5 Teams Set to Disrupt the NBA Postseason
Some NBA underdogs can still have an impact on the postseason, either by upsetting teams in the first round or by wearing their opponent down and setting them up to lose in the next. Those are teams that disrupt the postseason.
Sometimes teams don't win the title, but still manage to screw up the playoffs for someone else.
It seems an annual event. Last year, the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors upset the third-seeded Denver Nuggets. In 2012 and 2011, No. 8 seeds shocked No. 1 seeds. In 2012, that was the Philadelphia 76ers over the Chicago Bulls. In 2011, it was the San Antonio Spurs being upended by the Memphis Grizzlies.
There has also been a recent trend where teams who win in seven games lose in the following round. In the 10 times this decade a team has been taken to seven games in the first two rounds, the winner lost the following series.
The seedings right now are fluid, but looking ahead at the playoffs, we can see potential matchups that could take shape in the first two rounds which might be problematic for the favorites.
Here are five teams whose chances at a title are less than five percent, according to Basketball-Reference's Playoff Probabilities Report, but who could still send ripples through the postseason, either by upsetting the favorite or by putting up such a fight the top dog loses in the following round.
They are ranked first by round, then by likelihood of happening.
5. First Round: No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies over No. 1 San Antonio Spurs Redux?
The Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs could be headed towards a first-round series, and that would make for some intense basketball. That’s because Memphis would not be your ordinary No. 8 seed.
It was without its best player, Marc Gasol, for a chunk of the season and went 10-13 without him. However, he’s back now and will still be there for the playoffs. Per Basketball-Reference.com, the Grizzlies are 34-18 when he plays, and according to NBA.com/STATS, they are 27-12 since he returned from injury.
Per NBA Hoops Online, there's also a chance that whoever secures the West's last spot will be only the third No. 8 seed to have 50 wins, and possibly the first to reach 51. That's the "real" Grizzlies.
They also made it to the Western Conference Finals last year. And the Grizzlies, as a No. 8 seed, beat the No. 1 seeded Spurs in 2011. But, full disclosure, the Spurs swept the Grizzlies in last year's conference finals. Still, they are 1-1 in series results.
This would be a series between teams with distinctly different styles. The Spurs like to push the ball, playing with a pace of 94.9. The Grizzlies, however, like to slow things down and be methodical, averaging 89.7 possessions per game.
Typically, the playoffs tend to slow down. For example, last year the average pace in regular-season games was 92.0, but it was only 89.5 in the playoffs. There’s a chance that the Grizzles could bog the game down and force the Spurs to play their style.
Ultimately, the Spurs win in a slogfest too. They are a veteran team, brilliantly led by Gregg Popovich, the greatest active coach in the NBA. They’re a Western Conference team with some serious firepower, but they’ve also led the NBA in defensive rating since the All-Star Game.
But the Grizzlies could take the Spurs out of their rhythm. Right now, San Antonio is molten-lava hot, having won 19 straight, and going 21-1 since the All-Star break. They’ve been shooting a ridiculous 54.4 effective field-goal percentage.
The Grizzlies' methodical, bruising defense could force San Antonio to make adjustments to beat them. Then the Spurs would have to get their offense back up to full speed against the offensive juggernaut Houston Rockets in the next round.
This could be a case of a first-round opponent impacting a second-round loss.
4. First Round: No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats Shock No. 2 Indiana Pacers?
In another first-round series that could see a heavy favorite getting much more trouble than they bargained for, look for the Charlotte Bobcats to challenge the Indiana Pacers.
First, since the break, the Bobcats have been playing better ball than the Pacers. Charlotte is 14-8 with a plus-4.6 net rating. The Pacers are 13-11 with a minus-1.9 net rating.
Second, the Bobcats would arguably have the best offensive player on the court. Charlotte’s Al Jefferson has a player impact estimate (PIE) of 16.6 percent. The Pacers’ Paul George is just 15.9 percent. Beyond that, Jefferson is playing on a different level right now, fresh off his Eastern Conference Player of the Month award for March, per NBA.com’s official press release.
“But Roy Hibbert, potential Defensive Player of the Year, will be guarding Jefferson,” you say.
"But Jefferson has averaged 26.8 points per 40 minutes when being guarded by Hibbert,” I respond, “and Hibbert has scored only 14.0. Also, Jefferson outshoots Hibbert .538 to .310, and out-rebounds him 12.8 to 10.5."
So that answers that.
Furthermore the Bobcats play the same type of game the Pacers prefer to run: Slow. The Pacers average 92.7 possessions per game, the Bobcats 92.6. That means slow games, and that usually means close games.
Late in close games, it could come down to who has the best player, and Jefferson actually has the edge there. Look for the Bobcats to steal two, or potentially even three, from the Pacers. That extra work could cost them in the second round, especially if it’s versus another bruising team like the Chicago Bulls.
