The NBA playoffs may be more effective than any other postseason system in American sports, if only because they usually tend to produce a champion that was the best team during the regular season. Some people say that makes them unexciting. Others argue it makes the league more of a meritocracy.
But either way, that doesn’t mean we don’t get any upsets. The first round often offers close, fun basketball, and usually, we’ll get at least one series that shocks even the most informed NBA fans.
This year, anything is in play, especially in the Eastern Conference. With a logjam from No. 3 to No. 6 before last night settled it, it’s certainly possible we could see a low seed head to the Conference Finals. And though the West appears set up to go chalk in round 1 (and probably round 2), there’s a kinda, sorta, possible, potential, probably-not-but-maybe upset looming.
So, let’s talk about it.
Portland Trail Blazers
No, the No. 5-seeded Blazers aren’t nearly as talented as the Clippers, who they’ll play in the first round. But sometimes, the playoffs aren’t about talent vs. talent. They’re about matchups. And Portland could be able to win some of the individual matchups against a superior opponent.
Coach Terry Stotts made some questionable decisions during the Blazers’ first-round series last year, but he was also dealing with an uncertain roster that had a slew of injuries. Stotts, though, hacks DeAndre Jordan as often as just about any other coach in the league (sometimes, it seems like he’s doing it solely to troll Doc Rivers), and if he’s able to get into Jordan’s head or get Rivers to take his center and defensive anchor off the court in crucial moments, that’s a huge win for Portland. The Clippers’ third big is Cole Aldrich, who had a strong close to the season but isn’t your typical third big man on a playoff team, and Rivers didn’t have a chance to go to many lineups with Blake Griffin at the 5 during the regular season.
Speaking of which, Griffin has struggled since returning to the Clippers on April 3 after a four-month absence with quad and hand injuries. Even of late, when he’s been racking up numbers, he hasn’t found his rhythm. That’s especially true on the defensive end, where he’s been hesitant rotating and working to thwart pick-and-roll situations. It takes a while to rediscover that basketball flow. Griffin was tremendous in last year’s postseason, but if he struggles by his standards, Jordan misses more minutes than L.A. would like, and Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum play over their heads (not out of the question), a well-coached Portland team has a chance to pull off an upset. It’s not the likely scenario, but it’s certainly a possibility.
One way to find teams that you think could go deep in the playoffs is to search for the most balanced ones. The quickest and simplest way to do that? Just skim who is top-10 on both sides of the ball.
Five teams ended the year inside the top 10 in both points per possession and points allowed per possession. Four of them are easy to guess: the Warriors (first in offense, fourth in defense), Spurs (third in O, first in D), Cavaliers (fourth, 10th) and Clippers (sixth, fifth). And who’s the mystery fifth team?
The Charlotte Hornets.
The Charlotte friggin’ Hornets, who are ninth on both ends of the floor.
Charlotte may be a No. 6 seed, but it wouldn’t be much of an upset for Steve Clifford’s team to beat Miami, considering the Heat, Celtics, Hawks and Hornets all finished with exactly 48 wins. But a second-round victory (over the anticipated Raptors) to go to the Conference Finals would be a surprise to most, even if it’s far from impossible given Toronto’s postseason struggles in recent years, the Hornets’ balance and their hot 18-6 finish to the season.
Obviously getting out of the first round would be no upset for a No. 3 seed. But, similar to the Hornets, the Heat are set up in a position to avoid the Cavaliers until the Conference Finals. And Miami could actually have a chance to dethrone King James in the East if it got that far.
The Heat offense has been lacking almost all season, but the team is 16-9 since acquiring Joe Johnson at the end of February and is actually fifth in the entire NBA in points per possession since that point. The Heat are going smaller, and they’re playing just a tick faster, even if they remain one of the NBA’s slower teams. Rookie Josh Richardson has picked up his play, as has Hassan Whiteside off the bench. The team simply looks like it has more life (discounting Wednesday night’s disquieting five-point third quarter in a stunning collapse to the Celtics).
The Heat have played some sub-par teams over this stretch. But if they get a surprise return from Chris Bosh before the Eastern Conference Finals, Erik Spoelstra could find a way to out-scheme rookie coach Tyronn Lue, and his veteran squad could follow by outplaying Cleveland. Don’t rule out a Heat run through the East.