Why these games matter for seven underrated NBA title contenders

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Last yr, a darkish horse contender pulled off consecutive upsets to win the NBA championship. Who may very well be this yr’s Raptors?

Friday night time’s motion featured three of these darkish horses: the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics.

Saturday’s games in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, will present us a handful extra:

Miami Heat vs. Denver Nuggets (1 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

New Orleans Pelicans vs. LA Clippers (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET)

Toronto Raptors vs. Los Angeles Lakers (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

We requested our consultants to interrupt down the main contenders exterior the large three — the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers. Here’s how these seven groups can break via in Orlando to make a shock look within the NBA Finals.

MORE: Three ways to beat the NBA’s top team


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI): 7%
FiveThirtyEight: 13%

How the Rockets might crash the NBA Finals
The predominant motive is a rested James Harden. He appeared very contemporary Friday, scoring 49 factors in 43 minutes throughout Houston’s opening seeding sport. When Harden performs that approach, the Rockets are an actual risk.

Over the previous 4 common seasons, Harden’s worst true taking pictures share is .598. In the playoffs, his finest mark over that span is .583. Naturally, all gamers change into much less environment friendly towards playoff defenses, however this impact has been pronounced for Harden. It’s unclear how a lot that has to do with Harden’s sport being simpler to cease with familiarity as in comparison with the impact of fatigue, however we’ll get a greater thought this season with Harden coming into the playoffs extra rested. If he is as dominant as he has been within the common season, the Rockets shall be exhausting to cease.

Why the Rockets will not make the Finals
Can Houston actually make it via three rounds with out encountering a crew able to exposing its small lineup? In specific, the Clippers seem like a suboptimal matchup for the Rockets given their capacity to match Houston perimeter participant for perimeter participant and lack of a conventional heart to play off the ground.

Given Houston’s earlier incarnation appeared incapable of a deep playoff run, it could be a mistake to recommend the Rockets will lose due to going small, however that attribute may in the end result in the crew’s demise.

What we’re watching most intently within the seeding games
The extent to which the Rockets can get Harden and Russell Westbrook going on the similar time. Westbrook’s surge with higher flooring spacing matched up with Harden’s sport slipping after an MVP-caliber begin to the season.

That’s in all probability not a coincidence. Basketball-Reference.com’s sport rating exhibits a constant inverse correlation between Harden’s success and Westbrook’s, with Westbrook’s sport rating dropping by a 3rd of some extent for every level Harden’s sport rating improves. Can coach Mike D’Antoni discover a strategy to get the most effective out of each MVPs on the similar time? Keeping his job may rely upon it.

Friday’s sport was encouraging in that regard, as Harden and Westbrook each topped 30 factors in the identical sport for solely the sixth time all season. — Kevin Pelton

MORE: Bubble buzz — Giannis’ MVP form; Blazers’ playoff push


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 12%
FiveThirtyEight:

How the Mavericks might crash the NBA Finals
The Mavs exploded for 149 factors in an extra time loss on their first night time again. But that was no shocker, as a result of Dallas has, statistically talking, the most effective offense in NBA historical past, averaging 115.9 factors per 100 possessions this season after Friday’s sport.

Luka Doncic, who posted a 28-13-10 triple double Friday, seems to have his early-season burst again after recovering from a twice-sprained ankle and different bumps and bruises. Kristaps Porzingis, now a full-time heart, is a significant matchup drawback who poured in 39 on Friday, one level wanting his profession excessive.

The Dallas offense been much more prolific with Seth Curry within the beginning lineup (119.9 offensive score in 131 minutes with that quintet). Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr., the 2 best, high-volume spot-up shooters within the league this season, profit from all the eye defenses should pay to the Mavs’ younger cornerstones. That potent offense makes Dallas harmful.

Why the Mavericks will not make the Finals
The Mavs have been completely depressing in crunch time this season, and that value them Friday’s huge sport towards Houston when Dallas placed on a blinding present for three quarters, constructed an enormous lead and fell flat within the fourth on the way in which to a deflating overtime loss.

That’s why the Mavs sit seventh within the standings regardless of having the third-best level differential (plus-5.9 per sport) within the Western Conference. The Mavs rank 28th in clutch web score (minus-17.9 factors per 100 possessions) primarily as a result of that traditionally elite offense has been horrible down the stretch of shut games.

It’s exhausting to fairly consider the younger Mavs will dramatically enhance that flaw beneath playoff strain towards elite competitors. Doncic has proved himself in high-stakes conditions with Real Madrid and the Slovenian nationwide crew, however this would be the first style of the NBA playoffs for Porzingis and him.

