Ranking Every 2014 NBA Playoff Team Still Alive
I'm not the first one to say it and I won't be the last: the 2014 NBA playoffs have been frickin' awesome!
Better yet, we're just a week-and-a-half into them, with another month-and-a-half or so still to go. It's a shame that the Chicago Bulls and the Charlotte Bobcats won't be around to see this postseason through, but eliminations are an inevitable part of the league's second season, and these two banged-up squads could certainly use the extra time off.
It's not as though these playoffs are lacking for juicy storylines and great games without them. Peel past the Donald Sterling controversy, and you'll find a postseason replete with overtime thrillers, miraculous game-winners and jaw-dropping performances, both good and bad.
The competition between the remaining 14 teams has been so close and so captivating as to make ranking the teams in any reliable order an almost futile task. Leave it to yours truly, though, to be foolhardy enough to try to figure out how they compare to one another and to arrange them accordingly.
Note: all changes shown in the rankings are in relation to each team's finish in our end-of-season power rankings.
14. Indiana Pacers
Apparently, the Indiana Pacers weren't prepared to leave their second-half collapse behind once the playoffs came around. After backing their way into the East's No. 1 seed, the Pacers find themselves down 3-1 to an Atlanta Hawks squad that, at 38-44, was fortunate just to extend its postseason streak to seven years.
Keep in mind, too, that these Pacers, with the same starting lineup and a significantly weaker bench, dispatched the Hawks in six games last spring. Since then, Atlanta has lost Josh Smith to free agency and Al Horford to another season-ending pectoral injury.
Not that Indy isn't without it's own apparent absentees. Roy Hibbert, once an All-Star and the early front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, has been practically unplayable in this series. With Hibbert struggling, the Pacers' defense, the NBA's best during the regular season, has allowed the Hawks to slash, kick and shoot to their heart's content.
As a result, Indy has fallen from a 33-7 juggernaut to a possible one-and-done afterthought amidst concerns about coaching, chemistry and toughness. Don't be surprised, then, if team executive Larry Bird makes some big changes this summer if the Pacers fail to advance, with head coach Frank Vogel and the mercurial Lance Stephenson chief among those most likely to go.
13. Houston Rockets
There are many ways to divvy up blame for the 3-2 hole in which the Houston Rockets currently find themselves.
Their crunch-time execution has been spotty, with James Harden and Jeremy Lin often struggling to make plays when the game hangs in the balance. Head coach Kevin McHale has been slow to react to Terry Stotts' moves. GM Daryl Morey's basketball utopia, in which three-point shots and drives to the rim are all that matter, has been turned upside down by LaMarcus Aldridge's shower of long twos and his own team's inability to generate good looks when it most needs them.
Frankly, plain old bad luck could be as big a culprit as any for the Rockets' predicament. After all, it's not as though Portland has taken Houston out behind the woodshed by any means: Three of the first four games in this series went to overtime, and the other (Game 2) was decided by just seven points.
In truth, the Rockets probably didn't expect to contend for a title in Year 1 of the Dwight Howard-James Harden partnership. Still, getting bounced in the first round would be an embarrassment for a team as talented as these Rockets and may well be grounds enough for McHale's termination at season's end.
12. Atlanta Hawks
It'd be easy to heap most (if not all) of the responsibility for the Atlanta Hawks' 3-2 first-round advantage on the Pacers' emergent problems. But such would overlook the extent to which the Hawks have dictated this series so far, thanks to a creative coach and a quirky roster.
Mike Budenholzer has done a masterful job of outwitting Indy's Frank Vogel from the jump. Atlanta's roster may not look like a gang of world-beaters, but every player in Budenholzer's employ can shoot, and that, in itself, has been enough to frustrate the Pacers' vaunted defense.
Roy Hibbert's been rendered useless by the threat of Pero Antic's shooting and Budenholzer's willingness to go small. Likewise, David West's been dragged away from the paint by the ever-improving Paul Millsap. Without Hibbert and West clogging the lane, the Hawks' quick guards (i.e. Jeff Teague, Lou Williams, Shelvin Mack) have managed to penetrate and kick out to Atlanta's marksmen at will.
As you might expect, then, the Hawks have been particularly prolific from beyond the arc (39.1 percent on 30.2 attempts) and at the free-throw line (26.8 attempts per game). Those advantages, along with just enough defensive effort to slow down Indy's anemic offense, now have the Hawks on the brink of becoming just the sixth eight-seed to ever advance in the NBA playoffs.
11. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets' hopes of pushing through the dilapidated Eastern Conference seemed to hinge on the scoring exploits of Joe Johnson. Through the first four games of this series, Johnson averaged 26.5 points on 63.3 percent shooting in Brooklyn's two wins and just 12.5 points on 45 percent shooting in the team's two losses. If not for Johnson's 30 points in Game 5, the Raptors might've coasted to a 3-2 series lead in much easier fashion than they did.
