Bemoaned for its usual predictability, the 2014 NBA playoffs could produce some surprising results.
While the final two teams standing in the Eastern Conference were decided long ago, it might not be that simple in the seemingly predictable bracket. Fans have viewed a Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers Conference Finals matchup as a foregone conclusion ever since Derrick Rose went down, but a couple teams could interfere with that scenario.
The Chicago Bulls have proven pesky before without their star point guard, and the Brooklyn Nets have turned their season around after a dreadful start.
As rookie head coach Jason Kidd would say, the team has taken a complete 360 degree turn.
The San Antonio Spurs once again exceeded 60 victories while nobody was watching, but all eight Western Conference teams are capable of orchestrating a fruitful playoff run. The loser of Wednesday's night game between the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies will be the West's only playoff team to not finish with 50 victories.
The odds, courtesy of Odds Shark, still point heavily to a favorite winning the NBA title. That doesn't mean someone can't pull off an upset or two along the way.
|San Antonio Spurs||3-1|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||9-2|
|Los Angeles Clippers||8-1|
|Golden State Warriors||20-1|
|Portland Trail Blazers||40-1|
|No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks||Pacers|
|No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats||Heat|
|No. 3 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 6|
|No. 4 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 5 Brooklyn Nets||Nets|
|Pacers vs. Nets||Pacers|
|Heat vs. Raptors||Heat|
|Conference Finals - Pacers vs. Heat||Heat|
|No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies||Spurs|
|No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks||Thunder|
|No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors||Warriors|
|No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Portland Trailblazers||Rockets|
|Spurs vs. Rockets||Spurs|
|Thunder vs. Warriors||Thunder|
|Conference Finals - Spurs vs. Thunder||Spurs|
|NBA Finals - Heat vs. Spurs||Heat|
They're not supposed to keep winning without Rose. In fact, the front office probably would have preferred they lost and netted an illustrious lottery pick. It's doubtful they traded Luol Deng with hopes of improving the squad's postseason pursuits.
Yet here the Bulls are, having wrapped up home-court advantage in the first round with the No. 3 seed still in play. Although they split four games with the Heat this season, staying at No. 4 would provide them an easier second-round bout against the slumping Pacers but a tougher first-round game with the Nets.
No matter whom they play, the Bulls are going to be a thorn in their opponent's back. Led by the league's second-best defense behind Indiana in terms of points per possessions, Tom Thibodeau's team doesn't take anything for granted. Without the typical star talent of a top squad, they know they can't.
But despite all the feel-good lines about teamwork and perseverance, the Bulls have Joakim Noah to thank for again defying the odds and remaining productive without Rose. The unconventional center is averaging a double-double (12.6 points, 11.2 rebounds) while also leading the team with 5.4 assists.
Centers usually aren't also the team's best ball distributors, but Noah is one of a kind, propelling his team on both ends of the court. Per NBA.com's Twitter page, he has especially stepped up during the final months of the season.
Even though they're limited offensively, nobody wants to face the Bulls in the playoffs.
For all their lavish spending and future-shattering maneuvering, the Nets will again find themselves in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup, potentially again against the Bulls. They've compiled less wins than last season (49) and are one of three playoff teams (Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks) with a negative point differential.
When are the positive words coming?
The Nets entered 2014 at 10-21, with Kidd's coaching career looking poised to get spilled out quicker than his soda. Since then, they are 34-15, happily stumbling on success by playing Paul Pierce at power forward, a move necessitated by Brook Lopez's absence.
According to NBA.com, the lengthy lineup of Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett has yielded a plus-3.4 point differential per game. Their original starting lineup, with Lopez swapped for Livingston and everyone but Williams sliding down, netted a minus-1.4 margin.
Last year, they fell apart against the hungrier, injury-riddled Bulls. Their defeated attitude led the organization to acquire veterans Garnett and Pierce from the Boston Celtics. Former Net Buck Williams told the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence they'll keep the team in line this postseason.
No question, (Kevin) Garnett and (Paul) Pierce are not going to let those guys implode this year. That leadership is something they didn’t have last year. They’ve got a lot of guys who are battle-tested. Going into the playoffs, you hate to face a team with that kind of experience.
Don't make too much of Brooklyn sweeping Miami, as three of those victories were each obtained by one point. That does, however, at least show that the Nets could give anyone a tough series.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are pretty good for a No. 6 seed or lower.
Their 4.8 average point differential ranks fifth in the NBA. According to Basketball-Reference, they rank 12th with a 107.5 offensive rating and fourth with 102.5 points allowed per 100 possessions.
So they're more than a flashy group of dynamic shooters led by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They're a legit basketball team who can take out their opening-round opponent on the road.
Their playoff chances, however, took a hit with the news that center Andrew Bogut will miss the playoffs with a rib fracture, according to Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears.
Bogut, who averaged 10.0 rebounds a game while effectively guarding the paint, tried to lighten the damp mood in Spears' report, saying, "I'm going to dedicate the summer to learning how to play while avoiding contact at all costs, I guess – moving out of the way, not taking charges and not trying to block shots."
Winning without their center won't be easy, but it's possible. Golden State's starting five has dominated all season, earning a plus-238 total point differential according to 82games.com. While they falter with lineups utilizing Harrison Barnes at small forward off the bench, they remain strong with a smaller unit.
With Lee at center and Barnes at power forward along with Curry, Thompson and Andre Iguodala, they hold a plus-57 scoring margin. With Draymond Green at the 4 instead of Barnes, the margin jumps to plus-77 while allowing just 92 points per 100 possessions.
Like Kidd in Brooklyn, Mark Jackson can succeed without his starting center if employing the right lineups. Bogut's injury could open the door for Green to shine with more playing time, and that Curry fellow still has a knack for putting the ball in the basket.