What we’re watching most intently within the seeding games
There are some scouts and crew executives across the league who’re skeptical that Porzingis could be the second-best participant on a respectable title contender. But he definitely appeared the half Friday night time, simply as he did within the six weeks earlier than the season was suspended, averaging 25.2 factors, 10.9 rebounds and a couple of.5 blocks in that span.

Porzingis and Doncic have made important strides in establishing rapport throughout their first season collectively, particularly since Porzingis shifted to heart, placing him in pick-and-rolls frequently. The Mavs consider Porzingis could be an elite two-way huge man. If they’re proper, Dallas ought to have an prolonged window as a contender. — Tim MacMahon

MORE: Doncic — ‘A lot to learn’ after tough loss to Rockets


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 11%
FiveThirtyEight: 19%

How the Celtics might crash the NBA Finals
Despite 2-for-18 taking pictures from Jayson Tatum on Friday, the Celtics held a fourth-quarter lead over Milwaukee and had been tied within the ultimate two minutes, an early demonstration of their capacity to compete for the East title in Florida.

Boston’s high six present the expertise and positionless versatility to match up with any crew’s six-man rotation, because of a number of scorers, playmakers and switch-friendly defenders. Tatum and Kemba Walker are stars, a dynamic one-two scoring punch — assuming Tatum polishes off the rust he confirmed Friday. Jaylen Brown‘s blossoming sport and Gordon Hayward‘s return to well being give the Celtics extra choices on each ends. Marcus Smart is likely one of the league’s hardest defenders, and Daniel Theis has been a revelation because the beginning heart. If the Celtics can get sufficient from these six throughout what guarantees to be an intense schedule, they will contend for the East crown.

Why the Celtics will not make the Finals
Boston’s top-end expertise is elite — however there is not a lot after it, which leaves this crew with little room for error. Walker’s balky knee is an issue if it continues to hassle him; he was restricted to 19 minutes in Friday’s sport. So, too, is the looming absence of Hayward throughout the playoffs as a result of impending start of his baby. When the Celtics have all of their items, they’re nearly as good as any crew. But take away any of these hyperlinks within the chain, and issues might rapidly collapse towards top-end opponents.

What we’re watching most intently within the seeding games
Who will step as much as help the top-line expertise? The seeding games shall be used as a ramp-up interval for Boston, which is fairly locked in to the third seed within the East. That means Brad Wanamaker, Romeo Langford, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III shall be battling for spots within the playoff rotation. If any of them can earn coach Brad Stevens’ belief, that shall be a boon to Boston’s possibilities of making a deep playoff run. — Tim Bontemps

Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 5%
FiveThirtyEight: 3%

How the Nuggets might crash the NBA Finals
Two phrases: Skinny Jokic. Aside from his inexplicably torpid begin to this season, I’ve all the time discovered the priority over Nikola Jokic‘s physique somewhat overwrought. But if getting in higher form throughout the NBA’s stoppage of play makes Jokic extra cell defensively, giving coach Michael Malone extra choices for defending pick-and-rolls with out the sort of aggressive coverages the Nuggets have favored (per Second Spectrum knowledge, solely the Chicago Bulls used both blitz or present protection extra steadily than Denver throughout the common season), it might make the Nuggets extra harmful.

Why the Nuggets will not make the Finals
They simply have not performed effectively sufficient this season. Denver’s plus-3.zero differential ranks sixth within the Western Conference, and I’m undecided the Nuggets can be on this group in the event that they had been sixth within the standings slightly than third. The solely crew since 1999 to make the NBA Finals with a differential as weak as this season’s Nuggets was the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers, and I do not suppose that crew — which had appeared within the three earlier Finals and performed in a weak Eastern Conference — is an inexpensive comparability.

What we’re watching most intently within the seeding games
Sadly, in all probability not “Point Bol Bol” now that Denver is at comparatively full power. So as an alternative I’ll be keeping track of the Nuggets’ different rookie, Michael Porter Jr. Presumably, a part of the logic behind buying and selling Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez was clearing extra enjoying time for Porter after he averaged 12.Three factors and 6.9 rebounds in 21.Four minutes per sport in January resulting from accidents. However, Porter’s minutes had been nonetheless restricted to 12.7 per sport when he returned from harm after the All-Star break. I’m curious whether or not he can earn extra minutes in these seeding games. — Pelton

MORE: Continuity Rankings — teams with an edge in Orlando


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 12%
FiveThirtyEight: 10%

How the Raptors might crash the NBA Finals
The Raptors’ expertise on the large stage — not solely having gained the NBA Finals final yr, but additionally beating a well-oiled Milwaukee machine to take action — should not be discounted. Though Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are out of the image, the Raptors nonetheless rated fourth in our latest NBA continuity rankings.

