The NBA playoff field is set, and yet it seems as unsettled as any season in recent memory. An upset in every Eastern Conference series isn’t out of the question, and the West isn’t so different. The following is an examination of how likely each series is to end in upheaval, ranked from crazy to realistic.
Strongly crazy: No. 7 San Antonio Spurs (47-35) over No. 2 Golden State Warriors (58-24).
Golden State has ruled out superstar Stephen Curry (sprained left MCL) for the first round, and San Antonio has not ruled out two-way menace Kawhi Leonard (right quadriceps tendinopathy), which on paper seems like the sort of crazy upset recipe that would have Guy Fieri conflicted as both a Warriors fan and lover of mind-blowing flavor concoctions. San Antonio was handing it to Golden State in Game 1 of last year’s Western Conference finals when both perennial MVP candidates were healthy — until Leonard busted his ankle. We’ve seen the two-time Defensive Player of the Year in nine games since.
It would be very Spurs-ian for Leonard to walk into practice on the eve of the playoffs, shrug off questions about the rumored divide between the franchise player and the organization of the century, and inform us in his signature monotone, “Pop just wanted me rested for the playoffs.” Even if that happens, and even if LaMarcus Aldridge has been an MVP candidate himself in San Antonio this season, it’s hard to imagine Leonard being Possibly The Best Two-Way Player In The Game Kawhi after sitting out so long, and the Warriors still have Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Somewhat crazy: No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35) over No. 1 Houston Rockets (65-17).
Houston has been a well-oiled machine all season, finishing 42-3 in games featuring future Hall of Fame floor generals James Harden and Chris Paul and uber-athletic roll man Clint Capela. The Rockets score 118.1 points per 100 possessions when those three are on the floor, which seems quite good. And they’re actually better in four lopsided wins over Minnesota by an average of 16 points this season. Houston’s offense is historic, and the Timberwolves’ defense is, to put it nicely, below average.
Those woods seem awfully dense for Minny to machete a path to four wins in a seven-game series. Here’s that roadmap, though: Harden and Paul succumb to the playoff pressure for the umpteenth time, Houston’s loss of defensive stalwart Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is more important than we initially imagined, young Minnesota studs Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins reach another level in their playoff debuts, and Jimmy Butler is the best two-way player on the floor. Crazy, right?
Moderately crazy: No. 8 Washington Wizards (43-39) over No. 1 Toronto Raptors (59-23).
This might not have even been an upset if these two teams met a year ago, when Washington and Toronto jockeyed for the East’s third and fourth seeds. Both rosters look fairly similar this season, but their performances have been anything but. The Raptors play a more freewheeling style, and just about everyone on the roster has improved year over year — two reasons coach Dwane Casey is a Coach of the Year favorite. Those and the 59 victories his team posted. Only the Rockets and Warriors own a better net rating than Toronto’s plus-7.6 points per 100 possessions — and not by much.
Meanwhile, the Wizards’ net rating is barely in the black, because the same-old issues have them stuck in reverse. There’s a constant tug-of-war between John Wall’s ball dominance and the rest of the roster’s preference to play in motion, and Washington’s bench is light-years behind Toronto’s depth. Yet, Wall and Bradley Beal can match Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan shot for shot, Otto Porter might be a better version than each of Toronto’s versatile swingmen, and Markieff Morris has the requisite crazy necessary to pull off an upset like this. Plus, there’s the Raptors’ playoff history, a long line of expectations not met that’s only been reinforced by a rough final month of the regular season.
Not crazy: No. 6 Miami Heat (44-38) over No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers (52-30).
The Sixers have been incredible, winning 16 straight to close out the regular season without the services of Joel Embiid, a devastating force on both ends of the floor capable of catapulting this roster from a surprising three seed to an East favorite. Embiid also has a broken face. It’s “unlikely but still a chance” he plays in Game 1, and how well he responds to wearing a mask — both in terms of comfort and aggressiveness — will determine how not crazy an upset would be. We have yet to see him meet the demands that the playoffs ask of a star, and the same goes for Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons, who will for the first time face a team scheming a series around his inability to shoot.
Miami has Erik Spoelstra. If there are weaknesses to exploit, Miami’s coach will find them. The Heat may not be able to match Philadelphia’s starpower, but they have a roster full of never-say-die dudes, all of whom can go off on any given night. Is it out of the question there’s a Kelly Olynyk Game, a James Johnson Game and a Dwyane Wade Game, and now you’re in a Game 7? The Heat can throw a handful of wings at Simmons defensively, and Hassan Whiteside wants nothing more than to beat Embiid, the man who once dubbed him “BBQ Chicken,” which could work out one of two ways for Miami. These two teams split their season series, and all four games came down to the final minute.
