|Ty Lawson and the Nuggets could cause chaos in the top-heavy West. (US Presswire)|
Upsets are all the rage this time of year, when March Madness eclipses the dog days of the NBA season in the national sports consciousness. Soon, we'll revert to the normalcy of the NBA playoffs, where the best-of-7 series format ensures that the best team wins.
On occasion, you have your eighth-seeded Warriors upsetting the top-seeded, 67-win Mavericks, as in 2007. Or you have the barely .500, eighth-seeded Knicks (27-23) knocking off the Heat (33-17) in lockout-shortened 1999.
And that's as good a place as any to open the discussion of whether the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season will turn the clock back to '99 and conjure up the unexpected.
In the 50-game 1998-'99 season, there were four upsets when judged by regular-season records: Knicks over Heat in the first round; Knicks over Hawks and Trail Blazers over Jazz in the conference semifinals; and Knicks over Pacers in the conference finals. The first round, of course, was a best-of-5 format back then, but even so, six of the eight series held true to form based on regular-season record. (The Lakers beat the Rockets 3-1 in a series pitting teams with identical 31-19 records.)
With about a quarter to go in this 66-game, lockout-shortened schedule, could the upset dynamics in the playoffs be the same as they were 13 years ago? As always, it depends on matchups and the luck of the draw.
Could the Knicks, who've finally steadied themselves after Linsanity and the resignation of coach Mike D'Antoni, go on another improbable run and capture the post-lockout magic that launched them into the NBA Finals against San Antonio in '99? Probably not; interim coaches rarely advance in the postseason, and with Amar'e Stoudemire's status uncertain due to a back injury, the Knicks are the ultimate wild card.
But that's what post-lockout playoffs are all about: unpredictability. So here are my top five upset-ready teams heading into the postseason:
1. Grizzlies: Memphis (27-21) winning a first-round series might not actually be an upset, considering the Grizzlies could wind up being seeded anywhere from third to eighth. But assuming they're either fifth or lower or don't have home-court advantage as a potential No. 4 seed, this is the team none of the Western powers wants to mess with. The Grizzlies have done it before, for one, knocking the Spurs out in the first round and pushing Oklahoma City to seven games in the conference semifinals last season. With a healthy and effective Zach Randolph, they'll be a handful no matter who they play.
2. Magic: Orlando is that rare team that's just as capable of being an upset victim as pulling one off. If the Magic face the Hawks in the first round, they could be in trouble -- especially if Al Horford is back. But if they survive and gather some confidence, the Magic could play -- and shoot -- their way into being a dangerous second-round opponent. They have a pretty solid hold on the third seed in the East, meaning they won't see Chicago until the conference finals. But Miami in the second round? The way the Heat have been struggling since the All-Star break, Orlando could give Miami fits in a possible conference semifinals matchup. As much as they respect Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard should be the player the Heat fear the most in a best-of-7 series. If Miami continues to struggle in the rebounding department, if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade become jump-shooters in the fourth quarter, if Howard plays to his utterly dominant potential and if Orlando's shooters get hot -- who knows? It'll be feast or famine for the Magic. Either they go on a surprising run and give Howard reason to stay beyond next season, or they collapse and give rise to a whole new level of Dwight drama.
3. Knicks: A lot of caveats with this team, which has been involved in one of the oddest journeys you'll ever see. First, there's Stoudemire's back. Even with the offense running almost exclusively through Carmelo Anthony in Stoudemire's absence, it won't be enough to advance in the playoffs without a second big-time scoring option. So the Knicks need Amar'e -- out 2-4 weeks for nonsurgical treatment -- to be a credible offensive threat if they hope to advance. The second factor -- and this one is within reach, even if Stoudemire is out for the rest of the regular season -- is that the Knicks really need to win the Atlantic Division if they hope to come close to replicating their '99 run. Even with Stoudemire, the Knicks aren't beating the Bulls or Heat in the first round. But with a No. 4 seed, could they beat any of the other teams currently ahead of them in the standings? Sure. And given how their season has gone, if they get some confidence and momentum -- and if Anthony finds his elite scoring touch -- you never know. If you asked the Bulls or Heat which team they'd least like to run into in the postseason, they would probably say the Knicks if they were being honest. Elite teams like to face known quantities in the playoffs, and there's just no telling what kind of Knicks team will show up.
4. Nuggets: Even after trading Nene in a deal geared toward developing JaVale McGee for the future, the ex-Knicks in Denver are still dangerous. After the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers, playoff seeding in the West is murky with at least seven teams vying for the final five spots. Denver is in that mix, and has to first make the playoffs -- and do it mostly without Danilo Gallinari, who is out until April with a broken thumb. But once they're in, the Nuggets should be peaking. Rookie Kenneth Faried has been a revelation, Wilson Chandler is only going to become more comfortable after finally agreeing to a long-term deal following his stint in China, and the mix of veteran savvy (Andre Miller) and quickness (Ty Lawson) at the point will be formidable in a playoff series. Also, two words: George Karl.
5. Celtics: Seems strange to tout the Celtics as an upset candidate, but that's where we are at with the end of the Big Three era. First, the Celtics need to catch the Hawks -- who they trail by two games -- for the sixth spot so they don't get run over by the Heat in the first round. And while they're probably not beating Miami no matter when they play, they have a better shot in the second round than in the first. All along, I've felt that once the Celtics and their old bones got into a more normal schedule in the playoffs -- with days off to rest and for Doc Rivers to game plan -- they might have one more playoff surprise in them. The Celtics still don't have enough size and their bench is unreliable, but I'll say this: If they can get to a second-round series against the Bulls or Heat, don't expect Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to go down without a fierce fight.
Here's who I would vote for in the major award categories if I had to vote today.
MVP: LeBron James, Heat. He's still having arguably the best statistical season of his career and the best season in the league. But if Miami's recent struggles continue, the door could open for Kevin Durant.
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers. Denver's Faried has made a late push, but there's no competing with the poise and production Irving has shown.
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, Spurs. My preseason pick, Rick Adelman, would've gotten serious consideration had Ricky Rubio not gotten hurt. But Pop is the best in the business and has done his best work this season with Tim Duncan (DNP-OLD) fading and Manu Ginobili in and out of the lineup.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Magic. More than two blocks per game and a defensive rebounding rate of 32.8? Whoa.
Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden, Thunder. He puts up numbers and influences the game like a starter. That's pretty much the definition of this award, and Harden blows it away.