0 of 4
Michael Hickey/Getty Images
In a seven-game NBA series, hot shooting or some other unforeseen anomaly has far less impact than in a single-elimination tournament. That’s largely why we’ve only seen four No. 7 or No. 8 seeds advance since the league went to a seven-game first-round format in 2003.
But that’s a coward’s way to think. Who needs to hedge at this time of year?
The search for an NBA Cinderella has to start with the possibility of a first-round upset. That’s the threshold requirement for such a team. There’s also got to be an underdog element that extends beyond the seeding disadvantage. Any true Cinderella has to overcome a serious talent discrepancy, creating the storybook feel we associate with success against long odds.
If a team is missing a star (or never had one in the first place), that’s a good start. If there’s reason to believe regular-season success, such as it was, came via smoke and mirrors, even better. These teams have to seem overmatched. But they also need to have a narrow avenue—favorable matchups, experience advantages or strategic edges—that could lead to an upset.
We’re supposed to doubt them…until they stun us into belief.
1 of 4
Zach Beeker/Getty Images
The second half of the season hasn’t been kind to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A defense that ranked first in mid-January is tied for 14th since then, and OKC’s offense has been suspect all year. With field-goal accuracy rates that rank 19th at the rim, 30th from mid-range and 23rd from deep, the Thunder enter the postseason as one of the most vulnerable teams in the league.
They’re slated to draw the untested Denver Nuggets in the first round. And that, folks, raises the possibility of an upset.
Please appreciate how ridiculous that statement should look in light of OKC’s 0-4 record against the Nuggets this year. Those four losses came by an average of nine points per game, and both Paul George and Russell Westbrook played in every meeting. There’s no mistaking the Nuggets’ regular-season ownership of the Thunder.
Yet Oklahoma City, flawed as it is, has the postseason experience advantage over Denver—which isn’t hard, considering the Nuggets’ young core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris have none whatsoever.
That’s where the Cinderella possibility emerges. The Thunder, overmatched by every metric you’d care to consult, have star players with heaps of Finals and conference finals reps. Westbrook and George have faced LeBron James in his prime on the biggest stages, and though they always fell short, they didn’t back down.
Meanwhile, these Nuggets—whose offense has cratered worse than OKC’s defense since the break, and whose stopping power will be shaky as long as Jokic is there to attack in the pick-and-roll—couldn’t get past the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves to gain playoff entry a season ago.
Based on talent, full-season performance and every qualitative measurement, the Thunder shouldn’t have a chance to beat Denver. But do you really want to bet against a dialed-in duo of Westbrook and George? Perhaps more importantly, do you want to bet on a Nuggets squad that hasn’t proved squat?
2 of 4
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
You can’t top the Los Angeles Clippers’ Cinderella profile.
They dealt Tobias Harris for future assets at the deadline, leaving a roster composed of veteran afterthoughts, inexperienced youth, a defense-averse bench-scoring dynamo and a whole bunch of non-star role-fillers.
Also, Danilo Gallinari.
The Clippers scrap, though. Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell are as feisty as players come, Lou Williams knows every bucket-getting trick in every bucket-getting book (because he pretty much wrote them), and the kids—led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Ivica Zubac—look ready.
There are no stars here, and with the Clippers’ lofty free-agency goals (hi there, Kawhi!), there’s an impermanence to this roster that should be pulling it apart.
Despite so many short-timers, though, the Clips are oddly connected. Maybe head coach Doc Rivers is that good at unifying different personalities who, understandably, might have different agendas in a stopgap season. Or maybe the likelihood that the current roster won’t be together for long has galvanized it.
Either way, the Clippers will head into the postseason as plucky underdogs against the Houston Rockets, their most likely first-round opponent.
Let’s say James Harden wears down as he has in the past. Let’s also say the vastly different personnel the Clips fielded in their two October wins over Houston matters less than whatever Rivers figured out about wrangling Harden.
An upset is, of course, unlikely. The Rockets are a beast. But if the Clips were to advance, they’d have a chance to extend their run against either the Thunder or Nuggets in the second round (assuming current seeding holds). Either of those opponents would seem more beatable than Houston.
