Upset Watch 2014: NBA Playoffs 1st Round Preview
Have you ever played the game of knockout? It’s when you and a certain number of friends (really, it can be as many as you can fit on a basketball court) get two basketballs, and one by one, you shoot from the free throw line. If you miss, you keep shooting from anywhere on the floor until you score a basket, and then you pass it on to the person next in line before joining the back of the line yourself. But you will get ‘knocked out’ of the game if the person shooting right after you makes a basket before you do.
It’s crazy, frantic fun, and is pretty much a microcosm of what to expect in the NBA playoffs. Every team that ‘shoots first’ (read: home court) has the advantage of getting safely past their round and back again for the start of the next one. But they always have to keep an eye over their shoulders, as there is always someone waiting to catch up, score before them, and knock them out.
Which is what brings me to the 2014 playoffs’ edition of my now trademarked, annual, ‘Upset Watch’ feature. For the first round every year, I like to present a preview in terms of percentage probabilities; as in, the probability of an underdog (lower seed) to upset the favourite in every series (the higher seed). It’s an inexact science, occasionally wrong, but I promise you, thoroughly entertaining.
Here – in ascending order of least probably upset to most – is my preview of all the series in the First Round:
East – Heat (2) vs. Bobcats (7): Here’s what the Bobcats have going for them: an old-school big guy in Al Jefferson who is a nightly 20-10 threat and will punish Miami where it hurts them the most – the inside. Here’s what the Heat have going for them: everything else. With Wade properly rested and LeBron James and Chris Bosh also healthy, the Heat should make easy work of Charlotte. This series – like the infamous one against the 76ers three years ago – should be ‘breakfast’ for the defending champs.
Upset Probability: 9%
Prediction: Heat in 4.
West – Spurs (1) vs. Mavericks (8): Although I am relishing a chance to see two of the greatest power forwards of our time – Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki – face off against each other for another playoff series, this could be a short one. Duncan has the likes of Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, and Manu Ginobili on his side. Nowitzki has Monta Ellis, Vince Carter, and Jose Calderon. Unless Dirk goes on a inspired frenzy, this should be relatively easy work for San Antonio.
Upset Probability: 17%
Prediction: Spurs in 5.
East – Pacers (1) vs. Hawks (8): I understand that the Pacers have struggled mightily, especially on the offensive end, in recent months. But they are still overwhelming favourites here. Without Al Horford, the Hawks stumbled to the end of the season and the only way this series would not be a clear sweep for Indiana is if the Pacers play down to the opponent. Still, I expect Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and co to take care of business.
Upset Probability: 20%
Prediction: Pacers in 5.
East – Bulls (4) vs. Wizards (5): Welcome to the playoffs, John Wall and Washington. Hope you enjoy your (short) stay. No disrespect to the improving Wizards, but the Bulls feast on teams without veteran leadership. Joakim Noah and co. are going to play tough defence on the Wizards all series, and although Wall is capable of leading his side to a couple of wins, it should be tough for them to take four against this defensively solid Chicago side.
Upset Probability: 28%
Prediction: Bulls in 6.
West – Thunder (2) vs. Grizzlies (7): The Grizzlies have OKC’s number, which is why, despite the difference in seeding, this is slightly high in the upset probability ratings. Last year, they used hard-nosed defence to upset the Thunder 4-1 in the Second Round. The difference this time around is that Russell Westbrook is back, and Memphis aren’t as good as they used to be. Westbrook will be playing with a vengeance to make up for lost time, and Kevin Durant will be seeking revenge too for last year’s loss. It should be a fun series, but I expect the Thunder to survive and advance.
Upset Probability: 29%
Prediction: Thunder in 6.
West – Rockets (4) vs. Trailblazers (5): While this series is sure to be an offensive explosion of two fairly well-matched teams, the difference in the end will eventually come down to individual star talents. Harden + Howard are going to be better than Lillard + Aldridge. Portland started hot and then cooled down, while Houston has been in decent form the last few months. The Trailblazers have a great home crowd and enough three-point weapons to make this a close series, but the Rockets should avoid an upset in the end.
Upset Probability: 37%
Prediction: Rockets in 6.
West – Clippers (3) vs. Warriors (6): This is going to be my most contentious prediction, so here we go: I’m giving the Warriors the slight edge for an epic upset here. Golden State has the individual talent in Stephen Curry (and David Lee to a much lesser extent) to match Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the Clippers. Curry’s offensive genius is good for winning a couple of games alone, and the likes of Klay Thompson can heat up to be game-changers too.
What will really tilt this hard-fought, long series is that, without Bogut, the Warriors might actually be forced to revert to becoming a true small-ball team, which should help their three-point prowess. The Warriors are mean to the Clippers, and I think that the Clippers might buckle under the pressure. Of course, the Clippers do have two superstars in Paul and Griffin, a better coach, and a deeper bench, so they’ll fight till the very end. Either way, it is bound to be perhaps the closest series of the First Round.
Upset Probability: 54%
Prediction: Warriors in 7.
East – Raptors (3) vs. Nets (6): I like the Raptors; I really do. I’m happy that they’ve been one of the surprise teams of the season and have not only clinched the Atlantic Division title but also finished third in the East. Unfortunately, a bit of artful tanking job by the Nets in the end of the season helped Brooklyn avoid the 4-5 matchup against the Bulls and saw them fall to a series against the less experienced Toronto side. If the Raptors were playing the Wizards, I would probably predict a first round win for them. But now, they have to face a rejuvenated Brooklyn side who have been in scintillating form in recent months, have playoff veteran savvy, and have a roster build specifically for the post-season. Toronto might be happy just be make it this far; Brooklyn is only getting started for the long run.
Upset Probability: 66%
Prediction: Nets in 6.