5 teams that could prevent the Miami Heat from winning the 2014 NBA title

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The Miami Heat will open the 2013-14 NBA season at home against the Bulls on Tuesday, after receiving their championship rings and raising a banner to the rafters for the second straight season.

They’ll also open the year as the favorites to win a third straight title, but history has not been kind to teams that have previously been in this envious position.

The Heat may have won back-to-back championships, but they’ve been to the Finals three years in a row. And the last team to make it to the Finals four straight seasons was the Boston Celtics, who did so from 1984-87.

So, despite the fact that the best player in the game in his prime plays for Miami, it’s going to be tough for the team to play into June for the fourth straight season. Here’s a countdown looking at the five teams with the best shot of taking down the defending champs.

5. Los Angeles Clippers: Obviously, for the Clips to have a chance at this, they’d need to make it out of a daunting Western Conference, and the Heat would have to similarly emerge from a much-improved East to buck the odds and get back to the Finals once again. But if this matchup happens, you’d have to think L.A. would have a very real shot.

If the Clippers get to the Finals, it means that all of the team’s potential heading into the season has been realized. Chris Paul turned in an MVP season, J.J. Redick lit it up from three-point distance, and DeAndre Jordan evolved into a Kevin Garnett-like defender, but one even more athletic who was able to wholly alter the opponent’s game plan on a nightly basis. It also means that Doc Rivers has gotten maximum production out of his role players, and gotten the team to buy into the notion that they are legitimate championship contenders.

A lot of ifs? No doubt. But if the Clippers get this far, you’d have to like their chances.

4. Brooklyn Nets: This could be too low for Brooklyn on this list, but for the most part I like to see new collections of talent prove themselves first before going out on a limb and handing them a top-shelf prediction.

There’s no question that the Nets are going to be formidable this season. The team features maybe the most feared starting lineup in the league one through five, and the acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett should bring the culture change on the defensive end and a championship mentality that may have been missing from the team’s stars still in place from last season.

But Jason Kidd in his first year as head coach is troublesome, even though he has a more-than-solid group of tenured assistants in place to provide guidance. Coaching in the playoffs when the game slows down and every possession becomes critical requires experience, and we’ll have to wait and see if Kidd will gain enough of it during his first 82 games on the job to be successful.

That one area aside, this Nets team is deep and experienced. A healthy Deron Williams could be the key to whether or not Brooklyn has enough to get by the champs in a seven game series.

3. San Antonio Spurs: Much like the Clippers, if the Spurs get to this point, you’d have to like their chances. San Antonio came within 28 seconds of knocking off the Heat in the Finals last season; remember the yellow rope? Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker are plenty good enough and experienced enough to take care of business a year later should they get another shot.

The question for the Spurs becomes whether or not they can get out of the West to get the chance.

An improved Rockets team, along with the Clippers, Thunder and Warriors make the playoffs insanely difficult to predict, which is why it’s a safer bet to tag a couple of Eastern Conference teams as the ones most likely to send the Heat’s season to its unexpected end.

2. Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose being back at full strength and playing as well or better than he did during his MVP season would be plenty to give the Heat nightmares in a seven game series. As is the case with most teams, the health of guys like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng come playoff time will be paramount to the Bulls’ chances for success. But the way this team defends under Tom Thibodeau and with the way Rose is capable of taking games over, Chicago has to be considered one of the teams best-suited to end the Heat’s run in the East.

1. Indiana Pacers: Indiana gets top billing in these rankings for one simple reason: They proved they were capable of hanging last season by taking the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals. Add an additional year of experience along with a fortified bench unit featuring the likes of Luis Scola and (possibly) Danny Granger to the equation, and the Pacers are the team that seems most poised to make the leap to championship contender by taking out the team that’s worn the crown for the last two seasons.

Thunder’s Enes Kanter: ‘I don’t like Golden State, so I want Cleveland to win the championship’

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When Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors, Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter jumped fully on board the pro-Russell Westbrook, anti-Durant bandwagon.

