NBA Teams That Can Actually Shock in the Playoffs
In most years, almost everyone is prepared for the NBA playoffs to unfold as expected. Best-of-seven sets are designed to limit surprises, and the series that don't go chalk are usually, in some way, predictable.
This season is different. Nothing about it is normal. Injuries coupled with the ramifications of COVID-19—truncated schedule, player absences, varying arena capacities—have turned the league's bigger-picture pecking order into something resembling a mystery box.
The standings matter because they have to, but we don't yet know if they're telltale. That opens the door for unexpected scenarios. And because we're suckers for happy endings, we'll interpret "shock" to mean "pleasantly surprising."
Lower-seeded teams with the juice to cobble together deeper-than-anticipated pushes will be given priority. But this isn't just for them. The Los Angeles Lakers potentially making the NBA Finals after potentially tumbling down to play-in territory is not among the biggest potential surprises.
More than ever, this is about mid-tier squads hitting their stride at the right time or could-be contenders overcoming key setbacks.
Including the Denver Nuggets is not an insult to Nikola Jokic's runaway MVP campaign. It is a nod to the importance of Jamal Murray, and how expectations will—and sort of should—be recalibrated in his absence.
Losing him to a torn left ACL puts a substantial damper on the Nuggets' ceiling. His is brand of basketball that explodes in value during the postseason. Denver doesn't have someone else who can attack downhill, set up the offense and hit ridiculously difficult from-scratch jumpers when things bog down. This says nothing of his telephathic synergy with Jokic.
Replacing elements of Murray's value through separate players is possible. That's still different from having the entire package rolled into one shot-making stud.
The void Murray leaves behind isn't the Nuggets' only hole, either. They are banged up at the most inopportune time. Will Barton and Monte Morris have missed time with hamstring injuries, and P.J. Dozier recently suffered what head coach Mike Malone deemed a "significant" right adductor strain.
Viewed through the lens of what they were around the trade deadline (a legit title contender), the Nuggets are noticeably weaker. As a result, it is much harder to envision them emerging from the Western Conference.
But not impossible.
Jokic is central to this calculus. He mitigates some of the need for a conventional crunch-time weapon by registering as a captain of clutch himself. DeMar DeRozan is the only player who has converted more buckets in the final two minutes of one-possession games, and he has some outside-in, face-up pizzazz within his arsenal.
Michael Porter Jr., meanwhile, arms Denver with another unique safety net. Other teams would kill to have a star-in-progress as insurance behind their actual star duo. And Porter has not disappointed since Murray's injury. He's averaging 25.1 points while downing 64.1 percent of his twos and 50 percent of his threes. Most of his baskets continue to come off assists, but the Nuggets are increasing his on-ball reps. His front-court touches have exploded, and he's using more time and dribbles per possession than before.
Surviving the West without Murray will be hell. It would've been hell anyway. The Nuggets have a top-seven offense and defense in his absence, with room to improve should they get healthier and if Aaron Gordon picks up his play. They aren't so much exponentially worse as they are different and higher-variance—a sleeping contender, perhaps, but still a contender.
Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry exists, and so, the Golden State Warriors are here.
It really is that simple. Golden State has a top-five defense anchored by a fully engaged Draymond Green, but Curry will be the impetus behind any collective bombshell. He alone ferries them into relevance, creating a ceiling that is not without limits but high enough to upset pretty much anyone in a best-of-seven set so long as he's playing out of this world.
Of note: Curry is playing out of this world.
Since last missing a game because of his bruised tailbone, he's averaging 37.8 points and 4.7 assists while nailing 46.1 percent of his triples on nearly 15 attempts per night. Those numbers are drunk. They are also, somehow, his normal.
Golden State's overall offense isn't as rosy. It ranks 24th in points scored per 100 possessions on the season and caps-lock implodes whenever Curry takes a seat. But the Warriors have outperformed the league's average offensive rating for the past month—no small feat knowing they still have to play 13 to 14 minutes every game without Steph on the court.
To what end they can throw the Western Conference off tilt is unknown. Emerging from the play-in doesn't really count. They're hovering inside "Win one, and you're in" territory.
Shaking up the first-round hierarchy is a more ambitious, and thus fitting, endgame. The Warriors are speeding toward a date with the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz. Predicting an upset would be a disservice to the bodies of work from the latter two. Utah and Phoenix own the league's two best records and have each handled their business against teams above .500.
Neither team is without its questions, though. The Suns lack postseason experience beyond Jae Crowder and Chris Paul and have not, for the most part, enjoyed the most reliable center rotation. The Jazz have seemingly inoculated themselves against an offensive collapse, but how do they guard him when Royce O'Neale is catching a breather? Or if chasing him off the three-point line gives him a runway to the basket?
This logic isn't the strongest. It's not meant to be. Stephen Curry is illogical. By extension, the Warriors' threat level is, too.
It would be categorically foolish of anyone to dismiss the Miami Heat as a paper tiger—or something less—ahead of the postseason. They were in a similar position entering the Disney bubble last year, viewed at best as a fringe contender before earning an NBA Finals cameo.
This season is not last season. Let's make that clear. The Heat seemed to thrive more than most in a sequestered environment. Those circumstances no longer exist.
But the heart and soul of that roster does.
