Blog Entry

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

Posted on: April 11, 2011 6:11 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 2:43 pm
What does the unlikely road to the Finals look like for those teams who aren't considered contenders?
Posted by Matt Moore

If you're in love with Cinderella, this isn't the league for you. The NBA is not a fantasy landscape where the ugly duckling becomes a prince. It's a post-apocalyptic wasteland where only the strong, and well-armed (or well-financed) survive. Sure, there are first-round upsets. Denver knocking off Seattle, with Mutumbo laying on the floor clutching the ball in a paroxysm of joy. The "We Believe" Warriors of 2007 forcing the Maverick hordes back into the sea. But most often, if you're not elite, you're trampled underfoot in the first round and if you do manage to escape in a glorious moment of surprise, the curtain quickly slams shut, throwing you back into the cellar with nothing but the "we had a season to build on" mantra to keep you through the offseason. 

And so we bring you the Road to the Finals for the pretenders. Here is the last, longing hope for those who are about to be swept from the playoff board. 

Eastern Conference Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are the lowest form of life in the NBA at the moment: The 8th seed in the East. Lottery teams are at least hidden from view once the playoff start. But being matched up in a seven game series against the team many feel is the best in the league leads to you becoming a joke. That's what the Pacers face. The Pacers have been one of the most up and down teams in the league this season. But there is something that should be noted here. They have strong point guard play from Darren Collison. They have a well-sized center with actual offense in Roy Hibbert. They have a combo-forward capable of stretching the defense. There are some things to like about the Pacers versus the Bulls. But then, you factor in the Bulls' defense and things don't feel so good.  Indiana has the worst offense in the playoffs , going up against the best defense. Even if they were to end Derrick Rode's Magical Mystery Tour, they'd then face the Magic in the second round, who boast a superior center, and more size and versatility at every position. Get past that, and yeah, you know the rest. It's been a good season for the Pacers. A win against the Bulls would be great. Two is gravy. Pushing them to seven games would create some real excitement for the team. But a sweep is what you should count on.

Road To The Finals
Philadelphia 76ers: Philadelphia's not a bad team. They're really not. They've got some versatility at the forward spot, a nice speedy young point guard, a veteran big in Elton Brand producing, and some solid coaching. Philadelphia's problems mostly revolve around the inexperience of its players in advancing past the first-round and that they lack a star player they can turn to in times of trouble. There's no go-to guy for Philly, though there are candidates. Andre Iguodala fills this hole. It makes sense since he's such a great all-around player. But creating on his own is not his best gig, and Iguodala won't take over the game offensively. Still, the Sixers might have enough to push around a Boston team still finding its legs and who historically has some trouble with the first-round. If they run up against the Heat, that's a bit more of a problem. Iguodala's neutralized by James, and the Sixers' help defense isn't quite good enough to contain the pick and roll. Philadelphia winning two games would be a good start going forward, but you still don't feel like this team would be necessarily building towards something in that instance. 

New York Knicks: Knicks fans are going to talk themselves into a playoff run. You can already hear it. Once they lose, they'll revert back to how the Melo trade was about the future and it wasn't about this year (which is true). But of all the teams on this list, the Knicks are the ones that probably have the most optimistic fanbase. After all, they just beat the Heat a few weeks ago after the Melo trade. And they came "this" close to beating the Celtics on that Stoudemire buzzer-beater early in the season. The first round matchup will undeniably be exciting. The issue for their opponents will be that they do have two of those players you want in the playoffs. Elite-level guys. Unfortunately, they're going to be playing either the Celtics who have four of those guys, or the Heat who have 2.5 of those guys. Knicks fans shouldn't get their hopes up too much. But they're also more than capable of pushing a team to seven games, setting themselves up with momentum for next season. This is a no-lose playoffs for the Knicks. They're going places. Just probably not very far in the next month.

Atlanta Hawks: Oh, how the... well, not mighty, but moderately adequate have fallen. The Hawks are a playoff afterthought in the afterthought first-round matchup. People want to see how the Heat perform in their first playoff series together, to see the Bulls react as favorites, to see if the Celtics can put the pieces back together. But the Magic-Hawks series is the "lost potential" series. The Hawks were putting themselves on the map with a gutsy first-round performance against Boston three years ago. Then they probably "peaked" by making the second-round by winning an unwatchable series against the Heat in 2009. Last year, they limped in, and were nearly knocked off by a Bucks team without Andrew Bogut. Now they've lost homecourt advantage and are pretty much just going through the motions. They can't blow it up, they have too much money invested. Their matchup with the Magic is actually really interesting. Horford is an elite center, and actually plays Howard marginally well. Smith has all sorts of advantages against Bass or Anderson. But the Magic as a whole have too much strength. It wouldn't surprise anyone to see the Hawks topple the Magic, it just wouldn't change anyone's opinion of them. The Bulls have too many advantages and while the Hawks always have that promise of being able to hit another level, it's impossible for anyone to think they have a chance of taking more than six games in the playoffs. 

