Most NBA playoff brackets are not made to be busted.
Superior teams usually prevail over the course of a seven-game series. Exhibit A: this year. The San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors aren't facing real playoff teams; the Portland Trail Blazers don't have enough star power to fend off the Los Angeles Clippers; and the Dallas Mavericks can only unseat the Oklahoma City Thunder if Kevin Durant continues vomiting career-worst shooting showings.
That leaves a very specific set of Eastern Conference teams ferrying the hopes and dreams of upset enthusiasts. These sleeper contestants may not end up winning their respective series, but they are the most likely to create a wrinkle inside an otherwise predictable postseason caste.
At first glance, the Boston Celtics shouldn't be an upset candidate. They are the Eastern Conference's No. 5 seed, playing the fourth-place Atlanta Hawks. These postseason matchups don't yield surprise winners, regardless of who emerges victorious—especially when participants share the same regular-season record.
Game 1 didn't do much, if anything, to soften that stance, with the Hawks barely piecing together a 102-101 victory. But Atlanta has been a sneaky tough opponent for Boston all year.
The Celtics dropped the regular-season series 3-1 and trailed by as many as 19 points in the opening tilt. It took a second-half blitz for them to put the pressure on the Hawks. And they still lost.
This 1-0 gap is made more harrowing by Boston's bruised bodies.
Avery Bradley isn't expected to return before the first round is over after suffering a hamstring injury, per Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com, while both Kelly Olynyk (shoulder) and Marcus Smart (finger) are banged up, according to the Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach.
Head coach Brad Stevens can't even displace the Hawks from their comfort zone with Boston's trademark five-out lineups. As Bret LaGree wrote for Hoopinion:
It's widely recognized going small helps the Celtics less against the Hawks than it does against most teams because the Hawks, since Tiago Splitter was lost for the season, already play 5 out all the time. Going small has less positive impact when Jae Crowder appears incapable of keeping Jeff Teague in front of him. Stevens can't even hide Isaiah Thomas on Kent Bazemore if Bazemore moves without the ball because Thomas will get caught ball-watching.
All the Celtics guards and wings (with the exception of the now, sadly absent, Avery Bradley) are drawn to the ball, leaving them susceptible to quick, constant, and sound ball and player movement. Which is understandable, given that I started this by talking about how they have to create transition opportunities to score consistently. Such is the stress of being a good team confronting a challenge directed squarely at what you believe makes you good.
Still, if there's any team deep enough to weather this invasion of injuries and tactical warts, it's the Celtics. Their bench ranked in the top five of offensive and defensive efficiency during the regular season, per HoopsStats.com; the San Antonio Spurs are the only other playoff squad that can say the same.
There is a "Steer into the skid" feeling when it comes to Boston's smaller lineups. Those combinations can give up a ton of offensive rebounds and don't pose as much upside without Bradley's shooting. But they create a boatload of mismatches, even against Atlanta, with their constant offensive probing.
And while the Celtics defense has been steadily slipping, dropping from the top 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions since March, it is far from inept.
More than 55 percent of the Hawks' looks were contested in Game 1. They just shot nearly 48 percent in those situations. They whiffed on a bunch of wide-open opportunities, but their second-half collapse, during which they went 15 of 41 from the field (36.6 percent), was more Celtics-induced than anything.
Generating consistent offense will continue to be a struggle for Boston. Isaiah Thomas' job becomes exponentially harder without Bradley flying around screens. Many of the team's best offensive lineups include him for a reason.
Defensively, though, the Celtics will survive—so much so that they might even prevail.
Even after suffering a 123-91 drubbing in Game 1, the Charlotte Hornets still rank as a worthy challenger for the Miami Heat. Their defense specifically was torched in a way that won't be sustainable.
Luol Deng exploded for 31 points on 11-of-13 shooting, and the Heat grabbed an offensive rebound on 40 percent of their misses. Miami, one of the worst three-point chucking teams in the league, also put down 50 percent of its triples, in addition to drilling more than 60 percent of its contested field-goal attempts.
There isn't anyone on Charlotte's roster who can slow down Hassan Whiteside within pick-and-rolls. He is basically indefensible when going downhill. Everything else is fixable.
The Hornets were the Association's best defensive rebounding team during the regular season while often running without a traditional big man. Their paint defense is better than what they showed Saturday night, and they will have more room to gamble as the series goes on and they, presumably, stop overplaying Whiteside inside the elbows. He is neither a threat to pass nor a polished post player. They should be able to focus more on derailing Miami's drives and off-ball cuts.
