The NBA Playoffs never fail to surprise us. Although it feels like some years the heavy favorites are destined to win, the NBA will occasionally surprise us.
And while this year it seems that the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors will get a third-straight tile, you just never know. Just look back at some of the great basketball surprises in NBA history.
There was the 2004 NBA Finals when the ‘superstar-less’ Detriot Pistons shocked the world, beating the stacked Los Anegles Lakes. Similarly, in the 2011 Finals, Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat lost against Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
While those three familiar names will sadly not be in the postseason this year, that doesn’t mean you should tune out. There are four teams that I believe have a legitimate shot at winning their first-round matchups against their higher-seeded opponents.
Here are the four teams that I think can make some noise and shake up the postseason picture:
(7) Orlando Magic
The fact that the Orlando Magic made the playoffs was a shock to many people. Very few pundits thought that Nikola Vucevic would become an All-Star center in his contract year. Perhaps it was the arrival for head coach Steve Clifford that elevated his play. Regardless, Vucevic surprised many by averaging 20.8 points 12 rebounds, and he will definitely have All-NBA considerations.
Vucevic’s rise has given way for the Magic role players. They have three other players that average over 15 points in Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Terrance Ross. Alongside solid point guard play from D.J. Augustine, Orlando has been a menace in the Eastern Conference all season.
The Magic face off against Kawhi Leonard and the second-seeded Toronto Raptors. While the Raptors have been a strong force in the East all year, they are going into the playoffs slightly shorthanded. Guard O.J. Anunoby will miss two weeks following an emergency addemdectomy. This recent new will test the Raptors depth against Orlando.
Even in his absence, the biggest problem the Raptors will have to deal with is Vucevic. If Marc Gasol is on him, the Magic will have a big advantage in the paint. Luckily, Toronto also has Serge Ibaka to back him up. Ibaka has to play stellar defense against Vucevic if the Raptors want to stop the Magic.
Meanwhile, Gordon and Ross will have the tough task of trying to stop Kawhi. If those two can limit Leonard throughout the series, Orlando will have a great chance at an upset. The Magic are one of the best defensive teams in the league, ranking in the top 10 in opponents point per game and defensive rating.
They will have to use a combination of excellent team defense and playing through Vucevic to win against the heavily favored Raptors. If they got through that series, they’d face either the Philadephia 76ers or the Brooklyn Nets. With Vucevic as a big factor, who knows how far the Magic will go.
(6) Brooklyn Nets
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Nets. After trading away all their draft pick for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, they were forced to scrap together through trades and smart free-agent signings.
The Nets were able to do both and became surprisingly competitive. They traded for All-Star D’Angelo Russell and three-point percentage leader Joe Harris. They signed key players like Spencer Dinwiddie, Ed Davis and veteran Jared Dudley. Then, they used their draft picks to get Caris Lavert, Rodonis Kurucs and Jarrett Allen.
With a good mix of young talent and veteran leadership, Brooklyn was able to remain competitive in a tougher East. Russell emerged as the leader the Lakers never thought he’d be, averaging career highs with 21.1 points and 7 assists a game. He is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player and proved that he can indeed lead a team to victory. His clutch shooting and extraordinary athletic plays kept the Nets in many close games.
Brooklyn will face off against the third-seeded Sixers, who may be without All-NBA center Joel Emiid for a Game 1. In his possible absence, Philadelphia will have to rely on Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to carry the load. While all three can, it is still uncertain how their new-found chemistry will pan out in the playoff; Butler and Harris only played half the season with Philly.
The Nets will have to hope that Russell can continue his magical season and step his play up even more in the postseason. If the Brooklyn has one clear advantage, it’s shooting the three ball. They have the length and size to be a disruptor against the Sixers, and will have a shot to shock the NBA by making the second round.
(6) Oklahoma City Thunder
Although a lot of people wouldn’t consider the Oklahoma City Thunder underdogs, the Thunder struggled in the second half of the season. They limped their way to the sixth seed, where they’ll play the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
This series will be a face-off of two amazing backcourt duos. Oklahoma City has Mr. Triple-Double Russell Westbrook and two-way superstar Paul George. The Trail Blazers have First-Team All-NBA star Damian Lillard and All-Star C.J. McCollum to counter them.
These four players all score over 20 points and will provide the majority of the offense for both teams. Where the difference will be felt is on the defensive end. Without center Jusuf Nurkic due to a leg fracture, Portland’s defense will have a tough time stopping George and Westbrook in the paint. This opens the door for Steven Adams to have a monster series and dominate down-low.
With Adams, Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel patrolling the paint, the Thunder will have the considerable advantage defensively. They also have backup point guard Dennis Shroder, who can come in and provide some late-inning relief. The Thunder are the more veteran team and have the two best players. This should give the Thunder the edge, even though they don’t have home-court.
If they got past the Trail Blazers, they’d face either the Denver Nuggets or the San Antonio Spurs. Either way, the road will go through the Warriors and the Thunder are one of the only teams equipped to put up a fight against them in a Western Conference Finals matchup.
(7) San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are the model franchise for consistency. They’ve made a record-tying 22nd straight playoff appearances, behind the legendary Gregg Popovich. Coach Pop was able to navigate a roster turnover that saw his franchise player, Kawhi Leonard, get traded away. In return though, the Spurs did get All-Star Demar DeRozan.
Along with LaMarcus Aldridge‘s All-Star play this season, Derozan has lifted the Spurs to yet another postseason. Aldridge’s 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds have been his best numbers since he got traded from Portland. With Derozan as the primary playmaker, the Spurs have been able to overcome Kawhi’s absence.
They have some valuable veterans and drafted players to boot. Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are all capable scorers. They also have players like Bryn Forbes, Derrick White and Davis Bertans that have shown tremendous growth into the Spurs system. Forbes is the starting guard now, and White and Bertans provide unmatched athleticism from the bench.
The Spurs will face the Nuggets, who have the second seed. They’re led by superstar center Nikola Jokic and a young nucelus to back. Although players like Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jamal Murray have had career years, they have no playoff experience. I think the experience factor will be the deciding one, as the Spurs can beat the Nuggets and cause some havoc in the West in the later rounds.