Are You for Real?

Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City are the easy choices to go deep into the spring, but there are formidable obstacles in their path—they just don't include the defending champs
April 16, 2012

CONTENDERS

GRIZZLIES

Memphis, says a Western Conference executive, "is a scary team." The Grizz knocked off Oklahoma City, Miami and Dallas last week behind an opportunistic defense that averages a league-best 19.8 points off turnovers. The return of Zach Randolph (above) last month from a torn right MCL has restored a physical frontcourt rotation that also includes Marc Gasol and Marreese Speights, which will be a difficult matchup once Randolph works his way into shape.

CELTICS

Credit Kevin Garnett (above) for Boston's 17--7 surge since the All-Star break. With Jermaine O'Neal out with a wrist injury, the 35-year-old Garnett moved over to center six weeks ago and has increased his minutes (31.9), points (17.0) and rebounds (8.5). The emergence of second-year guard Avery Bradley has given Boston a reliable scorer off the bench. "The spread-out playoff schedule is huge for them," says a scout. "They can shorten the bench and stretch out those veterans' minutes."

LAKERS

Size matters and Los Angeles, with 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, has an abundance of it. The deadline acquisition of Ramon Sessions (above) has stabilized the backcourt while Kobe Bryant—who buried a contested 21-footer to put away the Clippers last week—remains one of the best closers in the game. The key is Bynum, the dominant-yet-immature big man. "There are games he just doesn't try in," says a scout. "But if he's playing, the Lakers have a post game that can get any team in foul trouble."

PRETENDERS

CLIPPERS

L.A. has two superstars but thins out after that, and embattled coach Vinny Del Negro (above) runs a predictable offense. Furthermore, the Clippers' defense ranks in the bottom half of the league in points allowed per 100 possessions (105.4). They don't shoot free throws well (68.1%, 29th in the NBA), and scouts say the team lacks discipline late in games. Perhaps that explains why Los Angeles has lost 10 games by five points or fewer, the most of any playoff team.

MAGIC

Orlando's inconsistency is staggering: In wins the Magic is averaging 100.8 points on 46.5% shooting, including 41.0% from the three-point line. In losses those numbers plummet to 84.1/40.7%/33.0%. The fractured relationship between Dwight Howard (above) and coach Stan Van Gundy is a daily distraction, while injuries to Howard (back) and Hedo Turkoglu (cheekbone) will likely linger into the postseason. The Magic still has shooters, but it will need an overwhelming series from Howard just to escape the first round.

MAVERICKS

While the Dallas defense is postseason-ready—the Mavs rank sixth in defensive efficiency (101.3 points allowed per 100 possessions)—the offense doesn't measure up. Dallas's three-point shooting has gone south (33.2%), and the Lamar Odom experiment came to an end when he left the team Monday. They simply can't give their star the help he needs. "Dirk [Nowitzki, above] is still the toughest power forward to defend," says a scout. "But he has had to carry them in the past. Look how that turned out."

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