Spoiler Alert: Ranking the NBA Playoffs' Most Likely Upset Specials
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
March Madness wrapped up a week ago, but hoopheads craving more upsets can rest easy: The NBA playoffs are very near.
However, the No. 8-seeded Milwaukee Bucks channeling their inner Jimmy Chitwood and upsetting the Miami Heat is not going to happen, and it was therefore omitted from this slideshow ranking the most likely upsets.
The Boston Celtics, however—fueled by a Hall of Fame performance from Paul Pierce—do have an opportunity to eliminate the New York Knicks in the first round.
Those and other possible upsets—ranging from remote to likely, based on the likelihood that they occur—were ranked accordingly on a series-by-series basis.
We've used the NBA standings through Sunday to seed each team. While varying in magnitude, a lower-seeded team eliminating a higher-seeded team qualifies as an upset.
6. Boston Celtics (7) over New York Knicks (2)
Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce
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The Boston Celtics are 1-3 against the New York Knicks this season.
Their two most recent losses, coming in late March, were by margins of 19 and 15 points, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Knicks have clinched the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference on the strength of 36.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game from Carmelo Anthony during the month of April.
Without Rajon Rondo, it's unlikely this Celtics unit, ranked 29th in rebounding at 39.4 boards per night, upsets the surging Knicks.
If Paul Pierce gets healthy by the postseason, though, his ability to take a series over from a scoring standpoint does give Boston a chance.
While it will take more than the 21 postseason points that Pierce has averaged per game for his career—and the 21.3 he's averaged against the Knicks in 2012-13—he is a big-time scorer still capable of turning in an epic performance, even at the age of 35.
5. Golden State Warriors (7) over San Antonio Spurs (2)
Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry
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While this potential series won't be finalized until game No. 82 of the regular season is complete, the Golden State Warriors are currently slotted to play the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
The Warriors have now dropped two straight and share a record of 45-35 with the Houston Rockets.
If Golden State does finish as the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, the NBA world would be first robbed of the highlight-factory series that could've been Warriors vs. Denver Nuggets.
What this also does, however, is create more of a contrast in styles while pitting the Dubs against the Spurs.
The Warriors are a young, emerging group working to create a winning culture in the Bay Area. They're led by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt and David Lee up front.
Meanwhile, the Spurs are that NBA uncle who finds himself in the postseason every year.
In order to stage an upset, the Warriors will need to simply outrun the Spurs throughout the series by turning the tempo up as high as possible.
Curry has averaged 21.5 points in two games against the Spurs heading into Monday's matchup. His ability to dictate pace would be hindered opposite Tony Parker, but if an upset happens, it begins there with Curry.
4. Memphis Grizzlies (5) over Los Angeles Clippers (4)
Memphis Grizzlies' Marc Gasol
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Led by a front line featuring Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, the Memphis Grizzlies are certainly capable of an upset.
Prior to averaging 12.7 points and nine rebounds per game during the month of April, Gasol totaled 17.2 and 7.1 through March to help Memphis hang on to the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
Randolph, meanwhile, is averaging 15.3 points and 11.2 rebounds in 2012-13 with 44 double-doubles through Sunday.
But while Gasol and Randolph will be difficult for DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to handle around the basket, the Grizzlies will struggle to match the overall depth of the Los Angeles Clippers throughout the series.
This type of supporting cast production, combined with Paul's superstar ability, makes this upset relatively unlikely. With a tandem of Gasol and Randolph, however, there is always that chance.
3. Houston Rockets (6) over Denver Nuggets (3)
Houston Rockets' James Harden
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
James Harden has led the Houston Rockets into the No. 6 seed conversation with an overall record of 45-35 through Sunday.
He has been among the league leaders in scoring from wire to wire. He currently sits at 26 points per night, ranking fifth in the league overall.
In four games against the No. 3-seeded Denver Nuggets, however, Harden has managed only 18.3 points on 38.2 percent shooting from the field.
So Harden will have to first figure out how to navigate through the defensive attack on the perimeter—led by stalwart Andre Iguodala—that Denver will throw at him.
If he can learn from the way the Nuggets have defended him thus far and control the pace of the game offensively by forcing the Denver defense to react to him, Harden's Rockets have a chance for the upset.
From Jeremy Lin to Omer Asik, along with everyone else who steps on the floor for Houston, Harden's supporting cast also needs to elevate its performance throughout the series. If they do that collectively, Harden has the star power to carry Houston into the conference semifinals.
2. Chicago Bulls (6) over Indiana Pacers (3)
Chicago Bulls' Luol Deng
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It doesn't look like Derrick Rose will be making a postseason appearance after all.
Regardless, the No. 6/No. 3 matchup in the first round of the Eastern Conference will feature a Chicago Bulls team who defended their way into the playoffs without their superstar.
They will be matched up with an Indiana Pacers group who earned the No. 3 seed for many of the same reasons, playing the majority of the 2012-13 campaign without Danny Granger.
The Pacers and Bulls each rank second and third, respectively, in opponent points per game, holding teams to averages of 90.5 and 93 points.
They are also each in the top 10 in rebounding while ranking in the bottom 10 in terms of scoring for themselves.
In order for the Bulls to spring the mirror-image upset, Luol Deng must make a big impact on both ends of the floor. He needs to first slow Paul George down on the wing as much as possible while also leading the Bulls in scoring.
David West's impact will need to be nullified on the interior from there, and a healthy Joakim Noah is essential to Chicago's success for that reason.
1. Atlanta Hawks (5) over Brooklyn Nets (4)
Atlanta Hawks' Al Horford
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Unlike the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup in the Western Conference, there is not a significant divide between the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets. These teams met four times this year, and they split the season series.
Indeed, this would be only an upset in terms of seeding.
With the strength of the Hawks' attack revolving around Al Horford and Josh Smith, however, Atlanta needs to first cancel out any major scoring outbursts from Brook Lopez on the Brooklyn interior to win this series.
Deron Williams and Joe Johnson will have to be limited as well, obviously, and the Hawks' supporting cast needs to show up in a major way.
Ultimately, though, Atlanta could be in line for an upset by turning in performances from Horford and Smith that simply outshine the individual efforts of Brooklyn's three stars.