By Tim Reynolds Associated Press
MIAMI — Before the season started, a poll suggested that the Miami Heat were the overwhelming favorite to win the NBA title, collecting a whopping 76 percent of ballots cast.
The voters weren’t some know-nothings, either.
No, this was a polling of NBA general managers.
Things seem quite a bit different now. The Heat don’t seem like locks for a third straight title anymore. San Antonio and Indiana are top seeds. Brooklyn, Chicago, the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Houston, Portland and the Heat all figure to have a legitimate chance at being the club to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in a couple of months.
Usually, the NBA playoffs aren’t so wide open. Things might change over the next couple of months.
“There are 16 teams that have a chance to win it,” said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks, whose team is seeded No. 2 in the West. “If you’re in the playoffs, you have a chance. There are some good teams. Any team can beat each other. The West is deep. There are two teams that are really good that didn’t make it and had great years. It’s definitely open. There’s a lot of good basketball teams that are fighting for the championship.”
For as good as San Antonio and Indiana were all year — well, for most of the year in Indiana’s case, before the Pacers faltered down the stretch — it’s never a certainty that the No. 1 seeds reach the NBA Finals. It’s happened that way only 11 times in the last 35 years.
Then again, the last time that there wasn’t either a No. 1 or a No. 2 in the title series was 1978. So while upsets can happen, it’s not all that common to see bracket craziness — akin to a No. 7 and No. 8 seeds Connecticut and Kentucky playing for the NCAA title earlier this month — happening in the same NBA playoff season.
“It is going to be tremendous from a fans’ standpoint, watching,” Golden State coach Mark Jackson said. “It going to be a lot of fun.”
Brooklyn’s Jason Kidd has plenty of postseason experience as a player. He believes the NBA championship is up for grabs, but also probably knows history doesn’t favor his sixth-seeded club.
Since 1979, only five teams seeded No. 4 or lower in their conference have reached the finals. But Kidd sees reason for hope.
“It’s always wide open,” said Kidd, the first-year coach of the Nets — a veteran-laden team put together to win a title this season. “You guys sometimes limit it to just two teams but guys that are playing on a daily basis in the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference feel like they’ve got a chance.”
This year, that doesn’t just seem like coach speak.
Take the East. On paper, the biggest mismatch is No. 1 Indiana against No. 8 Atlanta, especially because the Hawks are the only sub-.500 team in the playoffs. And just a couple weeks ago, the Hawks went to Indianapolis and absolutely embarrassed the Pacers, running out to a 32-point halftime lead in one of the more stunning games of the entire NBA season.
“There’s some good teams out there,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Every team in the playoffs have given us some problems. We’ve been able to win against them as well. But it’s certainly shaped out to be a good conference.”
No. 5 Washington won the season series over No. 4 Chicago. Out West, the third-seeded Clippers and sixth-seeded Golden State split four meetings. Memphis ousted Oklahoma City a year ago and those clubs meet in the first round. And San Antonio’s quest to avenge last year’s loss in the NBA Finals starts against Dallas — the last team to beat Miami in a seven-game series, winning the title in 2011.
So there are some good stories, and there’s intrigue with every first-round series.
That doesn’t mean everyone in the league thinks it’ll be a year laden with surprises. Philadelphia coach Brett Brown put it simply — to him, the game changes in the playoffs, period.
“The regular season and the playoffs are like two different sports,” Brown said. “If you put me in a bubble and you drag me out in May, I can say this is different than the game I’m seeing in November. It’s just entirely different.”
That’s why Brown, a former Spurs assistant, thinks there’s a very small number of teams capable of winning it all.
“To be the last man standing is so ridiculously hard,” Brown said. “People have no idea what it’s like to play in June.”