Western Conference: 

Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies are a scary team. Versatile, talented defensively, tough, with shooters, a great low-post player, and youth. The Spurs are not an ideal matchup for them, but if the Grizzlies are ever going to win a playoff game in Memphis, this is a pretty good year for it. They can challenge any of the top three teams they might face. But they're still an incomplete team, an inconsistent team. And those are teams that can get overrun when things don't go their way against contenders. Tony Parker can attack Mike Conley, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom can overwhelm the Grizzlies inside, and the Grizzlies would have trouble matching the Dallas offensive sets. If the Grizzlies were to pull off one of the more unlikely playoff wins in history, they would likely face the 4-5 winner, who would not be a bad matchup. It sounds bizarre to say, but the Grizzlies may have the easiest track to the Western Conference of any upset-minded lower seed. But experience matters, and Memphis simply doesn't have it. The goal needs to be to win a game. Just one. You've got to start somewhere if you're Memphis. 

New Orleans Hornets: This team is sunk. They've been sunk since David West went down. Carl Landry is a good player. But he doesn't have the range West does, nor the rebounding prowess. The Hornets are poorly matched for the playoffs, even with Chris Paul at the helm. Their shooters haven't been in the playoffs before, they're undersized and inconsistent. Winning a game to avoid a sweep would be solid. New Orleans has had a surprising, rollercoaster year. Making any run at all would be a fitting end. It would also make me fearful that the end was near. 

Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers won't die. They just simply refuse to. And if they can hold on to the third seed and face Dallas, they feel like they have a shot at taking the series. To say Portland shouldn't expect to get out of the first round is to try and put rational expectations on them. If they're supposed to contend, things fall apart due to injury. If they're supposed to be also-rans, they go on rampages through opponents. The truth is, we dont' know what to expect from Portland, outside of this. Andre Miller is a good player, but not the answer. Same with Wesley Matthews. This team has a collective ceiling. But the best way to find them break it is to say it out loud. And just when you think they're down, they come roaring back. Zombies. 

Denver Nuggets: Want to know how weird the Western Conference is? The Thunder have a great shot at challenging the Lakers, but don't want to run into Denver in the first round. Oklahoma City will probably win, they're a great team. But the Nuggets just play like they don't care right now. They have no expectations, and nothing to lose. That creates an environment of reckless bravery, which is how the Nuggets play. The Nuggets are the team everyone will be roooting for, to overcome the lack of a superstar. The problems are the same they've been for years. Defense, consistency, and now a new element of relative inexperience. Neither Ty Lawson or Raymond Felton know how to play well in the playoffs. Galinari has never seen the postseason. But there are enough veterans to keep the road. It'll be interesting to see who steps up for the Nuggets as a leader. A first-round surprise wouldn't shock anyone, but the thought is that they only have so many bullets in the gun, and in the second round they'll wear down. But they remain the team you don't want to run into in a dark first-round alley. 
Category: NBA

Since: Jan 16, 2007
Posted on: April 12, 2011 5:43 pm

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

Bold prediction, the bottom three and slots two and three in the West are still quite fluid (OKC would be in the discussion but LA is playing Sacramento on their final game) with only a game or two left for each team.  However, if the Grizzlies can land the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, Memphis will have a shot at the first-round shocker.  It is true that Memphis lost Rudy Gay, which seemed like a big hit to their chances of just making the playoffs, but they've been playing great basketball of late.  Memphis knows they can play with the big boys, going 7-5 in the regular season against the West's top three, the 3-1 series win coming against the Mavs.  Unlike the Spurs and the Lakers, however, the Mavericks seem to encounter kryptonite in the post-season.  Not only that, Memphis's major strengths are not well-defended by the Mavs.  The Grizz can get up and down with the Mavericks and have a dominant rebounder in Zach Randolph who has the ability to get garbarge points in the clutch.  Against the Lakers and Spurs, these strengths are neutralized, plus there is the experience factor.  The Lakers know how to win tough series, as do the Spurs.  The Grizzlies unfortunately don't have playoff experience, but against a team that isn't exactly a seasoned playoff series winner in Dallas, especially with the confidence coming from a regular season series win, I think the Grizzlies could be a big-time shocker.  It's almost a Catch-22, the winner of tonight's Portland-Memphis game could get the Lakers, the loser could get the Lakers, and I'm sure both Portland and Memphis, are hoping to avoid the champions in first round.