It's strange to think that Johnson could hold the Nets' fate in his big mitts. At 32, "Iso Joe" is already on the downswing of his career. His 15.8 points per game this season were the fewest he's averaged since 2002-03, his second season in the NBA.
Then again, Brooklyn's success or failure was always going to hinge on the performance of at least one player past his prime. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are both creeping toward retirement. Deron Williams's recent injury history and on-court inconsistency reads much more like a player five years his senior.
In that case, Johnson may be as likely a hero as any the Nets could've conjured up.
10. Toronto Raptors
Stardom has long been a strong possibility for DeMar DeRozan, dating back to his days as a high school stud in Compton. But never has that path to tapping his full potential been a quick or straightforward one for DeRozan. He flashed his tantalizing talent through his first three years as a pro before finally arriving as an All-Star in 2013-14, once Rudy Gay was traded away.
It shouldn't come as any surprise, then, that DeRozan's rise to playoff prominence wasn't immediate. He struggled in the Toronto Raptors' postseason opener, scoring just 14 points on 3-of-13 shooting in a 94-87 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
Luckily for the Raptors, DeRozan has since proven to be a quick study. He dropped 30 points apiece in Games 2 and 3, and sparked Toronto to victory with a game-high 24 points in Game 4.
Kyle Lowry may be the catalyst for this Raptors squad—as he was with 36 points and six assists in the Game 5 victory—but without DeRozan's scoring touch, Toronto would be hard-pressed to parlay its first playoff appearance since 2008 into something more than a few extra home games.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Speaking of old guys, how about these Dallas Mavericks? They managed to split the first four games of their series with the San Antonio Spurs—a result that would've been nigh on shocking had Dirk Nowitzki come up with a vintage performance or two.
But the Mavs weren't even that fortunate. Nowitzki failed to crack the 20-point barrier through the first four games, hitting just 38.5 percent of his shots therein.
How, then, has Dallas managed to hang around? A 20-point explosion from the 35-year-old Shawn Marion in Game 2 certainly helped. So, too, did buzzer-beater in Game 3 by the 37-year-old Vince Carter.
Dallas coach Rick Carlisle deserves a ton of credit for putting all of his players, aging vets and young(er) guns alike, in position to succeed thus far. But if the Mavs are going to answer Atlanta's eight-seed surprise with one of their own, they'll need Nowitzki to break through in a big way at least once before this series is through.
His 26 points in Game 5 weren't enough to upend the Spurs, however. An even more impressive output from the giant German may be all that stands between the Mavs and playoff elimination in Game 6.
8. Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors stood little chance of winning Game 5 once NBA commissioner Adam Silver brought the hammer down on Donald Sterling in response to the Los Angeles Clippers owner's racist remarks. The Clippers, fresh off a smackdown at the Warriors' hands in Game 4, would no longer be hindered by some perceived need for the players to make a statement. Instead, they'd be able to ditch the distraction and focus more intently on the task at hand.
That much was clear once the Warriors left the Staples Center with a 113-103 loss, in front of a crowd and against a team that'd been galvanized by the chaos and interim resolution of the days and hours prior.
Golden State, though, did well to hang around. The Dubs battled back from an early double-digit deficit and had their fair share of opportunities to steal another one on the road.
This, despite foul trouble for David Lee and Draymond Green, a poor night for Stephen Curry (17 points, eight turnovers) against the Clippers' trapping defense and, of course, the emotional edge owned by the home team.
All of which should give the Warriors reason to believe they can and will extend this strange, intriguing series to seven games with a Game 6 win in Oakland on Thursday.
7. Washington Wizards
Yeah, yeah. So the Washington Wizards needed just five games to oust a Chicago Bulls squad that might've struggled to score points in Pop-a-Shot, much less on an NBA court. Big whoop, right?
Well, actually, yes. This series victory was just the franchise's third in the 35 years since the then-Washington Bullets, led by Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in five games in the 1979 NBA Finals.
The fact that this success comes in the Wizards' first playoff appearance since 2008—before Gilbert Arenas' gun play sent this organization into a tailspin—only amps up its importance.
Better yet, this may be only the beginning for Washington. Assuming Atlanta finishes off Indy, the Wizards should have a relatively friendly path to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Even if they don't get there, the Wizards and their faithful have plenty of reason for optimism going forward. John Wall and Bradley Beal have both come of age in this postseason. Nene, who was a revelation against Chicago's vaunted defense, is under contract for another two seasons.
Depending on what the front office decides to do about Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza in free agency, the Wizards could head into the offseason as arguably the most promising young team in the East, if not the entire league.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant's shot 40 percent from the field. Russell Westbrook's shot even worse (34.4 percent) while turning the ball over 4.6 times a game. The Memphis Grizzlies seem to know what the Oklahoma City Thunder are trying to do on offense before the Thunder do.
And yet, OKC has been in every game, with each of the last four going to overtime.
That's as much a testament to the Thunder's talent as it is a condemnation of Scott Brooks' use of it. OKC's head coach has long come under fire for his employment of a predictable offense that all too often breaks down after a single action, at which point the team turns to Durant or Westbrook to save the day.
