By BRIAN MAHONEY
Looking for a reason not to pick the Miami Heat to win another NBA title?
Don’t check the odds, where the Heat are such an overwhelming favorite that it might as well be Tiger Woods against a weekend hacker.
Definitely don’t bother with the Heat’s results, which show exactly three losses since the start of February.
And certainly don’t look on the court, where LeBron James sent season-long reminders that he’s better than ever and already the best in the world.
The only people who might really believe in caution are the Heat themselves.
“There’s going to be trials and tribulations no matter what, no matter how good of a team you are,” Dwyane Wade said. “There’s going to be a moment in the playoffs where our back is going to be against the wall. And I think everything we’ve done this season will prepare us for that moment. We have a goal, just like every other team that gets into the playoffs, to win a championship. But we understand the process that it takes.”
It starts Saturday, when the playoffs start with four first-round games. The Heat will open Sunday against Milwaukee in what’s expected to be a quick series.
Then it will be up to someone like the Knicks, Thunder, Spurs, or some other contender, to prove that the next two months aren’t just a formality.
“They’ve had the best record and they’re the defending champs so they’re the team to beat, but I don’t think it’s much beyond that,” Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said. “I mean, give them their due. They have the best record and they’re the defending champs, so they’re the team that you need to beat, but no, I don’t think anybody is head and shoulders over any. There’s too many good teams.”
New York, which won three out of four from Miami, hosts Boston on Saturday in the playoff opener. The Nets welcome Chicago for the first postseason game in Brooklyn, while the Western Conference has Golden State visiting Denver, and the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies squaring off in a first-round rematch.
On Sunday, the Lakers go to San Antonio without Kobe Bryant, and defending West champ Oklahoma City faces former Thunder star James Harden and Houston. Indiana and Atlanta meet in the other East game.
Miami went 66-16 and has been so dominant since Super Bowl Sunday that the betting site Bovada gave the Heat opening odds to win the championship that it said were “unheard of in recent years” — and then already had to lower them when most of the action was coming in on the Heat, anyway.
That dropped Miami to a 2-to-3 favorite, meaning a $3 bet only won $2 more. The Heat were 2-to-9 favorites to win the East, where Indiana and Chicago also beat them multiple times during the regular season.
Knicks center Tyson Chandler said the other contenders shouldn’t feel slighted by all the experts that are picking the Heat.
“No, not at all. They should pick the Heat,” he said. “They’re the defending champions and they should get that respect. But that’s not what we believe. We haven’t believed in that throughout the year. But they should get that respect because they’ve earned it.”
Miami faced plenty of adversity during last season’s championship run. They were down 2-1 to Indiana in the second round, with Wade struggling and Chris Bosh injured. The Celtics took a 3-2 lead in the conference finals back to Boston before James fought off elimination with a 45-point performance in Game 6, and the Thunder took the opener of the NBA Finals and nearly rallied two nights later to put the Heat in a 2-0 hole.
But this version of the Heat is much better, and certainly miles above the team that lost in the 2011 finals in the first season with its Big Three. With Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and Rashard Lewis, the Heat have added players who were able to win games for them even when they chose to rest their superstars down the stretch.
“It’s a challenge. Look, these guys are really good. They’re the world champions,” Milwaukee coach Jim Boylan said. “Dwyane Wade has won multiple NBA championships, LeBron is going to win multiple NBA championships before it’s all over and let’s not forget Chris Bosh and Ray Allen and all the other guys, too. Shane Battier. Great players. They present a large, large number of problems.”
There is much more intrigue out West, especially in the two series involving Los Angeles teams. The Clippers and Grizzlies went seven games last year before the Clippers advanced, and this time they have the home-court advantage. The Lakers didn’t even clinch a playoff spot until Wednesday, but they won their final five games and look dangerous even without Bryant thanks to the inside play of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
The Lakers and Spurs had one of the NBA’s best postseason rivalries in the last decade, and this one could join their list of memorable series.
“We’re happy that we’re in the playoffs but we’re not done yet,” Howard said.
The highlight in the East could be in the Boston-New York series. The Knicks ended the Celtics’ five-year reign as Atlantic Division champions with their first division title since 1994, with Carmelo Anthony leading the NBA with 28.7 points per game. New York will have to fight off a No. 7 seed hoping it still has a run left with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and trying to give a lift to a hurting city after the Boston Marathon bombings.
“They’ve been around. They’ve won. They have a lot of experience,” Anthony said. “I think that was one of the reasons that we put together this team that we have with the experience that we have with some of the guys on this team. So right now we want to continue the way that we’ve been playing.”
The winner could emerge as the best hope in the East to beat the Heat — if there is such a thing. Count former NBA coach and ESPN analyst Flip Saunders among those who doubt there is, saying Wednesday on a conference call that he doesn’t “see anyone challenging them.”
“They’ve really been off the charts, and the way LeBron is playing,” Saunders said. “There’s teams that are going to be able to beat them a game or two maybe, but I can’t see anyone that has the ability to beat them four games in a row.”
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami and Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.