Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
Let’s assume that the Heat are the best team in the league. Pick another team, either conference: Who’s second-best?
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Tempted here to say Indiana, because a Pacers-Heat series for the Eastern Conference title could be dynamite, especially if Dwyane Wade’s sore right knee brings Miami back to the pack a little. And this is with Indiana spotting them Danny Granger. Paul George’s ascendancy, Roy Hibbert’s confidence and height, the X factor of Lance Stephenson… Thing is, my head says that San Antonio is the more complete and mature team at this point, edging ahead of the Pacers in the battle for No. 2. Now that both Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra are done with their personnel gamesmanship (no one would be skipping road games in a Spurs-Heat Finals), I think San Antonio would command the most respect from Miami’s stars. (And yes, I acknowledge Memphis might be better right now than either the Pacers or the Spurs.)
Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: It might be hard to believe considering they’re in a struggle with the Warriors, but I’m going with the Spurs. They’re experienced, they’re deep, they’re balanced and I believe that if they’re still healthy in June, they could give the Heat the best run in The Finals.
Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I don’t have to assume that Miami is the best team. They just are. A healthy Oklahoma City is second-best. But since they’re not healthy, San Antonio is next. Tim Duncan is in remarkable shape and Tony Parker, when he’s healthy, and he seems to be getting better and better, is an MVP-type player. The supporting cast is excellent, they are disciplined, proficient and can beat you in a number of ways.
Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: At the moment? The Grizzlies. I would not have made the case at the start of the playoffs, but the answer of the moment is that not only is Memphis playing at a high level, but it has the best chance to give Miami a hard shove. The Grizz strength (inside game) against the Heat weakness (the same), plus Tony Allen as the first line of defense against LeBron James, would be an interesting watch.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Oh, man. That’s a tough call. The Pacers’ defense is the best in the league. The Grizzlies are also great on that end and seem to be getting better offensively every week. But I’m going to stick with the Spurs, who were a great team on both ends of the floor in the regular season. They’ve obviously struggled to slow down Stephen Curry at times in the semifinals, but they’ve survived the toughest test that any of the aforementioned teams have faced in this round, and they’re still the most complete team outside of Miami.
Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Let’s wade into the deep end of the pool and do that with the Heat. The second-best team, just as I predicted on The Hang Time Podcast weeks ago, is the Memphis Grizzlies. The ability to play at an elite level inside and out and on both ends of the floor sets this Grizzlies team apart from the pack. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bring the pain every night. And Mike Conley, Tony Allen and the rest of an underrated crew on the perimeter have me skipping a few steps (it’s a foolish thing to do, I know, but cannot help it) and thinking about the matchups in a Heat-Grizzlies Finals scrap. I’d love to see how LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh try to deal with the Grizzlies’ frontline.
Lang Whitaker, NBA.com: In the East, Indiana, and in the West, Memphis. Both teams have several similarities: Size and strength in the post (Hibbert/West and Gasol/Randolph); underrated point guards who can knock down jumpers or get to the rim (Hill and Conley); elite wing defenders (George and Allen). They also both could use an outside shooter and a little more depth, although I don’t think the lack of a bench really works against either team in the playoffs when the rotations are shortened.
Hanson Guan, NBA.com/china: The Grizzlies, definitely. Some see parallels between the Grizzlies and that 2004 Pistons team (and the common link of Tayshaun Prince helps). They are a chain without a weak link, their tactics are working well and the atmosphere in the locker room is perfect. As opposed to those Pistons, the Grizzlies rely on post players, but Conley has been showing a big heart as the playoffs have unfolded. If Memphis elbows its way to The Finals, the Grizz would be a great threat to Heat. They may even emerge the dark horse to replicate the unlikely feat of the Pistons, who, in 2004, came out on top at the expense of the Lakers. [Hanson Guan is an editor for NBA China (china.nba.com)]
Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/greece: No room for surprises in this one. The Pacers are playing like the best team right now, but is this truly what the question is all about? The Heat are the bullies of the NBA — the team with the MVP, the defending champions, the squad that everyone is afraid of. But if opponents’ fear is the one way to measure how good a team is, the other one is respect. And the prize for that one goes, without saying, to the San Antonio Spurs, the old dogs that tend to learn new tricks every now and then. They are at the edge of eliminating the “young guns” of the West and are ready to put all that experience-armor on for The Finals. No, I cannot avoid quoting the most important words that came out of a basketball coach in the last 20 years. As Rudy Tomjanovich once said: “Don’t EVER underestimate the heart of a champion.” And the Big-Three have won three in the post-David Robinson era. [Stefanos Triantafyllos is the editor of NBA Greece. (nba.com/greece)]
Akshay Manwani, NBA.com/india: It’s between the Spurs, the Pacers and Memphis — teams that are ahead in their series at this stage. A look at NBA.com’s advanced stats for teams in the postseason also puts these three teams among the top five in the Net Rating category, with Miami at No. 1. However, while San Antonio comes in at No. 2 here, with a net rating of 10.3, owing to a couple of blowout games against the Lakers, I’ll go with Memphis as the next best team in the league. They have the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the year in Gasol, two players among the top 10 in the postseason scoring category and Gasol and Z-Bo and get to the free throw line more than any other team. Memphis is also a younger and a more physical team than the Spurs and since they don’t have to play the Heat in the next round (unlike Indiana), they are most likely to represent the West in The Finals. [Akshay Manwani is a blogger for NBA India (nba.com/india)]