Let’s face it – the odds are heavily in favor of another NBA Finals rematch between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. Sure, the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets do present an intriguing challenge to both of the two conferences’ respective juggernauts, but it is impossible to bet against the Cavs and Dubs to once again meet for basketball supremacy in June.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other interesting storylines to keep an eye on earlier in the 2017 NBA Playoffs. From young teams chomping at the bit to get their first taste of playoff experience to veteran clubs willing to do whatever it takes to grind out a series win, a number of franchises will be looking to make some noise and pull off an upset or two. Let’s take a look at four of the best candidates:
Sleeper Teams in the 2017 NBA Playoffs
Bringing their youthful, enthusiastic and entertaining brand of basketball back to the playoffs after a one year absence, the Bucks have all the makings of a team ripe to pull off an upset. Led by budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee ranked in the top 10 in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage, steals and blocks in the regular season and were top five in overall field goal percentage and assists. The Bucks also received a big mid-season boost with the return of Khris Middleton, going 20-11 after his return to the lineup on February 8th to jump from 11th to 6th in the East. Meanwhile, rookie Malcolm Brogdon also made an unexpected leap to become a key contributor in the rotation and force his way into the Rookie of the Year conversation.
The Next Step for Antetkokounmpo
In terms of their first round series with the Raptors, however, the Bucks chances lie squarely on the shoulders of Antetokounmpo. The ‘Greek Freak’ will have to be at his best on both ends to give his team a chance against a deeper Raptors squad, but he has the potential to single-handedly carry the Bucks over the top. Antetokounmpo’s combination of length and explosiveness makes him a matchup nightmare on the offensive end, while his ability to guard multiple positions will also be a massive asset defensively.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, even if they can manage to squeak past the Raptors they would almost certainly have LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers awaiting them in the second round. But that doesn’t mean they can’t turn some heads and push the Raptors to six or seven games, or perhaps even take the series. It’s been 16 long years since the Bucks last won a round in the Playoffs, but with Antetokounmpo and a young supporting cast in the fray, there is once again legitimate reason to ‘fear the deer’.
When the Hawks dealt Kyle Korver to Cleveland and put Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha on the trading block in advance of the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline, it was a pretty strong signal that GM Wes Wilcox didn’t feel as though his team was a serious contender in the East. But that dynamic has shifted significantly over the past couple of months, and with the Cavs slipping out of the number one seed, a run to the Conference Finals suddenly seems possible. Of course, Atlanta was the team most responsible for causing that slip, handing the Cavs back-to-back defeats in the past week, including erasing a 26-point fourth quarter deficit in the second game of the home-and-home against a Cavaliers team at full strength.
As the five seed, the Hawks first order of business will be to survive what looks to be an evenly-matched series against the Washington Wizards. But the Wizards, Hawks and Celtics have a ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals with their name on it just begging to be punched, and whomever can get hot at the right time is going to have the ability to avoid Cleveland until the third round.
The Hawks Have Experience
Mike Budenholzer knows what it takes to win playoff basketball games after spending all those years (17 to be exact) as an assistant on Greg Poppovich’s staff, and his team will also have no shortage of motivation to get another crack at the Cavs after being swept out of the playoffs by LeBron and company each of the past two years. The progression of Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the backcourt to supplement Millsap and Dwight Howard has given them new life in the second half of the season, and could well propel the Hawks through to the Conference Finals in the East.
The Grizzlies undoubtedly have a tough first round series on their hands with the Spurs, but this is a closer matchup than it may seem on paper. Both of these two teams rely heavily on their talented front courts for offense, but the Grizzlies arguably have the most dominant big in the series in Marc Gasol. On the defensive end, the Spurs and Grizz were 2nd and 3rd in points allowed per game in the regular season, setting this series up to be the type of low-scoring, defensive struggle. The Grizzlies’ scrappy style will allow them to stay in games, and although the Spurs certainly have the edge in experience, the likes of 34-year-old Tony Parker, 39-year-old Manu Ginobili and 36-year-old Pau Gasol can be exploited defensively by younger brother Marc and his running mate Mike Conley.
Playing Well Against the Best
If they can in fact manage to squeeze past the Spurs, this Grizzlies team is one that could pose a serious threat to the Rockets in round two, and maybe even the Warriors down the line. Already this season we have seen Memphis come back to win after trailing by 16 on the road in Houston, as well as overcoming a 20-point second half deficit at Oracle Arena to stun the Dubs in overtime. Now, the Grizzlies are definite underdogs against the Spurs and that would be no different against the Rockets and Warriors. But they do have a mental edge stemming from those two comebacks, and they also have the personnel to play Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant physically, disrupt their offensive flow, and make their lives miserable for six or seven games.
Much like the Grizzlies, Utah’s defensive-oriented style of play is perfectly suited for playoff basketball. They might not be flashy, but the Jazz ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency and first in points allowed per game in the regular season. The Clippers star power will certainly present a challenge in the first round, but the Jazz enter the series having won 8 of their last 11 to close the regular schedule including eye-opening wins in their last two games over the Warriors and Spurs with neither holding out any players for rest. If the Jazz can carry this momentum into the first round and emerge victorious, a matchup with Golden State would loom in the Conference Semis, barring Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers doing the unthinkable.
The Advantage of Gobert
But as one-sided as this matchup may seem, Utah has one critical advantage over Golden State with Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint, thus giving them an edge on the boards. That means the Dubs’ outside shots will need to be falling, or they could be in some trouble. We’ve seen what happens when the Warriors have gone cold from deep in stretches of games this season – when they do, they usually lose.
But aside from Utah’s rebounding edge and top ranked defense, they also finished the regular season dead last in the NBA in pace of play, while the Warriors were fourth from the top. This stark discrepancy in tempo is important because the Dubs are simply not going to be beaten at their own game. With the shooters Golden State can put on the floor, anyone who tries to match them bucket for bucket in a track meet is going to be left in the dust.
Matching up with the Warriors
In order to have any chance, the Dubs need to be put in spots that they are uncomfortable with. And clearly, the Jazz know how to do this better than anyone in the NBA. Having just spent the vast majority of the regular season lulling teams to sleep, bottling up their opponent’s star players with their suffocating defense, and putting the ball in Gordon Hayward’s hands in the game’s key moments, the Jazz have found the formula needed to take down the NBA’s best. Yes, the talent gap is obviously sizable, but if the Jazz can get the Warriors out of their rhythm and slow the game down to their pace, this could become a tricky matchup for Golden State.
NEW YORK, USA – JANUARY 03 : Gordon Hayward of Utah Jazz in action during NBA game between Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz at Barclays Center in New York City, United States on January 03, 2017. (Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)