Not realistic: No. 5 Indiana Pacers (48-34) over No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32).
On the one hand, Indiana beat Cleveland three out of the four times they played this season. Victor Oladipo made the leap from What if this guy put it all together? to Oh my God he put it all together! The dude is a bona fide star, arguably the league’s most underrated and certainly its most improved. He’s changed the course of a season for a team that has far exceeded expectations. Underestimate the Pacers at your own peril, a lesson the defensively challenged Cavaliers never learned all season.
On the other hand, the Cavaliers have LeBron James, a basketball immortal who hasn’t lost a first-round game since the 17th century. No matter how porous their defense may be at every other position, LeBron will be the best player on the floor, capable of 40-point triple-doubles that raise the ceiling of everyone around him and tear the rug out from underneath anyone playing against him.
Moderately realistic: No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans (48-34) over No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers (49-33).
It does seem important to have the best player in the series, and New Orleans has that. With all due respect to Portland’s Damian Lillard, the Pelicans boast Anthony Davis, who is averaging 30 points, 12 rebounds and five combined blocks/steals since All-Star teammate DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles in late January. Davis should finish top-three in both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting, and he will be a matchup nightmare for Blazers bigs. His supporting cast has never been great, but Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic have been good for long stretches, and Playoff Rondo is always lurking.
That said, Lillard is a top-five MVP candidate, too, and Blazers backcourt mate C.J. McCollum is probably the third-best player in the series. And Jusuf Nurkic is a big body who can make Davis work. Still, the absence of Moe Harkless (arthroscopic left knee surgery), at least for the start of the series, is a not-so-insignificant thing. Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu aren’t exactly models of consistency, either. This is not a cakewalk for the Blazers, who split the regular-season series with New Orleans, with and without Cousins. Their most recent meeting saw a 41-9-6 line with four blocks from Lillard and a 36-14-4 line with six blocks from Davis, so strap in for two proud prizefighters trading blows.
Somewhat realistic: No. 2 Boston Celtics (55-27) vs. No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks (44-38).
This one needs almost no explanation. The Celtics are without Kyrie Irving, who underwent season-ending knee surgery six months after All-Star teammate Gordon Hayward had season-ending ankle surgery. They also lost unheralded reserve big man Daniel Theis (torn left meniscus) for the season, and bench backbone Marcus Smart (thumb surgery) has all but been ruled out for the first six games of this series. That leaves Al Horford and a hodgepodge of good-but-not-great (yet) contributors. Boston is relying heavily on Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris, both of whom are wildly inconsistent, as well as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, a pair of twenty-somethings who can both show and no-show.
On the other side, there is Giannis Antetokounmpo, another MVP candidate for whom the Celtics (and just about everyone else) have no answer. Boston benefits from boasting the NBA’s top defense and arguably its best coach against a Milwaukee team with huge questions in both respects. Still, the Bucks have talent. Khris Middleton is good, as are Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker. Malcolm Brogdon is back. And, again, Giannis was an absolute monster against Boston, averaging 33.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, five assists and 2.6 combined blocks/steals. If ever there were a series he could steal by himself, this is it.
Strongly realistic: No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder (48-34) vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz (48-34).
I’m not even sure this is an upset. Since getting his per-game minutes up over 30 again upon returning from a midseason bone bruise in his left knee, Defensive Player of the Year favorite Rudy Gobert has led the Jazz to a 29-6 record, better than anybody but the Rockets. Utah is allowing 96.5 points per 100 possessions in that span, better than any other team by more than three points. Donovan Mitchell will have you believe he is the Rookie of the Year, and his scoring prowess will have you believe more than that. The Jazz are a well-coached outfit with a rotation full of talented players who fit well together.
And, yet, Oklahoma City hasn’t lost to Utah since Oct. 21, when Russell Westbrook scored a season-low six points. The Thunder are top heavy, and the two captains at the helm — Westbrook and Paul George — are going to be problems for Utah. OKC may even be able to hide Carmelo Anthony defensively against a Jazz offense that can struggle. Steven Adams is no slouch, and Gobert will have to be mindful of attacking him offensively and leaving him defensively. Still, two of OKC’s three wins against Utah this season came when the Frenchmen was sidelined, and the Thunder will have to hand the Jazz as many losses in the next two weeks as they’ve suffered since February.
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