Charlotte is uniquely qualified to deploy spacey five-out lineups that draw Whiteside away from the rim and onto the perimeter, where he can be beaten on switches by three-point looks or off the dribble.
Nicolas Batum, who along with Kemba Walker put forth Charlotte's only respectable offensive outings in Game 1, is the key to unlocking that cheat code. Using him as a small-ball 4 lets Marvin Williams slide to center, away from Deng, at which point Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will have to weigh Whiteside's value as a rim protector against a surfeit of unfavorable individual matchups.
Steve Clifford, the Hornets' head honcho, didn't experiment with such arrangements in Game 1. To this point, he is more inclined to consider changes aimed at directly competing with Whiteside, per the Miami Herald's Ethan Skolnick:
This makes little sense when Charlotte won't be giving up much defensively by dictating pace and bombing more threes. The Heat already use Deng and Joe Johnson at the 4, and Williams ranked among the best regular-season rim protectors.
For the Hornets, going small will pay big dividends.
The Indiana Pacers earned their keep on the upset spectrum, even after falling to the Toronto Raptors in Game 2. They ripped home-court advantage from the Eastern Conference's second-best team and have set a defensive precedent that will be tough for Toronto to crack.
DeMar DeRozan (10-of-37) and Kyle Lowry (7-of-26) are combining to shoot 27 percent from the field, a collective slump that Indiana cannot count on lasting. Lowry in particular is struggling by his own hand; he couldn't buy a free throw in Game 1 (4-of-9) and is shooting 23.5 percent (4-of-17) on open and wide-open looks.
Paul George, however, has done an absolute number on DeRozan, defending him for long stretches at a time, almost completely removing him from the Raptors' offensive flow. Most of his shots have come when a defender is within four feet of his release, and the Pacers aren't giving him anything easy close to the hoop:
Raptors coach Dwane Casey didn't even try to force the issue with DeRozan during the fourth quarter of Game 2. He kept him pinned to bench. Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and a mixture of reserves and role players blew the game open, while DeRozan finished with 10 points, a new career postseason low.
This just isn't his series. The Raptors will win with a swarming defense and a strong paint presence to counteract the small-ball-leaning Pacers. And DeRozan cannot measurably impact a multi-game set trending in that direction.
Indiana should be on Super Easy Street after putting Toronto's offense, specifically DeRozan, on the ropes like this. But the team's own offense is a mess. George needs help. Badly.
Pacers players not named Paul George shot 38.2 percent (21-of-55) from the floor overall and 11.8 percent (2-of-17) from long range during their Game 2 letdown. So much of the offense is tethered to him making something out of nothing and drilling heavily contested shot attempts. If he doesn't get help from his supporting cast, like he did in Game 1, Indiana is toast.
Some of the damage could be mitigated by better rotations. As Eric Koreen of Sportsnet pointed out late in Game 2, Pacers coach Frank Vogel is voluntarily tempting disaster:
Three of Indiana's 10 most used lineups for this series don't feature any of Monta Ellis, George Hill or George. The Pacers went 11 minutes in Game 2 without all three on the floor, roughly half of which came prior to the fourth quarter, before garbage time.
That can't happen. The Pacers offense gets bogged down by the absence of passing as it is. They cannot make due without their three best shot creators, all at once, for an extended period of time if they're to pull off this upset.
Most Likely Successful Upset: Indiana Pacers
If not for Bradley's absence and Olynyk's debilitating shoulder injury, Boston would have Atlanta on the strongest possible upset alert. The Celtics are one of the scariest teams in the Eastern Conference at full strength and, seeding aside, could easily be seen as favorites under different circumstances.
But the Pacers have a better chance of dispatching the Raptors. They are healthier than the Celtics and, most importantly, have put the burden of victory squarely on Toronto's shoulders by seizing home-court advantage.
And the Pacers are a different squad at home. Their offense improves by a noticeable margin, while their defense stays true to its preferred form:
|Pacers at Home During Regular Season|
|Pacers...||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
Teams are typically better in their own arena, so this statistical anecdote won't change lives. But the Raptors offense takes a substantive dip on the road, meaning Games 3 and 4 should be ugly, grind-it-out affairs.
Just how the Pacers like them.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @danfavale.