Most Dangerous Underdogs Headed into the 2014 NBA Playoffs
The NBA playoffs are, for better or worse, probably the most predictable of any postseason in sports. Year in and year out, the list of teams that can legitimately compete for a championship is exceedingly short—no more than three or four teams long—and can be sussed out well before the end of the regular season.
It's vastly different from the NFL, MLB and the NHL, wherein predictions at all times and of all types are routinely rendered silly and short-sighted when everything's said and done.
This would seem more a feature of the sport than a bug within it. Talent trumps all in basketball, and if you have two (or even three) of the top players in the game, you're probably going to contend for the title while everyone else is left scrambling for scraps.
That doesn't mean, though, that the NBA is immune to the Cinderella stories that so often characterize its collegiate counterpart. No. 8-seeded teams can and have upset top dogs in the past; just ask the 1994 Denver Nuggets, the 2007 "We Believe" Golden State Warriors, the 2011 Memphis Grizzlies or the 1999 New York Knicks, who crashed the post-lockout Finals.
The Dallas Mavericks came out of (practically) nowhere to claim the crown in 2011. Last year, Stephen Curry's Warriors snuck past a 57-win Nuggets squad and pushed the San Antonio Spurs far closer to the edge than anyone would've otherwise expected them to.
The point is, anything can happen in the NBA playoffs. Teams can catch fire or cool off at a moment's notice. Injuries can derail the hopes of some (see: Russell Westbrook, 2013) and open doors for others (see: Spurs and Grizzlies, 2013). Even the best of the best can stumble into tricky matchups and the problems they present.
If you're searching for a squad to upset the established order of the Association in 2014, look no further than these five, each of whom has the potential to infuse this year's postseason with some measure of chaos by going toe-to-toe against—and, perhaps, upsetting—the league's top title contenders.
The survivor of that No. 4-vs.-No. 5 matchup in the East could be a serious pain in the neck for anyone banking on a Miami Heat-Indiana Pacers conference finals redux.
The Chicago Bulls don't score the ball well enough to actually contend for the title. As fantastically well as the Bulls have played in 2014 (35-15 record, best in the East), their offensive struggles (101.9 points per 100 possessions, fifth-worst in the league since Jan. 1) may be too much for them to overcome against quality competition in a seven-game series.
Then again, Chicago's smothering defense may be too much for its opponents to handle themselves. The Bulls have been the NBA's stingiest squad in 2014, surrendering a slender 97.5 points per 100 possessions therein.
With a team executing Tom Thibodeau's signature tactics at the league's third-slowest pace, the Bulls—with their size, toughness and discipline—could easily give one of the East's elite a substantial headache in the second round. They split their season series with the Heat and the Pacers and could upend either one if Dwyane Wade isn't 100 percent healthy or if Indy's late-season inconsistencies aren't corrected in time for the playoffs.
In other words, the Bulls will need some luck from the basketball gods to go deep without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. But with Joakim Noah emerging as a legitimate offensive fulcrum from the post—he's the first center since David Robinson (1993-94) to lead his team in assists and the first since Vlade Divac (2003-04) to record three straight games with double-digit assists—Chicago might have enough on both ends of the floor to send shock waves through South Beach, Circle City and the league office in New York alike.
It's strange to think of a team with one of the most expensive rosters and the heftiest luxury-tax bill in NBA history as something of a dark horse. And yet, that label seems to apply perfectly to the Brooklyn Nets.
That's what happens when you start 10-21 amidst key injuries (i.e. Brook Lopez's foot) and coaching controversies before turning things around with a 34-15 record (second best in the Eastern Conference) in the new year.
The loss of Lopez proved particularly fortuitous for the Nets. With his All-Star center sidelined, Jason Kidd, in his first year as a coach at any level, decided to make do with a long-ball lineup that features four big, versatile perimeter players who can switch screens with ease and one rim protector. Since then, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston have emerged as the team's most important players, with Kevin Garnett and Deron Williams strangely assuming secondary roles.
This combination of unique tactics and veteran savvy has worked out well for Brooklyn, particularly against pick-and-roll-heavy teams like, say, the Heat. This year, the Nets became the first team of the "Heatles" era to sweep Miami in a season series, with three one-point wins and another in double OT.
Expecting the Nets to beat the two-time defending champs in a seven-game series may be too much, but this team clearly isn't afraid of the Heat and has demonstrated a unique understanding of how to slow down LeBron James and company.
The question is, will these two teams come to blows in the postseason at all? Should the Indiana Pacers capture the No. 1 seed in the East, the Nets would have to slip into the No. 6 spot—with two losses and two wins for the Washington Wizards—if they're to have any hope of facing the Heat before the conference finals.