Jimmy Butler is having one of the quietest lock-for-All-NBA seasons in recent memory. Bam Adebayo hasn't gone anywhere. Duncan Robinson appears more mortal from beyond the arc, but he's still swishing nearly 41 percent of his triples on less-than-easy attempts.
The Heat, as a whole, are healthier—like, Butler-Goran Dragic-and-Tyler Herro-are-available-in-the-same-game healthy. It is not unreasonable to assume at least one of Dragic or Herro will be more impactful when the postseason rolls around. The former, in particular, was huge during last year's playoff run.
Whether Miami has the same swing potential without Victor Oladipo is debatable. He remains on the shelf with a right knee injury. The Heat will miss the idea of his off-the-dribble shot-making and rim pressure.
Except, that's the thing: Oladipo's value is very much theoretical. It has been for some time. Miami's postseason wagon was never hitched to his performance, at least not entirely. It has found ways to generate more efficient offense without him.
After ranking 23rd in points scored per 100 possessions and 20th in effective field-goal percentage through the end of March, the Heat are ninth and fourth, respectively, since April 1. Their three-point shooting has trended up, and they have been one of the league's most dangerous teams on the break.
That this offensive rise has coincided with a defensive slide is worth noting but it's not a deal-breaker. Miami's capacity to throw the East for a whirl is firmly intact—and will only get stronger if, as currently expected, the Heat aren't pitted against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round.
New York Knicks
"Shock and awe" is a relative concept. Upending expectations will entail different things for different teams. Yet, even with that wiggle room for interpretation, no squad's surprise factor is harder to determine than that of the New York Knicks.
Implying they can win a playoff series is at once fitting and doesn't seem like enough. They won't be first-round favorites if they end up facing the Nets or Milwaukee Bucks. They might even enter a best-of-seven set with the Atlanta Hawks as underdogs. But simply defaulting to "Their opponent will feel the series they play against them" is patronizing and undermines the Knicks' authenticity.
Tom Thibodeau has coached this team to a top-five defense that's getting better over time. New York is allowing three-pointers less frequently since the trade deadline and ultra-selective about who it allows to take them. RJ Barrett and Julius Randle have both improved at the less glamorous end, and Nerlens Noel will contest every dunk attempt until the end of time. Star wings seem like they can give this group problems, but Reggie Bullock has been up to the task all season.
Most of the Knicks' questions lie on offense, where they are an unspectacular 22nd in points scored per 100 possessions. They are 11th since April 1, during which time they are fourth in corner-three-point-attempt-rate and second overall in efficiency beyond the arc. But their success is largely predicated on Randle hitting unfathomably difficult step-back jumpers and throwing last-second passes after leaving his feet. Navigating his off-nights won't be easy.
Still, the Knicks have Barrett, Alec Burks and, most of all, Derrick Rose to add a dab of creation. Immanuel Quickley can check that box as well, assuming his minutes don't get slashed in the postseason. He pairs parking-lot range with a confident-looking floater and the bandwidth to blow-by back-pedaling defenders.
Matchups will invariably dictate how far the Knicks go. They are not a title contender and don't yet have the offensive firepower to put the heavyweights on upset alert. But any series they're in is bound to be just that: an actual series. They don't play like a team that'll get swept or lose in five. Whoever they face, whenever they face them, is in for a fight.
Portland Trail Blazers
Fielding one high-end postseason scorer is a luxury-and-a-half. Having two is ridiculous.
Potentially deploying three is a cheat code.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum need no elaborate justifications. Their shot-making has held up in the playoffs time and again. The Portland Trail Blazers can be a nuisance against anyone by riding their battle-tested detonations.
Carmelo Anthony and Norman Powell render them that much scarier. Melo remains a divisive figure, but he's still someone comfortable putting the ball on the floor and shooting above 40 percent from deep. Powell injects a downhill element into the offense, on top of his own three-point clip (34.9 percent with Portland but 41 percent for the season). He and Melo count for a third bankable offensive weapon—at the very least—between them.
Which is all well and good. But the Blazers are not considered a steppingstone because of their offense. That's on their defense. They rank 29th in points scored per 100 possessions, and the ship has sailed on demonstrative improvement.
Unless it actually hasn't.
Portland is 15th in points allowed per 100 possessions since Jusuf Nurkic rejoined the rotation at the end of March and 12th over the past month. That uptick includes minutes in which he's not on the floor. Lineups featuring him rank in the 81st percentile of defensive efficiency relative to all other five-man units that have logged at least 15 possessions.
It gets better, too. As Cleaning the Glass tweeted: "The second best defensive lineup in the league so far (minimum 500 possessions) belongs to the...Portland Trail Blazers. The Lillard-McCollum-Powell-[Robert] Covington-Nurkic combo has allowed just 102.9 points per 100 possessions so far this season, an incredibly low mark. In fact, the Covington-Nurkic frontcourt has allowed just 108.5 points per 100 possessions in over 1,400 possessions so far this year, a mark which is on par with the Knicks' fourth-ranked defense."
Isolated samples can be misleading and not indicative of the larger picture. But rotations shorten in the postseason. The Blazers, for their part, have already winnowed down their minutes distributions. What's happening at the top of the roster absolutely matters. Regardless of who they face in the first round, and even if they have to go through the play-in, a deep postseason push remains in play.