Could Low Seeds Upset West's Best in NBA Playoffs?
The San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder may have the ability to beat one another, but no team vying for the Western Conference's lowest seed has a chance to upset either of the two potential candidates for the No. 1 spot.
Following a 100-88 win over the Spurs on April 4, Kevin Durant and the Thunder now trail Tim Duncan's top-seeded Spurs by just a half-game in the West. Because the No. 8 seed belongs to the L.A. Lakers (by a mere half-game over the Utah Jazz), there are a number of moving parts that have yet to settle out West.
But it couldn't hurt to take a look at the matchups we might see in the first round of the playoffs in order to further solidify the proposition that an early upset is highly unlikely this season.
*Note: Because the Dallas Mavericks have under a three-percent chance of securing the No. 8 seed, according to ESPN's Playoff Odds Calculator, they've been mercifully omitted from consideration. Goodnight, sweet Mavs.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers
If the somewhat tenuous status quo holds, this'll be the first-round pairing we'll see in a couple of weeks.
The Lakers have won two straight games but just five of their last 10. So they're not exactly looking like a juggernaut these days.
And although the Spurs have only been slightly better of late (they've won six of 10), there's little reason to believe that L.A. can engineer a first-round upset.
San Antonio has won both of its meetings with the Lakers this season. Admittedly, the two victories have come by a combined total of five points, but the way the Spurs play makes them a very difficult matchup for the Lakers.
Tony Parker's ability to penetrate and generally cause havoc with his quickness is a nightmare for L.A.'s porous perimeter defense. San Antonio also possesses a cadre of capable long-range shooters like Danny Green, Matt Bonner and Kawhi Leonard—all of whom shoot at least 38 percent from beyond the arc—to exploit the Lakers' painfully slow defensive rotations.
Plus, Duncan and Tiago Splitter give the Spurs a pair of skilled bigs to throw at the Lakers' sizable frontcourt duo of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.
Keeping all that in mind, this is probably the most likely upset scenario of all the possible first-round matchups. But that's mostly because the other three options seem incredibly far-fetched.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Utah Jazz
The Spurs have beaten the Utah Jazz two out of three times this year, with Utah's lone win coming on an improbable buzzer-beating three by Mo Williams that very nearly caused Gregg Popovich to tear Danny Green's head off.
In the other two games, the Spurs handily dispatched the overmatched Jazz by an average of 8.5 points per contest.
Like the Lakers, Utah lacks a capable defender in the backcourt to corral Parker. In addition, no Jazz big man has had any success whatsoever in containing Duncan. In the aforementioned Spurs loss on Dec. 12, San Antonio's ageless forward tallied 22 points, 21 rebounds and six blocks.
Utah may have some frontcourt depth with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, but no member of that trio measures up to the technical brilliance of Duncan.
This is a Jazz team with little playoff experience on its roster. The Spurs, despite a slip in the regular season, would eat this club alive.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Lakers
If OKC manages to make up the half-game deficit that separates it from the Spurs, it could end up facing the Lakers in Round 1.
And if that happens, a four-game sweep is all but guaranteed.
With their youth, speed and staggering athleticism, the Thunder appear to have been created in a lab specifically to embarrass the Lakers.
Durant, Russell Westbrook and Co. have taken three out of four from L.A. this season, and the most recent meeting encapsulates how a series between these two teams is likely to play out.
On March 5, the Thunder stomped L.A. by 17 points as Westbrook carved up the Lakers defense to the tune of 37 points.
Just to put things in context, if Parker represented a problem for the Lakers, Westbrook constitutes a nuclear threat.
Plus, Metta World Peace, who's recovering from knee surgery, may be nowhere near ready to handle the onerous responsibility of wrangling Durant. If that's the case, the responsibility will fall to Kobe Bryant, whose seemingly bionic legs might not be up to the task of carrying the Lakers on both ends.
Considering Bryant's championship experience and sociopathic desire to win, it's impossible to totally count his team out against OKC. But an upset is highly unlikely.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz
The potential matchup between the Thunder and Jazz might be the most interesting of the available options.
With the ability to play a big lineup that features Jefferson, Millsap and Favors on the court together, the Jazz could force Oklahoma City to keep Kendrick Perkins on the floor. That might seem like a minor victory, but anything Utah can do to keep the Thunder from playing a smaller lineup that features a 4-5 combo of Durant and Serge Ibaka will help its chances.
In addition, the Jazz do have a significant home-court advantage, as their fans have been known to whip themselves into a frenzy during postseason play.
But even with a couple of intriguing arguments in their favor, the Jazz simply don't have the horses to run with the Thunder.
OKC has taken two out of the three meetings against Utah this season, and even factoring in the loss, the Thunder have posted an average net rating of plus-11.3 points per 100 possessions over those three games.
The Jazz are going to look a lot different after a busy free-agency period this summer. But OKC would almost certainly dismantle them a few months early if the two teams met in a first-round series.
So, there you have it. It's not the most exciting thing to hear that the lowest seed in the West (whoever it is) has almost no chance of knocking off the highest (whoever it is).
Of course, it's not that surprising either. Low seeds aren't supposed to beat high seeds. But this year, because of some unique matchup advantages for the big guns, upsets seem even less likely than usual.
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