NBA First-Round Upsets Waiting to Happen

Brett David RobertsCorrespondent IMarch 9, 2013

NBA First-Round Upsets Waiting to Happen

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    Upsets in the NBA Playoffs are a little more rare than in March Madness. It's a lot more difficult for an underdog to get the better of an opponent over a seven-game series, but it does happen.

    Which teams could potentially be spoilers and Cinderellas in the 2013 NBA playoffs?

    A favorable underdog is one that is able to fully exploit a better team's weaknesses, or a team that has a particular style which renders itself successful in short stretches (e.g., teams that live and die by the three).

    It's difficult for a lesser team to triumph in seven games with coaches being able to adjust and adapt on a game-by-game basis, but some teams are far better than their records indicate. The Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, in particular, have played very well against elite opponents.

    Ranked in order from least likely to most probable, let's examine five matchups that could potentially spell disaster for the higher seeded team.

Houston Rockets over Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Season Series: Oklahoma City leads 2-1

    Nov. 28, 2012 at Chesapeake Energy Arena: 120-98 OKC win.

    Dec. 29, 2012 at Toyota Center: 124-94 OKC win.

    Feb. 20, 2013 at Toyota Center: 122-119 Houston win.

    Let's preface this by stating that it is very unlikely, but if James Harden and the Houston Rockets found a way to defeat his former Oklahoma City Thunder squad, it would go down as one of the greatest and most storied upsets in NBA playoffs history.

    Yes, again, it's very unlikely to happen, but the Houston Rockets have the youngest starting five in the NBA, and that may be just as advantageous as it is crippling in the postseason when veteran experience is so valuable. Because with youth and vigor comes inexperience.

    Harden, at least, has been tested. Even though he was a third fiddle in OKC, Harden gained valuable playoff experience that he'll be able to inculcate to his teammates during the postseason. Expect Harden to have a much more veteran role than the typical fourth-year NBA player. Harden has played 43 career playoff games, and averaged 16.3 points per game on 43.5 percent shooting.

    The Thunder won the first two matchups between the teams this season, but in the most recent on Feb. 20, the Houston Rockets won by three points in a high scoring shootout at the Toyota Center. Harden lit his former team up for 46 points on 14-of-19 shooting, while also grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out six assists.

    Jeremy Lin contributed 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting, and the Rockets' starting backcourt hit a combined 10 threes.

    Chandler Parsons performed his typical glue guy role, scoring 17 points, grabbing six rebounds and recording four dimes.

    The Rockets started Chandler Parsons at power forward because they had just dealt two power forwards at the trade deadline. And they still won.

    That improbable victory is the improbable proof that it could happen again.

    Four times out of seven?  Right, see, that's really stretching it, but the Rockets could steal a game or two in this series, and they're a team to watch out for in upcoming years.

Atlanta Hawks over Indiana Pacers

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    Season Series: Atlanta leads 2-1

    Nov. 7, 2012 at Philips Arena: 89-86 Atlanta win.

    Dec. 29, 2012 at Philips Arena: 109-100 Atlanta win.

    Feb. 5, 2013 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: 114-103 Indiana win.

     

    Indiana Pacers fans have to be worried to see their team appear twice in this slideshow, but the Atlanta Hawks are another team that has given Frank Vogel's squad some difficulty this year.

    The Hawks won both their matchups against the Pacers in the first part of this season, but both were in Atlanta. The Pacers would hold home-court advantage in this matchup, so the Hawks would have to find a way to win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They lost their only contest there this season.

    Atlanta's success comes in part because the Hawks main two offensive options play power forward and center, Indiana's two weakest positions defensively.

    Roy Hibbert posts a deceptive stat line seemingly indicative of the fact he can defend, but he's not quick enough to match up against Al Horford at the 5-spot, and the Hawks All-Star will have his way. Horford has scored 16, 20 and 15 in the three matchups against the Pacers.

    Somewhat surprisingly, Josh Smith struggled against Indiana, and scored just nine and 11. He shot just 9-of-24 from the field in the two games.

    The loss of Lou Williams will hurt the Hawks against Indiana since he was the leading scorer for Atlanta in the victory on Dec. 29. But the Hawks are a solid cast of role players who find ways to compensate for one another's deficiencies, be it Kyle Korver getting beat off the dribble, or Zaza Pachulia not bringing a lot to the table offensively.

    The Pacers would likely win a matchup against the Hawks, but Atlanta could take this to seven and anything could happen. They're evenly matched teams, but the Hawks would ultimately fall because Indiana is very tough at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and home-court advantage becomes of such paramount importance in the postseason.

Boston Celtics over New York Knicks

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    Season Series: Tied 1-1

    Jan. 7, 2013 at Madison Square Garden: 102-96 Boston win.

    Jan. 24, 2013 at TD Garden: 89-86 New York win.