The Clips in the conference finals? There’s a Cinderella run for you.
3 of 4
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Brooklyn is the longest long shot on this (short) list. High-volume three-point shooting and flexible late-game alignment options give it a puncher’s chance against the East’s top teams—but only if the seeding shakes out a certain way.
The Nets have a harrowing stretch-run schedule that features nothing but potential playoff teams. That hurts Brooklyn’s chances of climbing to the sixth seed, which is a spot it will need to maximize its Cinderella potential.
In theory, the 3-6 matchup is the one Brooklyn should want in the first round, pitting it against a Philadelphia 76ers team it has beaten twice this season. Granted, those victories came in the first six weeks of the year, before Philadelphia added Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. But Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons played in both contests, so we know Brooklyn can succeed against a couple of Philly’s principal weapons.
If the Sixers have a weakness, it’s on-ball defense at the guard spots. The Nets are well equipped to exploit that frailty.
The Athletic’s Derek Bodner pointed to the season-long issue after Trae Young torched Philadelphia for 32 points and a game-winning floater March 23:
“What happens when a team is able to take the Sixers’ defensive strengths and minimize them? What happens when they have a guard who can get hot from three with little space, or who can get into the paint to create kick-out opportunities for his teammates? That’s when the Sixers struggle, and for as much as last night’s porous result was about effort—and to be fair, that dreadful effort is still the overriding takeaway from the loss—it was also a bit about personnel.”
A prospective matchup against D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and the Nets should concern the Sixers.
Russell is exactly the kind of pull-up threat and pick-and-roll maestro that gives Philly fits, and Dinwiddie is effectively the changeup to Russell’s fastball; he can punish big men who switch with pull-ups of his own and quick-twitch drives into the lane.
Add in the Nets’ fifth-ranked three-point attempt rate, which introduces a high-variance element to the series, and you can see the faint outlines of an upset: The Sixers can’t keep Brooklyn’s guards from getting where they want, and the Nets heat up from deep.
In our current seeding hypothetical, Brooklyn would likely draw the Toronto Raptors if it were to advance past the Sixers. It’s harder to imagine the Nets doing much in that series, but they did beat Toronto in overtime Dec. 7, and the zone defense they broke out in Wednesday’s loss helped produce a 41.9 percent shooting night for the Raps.
Maybe the Nets could avoid a sweep in the second round, which would count as quite an achievement for a team still in the relatively early stages of a rebuild.
4 of 4
Brian Sevald/Getty Images
Behold: the Eastern Conference version of the Clippers. Now with extra defense!
The Indiana Pacers lost their leading scorer, Victor Oladipo, to a season-ending knee injury in late January and have relied on defense, depth and an all-hands-on-deck mentality to somehow head into the final week of the regular season locked into a 4-5 first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics.
When your most consistent offensive weapon is a small forward who turns 30 on April 18 and whose previous career-high scoring average was 14.3 points per game, you’re an underdog. When that player, Bojan Bogdanovic, leads you into a series against a talent-laden team picked by many to lead the league in wins and reach the Finals, you’re at an even greater theoretical disadvantage.
But if you’ve paid attention at all this year, you’re aware Boston has been as disappointing as Indiana has been surprisingly resilient. The Celtics have endured stretches of conspicuous dysfunction all season. We’ve seen postgame sniping, wildly fluctuating levels of engagement from Kyrie Irving and no shortage of losing streaks.
Boston has five skids of three games or more this year, while Indiana has just three. If things go downhill for the Celtics early in the first round, we’ve got evidence that suggests they’re more prone to letting their difficulties snowball.
Meanwhile, the Pacers are basically playing with house money. They’re not supposed to be any good without Oladipo, their All-NBA stud. If the weight of pressure matters at all, every ounce of it is resting on Boston.
And that’s before considering the potential that Irving’s lack of long-term commitment further strains an already taut situation.
The winner of this series will get the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, which will probably be the end of either team. But Indiana has a real shot to bounce Boston before that.