Any reigning champion that was on a virtually 60-win tempo and has the probably Coach of the Year in Nick Nurse — particularly a crew that is handled the ungodly variety of accidents Toronto has — ought to be seen as a contender, particularly now that the Raps will lastly be at full power.

Why the Raptors will not make the Finals
As great a participant as Pascal Siakam is (and he is a legit star), he is nonetheless rising into the position of a real No. 1 choice on offense. And not solely is Leonard now not obtainable to get huge buckets, he additionally made life tough on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Beyond that, Toronto constructed most of its spectacular report by beating up on subpar competitors (35-Four vs sub-.500 groups). So it is truthful to wonder if the Raptors — even at full power — have sufficient to place them over towards elite groups (11-14 vs. groups .500 or higher this season) in a playoff setting.

What we’re watching most intently within the seeding games
After all of the accidents Toronto has been via this season, how will the membership cope with having a full deck? Will Nurse tighten up his rotation? How will the gamers, after so many have taken on huge roles this season, cope with these modifications? Stability ought to assist issues. But now that the competitors has ratcheted up, with solely playoff-contending groups, maybe we should not assume that the Raptors will do much better than earlier than just because they’re wholesome now. — Chris Herring

MORE: Lowe’s picks for All-NBA, All-Defensive and All-Rookie


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 6%
FiveThirtyEight:

How the Jazz might crash the NBA Finals
The Jazz are snug in shut games, going 26-11 in games which can be inside 5 factors within the ultimate 5 minutes. Only the Thunder (29-13) had extra clutch wins, and solely the Bucks (15-4, .789) had the next successful share in these games. As he displayed within the restart opener, Donovan Mitchell has the mix of cool and the power to create offense required to be a go-to man with the sport on the road. And two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert steadily rises to the event with game-saving stops.

Why the Jazz will not make the Finals
The lack of Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending wrist surgical procedure throughout the hiatus, leaves an enormous void. It’s actually exhausting to switch an environment friendly 20-PPG scorer, but it surely’s not nearly all of the buckets Bogdanovic would get on a constant foundation. As an elite shooter (41.4% on 7.Three 3-point makes an attempt per sport), Bogdanovic opened the ground for his teammates. Utah averaged 113.5 factors per 100 possessions with him on the ground and solely 105.zero when he sat — the distinction between being the second-best and second-worst offense within the league.

What we’re watching most intently within the seeding games
How are you able to ignore the dynamic between the Jazz’s two franchise cornerstones after the tension exposed and created since March 11? On the intense aspect, all the things we have seen to date within the bubble backs up the assumption all through the group that Gobert and Mitchell can proceed to be one of many NBA’s most efficient partnerships. Mitchell assisted Gobert three and 4 occasions, respectively, within the Jazz’s final two scrimmages. To put that in perspective, Mitchell had three assists to Gobert in a sport solely as soon as beforehand this season. And Mitchell’s feed to Gobert led to the successful free throws in Thursday’s victory. — MacMahon

MORE: 16 things we can’t wait to watch now that basketball is back


Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 2%
FiveThirtyEight: 33%

How the Sixers might crash the NBA Finals
The 76ers are the crew within the East finest suited to beat the Milwaukee Bucks utilizing the technique the Raptors demonstrated in final season’s playoffs: have an extended, sturdy, athletic wing defender play up on Giannis Antetokounmpo and funnel him into layers of enormous, defensive-minded bigs to restrict his capacity to interrupt down the protection and end on the rim. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Tobias Harris might implement this method, and if it once more slows the Bucks’ offense, the Sixers would have a respectable probability to topple the most effective crew within the East.

Why the Sixers will not make the Finals
The 76ers haven’t proven the high-level consistency, at both finish, to display their readiness to topple a juggernaut like Milwaukee. Beating the Bucks requires groups to implement and execute an ideal defensive scheme whereas concurrently flattening pictures at a excessive clip towards the Bucks’ top-rated protection. The Sixers have the dimensions and skill to do the previous and the person offensive expertise to do the latter on nights when pictures are falling, however after an up-and-down season, placing collectively such full efforts 4 occasions in seven games appears unlikely.

What we’re watching most intently within the seeding games
The 76ers want to point out that they will persistently rating effectively, significantly from the surface. Shooting and spacing have been weaknesses all season, significantly once they performed their huge lineup with Simmons on the level and Horford at energy ahead. Coach Brett Brown has moved Horford to the bench in favor of level guard Shake Milton, with Simmons nominally shifting to energy ahead. The 76ers want to point out that this adjustment is sufficient to generate higher taking pictures and spacing — and in the end to provide Embiid the room to dominate the inside — in the event that they wish to legitimately contend. — Andre Snellings

MORE: The Sixers are the most enticing underdog in the NBA restart

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