This NBA postseason, it feels like there are only three teams playing for the title, the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Cleveland Cavaliers. With the Warriors’ record-breaking season, the Spurs’ continued success, and the Cavs’ clear status as favorites in the Eastern Conference, it’s easy to forget that there are actually 13 other teams technically still in contention for the game’s top prize.
The parity among those “other” playoff clubs is as clear as day. Just look at the middle of the Eastern Conference, where the teams that finished in third, fourth, fifth, and sixth place (respectively) finished with the same exact record (48-34). Out West, the bottom four teams in the playoff field finished within three games of each other. This minor separation between teams is reason to believe that this postseason will be wild.
With crazy things sure to happen when the playoffs begin on Saturday, we have three lower-seeded teams that are in a position to challenge the higher-seeds and pull off an upset (ranked by likelihood). Maybe it’s because we aren’t feeling bold, but the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs did not make our list of potential first-round shockers.
3. (7) Indiana Pacers over (2) Toronto Raptors
The Raptors enjoyed their best regular season in franchise history, winning 56 games and finishing second in the East. By all accounts, they should be the favorites to serve as the challenger to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, when you look at their playoff history as a franchise, you have to question their ability to even get out of round one.
Toronto has had seven playoff appearances (prior to this season) in their 21 seasons of existence and in all but one of those appearances, they were knocked in the first round. On three of those occasions, they were the higher-seeded team. Even though they have their best team in over a decade this season, Toronto must be ready for a serious challenge against the Indiana Pacers in this series.
The Pacers played decently well this season, finishing with a record of 45-37 a year after missing the postseason. A big reason to like their upset chances, though, comes in the form of Paul George, who rebounded from an injury-riddled 2014-15 campaign to score 23.1 points and grab seven rebounds per game this season. They also have a scoring threat in Monta Ellis, who has the ability to make life difficult on the Raptors in a game or two.
Toronto is the clear favorite in this series — winning three out of four meetings in the regular season — but the Pacers have enough to keep them honest. If Indiana can pull off an early upset in the first two games, uncertainty could creep into the Raptors’ heads and lead to another postseason letdown.
2. (5) Boston Celtics over (4) Atlanta Hawks
Can a five-seed defeating a four-seed be considered an upset? Maybe not by some measures, but technically speaking, five is lower than four, making an upset possible. When comparing the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks, the use of the word “upset” becomes even more questionable, as the two teams couldn’t have finished any closer to each other than they did this season.
Both the Celtics and the Hawks won exactly 48 games this season, but the Hawks got the slight edge thanks to tiebreakers to earn home-court advantage in round one. We think that’s the only advantage Atlanta will have in this series, however, as we see Boston taking this series in six games.
Even though the Hawks went 3-1 against the Celtics, Boston is the up-and-coming team that showed flashes of brilliance throughout the season. With a balanced roster led by the emerging Isaiah Thomas, they have the talent to reach the conference finals. Atlanta, on the other hand, struggled this season against every top team except the Celtics, which doesn’t translate to playoff success. In a slight upset, the Hawks’ season should end after just one playoff series.
1. (5) Portland Trailblazers over (4) Los Angeles Clippers
This matchup has more upset value than its Eastern Conference counterpart. The Clippers finished as the clear fourth-best team in the Western Conference, earning nine more wins than the fifth-place Trailblazers. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan give the Clips a decently fair chance at winning some games against one of the top teams in the West, but if they aren’t careful in round one, Portland is the type of club that could send them packing early.
Many expected the Blazers to fall apart this season after losing LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, but the team rallied to finish with a respectable 44 wins. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum each score 20-plus points per night, giving the team an explosive dynamic duo that can challenge the best teams in the league. Even though Portland dropped three of four games to LA this season, they are a high-scoring team that can get hot and win multiple games in a row (proven by their effort against Golden State earlier this season).
If the Clippers get ahead of themselves in this series and start looking ahead to a potential second-round battle against the Warriors, they would be making a mistake. The Blazers are playing with a chip on their shoulder and are ready to prove that they belong in the playoffs. Regardless of what happens, this could be the most entertaining series of the first round out West.