surely rule out the Bulls, the Pacers’ defence – the only one in the NBA giving up less than 100 points per 100 possessions – makes them the best outside bet at 10.00 to come out from the East.
The contenders from the West
If anyone is to de-throne Miami, it is surely one of the Best of the West. The Memphis Grizzlies have been great outside bets for the title at 50.00 for months and the most under-rated team in the league have the capacity to exit early or go all the way to the finals.
Injuries have probably killed Denver’s prospects and the LA Clippers’ have been steadily regressing since the All Star break.
The San Antonio Spurs – currently 3.55 for the Western Conference and a tempting 10.50 for the title - are my wild cards to watch. Ignore their record over the past month. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili’s absence was a hindrance but with both set to be available, and refreshed, for this coming weekend, they have the weaponry to avoid a similar flame out to 2012 and provide a genuine test for Miami.
Yet all signs point to seeing a repeat of last year’s Finals between the Heat and Oklahoma City. Only the Thunder score more efficiently than their great foes but it’s often over-looked that they have the fourth most-efficient defence. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they have a duo that can match the power of James and Dwyane Wade.
OKC deserve their tags as 1.72 favourites to win the West. But having lost 4-1 in last season’s final series, can they come up trumps at 4.25 and emerge as the kings of the NBA?
The Thunder have the best record in the league against teams with .500 records or better. What they don’t have, though, is James Harden, who was such a force before his trade to Houston.
Two previous losses to LeBron & Co during the dress rehearsals for the main event suggest it will be Miami standing centre stage when the curtain comes down on this season.
Bet now on the Miami Heat to win the NBA championship at 1.72