It was just last season that Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks came out of nowhere to capture the NBA Championship, going through the near-unanimously favorite Miami Heat along the way. This against-the-odds run for the Mavericks showed that the NBA playoffs are not just a showcase for a few of the league’s elite teams, and that if you make it in you truly do have a chance.
Sure, all eyes will be on the Thunder, Heat and Bulls as the 2011-12 NBA playoffs prepare to start, but there are plenty of playoff teams that have a great chance at scoring some upsets and advancing deep into basketball’s second season.
Here are 5 NBA teams which have the best shot at turning some heads this post-season by advancing deeper than many would have predicted back at the start of the season.
#1 Boston Celtics
Despite a slow start to the year which saw the Celtics chasing a playoff seed for much of the early going, as well as frequent talks of trading one or more of the Celtics venerable big-4 (Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rondo), Boston turned it around with a torrid second-half pace to not only make the playoffs, but secure the East’s 4-seed, giving them home-court advantage in the first round.
Though questions remain about what is left in the aging team’s legs and whether or not they can match-up in a seven game series against the top talent in the Conference, you shouldn’t count out a Celtic team whose core is very much the same as their Championship team’s from three years ago.
#2 Memphis Grizzlies
Another team that suffered from a slow start this NBA season, the Memphis Grizzlies have turned things around with a solid second half of their own, including a recent 8-2 stretch that solidified their position in the middle of the Western Conference standings.
With the Grizzlies quick pace and young legs, Rudy Gay and company could pose problems for the top echelon in the West, if they can take a series deep. Their big hurdle will be getting past the very popular and equally young Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.
#3 Indiana Pacers
Speaking of youth, the Indiana Pacers have quietly put together a textbook playoff run in 2011-12 on the backs of a youth movement that may be considered one of the deepest and most prolific in the game. What’s more, the Pacers are currently staring at a Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic as a first round match-up. The Magic, without Howard, could potentially limp into the post-season as a lame duck, allowing the Pacers the opportunity to grab an easy victory in the first-round compared to historical 3-6 match-ups.
#4 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets, who started the season on a torrid pace before cooling down and playing .500 basketball the rest of the way may be a surprise on this list considered their potential first round match-ups, including a possible tough one against the Los Angeles Lakers. However, the Nuggets are getting healthy at the right time and slick guard Ty Lawson has started to catch fire as the regular season winds down to a close.
If the Nuggets do match-up against the Lakers, they will have the advantage of a good transition game to counter Los Angeles’ one man (or, with an on-fire Bynum, two) offensive game. Additionally, the loss of Metta World Peace for the Lakers may give them defensive and rotational issues that could work to Denver’s advantage.
#5 San Antonio Spurs
It is, of course, very difficult to refer to a #1 seed as an “underdog”, and in the first round this certainly will be the case for the Spurs. But, while everyone was talking about the Thunder and Clippers out west this year, the Spurs have quietly put together another consistently good season led by stoic head-men Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli.
It’s a bit of a show-me situation for the aging Spurs, who have a recent history of strong regular season performances followed by playoff stumbles, but with home court advantage and teams focused on the other monsters out West, it very well could be San Antonio’s year to sneak back onto center stage.