Why these games matter for seven underrated NBA title contenders


Last year, a dark horse contender pulled off consecutive upsets to win the NBA championship. Who could be this year’s Raptors?

Friday night’s action featured three of those dark horses: the Houston Rockets. Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics.

Saturday’s games will show us a handful more:

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

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

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

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

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

We asked our experts to break down the leading contenders outside the big three — the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers. Here’s how these seven teams can break through in Orlando to make a surprise appearance in 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 could crash the NBA Finals
The main reason is a rested James Harden. He looked very fresh Friday, scoring 49 points in 43 minutes during Houston’s opening seeding game. When Harden plays like that, the Rockets are a real threat.

Over the past four regular seasons, Harden’s worst true shooting percentage is .598. In the playoffs, his best mark over that span is .583. Naturally, all players become less efficient against playoff defenses, but this effect has been pronounced for Harden. It’s unclear how much that has to do with Harden’s game being easier to stop with familiarity as compared to the effect of fatigue, but we’ll get a better idea this season with Harden coming into the playoffs better rested. If he’s as dominant as he has been in the regular season, the Rockets will be hard to stop.

Why the Rockets won’t make the Finals
Can Houston really make it through three rounds without encountering a team capable of exposing its small lineup? In particular, the LA Clippers look like a suboptimal matchup for the Rockets given their ability to match Houston perimeter player for perimeter player and lack of a traditional center to play off the floor.

Given Houston’s previous incarnation appeared incapable of a deep playoff run, it would be a mistake to suggest the Rockets will lose because of going small, but that weakness might ultimately lead to the team’s demise.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
The extent to which the Rockets can get Harden and Russell Westbrook going at the same time. Westbrook’s surge with better floor spacing matched up with Harden’s game slipping after an MVP-caliber start to the season.

That’s probably not a coincidence. Basketball-Reference.com’s game score shows a consistent inverse correlation between Harden’s success and Westbrook’s, with Westbrook’s game score dropping by a third of a point for each point Harden’s game score improves. Can Mike D’Antoni find a way to get the best out of both MVPs at the same time? Keeping his job might depend on it.

Friday’s game was encouraging in that regard, as Harden and Westbrook both topped 30 points in the same game for just the sixth time all season. — Kevin Pelton

Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 12%
FiveThirtyEight: 1%

How the Mavericks could crash the NBA Finals
The Mavs exploded for 149 points in an overtime loss on their first night back. But that was no shocker, because Dallas has, statistically speaking, the best offense in NBA history, averaging 115.8 points per 100 possessions coming into Friday’s action.

Luka Doncic, who posted a 28-13-10 triple double on Friday, appears to have his early-season burst back after recovering from a twice-sprained ankle and other bumps and bruises. Kristaps Porzingis, now a full-time center, is a major matchup problem who poured in 39 on Friday, one point short of his career high.

The Dallas offense been even more prolific with Seth Curry in the starting lineup (120.7 offensive rating in 122 minutes with that quintet). Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr., the two most efficient, high-volume spot-up shooters in the league this season, benefit from all the attention defenses must pay to the Mavs’ young cornerstones. That potent offense makes Dallas dangerous.

Why the Mavericks won’t make the Finals
The Mavs have been absolutely miserable in crunch time this season, and that cost them Friday’s big game against Houston when Dallas put on a dazzling show for three quarters, built a big lead and fell flat in the fourth for a deflating overtime loss.

That’s why the Mavs sit seventh in the standings despite having the third-best point differential (plus-5.9 per game) in the Western Conference. The Mavs rank 27th in clutch net rating (minus-16.1 points per 100 possessions) primarily because that historically elite offense has been horrible down the stretch of close games.

It’s hard to reasonably believe the young Mavs will dramatically improve that flaw under playoff pressure against elite competition. Doncic has proved himself in high-stakes situations with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team, but this will be the first taste of the NBA playoffs for Porzingis and him.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
There are some scouts and team executives around the league who are skeptical that Porzingis can be the second-best player on a legitimate title contender. But he certainly looked the part Friday night, just as he did in the six weeks before the season was suspended, averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in that span.