Since: Aug 2, 2009
Posted on: April 12, 2011 1:56 pm

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

GBOSU I agree.  OKC "The Thunder" will rock the Nuggets.  I believe they have shown throughout the season that they are a solid darkhorse to run the table.  The only thing they are not deep in is playoff experience; however, they have a cocky blend of youth and abilities that seemingly allow them to play up to the level of any upper echelon opponent.  If there is any team any other team in the Western Conference does not want to play, its Oklahoma City.  Durant alone is enough to give the other players on the roster a boost in their confidence that can translate into a higher level of play and, thus, into upset victories.  Keep an eye on the Thunder(cats) and stay away from betting against them if you can.  It might just be the best advice you'll get this post-season.

Since: Jan 17, 2007
Posted on: April 12, 2011 1:15 pm

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

Can you just inform me why the Thunder do not want to see the Nuggets in the first round? They have beaten the Nuggets twice since the trade, once at home and once on the road. I can tell by your statement describing the Nuggets' play creating "an environment of reckless bravery" that you are kind of a Nuggets fan, and if you want to brainwash your self into believing that the Thunder are scared of the Nuggets, go ahead. However, I would rather play the Nuggets over all the other 5-8 seeds besides the Hornets, because the Thunder have proven they can beat them. Of course, the Thunder would rather play the Hornets minus David West, but the Blazers scare me with their size and the Grizzlies have given the Thunder fits this season. You play tough teams in the playoffs. That's just how it is. But, the Thunder have shown they are the better team than the Nuggets at the end of the season. What more can you ask for in a playoff opponent?  

Since: Jul 8, 2007
Posted on: April 12, 2011 11:53 am

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

Felton and Lawson both have national championships. I think they'll be okay in the playoffs.

Since: Sep 25, 2006
Posted on: April 12, 2011 10:34 am

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

They are 17-5 since the trade with plenty of wins over playoff contenders, so I don't see a problem in consistency.
They have consistantly been beaten by OKC.  

Since: Apr 10, 2011
Posted on: April 12, 2011 9:24 am

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

The East: Chicago has the best defense, the MVP and a very solid, all around team......the hottest team in the east period....they should ge to the finals..Indiana does not have a chance...Orlando will fight, but eventually will lose the series....Boston vs Miami will be a dog fight.....forget about Boston latest regular season games, they will be ready for the playoffs....

The West: Well, the defending champions surely dont have it easy.....i believe almost any team form 1-5 can win the Division....I not really sold on the Spurs...i dont know, maybe its just me, but i dont think they will pass the second round (they will beat New Orleans in 4)...2,3,4 seeds have not been decided yet but i think these teams are very even.....5,6,7 teams are dangerous teams but i dont see them going to the NBA finals...the hottest team in the west is Oklahoma.....

i can see a Lakers / Oklahoma series going to seven games, with the winner playing Chicago in the NBA Finals.....Cool

Since: Mar 24, 2008
Posted on: April 12, 2011 9:18 am

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

Nuggets have two very good point guards, which will cause matchup problems for other teams.  Those point guards don't have good playoff experience -- but both of them led their college team to an NCAA championship, so they aren't completely unacquainted with the zoo-like atmosphere.

Since: Mar 6, 2011
Posted on: April 12, 2011 1:30 am

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

Well, the east certainly isnt as interesting as the west. Chicago is a lock Im afraid.  Indiana is an up and coming team...Paul George has great upside and Hansbourough is a candidate for MIP.  That said, they wont beat the bulls...and maybe not a game, its true. Philly has coach of the year IMHO.  But they dont have the talent to compete in the playoffs. Boston is toast. I mean the wizards just beat them after Miami beat 'm like a red headed step child. Miami isnt built for the playoffs. THey cant beat the Bulls. I dont see it.  Orlando is the only semi-sleeper, but they would need to get a coach before next week. In the west memphis is indeed scary. They match up well against LA and SA.  Conley has had an eye opening year. But winning a series against them is another matter. Denver is going to be very tough. (if you need to figure out why the Knicks dont even merit a remark, think of Denver and you will have figured it out). The question for Denver is really about interior D.  Nene is great....really stepped up his game, but he need's more help. I think dallas isnt going to do a thing and I really dont think Portland will.....though a lot of people like them.  Its OKC......with Kendrick....they are actually a team that could win it all. But SA isnt to be ignored. The Spurs just seem to know how to win and Parker is peaking.  LA is getting old and has a lousy bench. That said they also have Kobe and Pau.  But if Bynum gets dinged...and he is seemingly always dinged...then they are really going to find it hard to beat OKC or even Denver or SA.

Since: May 26, 2009
Posted on: April 12, 2011 12:11 am

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

Well, the Nuggets clinch the fifth seed so now we all have to see who gets the 2,3, and 4th seed.

Since: Jul 26, 2009
Posted on: April 11, 2011 11:52 pm

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

Blazers = Zombies! I like that. With all the rain and dreary weather here lately I feel like a Zombie. Can't wait to see who their opponet will be. If chips fall right they can move upto the 5th seed. Go Blazers!

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