NBA Playoffs 2014: Highlighting Top Dark-Horse Championship Contenders

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NBA Playoffs 2014: Highlighting Top Dark-Horse Championship Contenders
Rick Bowmer

It’s easy to assume that the top seeds will triumph in 2014’s NBA playoffs, but there are several dark horses lurking among the lower-seeded teams that have the potential to go much farther than people expect.

Teams like the Miami Heat or the San Antonio Spurs are no doubt imposing, but there are other teams in the NBA playoff bracket worth watching for.

The Golden State Warriors shocked everyone with their prolonged run last year, and there’s no reason to believe that another lightly regarded team won’t do the same this year.

Read on to find out which dark horses out there might make some noise come May and June.

 

Dallas Mavericks

LM Otero

Dallas might not be a team that people are taking seriously as a real threat, but the Mavericks seem to be getting hot just at the right time. 

They’re 7-3 in their last 10 games and just clinched the Western Conference’s seventh seed.

Dirk Nowitzki has been as solid as ever, averaging 21.6 points per game, and he’s helped key a surprisingly good Mavericks offense.

Dallas is eighth in the league in points per game with 104.8, and their offense has been sneakily efficient all season—they’re 11th in the NBA’s net efficiency rating and third in assist to turnover ratio.

Surprisingly, part of that resurgence has been due to Monta Ellis. The team might not have expected much from him, but instead he’s transformed the offense, as ESPN Dallas’ Tim MacMahon writes: 

Truth be told, Ellis has significantly exceeded the expectations of a Dallas front office that wouldn’t have had the cap space to sign him until Devin Harris’ three-year deal was pulled after a pre-signing physical revealed that he needed toe surgery.

Ellis arrived in Dallas with the baggage of being considered an inefficient, selfish player who couldn’t be a major part of a winning franchise. He has revised that reputation this season, blending beautifully as a pick-and-roll partner with Nowitzki, who welcomed the presence of a dynamic off-the-dribble creator able to take a huge offensive burden off his shoulders.

Now, the Mavs won’t have it easy in the stacked West.

In fact, their opening matchup will likely be with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that’s confounded Dallas in the past.

However, they’ve won their last two meetings with the Thunder by scores of 109-86 and 128-119, respectively, so there’s reason to believe they’ve got the offense to keep up with Kevin Durant and company.

The Mavs might be heavy underdogs come playoff time, but Ellis has added enough pop to the offense to make them serious contenders.

 

Chicago Bulls

Danny Johnston

Between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers, it’s easy to overlook the Bulls.

However, Tom Thibodeau’s squad has crept up to the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and if they can hold onto their one-game lead over the Toronto Raptors, they’ll be in good position come playoff time.

Once again, the Bulls are excellent at defense—they’re allowing a league low 91.7 points per game.

By contrast, they’re dead last in points per game, yet there is some reason for optimism. They’re fifth in the league in rebound percentage, third in turnover ratio and second in assist ratio.

Thibodeau’s offense might not be flashy, but once again, he’s found a way to grind out points without Derrick Rose.

D.J. Augustin has helped key this offensive turnaround. After getting waived by Toronto in December his career looked just about over, but now he’s averaging 13 points and 4.4 assists to power the Bulls.

"We wouldn't be in this position without D.J.," center Joakim Noah told the Associated Press (via ESPN). "His passing ability, his scoring ability, just the way he plays the game. ... I feel like I have really good chemistry with him and I think the rest of this team feels that way, too. We're going to need him down the stretch." 

Teams are scared to see these Bulls in the playoffs, and with good reason. Their grinding style can really wear down even the best offenses. 

Even teams that play a similar type of basketball, like the Indiana Pacers, want to avoid them, as the Indianapolis Star’s Candace Buckner notes:

These Bulls don’t have the offense to win high-scoring games, but with the Pacers’ recent struggles, they could absolutely win a hypothetical matchup with Indy.

Thibodeau is an expert at dictating the pace of a game, and that could help catapult the Bulls deep into the postseason. 

By contrast, the Mavs can win by picking up the pace and forcing opponents to keep up.

No matter how they choose to do it, these two teams could be quite dangerous when the playoffs arrive.

 

Alex Koma is a B/R featured columnist and a member of the Breaking News Team. You can find his B/R archive here, follow him on Twitter @AlexKomaVT and visit his personal website.

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