The NBA playoffs are finally on the horizon after a year filled with many postponed games, surprising teams, and a new play-in system to further enhance the “playoff” feel of basketball. With the last couple of games left, we can finally see a clear picture of who are the favorites and who are the underdogs. Media narratives and team overall records usually lead the hype train for certain teams and leave the other ones behind. Because of this, I will be writing about the overlooked teams to watch in the playoffs this year.
X Factor: Bam Adebayo
The Miami Heat are an interesting team to watch here. At the beginning of the season, they looked lost after struggling to stay in a playoff spot. This was a huge drop-off in form from that team that, just the year prior, made it to the finals. Miami is a gritty team with plenty of depth to make yet another deep playoff run. Victor Oladipo and Trevor Ariza were solid pick ups for Miami, but losing Oladipo to a quad injury is something Miami has to recover from. They are currently sitting at the 6th seed (though they are within a game of the 5th and 4th seed) and are 7-3 in their last 10 games. If they were to meet the Bucks in the playoffs again, I think it will be a lot closer than many think. I know Jimmy is the leader, but if Bam gets hot and gives the Heat the same play he had against the Celtics in the ECF last year, Miami might be in for a good run.
Portland Trail Blazers:
X Factor: Norman Powell
Portland is a team that always looks great on paper but seem to get in their own way come playoff time. So what’s so different about this year’s Portland team that wasn’t there last year? Yes Dame and CJ are going to be the ones carrying in terms of scoring, but what makes Portland slightly better than last year? I think adding Norman Powell was a HUGE pickup. I liked how Gary Trent Jr played, but Powell is so much more polished. Since joining the Blazers, Powell has averaged just under 18 points per game but slightly increased his assists, rebounding, and steals compared to his first half with Toronto. The added shooting for Dame and CJ is a big boost because Portland now has two extra shot takers in Melo and Powell. Jusuf Nurkic has to maintain presence in the paint and having Kanter as a backup should be ok for Portland at the 5. Should they meet Denver, if they both stay at their current seeding, it’s hard to not have them coming out on top despite Jokic’s current MVP campaign.
New York Knicks:
X Factor: Derrick Rose
Knicks fans, don’t look away, I am actually praising your team! What a year the Knicks have had. For years they have been the butt of the joke, but they actually have a decent squad that plays with heart. The only thing holding the Knicks back in the playoffs is lack of experience and depth, which is something most other teams have, including their possible first-round opponent Atlanta. They also aren’t the most attractive team on paper and have probably the least amount of star power in terms of big names. Losing Mitchell Robinson to injury was a pivotal loss, yet the Knicks still managed without him. Come playoff time, though, none of that matters. So who steps up for the Knicks? DRose, our most beloved “what if” player, HAS to shine in the playoffs and steer the ship. Not only is he itching to prove himself in the playoffs again, he has a young team hungry to help him on his mission. He has the most experience in the team, and has Julius Randle there to battle it out too. New York ranks fourth in defensive rating on the season and has to use every ounce in them to stop opposing shooters. I am not saying they’re going to win the chip this year, but they definitely shouldn’t be overlooked because no other team plays with as much grit and heart then the Knicks.
X Factor: LeBron James
No, that wasn’t a typo. The LA Lakers are currently in line to play in the play-in series sitting at the 7th seed. The constant health issues the Lakers have dealt with this season is the reason why they sit so low on the standings, and why many think this year is lost. Having your two stars out for some time sucks, but when your team can’t play at a high level in their absence is another bad thing. Without AD and Bron, the Lakers are lost, and I understand that. They lost Rondo in free agency as well as Danny Green, but gained the first- and second-best 6th men in Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder. AD has been carrying the Lakers lately and if his form continues in the playoffs then look out. LeBron’s ankle is the biggest question. He has publicly stated that he doesn’t think he’ll ever be at 100% again, and that much is worrisome. Should he come back and play elite basketball, though, who stops LA? They are the best defensive team in the NBA right now, sitting first in rating because of their all-hands-on-deck attitude on that side of the ball. If the Lakers stay at the 7 seed and win the play-in tournament with LeBron and AD healthy and have to face Phoenix, they are going to be in the WCF. The only thing that can stop LA is their health, and right now, a lot of teams are praying that’s the case.