Most Dangerous NBA Playoff Teams You're Not Thinking About
Never forget the cardinal rule leading into the NBA playoffs: Non-superpowers deserve some loving, too.
Most postseason-bound teams do not want for attention in the usual sense. They're known entities. But we all have the tendency to overlook squads when they're not considered legitimate title contenders. Even if they're given a puncher's chance of escaping the first round, they're little more than impressive footnotes unfit to upend the playoff picture.
Let's junk that prejudice in the name of unpredictability.
Yes, the NBA's postseason is set up for the best teams to advance. Best-of-seven series are not made for surprises. But the talent gap separating a majority of the Western Conference's playoff gaggle is so thin that expected outcomes almost don't exist, and there will, as always, be teams in the Eastern Conference that put up unanticipated resistance against their supposed superiors.
Just so we're clear, this list is built assuming the current postseason participants hold. Inexact seeding factors into the selection process, but we're not forecasting 11th-hour entries from the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings or Washington Wizards.
The 'Hard to Read, but Keep Them in Mind' Duo
The Pistons have cooled after a torrid start to March, but they retain the look and feel of a team that might figure things out just enough to throw the top of the Eastern Conference a first-round curveball—even in defeat.
Though March has not been kind to Blake Griffin's three-point shooting, he's playing the best basketball of his career and finally getting help. As FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring wrote at the end of February:
"After coming into the season showing off a jumper that wasn't quite game-ready, two-time All-Star Andre Drummond has looked better than ever simply by getting back to the basics near the rim. He's averaging more than 22 points and 17 boards over his past seven games and has found considerable success with a nifty little push shot from about 8 feet out. Beyond that, maddeningly inconsistent guard Reggie Jackson has been consistently good for a month now and is shooting a career-best 36 percent from deep."
Drummond is still defending like he'd revel in the opportunity to meet the Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers and be harder for the Milwaukee Bucks to play off the floor. Reggie Jackson is mostly hovering above solid ground.
A healthy Ish Smith goes a long way. Luke Kennard has a step-back jumper. Wayne Ellington's three-point touch has stabilized. Langston Galloway is up and down, but he's more of an offensive asset amid improved spacing. The new starting lineup is a pleasant defensive surprise.
The Pistons have also beaten the Raptors, a potential first-round opponent, three times in three attempts. They've been less fortunate against the Bucks and Sixers, going a combined 1-7. But with the offensive pizzazz they've shown since the end of January, they don't have the makings of an opening-round pushover.
Don't look now, but the Heat are finally—perhaps permanently—warming up.
They're 10-2 since the start of March with a first-place defense and top-three net rating. Small samples must be treated with care, but they're not playing above their heads. They're starting to hold serve at home. The offense is better but not fixed.
Goran Dragic and James Johnson live. Justise Winslow is chugging along. Kelly Olynyk and Dwyane Wade should slow down—as will the ragtag lineup to which Miami has turned most often during this stretch—but the recent surge comes while Josh Richardson is slumping at the offensive end.
Still, the Heat remain unreliable. They have maybe two players upon whom they can count to show up in the same capacity every night. But they've trafficked in late-season leaps over the past couple of years.
Give head coach Erik Spoelstra this version of the Heat—or one close to it—and things stand to get interesting no matter which Eastern Conference contender they face in the first round.
It doesn't matter who the Brooklyn Nets face in the first round. They're going to be a problematic out for anyone.
Brooklyn reinforced its position as the Eastern Conference's foremost party-crasher during Tuesday's come-from-behind victory over the Sacramento Kings. Led by a bonkers 27-point, four-assist fourth quarter from D'Angelo Russell—along with a clinic in defensive hustle and right-decision, right-time offense from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson—the Nets erased a 28-point deficit to earn the W.
One game isn't worth much in the grand scheme. But that victory is representative of everything for which the Nets stand. They are deeper than you think and smarter than advertised, and they will never stop fighting.
Regular-season depth can devolve into the postseason fallacy. Rotations shrink, and star power plays. The Nets' nine-to-11-man approach is more translatable because they no longer want for a conventional go-to option, which allows for a clear-cut pecking order.
