Ranking the Most Dangerous 2014 NBA Playoff Underdogs
Not all NBA contenders are going to make it out of the playoffs alive.
That's what happens every year. Highly touted, regular-season dominant outfits are deemed favorites, only to be prematurely ousted by lower seeds and supposedly inferior opponents.
Sometimes, there's shame in such defeats. Truly elite teams play "yogurt" basketball courtesy of makeshift breakdowns.
Most of the time, upsets are understandable. Maybe not predictable, but plausible, handed out by underdogs many saw coming.
There are plenty of those teams this year—those that fall outside elite ranks, behind juggernauts like the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. Some of them were supposed to better, others are defying fate.
All of them, though, are dangerous, worthy of attention and equipped to make a deep, contender-displacing playoff run.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and the Dallas Mavericks are proof age and fresh starts can be scary.
Nothing particularly spectacular was made of Mark Cuban's Mavs leading into this season. After failing to land Dwight Howard—just like Deron Williams before him—they seemed predestined for mediocrity, scrapping and clawing their way to nothing more than a fringe-playoff berth.
In a way, that's exactly what the Mavs are doing. They're clinging to that eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot, trying to fend off the pleasantly surprising Phoenix Suns.
There's nothing pedestrian about their offense, though. The Mavs rank third in offensive efficiency, scoring 108.7 points per 100 possessions.
Offense isn't the recipe for playoff success—especially when it's accompanied by a 22nd-ranked defense—but the Mavs are ridiculous when they're on. They've dethroned the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in their last two meetings, proving that on any given night, against any given opponent, they can walk away victorious.
Chances of them upsetting the Spurs or Thunder—or less likely, someone else—aren't great, but it's possible. Nowitzki and Ellis routinely combine for 40-plus points, and their offense is given nightly lifts by a fourth-ranked three-point shooting percentage (38.2).
If this team gets hot, they're going to be a tough postseason out.
4. Chicago Bulls
Never, ever (ever) bet against Joakim Noah.
So, never, ever bet against the Chicago Bulls.
Derrick Rose's absence and Luol Deng's departure haven't slowed coach Tom Thibodeau's resilient crew. Riding a second-ranked defense, the Bulls are in play for a top-three spot in the Eastern Conference.
Offensively, the Bulls are a disjointed mess—29th in offensive efficiency—who desperately miss Rose when D.J. Augustin isn't scoring freely. But defense can be a driving catalyst early in the postseason, when the Bulls could be thrown a "gimme" playoff series.
More likely than not, they'll wind up facing the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors or Brooklyn Nets in the first round, against whom they're a combined 4-5. Despite their underwhelming performance against potential foes, it's difficult to discount a team that is 4-4 against the Heat and Indiana Pacers.
Mostly, though, there's Noah, the do-everything-and-anything center who belongs in sidebar MVP discussions.
The ponytailed big man is pure heart. Whether the Bulls are playing the Heat or the Utah Jazz, the Pacers or a convoy of plush-stuffed animals, he's going to bring it.
And when he brings it, the Bulls bring it. And when the Bulls bring it, they can beat anyone and everyone.
3. Brooklyn Nets
Maybe the Brooklyn Nets should start tanking.
Go with me on this.
Losing won't cost them a playoff spot. Their position is that secure, the Eastern Conference that bad.
Losing would, however, allow them to dip in the standings. They're only four games ahead of the No. 7 spot, which would set up a potential first-round matchup with the Heat, against whom they're a perfect 3-0.
Preposterous? Absolutely, and beyond unlikely. But merely entertaining the idea is a sign of how far the Nets have come.
Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko are nowhere near healthy, but other Nets have stepped up. The team is more than its superstars, more than Paul Pierce, D-Will and Joe Johnson, who have taken turns waffling in and out of obscurity and individual prominence.
In-house parity has put the Nets in position to secure home-court advantage through the first round, no small accomplishment when you consider what it means.
Brooklyn has won its last 11 games at Barclays Center, and are 18-2 in their last 20, a ridiculous stretch that has included victories over the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Heat, Bulls, Spurs, Mavericks and Suns, among others.
Better still, the Nets have the league's sixth-best defense since Jan. 1. Combine their staunch prevention with Barclays Center becoming the harbinger of doom for opponents, and the Nets could go places—places that take them out of the first or even the (gasp) second round.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Believe me when I say the Grizzlies' bark isn't even close to as vicious as their bite.
After a slow start replete with injuries to Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies are cooking, defending their way up the standings, wreaking havoc and hell on opponents.
Since Gasol's return, the Grizzlies rank second in defensive efficiency (97.7) and fourth in winning percentage (73.5). They're also 6-3 against fellow top-eight Western Conference teams since then, which stands as the second-best mark of any (likely) playoff-bound team out West, behind only the Thunder.
Writing for SB Nation, James Herbert provided a detailed look at how the Grizzlies regained their grind-it-out swagger:
The Grizzlies are still the slowest team in the league, but in March they've forced more turnovers and pushed the pace a little bit. The defense is fueling the offense, which is less stagnant now. They've won 10 of their last 13 games and 15 of their last 20 and seem to be peaking at the right time. The veterans in the locker room understood all along that they couldn't feel sorry for themselves when nothing was going their way.
Returning to their previous brand of basketball has worked. Like, really worked. The Grizzlies are riding a nice months-long streak, following a similar blueprint to that of last season, when they reached the Western Conference Finals.
As teams in the West—playoff teams, no less—continue to find out, no, they aren't a contingent you want to play.
Fear the grit.
Fear the grind.
1. Golden State Warriors
Responses are going to be mixed here.
Some will see the Warriors as a legitimate contender and therefore take their inclusion as an insult. Others will feverishly claim I'm overrating them.
But mixed feelings are kind of the point.
We don't really know what the Warriors are. Their roster says contender, their record and standing out West says pretender. We'll go with something different entirely: Dark-horse contender.
In no way are the Warriors hitting ceilings they were supposed to. Their offense has been wildly disappointing given how much firepower they boast, and Harrison Barnes' performance has been maddening.
Even so, the offensive potential is there. And the defensive fortitude already exists.
The Warriors rank third in defensive efficiency. No one—including me—should have to tell you how big that is. If Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut are able to stay healthy, the Warriors can rely on their defense to dethrone first-rate offenses and advance past the first round.
Defense alone doesn't win championships, but it makes playoff pushes pretty darn interesting. When you combine the Warriors' 13th-ranked offense with their superior defensive sets, they're one of the NBA's more balanced teams anyway.
Plus, whenever you have Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor together, offensive outbursts are always one swished three away.
Look out for the Warriors. They're coming.