The NBA calendar is a funny thing, indeed. For about six months, we, as fans, are invested into the fortunes of 30 teams, each of whom play 82 games in a fight to finish among the best eight in their respective conferences. In this period, we see some incredible individual performances, spectacular dunks, say hello to rising stars, and marvel at clutch shots.
But on the last day of the season – as each team completes their 82nd contest – we are left with a strange feeling in our stomachs and all the activity of the past six months begins to feel relatively pointless. The playoffs begin, and the beyond securing home court advantages and matchups, nothing else from the regular season seems to matter for the remaining 16 teams anymore. It’s still NBA basketball, but it’s now a whole new ball-game.
We have entered the zone of straight-up best-of-seven knockout series. And beyond the single game edge that every ‘home’ team will have in each series, nothing from the past will matter anymore.
Welcome to the 2015 NBA Upset Watch special, my annual feature to preview the First Round series of the NBA playoffs by calculating the percentage probabilities of upsets across the first eight series. Remember how epic last year’s First Round was? Could there be more fireworks ahead this year, too?
Like every year, here I present a preview in terms of percentage probabilities; as in, the probability of an underdog (away team) to upset the favourite in every series (home team) in the First Round. 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 – Cavaliers (2) vs. Celtics (7)
The Celtics have finished the regular season in style, winning eight of their last 10 games and looking like a completely revolutionized team since bringing in Isaiah Thomas. Unfortunately, the only team who have had a hotter stretch than them in the East since the All-Star Break are their first round opponents, Cleveland. I’ll give Boston and their exceptional coach Brad Stevens some credit here, but ultimately, the Cavs won’t have to sweat too much to win this series. Beyond LeBron, they are relatively playoff inexperienced (including Coach Blatt), so this series will be important for them to learn the pace of the game for tougher post-season battles ahead.
Upset Probability: 14%
Prediction: Cavaliers in 5.
East – Bulls (3) vs. Bucks (6)
Jason Kidd is looking like a great coach and he has constructed a fascinating team with the ability to strong defend any position. The Bucks have shocked everyone in the league by finishing at .500 even without Jabari Parker. Unfortunately, their youth and inexperience will play against them against the deep Bulls. Chicago is loaded with multiple weapons from top to bottom of their roster and won’t even have to over-work Derrick Rose too much to win this series.
Upset Probability: 18%
Prediction: Bulls in 5.
West – Warriors (1) vs. Pelicans (8)
I know that all signs point to a Golden State whitewash here. Warriors are one of the league’s best offensive and defensive teams who won a league-best 67 games and were one of the greatest-ever regular season teams. The Pelicans, meanwhile, survived for the playoffs on the very last day and have an incomplete and inexperienced roster. Still, on pure talent, I’ll give New Orleans a slightly higher upset probability because they will have the single best player on court at all times: Anthony Davis. Davis should be good enough to snatch one victory for the Pels and give the Warriors some mild early headaches.
Upset Probability: 20%
Prediction: Warriors in 5.
East – Hawks (1) vs. Nets (8)
Atlanta finished the season 60-22 at the top of the Eastern Conference while the Nets (38-44) only sneaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season. But Brooklyn can take heart from the fact that they have actually been in better form than the Hawks in the final stretch of the season, while Atlanta have been rocked with injuries to Paul Millsap (who has since returned) and Thabo Sefolosha, the latter also coming with off-court distractions. Ultimately, Atlanta’s system, team-play, and shooting should be good enough for a series win.
Upset Probability: 26%
Prediction: Hawks in 6.
West – Grizzlies (5) vs. Trail Blazers (4)
This is a strange one. The Trail Blazers are ranked fourth because they won the Northwest division, but they don’t have home court advantage because Grizzlies have a better record than them. Because of that, I will consider a Portland win an upset, which unfortunately, is not likely to happen. The Trail Blazers seems to be snake-bitten with all the injuries they have suffered in the lead up to the playoffs. Memphis have been out of form slightly in recent weeks too, but they are a team built to capitalize on slowing down in the post-season, and they should be able to get through to the second round.
Upset Probability: 41%
Prediction: Grizzlies in 6.
East – Raptors (4) vs. Wizards (5)
This will probably be the closest First Round series. Both teams are the dictionary definition of mediocrity, of playing good but not great basketball and being too inconsistent to truly be contenders. Since they play each other, one of them has to win and advance. I think that the series will go the full seven games and will see some heroic individual performances by both the talented backcourts (Lowry and DeRozan, Wall and Beal). Ultimately, ‘The North’ should win their first playoffs series since 2000.
Upset Probability: 48%
Prediction: Raptors in 7.
West – Clippers (3) vs. Spurs (6)
The Clippers had a great regular season, but the West is so close that their 6th place opponent – San Antonio – won only one fewer game than them. I expect Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to play the series of their lives to protect home court and finally win a playoff series; unfortunately, the Spurs have more than enough experience in thwarting star-driven teams that break down without multiple options and depth. The Spurs have been in scorching hot form primed for another deep post-season run. This will be a tough series for them, but ultimately, I think they will pull out an upset and advance.
Upset Probability: 62%
Prediction: Spurs in 6.
West – Rockets (2) vs. Mavericks (7)
Yes, this is my big gamble for the first round. I realize that the Mavericks have looked pedestrian since trading for Rajon Rondo, but in the playoffs, I have faith that the brilliant Coach Rick Carlisle will find a way to make Rondo, Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, and former Rocket Chandler Parsons work out for a huge upset. Houston are struggling with various injuries and will be exposed for having no offensive direction beyond what James Harden will be able to provide. As the series progresses, I think Dallas will contain Harden, negate Houston’s other options, and score an upset.
Upset Probability: 63%
Prediction: Mavericks in 6.