Porzingis and Doncic have made significant strides in establishing rapport during their first season together, especially since Porzingis shifted to center, putting him in pick-and-rolls on a regular basis. The Mavs believe Porzingis can be an elite two-way big man. If they’re right, Dallas should have an extended window as a contender. — Tim MacMahon

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

How the Celtics could crash the NBA Finals
Despite 2-for-18 shooting on Friday from Jayson Tatum, the Celtics held a fourth-quarter lead over Milwaukee and were tied in the final two minutes, an early demonstration of their ability to compete for the East title in Orlando.

Boston’s top six provide the talent and position-less versatility to match up with any team’s six-man rotation, thanks to multiple 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 showed Friday. Jaylen Brown‘s blossoming game and Gordon Hayward‘s return to health give the Celtics more options on both ends. Marcus Smart is one of the league’s toughest defenders, and Daniel Theis has been a revelation as the starting center. If the Celtics can get enough from these six during what promises to be an intense schedule in Orlando, they can contend for the East crown.

Why the Celtics won’t make the Finals
Boston’s top-end talent is elite — but there isn’t much after it, which leaves this team with little room for error. Walker’s balky knee is a problem if it continues to bother him; he was limited to 19 minutes in Friday’s game. So, too, is the looming absence of Hayward during the playoffs due to the impending birth of his child. When the Celtics have all of their pieces, they are as good as anyone. But take away any of those links in the chain, and things will quickly fall apart against top-end opponents.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
Who will step up to support the top-line talent? The seeding games will be used as a ramp-up period for Boston, which is pretty locked in to the third seed in the East. That means Brad Wanamaker, Romeo Langford, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams will be battling for spots in the playoff rotation. If any of them can earn Brad Stevens’ trust, that will be a boon to Boston’s chances of making a deep playoff run. — Tim Bontemps

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

How the Nuggets could crash the NBA Finals
Two words: Skinny Jokic. Aside from his inexplicably lethargic start to this season, I’ve always found the concern over Jokic’s physique a little overwrought. But if getting in better shape during the NBA’s stoppage of play makes Jokic more mobile defensively, giving Michael Malone more options for defending pick-and-rolls without the kind of aggressive coverages the Nuggets have favored (per Second Spectrum, only the Chicago Bulls used either blitz or show defense more frequently than Denver during the regular season), it could make the Nuggets more dangerous.

Why the Nuggets won’t make the Finals
They just haven’t played well enough this season. Denver’s plus-3.0 differential ranks sixth in the Western Conference, and I’m not sure the Nuggets would be in this group if they were sixth in the standings rather than third. The only team 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 don’t think that team — which had appeared in the three previous Finals and played in a weak Eastern Conference — is a reasonable comparison.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
Sadly, probably not “Point Bol Bol” now that Denver is at relatively full strength. So instead I’ll be keeping an eye on the Nuggets’ other rookie, Michael Porter Jr. Presumably, part of the logic behind trading Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez was clearing more playing time for Porter after he averaged 12.3 PPG and 6.9 RPG in 21.4 MPG in January due to injuries. However, Porter’s minutes were still limited to 12.7 per game when he returned from injury after the All-Star break. I’m curious whether he can earn more 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 could crash the NBA Finals
The Raptors’ experience on the big stage — not only having won the NBA Finals last year, but also beating a well-oiled Milwaukee machine to do so — shouldn’t be discounted. Though Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are out of the picture, the Raptors still rated fourth in our recent NBA continuity rankings.

Any reigning champion that was on a nearly 60-win pace and has the likely Coach of the Year in Nick Nurse — especially a team that’s dealt with the ungodly number of injuries Toronto has — should be seen as a contender, especially now that the Raps will finally be at full strength.

