Not every team that wins is projected to do so. Sometimes the underdogs prevail. When this occurs, it’s called an upset and it’s one of the most spectacular moments in sports. Even though the NBA isn’t anywhere close to the NCAA when it comes to upsets, they’ve still had their fair share, most notably the “we believe” Warriors and the 1999 Knicks. This year, the potential for another NBA playoff upset is clear. Many of the top teams in this year’s playoffs have not only struggled, but have flaws that can be exploited.
(3) Raptors vs Bucks (6)
In the east, the series that has the most potential for an upset takes place in Jurassic park, the nickname for Maple Leaf Square. The Milwaukee Bucks are led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, also known as the “Greek Freak.” Antetokounmpo is easily the favorite for Most Improved Player of the year and is the fifth player in NBA history to lead his team in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks. This will be his first series as the leading man on his team, but he’s having a breakout year averaging 22.9 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game, and 5.4 assists per game. He should be able to carry this momentum into the playoffs.
The Bucks have been on an upswing since March, winning 17 of 25 games with the recent return of Khris Middleton, who is one of the league’s most underrated players. The Bucks clearly have the pieces to win a playoff series with their length on the defensive end, but they’re half-court offense isn’t entirely reliable and could become an issue when things slowdown in the playoffs.
On the other side of this matchup, the Toronto Raptors’ history in the playoffs gives cause to pause over any confidence in an easy series. Before last year, they were often bounced in the first round. Their chemistry and two all-stars, Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan, have always had Toronto in position for home court in the NBA playoffs. However, their performances in the playoffs have left a lot to be desired. Lowry and DeRozan always struggle. Lowry’s highest average shooting percentage in the NBA playoffs is 40% in four playoff appearances, and DeRozan is no different. They factor heavily into the Raptors’ offensive attack, being the two leading scorers for Toronto. However, their production has declined in past playoff appearances.
The fate of this series depends entirely on whether Lowry and DeRozan can shake their past playoff struggles and perform to their expectations. If they struggle and the Bucks take advantage of that, the Raptors will be in trouble. However, if they thrive with the added boost in defense from Toronto’s trade deadline acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, then this should be about a six-game series. I think the Bucks’ defense and all-stars will be able to get at least two games even if they go home in the first round.
No matter the winner, this series will be an interesting one to watch as the Greek Freak takes on the #3-seeded Toronto Raptors.
(3) Rockets vs Thunder (6)
As if we weren’t spoiled enough with a great MVP race, we will see the leading candidates battle once again in at least four games.
The Oklahoma City Thunder still have Russell Westbrook and this entire NBA season has belonged to him. However, the Thunder’s advantages over the Rockets lies more in their front court. Names like the Stache bros, with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, and their lockdown shooting guard, Andre Roberson, have dominated all season.
The front-court duo of Adams and Kanter often give small ball teams which fits with their work on the glass and in the paint. In the 2016 Conference Finals, they were a thorn in the Warriors’ side and this year the Rockets are feeling the Warriors’ pain. Against the Rockets this season, they’ve both averaged at least 12 points and six rebounds but most importantly, neither have shot under 57%. Adams and Kanter have been virtually unstoppable in the paint for the Rockets.
Even though Harden seems unstoppable, when it comes to the Thunder, that hasn’t been the case and it is largely in part to Andre Roberson. When guarded by Roberson, Harden shoots 25.5% from the field and 11% from the three-point line, which is down from 50% from the field and 60% from three. Harden’s usage also drops from 55.8% to 30.4%. Those two factors can play a part in this series as they have in the regular season series.
On the other side, While Russell Westbrook got the edge on James Harden in the statistical categories, Harden’s numbers were nothing short of sensational. However, one statistic for Harden that often gets overlooked are his turnovers. He averaged 5.7 turnovers per game, leading the league. For the second season in a row, he has broken the number for total turnovers, breaking his previous record of 374 with a staggering 464 turnovers on the year. In the playoffs, possessions become a lot more valuable, so turnovers could be very costly to a team.
In addition, the Houston Rockets’ biggest strength can turn out to be their downfall. The Rockets “live by the three” but that quote doesn’t stop there; it ends with “die by the three.” Relying so heavily on three-point shots, regardless of their one point advantage over other shots, can be a dangerous game. No matter how good a three-point shooter a player is, there will be times when they have made games. Mike D’Antoni knows this very well, considering that the only thing that is more synonymous with his high-powered offense than three pointers is early exits. His playoff coaching record isn’t nearly as decorated as his regular season record. D’Antoni owns more seasons in which he’s missed the playoffs, at four, than seasons where he’s advanced past the first round, at three. It’ll be interesting to see if the threes continue to fall for the Rockets and D’antoni finds out that his key to success in the playoffs has been beard-shaped the entire time.
It’s unfortunate that one of these MVP candidate’s seasons will have to end in an early exit, but all good things must come to an end. If the Rockets go home early it will be because, despite their advantage in talent, the old adage of “live by the three, die by the three” is true. In that case, the Rockets should not “dance with the one they brought” because their date is a killer.