Double Dribbles: Rating the darkhorses
The NBA playoffs aren’t like the NCAA tournament. In the NBA, lower seeds don’t usually win in the first round.
The reason for that is obvious: Unlike college basketball, you get more than one shot in the pros. In the NBA, you get seven.
And since first-round series went to a best-of-7 format in 2003, only seven teams seeded No. 6 or lower have emerged (in 48 tries). So the odds are against upsets. But they can and do happen.
Now that the playoff picture is becoming clearer, and we pretty much know who the bottom four seeds will be in each conference, let’s take a look at who might have a chance to be the Butler or Virginia Commonwealth of the NBA.
* Reason for Hope: The Hawks are likely to gain the No. 5 seed, a pretty good seed as far as Cinderella stories go. Since 2003, six No. 5s have won in the first round. Perhaps more than that, the Hawks should face Orlando to open the playoffs. They not only won the season series (3-1), but should have plenty of motivation after the Magic embarrassed them in the second round last season.
* Player to Watch: Josh Smith. The Hawks know they’ll receive consistent play from the likes of Joe Johnson, Al Horford and now, Kirk Hinrich. Smith is considerably more of a mystery, too often struggling in the game’s biggest moments. If he’s not motivated and especially productive, forget it. This team will never get out of the first round.
* Best Matchup: Orlando. The Hawks are the only team that’s been able to even somewhat contain Dwight Howard. Most of that has to do with athletic bigs such as Horford and Smith. Also, veteran center Jason Collins isn’t afraid to get physical with Howard, holding the Magic center to 4-for-13 shooting in their final matchup of the regular season.
* Reason for Hope: The Sixers are mostly young, energetic and don’t seem to know (or care) that they’re often picked to lose. They also have an experienced coach in first-year man Doug Collins, and it’s clear the players believe in him and his system. On top of all that, veterans Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala are the perfect leaders. Both are talented enough to take over games, yet unselfish enough to realize when youngsters such as Jrue Holiday or Thaddeus Young get hot.
* Player to Watch: Brand. For a guy his age (32), Brand doesn’t have a ton of playoff experience. In fact, he’s been to the postseason just once -- and that was back in 2005-06 with the Clippers. But as far as this young bunch is concerned, he’ll have to conduct himself like the guy who has been there before.
* Best Matchup: Chicago. Like the Sixers, the Bulls are a younger team that doesn’t have a ton of playoff experience. And while Derrick Rose is fantastic, he has been unable to get out of the first round in either of his first two seasons. That’s not a knock against Rose. It’s just to show that the Bulls aren’t exactly playoff connoisseurs when compared to the likes of Boston, Miami or Orlando.
New York Knicks
* Reason for Hope: Well, it never hurts to possess two bona fide stars (Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire) and a veteran point guard who’s won one championship and played for another (Chauncey Billups). And while the Knicks are only around .500 since the big trade, there is always the threat that Carmelo, Amar’e and Chauncey will click when it matters most. And that’s scary news for anyone.
* Player to Watch: Landry Fields. The kid has simply been remarkable, a second-round draft steal who’s given the Knicks all the intangibles needed for team that loves to shoot first, second and third, then ask questions later. But Fields is still a rookie, and rookies can struggle in the NBA’s second season -- when games are more deliberate and physical.
* Best Matchup: Miami. The Knicks and Heat have met just once since the Anthony deal, with the Knicks overcoming a 15-point deficit to win by five in Miami. Anthony has always fared pretty well against LeBron James, and Stoudemire usually has his way with Chris Bosh. But more importantly than any of that is Billups, a true winner who’s capable of dominating Miami’s weak point guard crew.
* Reason for Hope: The Nuggets play team basketball in the truest sense, sharing the ball and never seeming to care who leads the team in scoring. They won 13 of their first 17 games after trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, playing a wide-open game that consists of sharp cuts, pinpoint passes and easy baskets. And let there be no doubt, the Nuggets are a team with something to prove.
* Player to Watch: Ty Lawson. The second-year man and former NCAA champion has been magnificent since taking over for Billups, teaming with newcomer Raymond Felton to give the Nuggets perhaps the most lethal one-two point guard punch in the league. Lawson is ultra-fast, blowing by defenders with ease, creating for others as well as himself. Forget strictly the first round -- the play of Lawson gives the Nuggets hope to make a run beyond that.
* Best Matchup: Oklahoma City. Yes, the Thunder are extremely talented with the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And yes, they’re the hot, young team that everyone expects to take the next step this season. But the Nuggets match up fairly well, with Lawson and Felton capable of tag-teaming Westbrook, and Nene off-setting new Thunder center Kenrick Perkins.
Portland Trail Blazers
* Reason for Hope: The Trail Blazers really do have it all -- a veteran point guard in Andre Miller, a veteran center in Marcus Camby, an extremely talented power forward in LaMarcus Aldridge and an underrated hustling small forward in Gerald Wallace. And let’s not forget Brandon Roy coming off the bench. In other words, if these guys put it together (and they are certainly capable), getting out of the first round should be no problem at all.
* Player to Watch: Roy. The former team leader and resident All-Star has been inconsistent since returning from a knee injury in late February. That’s too bad, because the Blazers really need him. In order for them to advance past the first round, Roy will have to be closer to the player he once was, mostly because he’s about all this team has coming off the bench these days.
* Best Matchup: Dallas. The Blazers are just 1-2 against the Mavericks, but all three games have gone down to the final moments. Aldridge also forces Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki to focus on defense, and we’ve all seen what can happen when Dirk’s has to turn his attention away from offense for an entire series.
* Reason for Hope: Like the Sixers in the East, the Grizzlies will enter the playoffs with a nothing-to-lose approach. After all, no one expected to the Grizzlies to qualify for the postseason, so why not just relax and enjoy it? That can result in good things -- such as Golden State’s upset of Dallas in 2007, or Denver’s stunner over Seattle in 1994. Those Warriors and Nuggets were both No. 8 seeds, and the Grizzlies are likely to be one, too. Like those teams, the Griz possess a pretty good mix of youthful energy and experience.
* Player to Watch: Tony Allen. The Grizzlies actually have several players to watch. That’s because aside from Zach Randolph and Shane Battier, most have never experienced the playoffs. Still, Allen has been forced to pick up the slack for the injured Rudy Gay (knee), who won’t return until next season. Allen has been reasonably reliable in the role so far, but as we’ve often seen, the playoffs can be a different story.
* Best Matchup: San Antonio. The Spurs are proven winners with a core that‘s been together forever. They are cohesive, play with great poise step up their defense when it means the most. Basically, they’re everything the Grizzlies are not. So how would the Grizz possibly stand a chance? Well, the fact they have won 15 of their previous 22 should not be overlooked. Couple that improved play with the Spurs’ occasional injury issues, and you just never know.
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