A quick exit from these playoffs could be enough to cost Brooks his job, just two years after he guided the Thunder to the NBA Finals. Brooks has done well to mold this young OKC squad into a perennial title contender since taking over for P.J. Carlesimo in 2008. It's probably time, though, for the Thunder to hand off the reins of the team to a more creative coach to finish the job that Brooks so ably started.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers appeared to be one of the weakest links in this year's playoff field once the regular season came to a close. They'd essentially treaded water since their scorching-hot start to the regular season, with a point differential (3.5 points per 100 possessions) and a defense (104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) that didn't compare favorably to their Western Conference competition. Portland's reliance on late-game heroics didn't do much to boost confidence, either.
As it happens, the Blazers' crunch-time success has come in plenty handy in the postseason, as has their ability to take care of the basketball. Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Mo Williams have all hit huge shots on Portland's behalf, while the Blazers as a whole have avoided many of the same late-game miscues that have cost the Houston Rockets in this series.
The Blazers would seem like relatively easy second-round pickings for the San Antonio Spurs, for whom concerns about coaching and execution are practically nonexistent. Then again, after seeing what Portland's done to put Houston on the brink of elimination, counting out the Blazers so soon might not be the smartest move.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies' current success against the Oklahoma City Thunder probably wouldn't be so surprising if not for the rash of injuries through which the former suffered this season. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Tony Allen all missed significant time in 2013-14, though they, unlike Quincy Pondexter, were fortunate to return to health in time for Memphis' postseason push.
Had these Grizzlies been whole for more of the campaign, they probably would've finished with anywhere between 55 and 60 wins. That would've been enough for the Grizzlies to snag a slice of home-court advantage, as opposed to having to sneak their way into the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the West.
Memphis' 3-2 edge against OKC in this series, and the closely contested nature of each of the last four games, is indicative of just how good the Grizz really are. Their defense is as stout as ever, and their offense, while still stodgy more often than not, can at least spread the floor thanks to the perimeter expertise of Courtney Lee and Mike Conley.
With the way Tony Allen's been frustrating Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Memphis doesn't need to pile up points to be successful. One more win at home on Thursday, and the Grizzlies can look ahead to a second-round rematch with the Los Angeles Clippers, whom they eliminated from last year's playoffs in the first round.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
As evident as the Los Angeles Clippers' emotional exhaustion and confusion was in their Game 4 loss at Golden State, their collective relief was just as obvious in their 113-103 win to take a 3-2 series lead in Game 5.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver's decision to punish Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist remarks by banning him from the league for life and fining him $2.5 million removed from the players and coaches the burden of having to address the matter publicly and allowed the play more freely.
"I thought Adam [Silver] set the tone as well for us today," Doc Rivers said at his postgame press conference.
And it showed. DeAndre Jordan, arguably L.A.'s most volatile asset, bounced back from a scoreless evening in Oakland to lead all participants with 25 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks on Tuesday night. Chris Paul (20 points, six rebounds, seven assists, five steals) spearheaded the Clippers' superb effort to shut down Stephen Curry, who managed just 17 points and turned the ball over nearly as many times (eight) as he shot it (10).
If momentum is, indeed, a thing, the Clippers would appear to have it on their side. They own the advantage in the series and won't have to concern themselves with the Sterling debacle now that the league office has taken the lead.
Winning in the Warriors' building in Game 6 will be no easy feat for L.A. But the Clippers are clearly the more talented and better coached of the two clubs. Now that they have a cause to rally behind, the Clips should find themselves back in the second round of the playoff before too long, with a clear eye toward championship contention thereafter.
2. San Antonio Spurs
I know, I was concerned about the San Antonio Spurs, too. How could anyone not be after the way the Mavs controlled most of Game 1, dominated in Game 2 and escaped Game 3 with a win after Vince Carter's crazy corner three to beat the buzzer?
I'll tell you how: because they're the Spurs. They've since responded by dominating Dallas in Game 4 and taking a 3-2 series lead in Game 5, behind 23 points from the previously quiet Tony Parker.
San Antonio still has plenty of work to do before it can even think about relaxing. Winning a playoff game in Big D is never a simple proposition.
Those of us watching, though, can rest easy knowing that the Spurs are still the Spurs, which is reason enough to trust that we'll see them back in the saddle in Round 2.
1. Miami Heat
If style points mattered in the NBA, the Miami Heat would still be battling the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round.
But they aren't, so neither are the two-time defending champs. The Heat took care of business against the soon-to-be-Hornets, sweeping Charlotte without completely dominating their initial postseason opponent in any one game.
That wouldn't matter to any team, but especially not the Heat. They've been through every conceivable situation before in three previous trips to the NBA Finals. It would've been nice to see Miami mangle Charlotte, sure, but the Heat and their weary heads will get plenty of time to rest before Round 2 all the same.
And, really, LeBron James dominated all the same. He averaged 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists and 2.3 steals while ensuring that Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heat's aging contingent is refreshed for the remainder of Miami's three-peat push.
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