Every year, there is at least one upset in the NBA Playoffs. Some years the upsets are less shocking (Utah over Los Angeles in 2016-17) than others (Cleveland over Golden State in 2015-16), but they are still a reminder that the better regular season record only nets a team one extra home game in a seven game series. Overlook the wrong team, and one will suffer the consequences.
Here are the match-ups based on current seeding, and the likelihood of a potential upsets:
1 – Boston vs. Philadelphia: Very Existant
Brad Stevens is currently coaching at the highest level in the NBA. There is no reason that a team that is missing arguably its best player for the whole season should be winning this many games. Boston is atop the East with a 34-12 record, and Gordon Hayward might return before the season’s end as well.
That being said, the Celtics don’t have anybody in their front court who can stop Joel Embiid. Embiid went off for 26 points, 16 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal in their last game, which was also a 10 point win for the 76ers without J.J. Redick. In general, Philadelphia is 15-6 in their last 21 games, and is looking very strong. If they can control the pace of the series, there is no reason they can’t win.
2 – Toronto Raptors vs. Miami Heat: Possibility Exists
Toronto is a different team this season. O.G. Anunoby has completely changed the dynamic of the small forward position. After an oft-injured DeMarre Carroll held the position the past few seasons, Anunoby has brought an element of youth, athleticism, and defense to the position. Even as the play of DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry has declined this season, the amazing play of the bench has carried the Raptors to an amazing +8.6 net rating. The Raptors have a Pythagorean 43-14 record, which is even better than their current 41-16 record to lead the East.
That being said, even when Toronto has had 56 win regular seasons, like they did in 2015-16, they will still struggle mightily against mediocre teams. They were taken to seven games by an Indiana Pacers team that didn’t have much else going for it besides Paul George‘s excellence. Lowry, Derozan, and the Raptors are hsistorical underperformers in the playoffs. Besides the Pacers series, they were also swept by an underdog Washington Wizards team in 2015, and beaten by an underdog Brooklyn Nets team in 2014.
Miami on the other hand, is a team that chronically over-performs in the playoffs. They didn’t make it last season, but had a competitive 2nd round series in 2016 despite not having Hassan Whiteside for the majority of the series. The Heat boast the 6th best defense in the league, and if Derozan and Lowry continue their annual playoff struggles this season, Miami will have the best player in the series: Hassan Whiteside – or even Goran Dragic if he plays at his career peak level.
3 – San Antonio Spurs vs. Denver Nuggets: The Spurs Should Feel Uncomfortable
People have doubted Gregg Popovich before. Same goes for Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the rest of the Spurs organization, and they all have proved the doubters wrong. This team is different. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are averaging half of what they did in their primes. Tim Duncan is no longer in the league.
The biggest thing is that Kawhi Leonard might be out for the rest of the season. Playoff basketball is a different animal, and teams without a 2nd player that can create their own shot rarely win a series. The Spurs’ 2nd leading scorer is Rudy Gay at 11.5 points per game, which is sad given how easy it has been for their 1st leading scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, to get shut down the last few postseasons.
Meanwhile, Denver is on the come-up. Even without a, when healthy, all-star level player in Paul Millsap, Denver has Nikola Jokic (16.9 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game), Gary Harris (17.5 points), and Jamal Murray (17.7 points since January) all playing unbelievable offensive basketball. Denver has the 6th best offense in the league, and is up there with the Warriors as best in the league when Nikola Jokic is on the floor. With a healthy Paul Millsap, I’d almost be surprised if the Spurs beat them without Kawhi Leonard.