MIAMI – Before the season started, a poll suggested the Miami Heat was an overwhelming favorite to win its third consecutive NBA title, collecting a whopping 76 percent of ballots cast.
The voters weren’t know-nothings, either. No, this was a polling of league general managers.
Things seem quite a bit different entering the playoffs, which start Saturday. The Heat lost 14 of its last 25 regular-season games.
San Antonio and Indiana are top seeds. The Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Houston, Portland, Brooklyn, Chicago and the Heat all figure to have a legitimate chance at being the team to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy in a couple of months.
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Usually, the playoffs aren’t so wide open. That view 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 second in the Western Conference. “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.”
No. 1 seeds have met in the NBA Finals 11 times in the last 35 years. The last time there wasn’t either a No. 1 or a No. 2 in the title series was 1978.
“It is going to be tremendous from a fan’s standpoint, watching,” Golden State coach Mark Jackson said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Brooklyn’s Jason Kidd has plenty of postseason experience as a player. He believes the title is up for grabs, but also probably knows history doesn’t favor his sixth-seeded team.
Since 1979, a mere 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-season coach of the Nets. “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 seem like a coaching cliché.
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. On April 6, the Hawks went to Indianapolis and embarrassed the Pacers, running out to a 32-point halftime lead in a 107-88 victory.
“There’s some good teams out there,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “Every team in the playoffs has 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 teams meet in the first round. And San Antonio’s quest to avenge last year’s loss in the Finals starts against Dallas — the last team to beat Miami in a seven-game series, winning the title in 2011.
A few minutes after last season’s Finals, Heat superstar LeBron James was shouting in a corridor.
“Keep giving me motivation! I need it!” James said. “Keep doubting me! I need it!”
The Heat’s first playoff opponent is the Charlotte Bobcats, with Game 1 on Sunday in Miami.
Since James arrived in Miami from Cleveland, the Heat is 15-0 against Charlotte.