Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe 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.
> Rank by level of concern for their recent play (most to least): Heat, Pacers, Thunder. Why?
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Ranking those three, I go Pacers, Thunder, then Heat. Miami figured to fiddle around with the regular season regardless, relatively speaking, and might have been wishing Indiana hadn’t even come back to within striking distance, just so they wouldn’t have to bother chasing. The Heat have what’s left of the regular season and then the first round to ramp up toward another title defense. Oklahoma City has a good excuse for its churning – it is working back in an All-Star and one of the best athletes in the game. Russell Westbrook is an asset, not a liability, but he does require a period of adjustment for that team. The Pacers, meanwhile, put themselves in a potential psychological box by turning the No. 1 seed into the Grail – woe is them if it eludes them. As it is, they’ve got to find another mental and physical gear, with a couple of parts (Evan Turner, Andrew Bynum) entirely new to their attack and their chemistry. Seems like a lot.
Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Oh boy, a 3-for-1 hit on the panic button! First, let’s stop and consider that when we get to the conference finals in a few months, these are three of the four teams that will be there. So please, Blog Master, breathe into a paper bag and stop hyperventilating. OK, now we’ll play the game: No. 1 on the list of worries is the Pacers. I have always had a question about whether they can score enough points to win a championship, and the addition of Evan Turner to the rotation has so far not helped one bit. If they can’t get back to being the tough, hard-nosed defensive team they were in the first half of the season, quite simply, no rings. No. 2 is the Thunder, but you have to factor into their recent slump the absence of Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins to injuries. We’ll assume they’ll be fit for the playoffs, so no worries. No. 3 are the Heat. Because they are the Heat. Because LeBron is LeBron. Because the constant rush to push them over the edge is downright silly.
Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The Pacers most concern me. Why? They can’t score. Their offense is painful at times. They play slow and spend a lot of time pounding the rock and often don’t get anything decent until late in the shot clock. And hey, I like Paul George, but he’s not LeBron or KD, two guys that can torch anybody, anytime at anywhere on the court with the ball in their hands. If Indiana’s defense is not locked in, which it has not been during this skid, they are susceptible to going down hard against high-octane, efficient offenses. Next, the Thunder. Their defensive issues are concerning, but they’re also missing their perimeter stopper, Thabo Sefolosaha, and their brutish center, the Rodney Dangerfield of the league, Kendrick Perkins. Even without those guys, OKC needs to take a hard look at its fourth-quarter defense. It’s been a joke and continues to cost them games. The Heat concern me least. My opinion is LeBron’s been flat-out exhausted coming off a long road trip interrupted by the business of the All-Star break followed by more road games. I don’t really worry about the Heat. They know what’s up.
Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Thunder, Pacers, Heat, with Indiana/Miami essentially a tie. And it doesn’t matter one bit. A month from now? Yes. Early March? Not so much. The only thing being proven now is that there is no perfect team, and that was already clear. The Thunder aren’t healthy, so this really isn’t the right time for snap judgements. And while the turnover problems are a concern, that has been an issue for years.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com: 1. Indiana. 2. Oklahoma City 3. Miami. Even with Paul George playing as well he was early in the season, the Pacers weren’t a very good offensive team. Now both George and Roy Hibbert are struggling, their defense hasn’t been as dominant as it was early on, and they’ve lost their grip on the top seed in the East. The Thunder should be concerned about their defense, especially since there’s no guarantee that Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins will return in a timely manner or at 100 percent. The Heat haven’t been consistent enough defensively either, but they’re the champs, they’ve been better on that end of the floor when Dwyane Wade has played, and they already have four wins against winning teams since the All-Star break, twice as many as the Thunder (two) and Pacers (zero) combined.
Sekou Smith, NBA.com: First is the Pacers. They are the group with the most glaring wild cards (still developing superstars and stars, transition time for newcomers Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum and the most fragile championship construct). They are finding out the hard way just how difficult it is to be a championship-level team from start to finish, something very few teams can handle. The Heat didn’t even finish the deal the first time around. Second is the Thunder. With the Russell Westbrook factor and injuries to Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins, there is reason for pause, even if it’s just temporary. Third is the Heat. They’ve shown us the past two seasons that they are capable of rebounding from whatever adversity there is and handling it in their own way.
Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: I’ll go Pacers, then Thunder, then Heat. To work in reverse, as I’ve said before, the Heat strike me as the type of team that understands their limitations and are focused only on June and the NBA Finals. They may lose a game here and there, but as long as they’re ready this summer, that’s all that matters. To me the Thunder struggling of late isn’t as much about Westbrook assimilating but the loss of Perkins and Sefolosha. They already work with such a thin bench, to be without two starters is really tough. As for Indy, that’s the team I’m most concerned with. I know they’re trying to work in their own new guys (Turner, Bynum), and perhaps we’re just seeing a bit of boredom/insolence work its way out of their systems, but as a group that hasn’t been to The Finals, to me they’re the one team of these three with something to prove. They can’t afford to coast.
Iñako Díaz-Guerra, NBA España: Indiana, Oklahoma City, Miami. We all know that Miami in the regular season is like a clever but lazy student: he’s going to be fine when final exams arrive. And OKC, well, they have key injuries and Westbrook is still shaking off the rust, but he’s better every day. But the Pacers, well, that’s another story because taking the first seed in the East is crucial for them and, perhaps, we underestimated the importance of Danny Granger as a leader of such a young team. They need to wake up soon.
Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Pacers, Heat, Thunder. They all got back to their winning ways, but it’s Indiana that still seems to struggle. The Pacers’ offense looks shaky and they seem to can’t wait for the playoffs. The Heat have holes and I’ve stated numerous times that reaching four Finals in a row is a tough task. I’m not sure if LeBron will be able to save them this year. OKC has been my Finals pick all year and I’m sticking with them. The win against Houston was impressive and I see no reason to believe that they’re not the favorite to win the West.