For the last few seasons the participants in the NBA Finals have been fairly predictable. The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers entered play as the teams to beat and no one proved up to the challenge of beating them. In many ways, the regular season was just a countdown to the highly-anticipated showdown between the league’s two dominant teams. This season, however, internal turmoil in Cleveland and injuries in Oakland have given fans pause as they contemplate that final showdown in the NBA’s bracket. Here are five teams that could make some unexpected noise in postseason play:
The Utah Jazz
No team in the NBA has been as surprising this season as the Utah Jazz. Left for dead following Gordon Hayward’s exit for the greener pastures of Boston, Utah was expected to be in the running for another lottery pick. As it turned out, the last first round pick they acquired was more than enough. Donovan Mitchell has been superb, and far from hitting a rookie wall, he has gotten better down the stretch when games mattered more. Rudy Gobert is proving to be one of the best unsung talents in the league, as well. The duo of Mitchell and Gobert and the deep roster around them promise to make the first round interesting for whichever team they match up against.
The Portland Trail Blazers
Midway through the season it looked like the only thing happening in Portland was a decent case that Damian Lillard would be looking for an escape clause sooner rather than later. Sure, backcourt mate CJ McCollum has grown into an outstanding talent under the tutelage of Terry Stotts, but the rest of the roster left much to be desired. Down the stretch, however, the rest of the starting lineup has stepped up to meet their backcourt’s intensity and the Blazers have been on quite a tear and as of this writing they sit in the West’s third seed . . .a real shocker! It’s unlikely they can make it past the second round, but could they take out the right first round matchup? Absolutely.
The Indiana Pacers
Darren Collison had an offer on the table from the Orlando Magic last summer, and when we were talking about it I told him he should probably jump on that. He was looking for a team ready to win right away, however, and when he chose a subsequent offer from Indiana I questioned his logic.
Obviously, he knew what he was doing.
Indiana has been one of the better teams in the East this season and is very much in the running for home court advantage. It’s unlikely that they would finish lower than fifth, and will almost certainly play the coming-of-age Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. That might just prove to be the best first round matchup in the conference.
The San Antonio Spurs
Didn’t expect to find this name on the list, did you? While the Spurs continue to be mainstays in the Western Conference playoff picture, their days of contending seem to be over. Over, that is, unless Kawhi Leonard returns to the line which was tailor-made to complement him.
LaMarcus Aldridge really stepped up when it looked like is team might slip out of the West’s top eight, but Aldridge alone is not enough to get San Antonio out of the first round. Add a healthy Leonard, however, and this could drastically change . . . particularly with the Warriors hurting and every team not name Houston vulnerable in one way or another.
If Leonard’s mysterious absence continues, the Spurs are likely to be first round fodder. If it doesn’t, the Spurs could very well make a deep playoff run.
The Oklahoma City Thunder
It took a long time for the Thunder to hit their stride after so many offseason changes. The additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were no-brainers (give the cost of the latter), but it wasn’t clear for a while that OKC’s trio of stars could truly complement each other.
Like other teams in this list, the Thunder figured it out just in time. It’s too early to say they will lock in home court advantage, but it’s certainly possible. They have the firepower to hand with the high-scoring Rockets, a front court that could challenge the Warriors and the veteran savvy to avoid blinking when big games are on the line.
George and Russell Westbrook are as tough to handle as any players in the NBA, and with Anthony waiting to knock down open shots they promise to be as difficult a trio to stop as any in the brutal West. A team that looked flawed for the first three or four months of the season has come together down the stretch to make things interesting . . .very interesting . . .in the West’s playoff chase.
Bill Ingram has 17 years of experience covering the NBA and is now a contributing writer for nbAradioshow.com. You can find him on Twitter: @TheRocketGuy
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