Writer: Caleb Apkan
As Loyola-Chicago played for a spot in the National Championship, and Notre Dame shocked UCONN on their way to a women’s championship, the NBA playoffs draw closer. Upsets of those magnitudes aren’t as common in the big leagues, as there’s never been a team undefeated like UCONN in the playoffs, nor are there enough teams in the league to have an unknown like Loyola come out of nowhere. But, upsets are still possible regardless of the seven-game series style of the NBA playoffs. Here are five teams that are very likely to pull off at least one series upset this spring:
5. Indiana Pacers
Who would’ve thought that Indiana would not only be in the playoffs this season but have a chance at the third seed in the East? They’ve shocked the basketball world, but have also barely been talked about, so what gives them the potential to upset? First and foremost, Victor Oladipo has looked like a superstar all year, averaging 23.2 points per game on a 47/36/81 shooting split. Oladipo’s PER this season is 22.6, higher than all-stars he could face this spring like DeMar DeRozan and Bradley Beal, but does he have more help than those players to beat them in a series? Possibly, though a player like Myles Turner (13.3 PPG) or Lance Stephenson (9.4 PPG) would certainly have to step up to their potential as a second option to make it happen. When you add that in with Indiana’s inexperience, they’re probably the least likely team to pull off an upset on this list, but they’ve shocked basketball already this season, they could easily do it again.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota is right in the middle of a Western Conference race from the 4 to 8 seeds separated by just a game in the standings. While missing the playoffs completely is probably unlikely, the Wolves some tough games to close out the season against the Jazz and Nuggets, and could easily find themselves on the lower end of the playoff spectrum if they fail to show up, as they have against Memphis and nearly once more against Dallas this season. Still, the Minnesota roster clearly has enough talent to upset, especially if Jimmy Butler’s 22.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5 assists per game return in time for the first round.
Butler has just begun contact drills as he recovers from a right knee injury, and if he comes back, whoever faces Minnesota will have a lot of problems. If Butler can’t make it back for the first round, Minny’s opponent will still have to deal with Karl-Anthony Towns dominance (Towns recently scored a career-high 56 points, though it was against the lowly Atlanta Hawks) and if he ends up being a bit more consistent, Andrew Wiggins can also play like a star. Inconsistency is what could be the Wolves trap though, they at times look very sluggish as coach Tom Thibodeau plays his starters most of the night, and as previously noted, they’ve taken on some bad losses that put them in the position to be the one to upset in the first place. Which version of the Timberwolves show up to the playoffs will be key to whether or not they make waves.
3. San Antonio Spurs
If the NBA has taught us anything, it’s to never count out the San Antonio Spurs. Whether they’re too old, too banged up, too boring, they always sit right around 50 wins and have the coaching and personnel to beat any team in the NBA. San Antonio currently sits at fourth in the west even without Kawhi Leonard and with a highly improbable 6-0 close to the season, they could even hold onto their streak of 50-win seasons, but even if that doesn’t happen, they’ll be in prime position to upset a higher seed regardless. The 1-seed Rockets already know what it’s like to have championship dreams dashed by the silver and black, and San Antonio could do it again this season in the first or second round.
The one thing that could hold them back is obviously the absence of Kawhi Leonard. It’s becoming more and more likely that the Claw won’t play another minute this season, and Leonard played a huge part in beating the Rockets and looking like the Spurs would beat the Warriors in Game 1 of last year’s Western Conference Finals. The good news is that LaMarcus Aldridge looks better than he ever has in San Antonio, but the question is will he be enough for the Spurs to get as far as they are accustomed to?
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Philly fans were told some years ago to trust the process when it came to the team’s rebuild, and it’s paid off faster than expected. Philly will make the playoffs this year, could win 50 games, and has quite easily the brightest future in the NBA, with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid looking like they could be all-time talents and Markelle Fultz slowly but surely finding his place in the NBA after being selected first overall in this year’s draft and going down with injury. The injury is the big word in Philadelphia, as Fultz is just now getting back and Embiid has just gone down with an orbital fracture. The good news is that the man now known as The Process shouldn’t miss more than a game in the postseason, and if Embiid is as good with a mask on as he is without it, Philly could beat anybody in the postseason. If the injury nags and Fultz is still trying to develop with games on the line, and the 76ers could find themselves being upset before they gain their first playoff series victory with their new core.
1.Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder should be clear contenders, but instead, they are right in the middle of Western Conference dogfight. Their star power makes them an easy choice for a playoff upset, but if they shouldn’t even be in their position in the first place, should they be trusted to pull off a big win when they matter most? The good news is that they’ve already beaten healthy Warriors teams twice and always seem to look their best against them.
A 2-7 matchup with Golden State might actually not be OKC’s worst-case scenario, especially if Stephen Curry is out like Coach Steve Kerr has said. The Thunder have also split the season series so far with Rockets and completed a split with the Spurs just a few days ago. If OKC shows up as a cohesive unit in the playoffs, they should at least provide a major challenge to whoever they face, a six or seven-game, tough series. If Paul George is already thinking about leaving and Carmelo Anthony continues to play his worst season as a pro, it’s unlikely Russell Westbrook will be able to carry OKC out of the first round, we already saw how that went last season….