Russell gives them that player. He isn't yet on the level of most playoff cornerstones, but he's a transcendent offensive lifeline. He's set to join Stephen Curry and James Harden as just the third player in league history to average more than 20 points, eight assists and three made triples per 36 minutes, and the improvement he's made as a leader, both from the bench and on the court, cannot be oversold.
Slow down Russell, and the Nets have other options. Spencer Dinwiddie is more comfortable entering attack mode than anyone on the roster, including his All-Star running mate. Only four players lean on isolation possessions for a larger share of their offensive touches, and three of them are Houston Rockets. And while Caris LeVert is a work in progress following his return from a dislocated right foot, he was Brooklyn's it guy before Russell went boom.
This cast does not measure up with the league's best. The Nets will square off with the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers or Toronto Raptors in the first round, and any one of them will be a tough pull. Brooklyn's most important players are light on postseason experience, and head coach Kenny Atkinson is still searching for a starting lineup that offers a decided edge.
And yet, the Nets are built to surprise. Their defense is susceptible to getting beat by off-ball cuts, but they allow the right kind of shots. Over 35 percent of their opponents' looks come away from the rim but inside the three-point line—the second-best mark in the league, behind only the Utah Jazz, per Cleaning the Glass. Don't underestimate the impacts of Jarrett Allen, DeMarre Carroll and, yes, Treveon Graham.
Nothing the Nets nor Russell do on offense offsets the absence of a top-20 player. But what they lack in established superstardom, they approximate with long-range volume. They are fifth in three-point attempt rate and have downed more than 15 treys on 18 occasions, trailing only the Bucks and Rockets. That brand of firepower is capable of bridging just about every talent deficit Brooklyn will face in the East.
Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury, a ruptured right quadriceps tendon, effectively removed the Indiana Pacers from the Eastern Conference's "Who can make the NBA Finals?" conversation. That remains fair.
Indiana will most likely face the Boston Celtics in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup. Catching the third-place Sixers is pretty much out of the question at this point, and the Pacers will be miles ahead of the scrap for sixth place even if they drop from fourth.
That first-round pull won't be a blessing. The Celtics are maddeningly inconsistent, but they've shown glimpses of superteam bandwidth when firing on all cylinders. Their logjam of shot creation goes from a jigsaw puzzle to a terrifying luxury in the postseason, and the Pacers offense will struggle to keep up.
Indiana is 23rd in points scored per 100 possessions since Oladipo's injury. Bojan Bogdanovic is an offensive whiz, and maybe Tyreke Evans perks up for more than one game at a time. Overall, the team still suffers from a dearth of from-scratch scoring.
Granted, manufacturing looks isn't the Pacers' style. They milk the post, move the ball and generally opt for production by committee. That won't fly in the playoffs. They'll need more shot creation or, at the very least, a larger commitment to getting out in transition and drawing fouls.
Still, writing off the Pacers as a mere first-round steppingstone is a mistake. They have enough competent depth to cobble together nice offensive stretches, and their defense remains among the best in the league. Their standing has fallen off a little bit without Oladipo—particularly in the half-court, per Cleaning the Glass—but they rank third overall on the season and have a host of players who can cause problems.
Myles Turner is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and has flashed the outside-in mobility to keep pace with more versatile bigs such as Al Horford. Thaddeus Young is a sleeper All-Defense pick and an across-the-board disruptor. The 10 players he's spent the most time chasing include Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Collins, Blake Griffin, Pascal Siakam and Ben Simmons.
Expecting the Pacers to make a deep playoff push is a fool's dream. It may take beating three of the Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors to survive the East. But anyone who plays the Pacers will feel them. They might even lose to them.
Los Angeles Clippers
Picking the Los Angeles Clippers gives off an air of futility when, as of now, they're scheduled to face the Golden State Warriors.
Counterargument: Who cares?
Since trading Tobias Harris, the Clippers are fourth in offensive efficiency with a league-average defense. They've cut down should-be contenders like the Boston Celtics (twice) and Oklahoma City Thunder and pulled out some admirable victories on the road. No team featured here has a better record away from home.
This doesn't seem right. It feels as if Los Angeles is operating on borrowed time—as if it's thriving through sheer luck. Teams aren't supposed to flip their best player for spare parts and emerge shinier.
