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Why these video games matter for seven underrated NBA title contenders

Final yr, a darkish horse contender pulled off consecutive upsets to win the NBA championship. Who might 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 video games in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, will present us a handful extra:

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

Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma Metropolis 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 is how these seven groups can break by way of in Orlando to make a shock look within the NBA Finals.

MORE: 3 ways to beat the NBA’s prime workforce

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

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

Why the Nuggets will not make the Finals
They only have not performed effectively sufficient this season. Denver’s differential ranks sixth within the Western Convention, and I am unsure the Nuggets could be on this group in the event that they had been sixth within the standings slightly than third. The one workforce 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 assume that workforce — which had appeared within the three earlier Finals and performed in a weak Jap Convention — is an affordable comparability.

What we’re watching most carefully within the seeding video games
Sadly, in all probability not “Level Bol Bol” now that Denver is at comparatively full power. So as a substitute I will 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 taking part in time for Porter after he averaged 12.Three factors and 6.9 rebounds in 21.Four minutes per sport in January as a result of accidents. Nonetheless, Porter’s minutes had been nonetheless restricted to 12.7 per sport when he returned from harm after the All-Star break. I am curious whether or not he can earn extra minutes in these seeding video games. — Kevin Pelton

MORE: Continuity Rankings — groups with an edge in Orlando

Possibilities of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 6%

How the Jazz might crash the NBA Finals
The Jazz are comfy in shut video games, going 26-11 in video games which can be inside 5 factors within the remaining 5 minutes, together with their thrilling last-minute win over New Orleans within the NBA restart opener on Thursday. Solely the Thunder (29-13) have had extra clutch wins, and solely the Bucks (15-5) have the next profitable share in these video games.

As he displayed within the restart opener, Donovan Mitchell has the mix of cool and the flexibility to create offense required to be a go-to man with the sport on the road. And two-time Defensive Participant of the 12 months Rudy Gobert incessantly 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 is actually onerous to switch an environment friendly 20-PPG scorer, however it’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 when he sat — the distinction between being the second-best and second-worst offense within the league.

What we’re watching most carefully within the seeding video games
How are you going to ignore the dynamic between the Jazz’s two franchise cornerstones after the strain uncovered and created since March 11?

On the intense facet, all the things we have seen thus far within the bubble backs up the idea 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 instances, respectively, within the Jazz’s final two scrimmages. To place 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 profitable free throws in Thursday’s victory. — Tim MacMahon

MORE: 16 issues we will not wait to observe now that basketball is again

Possibilities 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 in addition beating a well-oiled Milwaukee machine to take action — should not be discounted. Although Kawhi Leonard and Danny Inexperienced are out of the image, the Raptors nonetheless rated fourth in our latest NBA Continuity Rankings.

Any reigning champion that was on an almost 60-win tempo and has the probably Coach of the 12 months in Nick Nurse — particularly a workforce 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 fantastic a participant as Pascal Siakam is (and he is a legit star), he is nonetheless rising into the position of a real No. 1 possibility on offense. And never solely is Leonard now not out there to get massive buckets, he additionally made life troublesome on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Past that, Toronto constructed most of its spectacular report by beating up on subpar competitors (35-Four vs sub-.500 groups). So it is honest to wonder if the Raptors — even at full power — have sufficient to place them over in opposition to elite groups (11-14 vs. groups .500 or higher this season) in a playoff setting.

What we’re watching most carefully within the seeding video games
After all of the accidents Toronto has been by way of this season, how will the membership take care of having a full deck? Will Nurse tighten up his rotation? How will the gamers, after so many have taken on massive roles this season, take care of these adjustments? Stability ought to assist issues. However 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

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

How the Sixers might crash the NBA Finals
The 76ers are the workforce within the East greatest suited to beat the Milwaukee Bucks utilizing the technique the Raptors demonstrated in final season’s playoffs: have an extended, robust, athletic wing defender play up on Giannis Antetokounmpo and funnel him into layers of huge, defense-minded bigs to restrict his skill 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 authentic probability to topple one of the best workforce within the East.

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

What we’re watching most carefully within the seeding video games
The 76ers want to point out that they’ll persistently rating effectively, significantly from the surface. Taking pictures and spacing have been weaknesses all season, significantly once they performed their massive 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 transferring to energy ahead. The 76ers want to point out that this adjustment is sufficient to generate higher taking pictures and spacing — and finally to present Embiid the room to dominate the inside — in the event that they wish to legitimately contend. — Andre Snellings

MORE: The Sixers are probably the most engaging underdog within the NBA restart

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

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

Over the previous 4 common seasons, Harden’s worst true taking pictures share is .598. Within the playoffs, his greatest mark over that span is .583. Naturally, all gamers turn into much less environment friendly in opposition to playoff defenses, however this impact has been pronounced for Harden. It is 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 will probably be onerous to cease.

Why the Rockets will not make the Finals
Can Houston actually make it by way of three rounds with out encountering a workforce able to exposing its small lineup? Particularly, the Clippers appear to be a suboptimal matchup for the Rockets given their skill to match Houston perimeter participant for perimeter participant and lack of a standard heart to play off the ground.

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

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

That is in all probability not a coincidence.’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 one of the best out of each MVPs on the identical time? Retaining 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 less than the sixth time all season. — Pelton

Possibilities of reaching NBA Finals
BPI: 12%

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. However that was no shocker, as a result of Dallas has, statistically talking, one of the best 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 in need of 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 most effective, 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 price them Friday’s massive sport in opposition to Houston when Dallas placed on a blinding present for 3 quarters, constructed a giant lead and fell flat within the fourth on the way in which to a deflating extra time loss.

That is why the Mavs sit seventh within the standings regardless of having the third-best level differential (plus-5.9 per sport) within the Western Convention. 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 video games.

It is onerous to moderately imagine the younger Mavs will dramatically enhance that flaw beneath playoff strain in opposition to elite competitors. Doncic has proved himself in high-stakes conditions with Actual Madrid and the Slovenian nationwide workforce, however this would be the first style of the NBA playoffs for Porzingis and him.

What we’re watching most carefully within the seeding video games
There are some scouts and workforce executives across the league who’re skeptical that Porzingis will be the second-best participant on a authentic title contender. However he definitely seemed 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 regularly. The Mavs imagine Porzingis will be an elite two-way massive man. In the event that they’re proper, Dallas ought to have an prolonged window as a contender. — MacMahon

MORE: Doncic — ‘So much to be taught’ after powerful loss to Rockets

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

How the Celtics might crash the NBA Finals
Regardless of 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 remaining two minutes, an early demonstration of their skill to compete for the East title in Florida.

Boston’s prime six present the expertise and positionless versatility to match up with any workforce’s six-man rotation, due to 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 Good 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’ll 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 workforce 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 youngster. When the Celtics have all of their items, they’re nearly as good as any workforce. However take away any of these hyperlinks within the chain, and issues might shortly crumble in opposition to top-end opponents.

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

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

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