The NBA playoffs, uniquely among American professional sports’ postseasons, are dominated by the juggernauts.
Before the Seattle Seahawks beat the Denver Broncos for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in February, the NFL’s last three champions had won 10 or fewer games in the preceding regular season. The NHL playoffs are famously a crapshoot—to have a shot at the Stanley Cup, a team just needs to get in and get hot. Major League Baseball’s story is similar: Only four times since 1995 has the team with the best record in baseball won the World Series.
But the NBA is a different animal.
In the last 30 years, arguably the biggest surprise winner of the Larry O’Brien Trophy was the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, a team that won 57 games and claimed the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. The 1995 Houston Rockets did win the NBA title after running up only a 47-35 record in the regular season and claiming the West’s No. 6 seed, but Hakeem Olajuwon and company were the defending champs.
According to ABC News, you have to go all the way back to 1978 to find an NBA Finals that didn’t involve a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. But, while it’s early, something about this postseason feels different.
For starters, the juggernauts look a little less juggernaut-y than usual.
Take the Miami Heat.
The twice-defending champions and, if oddsshark.com is to be believed, current favorites, look enervated. The defense is a few ticks off where it has been in postseasons past. According to ESPN, Miami finished outside of the top 10 in defensive efficiency for the first time since LeBron James arrived.
The supporting cast is the weakest it’s been in several seasons. The three-point shot isn’t dropping. Dwyane Wade is ostensibly in decline. And LeBron, after playing 67 postseason games the last three years—plus suiting up for Team USA in the 2012 Olympics—logged the eighth-most minutes in the NBA this season. This is an exhausted group.
And it’s the apparent vulnerability of the Heat and the other teams at the top of the NBA’s hierarchy that might have nudged the door ajar, just so, for a dark horse to slip through and make a credible title run this season.
"There are 16 teams that have a chance to win it," Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks told ABC News before his team found itself locked in a suddenly competitive series with the Memphis Grizzlies.
If you're in the playoffs, you have a chance. There are some good teams. Any team can beat each other. The West is deep. There are two teams that are really good that didn't make it and had great years. It's definitely open. There's a lot of good basketball teams that are fighting for the championship.
The Brooklyn Nets are one such team.
After struggling through the season’s first few months, the most expensive roster in NBA history turned things on in January. Despite a late season mini-tank designed to arrange a first-round matchup with the Toronto Raptors, the Nets ripped off a 20-11 record after the All-Star break and went an incredible 33-13 between New Year's Day and April 8—a 59-win pace that, if extended over the course of a season, would have given the Nets the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed by a comfortable margin.
Brooklyn also seems a natural upset threat for a slightly wonkier reason. Two of the more common ways to introduce more variance—i.e., a greater chance of an unlikely outcome; like, say, the Nets beating the Heat in the playoffs—into an NBA game are a slowed-down pace and a lot of three-point shots.
The relationship between three-point shooting and variance is obvious—threes go in less frequently than two-point shots but are worth more when they do—but pace is slightly less so. Think of it this way: A faster pace means more possessions, which means more chances for a better team to show that they’re better, which in turn means a reduced chance of an upset.
Back to Brooklyn. The Nets were not only 25th in the NBA in pace during the regular season, according to ESPN, but since January 1 they finished first in the Association in the percentage of their points which came from three-point shots, per NBA.com.
The Nets love to slow things down and fire away from the three-point line. Mathematically speaking, they’re a perfect upset threat.
The Golden State Warriors also seem to have the numbers on their side. Golden State finished third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, per ESPN, holding opponents to just 99.9 points per 100 possessions.
According to Kevin Pelton of ESPN Insider (subscription required), this matters. In assessing the factors that were most predictive of playoff upsets, Pelton found that strong defense was at the top of the list.
While the makeup of a Goliath doesn't seem to matter, defensive-minded Davids have been more likely to knock off higher seeds. The three best defenses relative to league average without home-court advantage (the 2012 Boston Celtics, 2013 Memphis Grizzlies and 2012 Philadelphia 76ers) all won their first series, while the worst 14 defenses were all eliminated.
Granted, as Pelton pointed out, the Warriors will likely be without center Andrew Bogut for the entirety of the playoffs. While the team has another elite defender in Andre Iguodala, Bogut’s absence figures to be felt. According to Basketball-Reference, Warriors opponents scored an extra 3.1 points per 100 possessions when Bogut was on the bench in 2013-14.
But while the Warriors are stymied by a subtraction, the Memphis Grizzlies have been bolstered by a huge addition: Marc Gasol.
With Gasol out of the lineup, a fate the Grizz had to endure on 23 separate occasions this season while the center was recovering from knee and ankle injuries, Memphis was a mediocre 10-13. With its linchpin, the team ripped off a 40-19 record—a mark that, if prorated over a full season, would have given the Grizzlies home-court advantage in the rugged West.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor, this is a “veteran team hitting their stride at exactly the right time.”
Since center Marc Gasol came back in January from a knee injury that sidelined him for seven weeks, Memphis is 33-13, which is a game better than OKC's record over the same span.
Memphis won’t be relying on just Gasol to get by the Thunder in the first round. According to Grantland’s Zach Lowe, in Tony Allen, the Grizzlies also have a perfect Durant stopper.
“Durant shot 36 percent while guarded by Allen, and 57 percent against everyone else, per ESPN’s internal tracking,” Lowe wrote on Tuesday, in the midst of a paean to Allen’s suffocating defense.
It won’t be an easy road to the title for Memphis. If the Grizzlies can get past the Thunder—a herculean task in itself, albeit one they accomplished in five games in last season’s playoffs—they would have to face the winner of the Warriors and Clippers in the second round before a likely conference finals rematch against San Antonio and a slugfest against the Eastern Conference champion.
But Memphis, for a No. 7 seed, seems unusually well-equipped for such a run.
"Basically it's just going to be a slugfest," Allen told ESPN after a 111-105 Game 2 victory. "We're going to pound it. They're going to run it. Whoever can come up with the most stops pretty much wins the game."
The guard was talking about the Thunder series, but he may well have been detailing the Grizzlies postseason blueprint.
In Game 2 alone, Memphis saw a late lead slip away, in part due to a four-point Kevin Durant play that has to be seen to be believed. But the Grizzlies battled back, ultimately winning in overtime.
Underdog or not, it’s hard to bet against a team that can take a punch like that.