     

    The Boston Celtics and New York Knicks squared off twice in January, and they split the games.

    But Rajon Rondo did not play in the Jan. 7 contest, and the Celtics were victorious. That's a good game to use as a measuring stick (In the game with Rondo playing on Jan. 24, the Celtics lost).

    The Celtics perimeter defense, in combination of Avery Bradley, Jeff Green and Paul Pierce, held Carmelo Anthony to 6-of-26 shooting. As mentioned with the Pacers, all teams which rely heavily on perimeter scoring will have issues with the Boston Celtics.

    The Knicks best two scorers, J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony,  will find their offensive impacts mitigated by the strong defense of Bradley, Green and Courtney Lee. Brandon Bass will also see time on Anthony, and Bass is an underrated defender in his own right. Doc Rivers unsuccessfully tried Bass on LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals, so that shows their confidence in the LSU product is high.

    The Celtics can continue to throw different defenders at Anthony, to give the Knicks forward different looks and to keep fresh guys on him at all times. The C's just have a lot of ways to frustrate Anthony, and if that can be done successfully, it places a far too heavy load on Smith. That's pretty much the formula for beating the Knicks, if the team has the right personnel. And the Celtics do.

Boston Celtics over Indiana Pacers

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    Season Series: Boston Leads 2-0

    Jan. 4, 2013 at TD Garden: 94-75 Boston win.

    March 6, 2013 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: 83-81 Boston win.

     

    Boston and Indiana could potentially clash in the first round if the seedings sift out so. That might not be the greatest news for Indiana Pacers fans expecting an easy first-round matchup for their team. The Boston Celtics have won both matchups against the Pacers this year, both with Rajon Rondo active on Jan. 4 and with the new-and-improved Rondo-less Celtics on Mar. 6.

    The Celtics blew Frank Vogel's team out in January, but the second win may be the most impressive. The Pacers are now at full strength with Danny Granger healthy again, and they've had a full season to coalesce as a unit.

    The Celtics, meanwhile, are without their best player and were playing on the road on Mar. 6, yet prevailed. That resilience is what has a lot of analysts thinking the C's could be the team that no one wants to play in the 2013 playoffs.

    The Celtics have become a tough team without their four-time All-Star. Paul Pierce's ability to play the point-forward has lessened the blow from losing the NBA's leading assist man. Rondo did a lot of things for the Celtics, but Avery Bradley has become an absolute pest for opposing backcourts, and he would inevitably draw the assignment of Paul George.

    As athletic as George is, and as well as he shoots, Bradley was still able to hold him to just nine points on 4-of-18 shooting in the first meeting between the teams. In the second, George scored 16 but shot 7-of-22 from the floor and turned the ball over three times.

    Because the Pacers best two players are perimeter players, they run smack into the heart of the Boston defense. Jeff Green can frustrate Danny Granger, Avery Bradley on George and Courtney Lee pestering George Hill—it's a defensive arrangement that could stifle the Pacers.

Golden State Warriors over LA Clippers

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    Season Series: Golden State Warriors win 3-1.

    Nov. 3, 2012 at Staples Center: 114-110 Golden State win.

    Jan. 2, 2013 at ORACLE Arena: 115-94 Golden State win.

    Jan. 5, 2013 at Staples Center: 115-89 L.A. win.

    Jan. 21, 2013 at ORACLE Arena: 106-99 Golden State win.

    If the playoffs began today (Mar. 9) the LA Clippers would draw their worst nightmare: The Golden State Warriors. Mark Jackson's Warriors team has defeated Vinny Del Negro's Clippers squad three of four times this season, and the thing that had to worry the Clippers the most is that the Warriors do all the things they do, and nearly as well against most opponents.

    Both teams have run-and-gun offenses, and this would be a very high scoring series with a lot of great highlights.

    The series would also create two great matchups: Stephen Curry vs. Chris Paul and David Lee vs. Blake Griffin.

    Curry was an All-Star snub, but Paul, Lee and Griffin all made appearances in the All-Star game, and Curry's 54-point performance at Madison Square Garden reminded us all that the only reason he didn't make the game is because the West is chock-full of talent at point guard.

    CP3 is arguably the best point guard in the game, so Curry will get to test his status as elite against the best.

    Lee is mobile enough to cover Griffin, and his high post scoring abilities will challenge the Clippers star forward. Lee averages 18.9 points per game and 11.3 rebounds. Griffin is averaging 20.7 points and 9.6 rebounds.

    Klay Thompson and Chauncey Billups will be worth keeping an eye on, too, because both are streaky shooters who can ignite runs.

    It's true that the regular season is not the best indicator of postseason predictions, but the importance of winning every game can't be underestimated. If the Clippers drew the Warriors, as it is looking though they will, it will have to be in the back of their minds that they've lost three of four to them this season.