3. Second Round: No. 4 Houston Rockets Outgun the San Antonio Spurs?
Spurs fans might think I’m hating on San Antonio by having them on this list twice. They are actually my pick to win the title. However, that doesn’t mean the road is going to be easy.
They will probably end up facing the Houston Rockets in the second round. And the Rockets, when in launch mode, can score with anyone in the league. Until Dwight Howard went down, they were smoking their competition for the two previous months.
Their 20-5 record, from Jan. 28 to March 27, was the second-best over that stretch, just one game behind San Antonio. Their plus-9.0 net rating was also second best. They had the best offense in the NBA during that span, averaging 111.2 points per 100 possessions.
It was also a run that was initiated by a win over the Spurs, Houston’s third victory of the season over its Texas rivals.
Strategically, the Rockets bury a lot of three-pointers9.3 per game. When the Spurs give up at least nine treys, they are only 8-7. That means Houston is equipped to challenge the Spurs.
In other words, the way the Rockets are playing when they have Howard is already close to the Spurs. They’re one of the few teams that can score with the Spurs, and if their shooting is hot, they can actually pull this one out. Relying on shooting in a deep playoff run can be dubious, though. So Houston is more spoiler than contender.
It’s not likely, but I’m telling you there’s a chance.
2. Second Round: No. 5 Brooklyn Nets Beat No. 1 Miami Heat at Their Own Game?
I’m curious as to whether there has been a more substantial turnaround when the calendar year flipped than what the Brooklyn Nets have had this season.
In the 2013 portion of the season, the Nets were just 10-21 and out of the playoff picture. In 2014, the Nets have a winning percentage of .698, best in the Eastern Conference, and have climbed to fifth in doing so.
They must have made one serious New Year’s resolution.
Part of the reason for their success is they are playing “small ball,” starting Paul Pierce at power forward and running a three-guard lineup featuring Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston.
What makes this particularly intriguing is the Miami Heat also like to play small ball. They do it slightly bigger but have also won the last two NBA titles with that strategy. Miami plays Chris Bosh, more of a true power forward, at center and Shane Battier or LeBron James, both more conventionally small forwards, at the 4.
Could Brooklyn beat the Heat at their own game, though?
Since they found their way, the Nets have played better than Miami. And they've beaten the Heat, winning all three of their head-to-head matchups to date, with one left to play.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were two of the critical cogs when the Boston Celtics took the Heat to seven games in 2012. They bring competitive fire and championship experience to the team that lost to the Chicago Bulls last postseason.
A second-round upset is not probable, but it's more than just possible. It's plausible. It would be ironic if after all their struggles against traditionally big teams, the Heat were finally felled by "smaller ball."
1. Second Round: No. 3. Chicago Bulls Bully No. 2 Indiana Pacers?
The Chicago Bulls have been playing better basketball than the Indiana Pacers for the last two-thirds of the season, but the first third was so much in Indiana’s favor that it’s hard to see as much.
While the Nets have the best winning percentage since Jan. 1, the Bulls are technically tied in the win-loss column. And for at least the last quarter of their games, they’ve had a much tougher schedule than the Nets, per John Hollinger’s power rankings.
The Bulls are another team that is better than their overall record suggests. Although, technically a 50-win season is still within reach. That would be a staggering accomplishment considering what they’ve been through with losing Derrick Rose again and Luol Deng being traded.
The question mark around the Bulls has been their offense and what they can do when the game is on the line. There are two things worth taking note of here.
First, since trading Deng on Jan. 7, the Bulls are 16-3 during games decided in the clutch, meaning at some point within the last five minutes, the score was within five points. That’s the best winning percentage in the league. They also have the best net rating with the game on the line, plus-29.9.
Second, D.J. Augustin, very quietly, has been one of the best clutch players in the league this season. Among players who have averaged 2.5 qualifying minutes with at least 20 games, Augustin is fourth in PIE.
The Pacers have been good in the clutch this season too, but not as good as Chicago, especially lately. Since the break, the Bulls are second with plus-44.2 in the clutch. The Pacers are fourth with plus-29.6. (In case you're wondering, the Spurs are first with an outlandish plus-52.8.)
While the Bulls have been gearing up, the Pacers have been falling off. Indiana is stumbling coming down the stretch. They had the worst effective field-goal percentage in the NBA during the month of March. They had the second-worst offensive rating at just 96.5. Sure, the Bulls were just 24th, but they averaged 4.5 points more per 100 possessions than the Pacers.
The Bulls were also better defensively, giving up just 97.7 points compared to Indiana’s 101.5.
If we’re looking at how the teams are playing right now and not how they were playing in November and December, the Bulls are a better team. If, as expected, the games come down to the wire, the Bulls have the advantage. They’re playing better overall, and even more so in crunch time.
The Bulls have more than a puncher’s chance against the Pacers. While Indiana will be and should still be the favorites, it wouldn’t be a shock at all if they were upended.