Having trouble envisioning an upset in the Eastern Conference playoffs?
That’s understandable, since three teams in the eight-team field didn’t finish above .500. Milwaukee (41-41), Boston (40-42) and Brooklyn (38-44) wouldn’t have even qualified for the postseason in the West, where the eighth-seeded Nets would have tied for 11th place.
The betting site Bovada isn’t even listing odds on Atlanta-Brooklyn or Cleveland-Boston, since they’re so one-sided.
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But before ruling it out entirely, listen to some coaches who have either pulled off an upset or had it done to them and know what it takes to bust a bracket.
”You’ve got to have some luck,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. ”No matter what seed you are, if you’re going to win a series or if you’re going to win a championship, you’ve got to have some luck.”
Luck alone can’t explain how just last year, the Nos. 5 and 6 seeds advanced from the East, and No. 8 Atlanta – with the same record the Nets had this season – pushed top-seeded Indiana to a seventh game.
Here are some ways the big boys could be tested, or even toppled.
Tom Thibodeau had the East’s No. 1 seed in 2012 when Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the final minutes of Chicago’s playoff opener. Joakim Noah was lost later in the series to a sprained ankle, and the Bulls were ousted by Philadelphia.
Thibodeau was also on Jeff Van Gundy’s staff in 1999 when the eighth-seeded Knicks knocked off Miami in the first round and went all the way to the NBA Finals. He saw New York get healthier as the season went on, so the team that showed up for the postseason wasn’t the one that stumbled through the regular season.
”(Latrell) Sprewell and (Marcus) Camby were hurt at the beginning of the year and then we played very well the last 10 games of the season, and that carried over into the playoffs and we got to the finals,” Thibodeau said. ”So there’s not a lot of difference in terms of talent. Usually when you take a hard look at it, you see there was injuries involved, trades, things of that nature, and then all off a sudden a team gets rolling, and now you’ve got your hands full.”
EXPERIENCE – OR INEXPERIENCE
Kidd’s sixth-seeded Nets were loaded with veterans last season, including former champions Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and weren’t fazed by a Game 7 in front of a frenzied Toronto crowd. He doesn’t have that luxury in Milwaukee, but maybe that’s a good thing.
”For us last year, we found ourselves in a Game 7 with a veteran group that has played in some big Game 7s,” Kidd said, ”so they weren’t nervous, found a way to win a game on the road, so you’ve got to have experience. And for us, we have very little experience and that can also help, too. Being the unknown, have nothing to lose and understand, hey, it’s just playing hard, and that’s what this group does.”
Boston is one of the hottest teams in the league, going 7-1 in April and winning its final six games – five against playoff teams. Atlanta had a similar strong finish last year, winning seven of its last 10, which had the Hawks ready to give the Pacers a much tougher time than expected.
”There was a confidence,” said coach Mike Budenholzer, an assistant to Gregg Popovich when the top-seeded Spurs were stunned by Memphis in 2011.
”I thought the way we finished the season was a positive. And I think there were a couple different scenarios as far as teams we played, and we were just ready to play whoever it was. We had some confidence, had some belief and were excited about competing.”
GOOD MATCHUP, BAD MINDSET
Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins guided the Grizzlies to that upset of the Spurs and believes the most important element is the right matchup. It was in 2007 for Golden State, which beat Dallas three times in the regular season, then stunned the top-seeded, 67-win Mavericks in the first round.
”Because no matter how well you’re playing, if you don’t match up very well with them, you’re going to probably struggle,” he said.
He also emphasized the right mentality. The Pacers never recaptured their early-season form last year, and their mediocre finish should’ve hinted they would struggle in the opening round.
”The reason that you want to be playing well going into the playoffs is so that you’re not spinning your wheels to try to figure out what’s wrong,” Hollins said.
”Because when your team is playing poorly and you’re one of the upper seeds and you’re starting to figure out: What do we have to do? What do we have to do? If you’re playing well you just glide into it, everybody’s mind is free. You’re not having to answer a bunch of questions about what’s wrong.”