Which could be too late for Brooklyn. The Nets went 0-4 against the Pacers, their likely second-round opponent, in 2013-14 and could find themselves the victim of another first-round bloodbath opposite the Chicago Bulls, who trumped Brooklyn in seven games last year.
Portland Trail Blazers
As the Nets might attest, a No. 5 beating a No. 4 in the first round isn't necessarily an upset, per se. If the two teams are that close in the standings, they're probably quite comparable on the court as well.
The Portland Trail Blazers are just a single game back of the Houston Rockets for the No. 4 spot, and they could end up with an identical record if they win their season finale against the No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers and the Rockets drop theirs to the depleted New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.
No matter how those games shake out, the Rockets will retain home-court advantage because they own the regular season tiebreaker. Houston won three out of four meetings with Portland this year.
In any case, the Blazers could be in perfect position to score a postseason result that would qualify as a surprise from a number of angles. For one, Portland's 24-5 start to the 2013-14 season doesn't diminish the impact of this club potentially finishing with some semblance of home-court advantage. Few (if any) predicted prior to the campaign that the Blazers would be much better than a No. 7 or No. 8 seed in the ultracompetitive West.
More intriguing still is that Portland would be in position to eliminate a Houston squad that, after bringing in Dwight Howard this past summer, had the requisite talent (if not the collective experience) to shoot for the Larry O'Brien trophy. With Howard and Patrick Beverley just returning from their respective injuries (and Beverley coming up a bit gimpy in his comeback from a bum knee), the Rockets could be ripe for an upset, especially if Portland catches fire from beyond the arc.
The Blazers have scored 26.4 percent of their points from three this season—the seventh-highest such mark in the league, just a hair behind Houston's. The more hobbled Beverley is, the easier it'll be for Damian Lillard to wreak havoc on the offensive end.
A similar health-oriented upset could be in the works for the Blazers in the conference semifinals, should the injury bug come back to bite any of the Spurs' aging Big Three.
As far as lower-seeded teams that probably won't advance but could make things mighty interesting are concerned, the Dallas Mavericks are worth watching. They beat the Oklahoma City Thunder two out of three times this season and owned double-digit leads in each of their four meetings with the Los Angeles Clippers.
In truth, the Mavs have been one of the league's best in crunch time. Dallas has outperformed the opposition by 11.8 points per 100 possessions in the last five minutes of games with margins of five points or fewer between the participants. To that end, it certainly helps the Mavs to have a superstar as clutch as Dirk Nowitzki, 35 years and all, on their side.
Whether the Mavs can get the stops they need when they need them is the bigger concern here. Their lack of size and reliable rim protection up front, combined with the porous backcourt of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, has left them susceptible to late-game runs. As far as postseason participants are concerned, none have allowed more points per 100 fourth-quarter possessions this season than the Mavs (107.4).
Hence, a series between Dallas and OKC could look a lot like the one from two years ago, when the Mavs lost by six points or fewer in three of their four games against the then-Finals-bound Thunder. If the Mavs managed to move up to No. 6 in the West by season's end, they could put more of a jolt into a Clippers squad, assuming Dallas is at all able to curb its fourth-quarter futility.
Standing between the Mavs and a shot at the No. 7 seed in the West are the Memphis Grizzlies. These two will end the regular season against one another on Wednesday.
There could be plenty at stake in that game for the Grizz, who currently own the No. 8 seed. Thanks to their April 14 win in Phoenix, they'll have an opportunity to overtake the Mavs for the No. 7 spot in the standings.
Whichever seed the Grizzlies secure, they won't be frightened of any of their likely first-round opponents. They've won at least one postseason series against the Spurs, the Thunder and the Clippers within the last three years.
This isn't to say that Memphis is going to advance this time around. It's yet to conquer a series against OKC with Russell Westbrook or L.A. with Doc Rivers or San Antonio with a healthy core and a top-notch defense.
On the flip side, the Grizzlies have yet to oppose any of the West's top three in a series with the stable of shooters they've accumulated. Chances are, the Spurs would've had a much tougher time sweeping the Grizzlies in last year's Western Conference Finals had Memphis been able to make San Antonio pay for its paint-packing defensive schemes with the likes of Mike Miller and Courtney Lee firing away from three.
The Thunder and the Clippers, meanwhile, have always had problems containing the dynamic interior duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. L.A.'s front line, while young and talented, is exceedingly thin. OKC, meanwhile, is put at a disadvantage when Kendrick Perkins has to play significant minutes against bigger opponents.
Stylistically speaking, nobody—especially not fast-paced, free-flowing foes like San Antonio, OKC and L.A.—wants to grind out a seven-game series against a Grizzlies squad that plays at the league's slowest pace, with a defense that's been the West's best since Gasol returned from a knee injury three months ago.
Who else do you think has the best teams in either conference shaking in their boots?