Why the Raptors won’t make the Finals
As wonderful a player as Pascal Siakam is (and he’s a legit star), he’s still growing into the role of a true No. 1 option on offense. And not only is Kawhi no longer available to get big buckets, he also made life difficult on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Beyond that, Toronto garnered most of its impressive record by beating up on subpar competition (35-4 vs sub-.500 teams). So it’s fair to wonder whether the Raptors — even at full strength — have enough to put them over vs. elite teams (11-14 vs. teams .500 or better this season) in a playoff setting.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
After all the injuries Toronto has been through this season, how will the club deal with having a full deck? Will Nick Nurse tighten up his rotation? How will the players, after so many have taken on big roles this season, deal with those changes? Stability should help things. But now that the competition has ratcheted up, with only playoff-contending teams, perhaps we shouldn’t assume that the Raptors will do far better than before simply because they’re healthy now. — Chris Herring

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

Chances of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 6%
FiveThirtyEight: 1%

How the Jazz could crash the NBA Finals
The Jazz are comfortable in close games, going 26-11 in games that are within five points in the final five minutes. Only the Thunder (29-13) had more clutch wins, and only the Bucks (15-4, .789) had a higher winning percentage in those games. As he displayed in the restart opener, Donovan Mitchell has the combination of cool and the ability to create offense required to be a go-to guy with the game on the line. And two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert frequently rises to the occasion with game-saving stops.

Why the Jazz won’t make the Finals
The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending wrist surgery during the hiatus, leaves a huge void. It’s really hard to replace an efficient 20-point-per-game scorer, but it’s not just about all the buckets Bogdanovic would get on a consistent basis. As an elite shooter (41.4% on 7.3 3-point attempts per game), Bogdanovic opened the floor for his teammates. Utah averaged 113.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and only 105.0 when he sat — the difference between being the second-best and second-worst offense in the league.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
How can you ignore the dynamic between the Jazz’s two franchise cornerstones after the tension exposed and created since March 11? On the bright side, everything we’ve seen so far in the bubble backs up the belief throughout the organization that Gobert and Mitchell can continue to be one of the NBA’s most productive partnerships. Mitchell assisted Gobert three and four times, respectively, in the Jazz’s past two scrimmages. To put that in perspective, Mitchell had three assists to Gobert in a game only once previously this season. And Mitchell’s feed to Gobert led to the winning 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 could crash the NBA Finals
The 76ers are the team in the East best suited to beat the Milwaukee Bucks using the strategy the Raptors demonstrated in last season’s playoffs: Have a long, strong, athletic wing defender play up on Giannis Antetokounmpo and funnel him into layers of large, defensive-minded bigs to limit his ability to break down the defense and finish at the rim. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Tobias Harris could implement this approach, and if it again slows the Bucks’ offense, the Sixers would have a legitimate chance to topple the best team in the East.

Why the Sixers won’t make the Finals
The 76ers have not shown the high-level consistency, at either end, to demonstrate their readiness to topple a juggernaut like Milwaukee. Beating the Bucks requires teams to implement and execute a perfect defensive scheme while simultaneously knocking down shots at a high clip against the Bucks’ top-rated defense. The Sixers have the size and ability to do the former and the individual offensive talent to do the latter on nights when shots are falling, but after an up-and-down season, putting together such complete efforts four times in seven games seems unlikely.

What we’re watching most closely in the seeding games
The 76ers need to show that they can consistently score efficiently, particularly from the outside. Shooting and spacing have been weaknesses all season, particularly when they played their big lineup with Simmons at the point and Horford at power forward. Coach Brett Brown has moved Horford to the bench in favor of point guard Shake Milton, with Simmons nominally moving to power forward. The 76ers need to show that this adjustment is enough to generate better shooting and spacing — and ultimately to give Embiid the room to dominate the interior — if they want to legitimately contend. — Andre Snellings

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

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