That ride doesn’t stop with his former teammate facing the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

Kanter, via Fox Sports Radio:

I don’t like Golden State, so I want Cleveland to win the championship.

Kanter never misses an opportunity to take a shot at the Warriors – except when Zaza Pachulia laid out Westbrook and stood over him.

Dwane Casey: Masai Ujiri assured me I’ll return as Raptors coach

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Raptors president Masai Ujiri didn’t mince words at his season-ending press conference: Toronto’s playing style had become unacceptable.

It sounded as if he might have been planting the seed for firing Dwane Casey.

But the coach says Ujiri assured him he’d return next season.

Casey on TSN (hat tip: Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic):

I think people mistook Masai’s comments for that. We had a good meeting before that meeting, and we’ve had meeting since then – with all the coaches – as far as plans for next year and the culture reset, which I think every corporation and every team should do periodically to get the culture back in focus and that type of thing. It’s not like we’re in total chaos or anything like that. It’s just good to have roles defined, things we can do better in each of our roles.

We’re doing some good things and some things we can do much better with. And that’s what we’ll plan on doing this summer and also this fall, when we go to training camp.

The Raptors’ offensive rating has dropped from regular season to the playoffs by 8.5, 7.2 and 11.7 the last three years. Their isolation-heavy style is just easier to stop when defenses see it in consecutive games.

The big question: What does Toronto do about that?

It’d be difficult to move on from the two players most responsible for the style, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan is signed long-term, and if the Raptors don’t re-sign Lowry, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer, they won’t have the cap space to land a comparable replacement.

The best bet is probably changing schemes from the bench and hoping the players can adjust – and maybe Casey can handle that responsibility. Hiring a new coach obviously would been the clearest path to a shake up, but maybe Casey can evolve. I’d want to see a plan from him before committing to keeping him, but maybe Ujiri got that.

Casey has played a key role in Toronto’s improvement, it’s nice to give him an opportunity to coach differently before hiring a different coach.

Kevin Durant: Don’t blame me for Nets, Magic and other teams stinking

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For the first time in NBA history, the NBA Finals will feature the same matchup for three straight years.

Among those responsible: Kevin Durant, who sunk the title-contending Thunder and gave the Warriors an even stronger grip on the Western Conference.

But don’t blame him for a lack of parity league-wide.

Durant, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“Like I’m the reason why (expletive) Orlando couldn’t make the playoffs for five, six years in a row?” he said. “Am I the reason that Brooklyn gave all their picks to Boston? Like, am I the reason that they’re not that good (laughs). I can’t play for every team, so the truth of the matter is I left one team. It’s one more team that you probably would’ve thought would’ve been a contender. One more team. I couldn’t have made the (entire) East better. I couldn’t have made everybody (else) in the West better.”

Some teams will always be better than others. The Magic, Nets and more were mis-managed before Durant left Oklahoma City.

But I’m not even sure this is the right debate.

Does the NBA even have a parity problem to blame on Durant?

Cleveland and Golden State aren’t traditional powers. Before 2015, the Warriors hadn’t won a title since 1975 and the Cavaliers had never won one. Their ascension is proof of parity – that sound management and a little luck can lift teams from the basement.

Report: Clippers take Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumor ‘very seriously’

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Want to laugh off that Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumor?

The Clippers aren’t joining you.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The Clippers should be concerned. Losing Paul would unravel their entire foundation, dropping them from the fringe of championship contention to out of the title picture completely. It could even help usher out Blake Griffin, who will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer. (To be fair, Paul leaving could also help convince Griffin to stay.)

About a month ago, the Clippers reportedly expected Paul to stay. They even reportedly struck a verbal agreement with him to re-sign before that. But they can’t officially sign him until July, and that leaves the door open for him to leave.

The Clippers should be heartened by their advantages – a prime market and a projected max offer of $205 million over five years.

The most another team projects to be able to offer is $152 million over four years, and San Antonio will have a hard time doing that. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to shed two of those players to clear max cap space.

So, never say never, but the Clippers’ concern might be rooted more in the dire consequences of Paul leaving rather than the likelihood of it.