Get used to it. The post-deadline Clippers aren't a mirage, in large part because they didn't actually deal their best player. Danilo Gallinari initially staked his claim to that honor and has since decided to own it. He grades out as a top-30 player based on his average rankings in 10 catch-all metrics compiled by Bleacher Report's Andrew Bailey.
So does Montrezl Harrell, for that matter. His rise has received less publicity as the season wears on, but he's no novelty. He's beefed up his rim protection and sustained his overall hustle. The Clippers are even running plays for him on the offensive end. He's shooting 50 percent on almost four post-ups per game.
Like pretty much every other team that makes this cut, the Clippers don't have the individual talent of the contenders through which they must go. It might not matter if they avoid the Warriors. They have guys who can go and get them a bucket.
Gallinari and Lou Williams conjure trips to the foul line in their sleep, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks more at home with the ball in his hands. (Note: The rookie is hitting 65.2 percent of his threes over the past 10 games.) Landry Shamet is dabbling in more pull-up artistry since coming over from Philly.
Los Angeles wants for a premier wing stopper, but the void falls short of dire. Patrick Beverley is once again a one-man wrecking crew, Ivica Zubac has added security around the rim and Gilgeous-Alexander is way ahead of the curve for a rookie. The new starting lineup is allowing just 100.5 points per 100 possessions.
Moral of the story: The Clippers are going to leave their mark on any team they play. Whether they get swept, push the series to seven games or pull off an upset, they're the consummate smack-you-in-the-face-again-and-again-and-again underdog. They might make an early exit, but they are not a steppingstone.
And all bets are off if they avoid Golden State in the first round.
San Antonio Spurs
Imagine being the Denver Nuggets, winning 53 to 56 games and ending a half-decade playoff drought as the No. 2 seed...only to face Gregg Popovich in Round 1.
Picture yourself as the Houston Rockets, navigating injuries galore, overcoming key (but apparently overblown) departures and clawing your way out of an early-season malaise to earn home-court advantage...only to pull the San Antonio Spurs in Round 1.
Put yourself in the shoes of the Oklahoma City Thunder or Portland Trail Blazers. You outperform expectations for much of the year and flirt with a top-three seed...only to meet San Antonio in Round 1.
Slowly, surely and quietly, the Spurs have grabbed hold of fifth place in the West. And with the league's fourth-easiest schedule through the closing kick, per Tankathon, they might even work their way to No. 4. (Third place is probably out of reach.)
San Antonio's nine-game winning streak has helped. Then again, seven of those matchups took place at home, and both road victories came against teams well below .500.
Winning in enemy environments remains a concern. The Spurs are near the bottom 10 in net rating away from home with as many losses as the Magic (22), and they've dropped their last seven games on the road against opponents above .500. But their recent rise is not a mirage.
For all the worry over their defensive decline, which is real, the Spurs offense has prospered despite an outmoded shot selection. They are seventh in points scored per 100 possessions for the year and are getting season-best stretches from LaMarcus Aldridge and Derrick White—with stellar outings from DeMar DeRozan, Bryn Forbes, Marco Belinelli and Rudy Gay—over their nine-game run of perfection.
Plus, the defense is showing signs of turning a corner. The Spurs are third in points allowed per 100 possessions during the winning streak, which has included clashes with a few top-shelf offenses. They continue to get busted up from three, but no team has done a better job protecting the rim during this stretch, per Cleaning the Glass.
Isolating snapshots of a season is a good way to get burned. Some of the Spurs' most-used lineups will be no-gos in the playoffs, and they're relying on more than a few contributors—Forbes, White, Jakob Poeltl—who don't have extensive postseason resumes.
But give Popovich a protracted look at the same team, and he'll deal. The Spurs have some small-ball combinations up their sleeves they've yet to truly test (Davis Bertans at the 5!), and the emergence of White has armed them with the swing-piece breakout they were hoping to get from Dejounte Murray.
DeRozan's playoff track record is worth mentioning, but San Antonio has positioned itself to leave a dent in the West's postseason bracket, so long as the Warriors don't wait in the first round.