Playoff basketball is not far away. Well, hopefully.
Teams have arrived on the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, Fla. and are back on the court. Following eight regular-season games to determine seeding, NBA fans will watch which team is healthy and talented enough to claim the league’s title.
While the two highest seeds — the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks — may pose the biggest threat on paper, there’s a few sleeper teams that could surprise fans with deep playoff runs. Especially with fewer games to finish out the regular season, the threat of key players contracting COVID-19, or the potential of injury after months off can make all the difference.
Let’s take a look at a few sleeper teams, first in the Eastern Conference before making our way West.
— Boston Celtics
The Celtics currently are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if that’s where they remain when the postseason begins. However, with Boston’s ability to defend and count on different players — Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward — to score the basketball, the C’s could legitimately make a run at Green 18.
Best case scenario for the Celtics would be the get either the Indiana Pacers or Brooklyn Nets in the first round, as both are missing their star players. It likely would make way for the Celtics to face the Toronto Raptors in the East semifinals and Bucks in the finals. While both could prove tough tasks, if the C’s have their full roster, they can go toe-to-toe with both.
— Philadelphia 76ers
The No. 6 Sixers have the talent, it’s about their buy-in and ability to work together on the floor. And while all teams will benefit from the rest the last four months have granted, Philadelphia could really make a push with a healthy Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Al Horford.
The 76ers could advance to the No. 5 seed, while the No. 4 (two games back of Miami Heat) isn’t out of question, either. Of course, the lack of home court advantage doesn’t make a huge difference between the four or five spots, but facing the Heat instead of the Celtics in the first round would benefit Philadelphia. Of course, then they’d probably have to get through Milwaukee to even earn a trip to the East finals, which wouldn’t be ideal.
— Portland Trail Blazers
Admittedly, and I guess with many things in life, this will either prove very accurate or very wrong. And the reason is this — LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Trail Blazers are currently the No. 9 seed in the wild race out West. They trail the No. 8 seed Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games and hold tie breakers over the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, who are an identical 3.5 games back of Memphis.
So, while Trail Blazers could very easily earn the final playoff spot out West, which will likely go to a play-in round, upon doing so they’ll face the top-seeded Lakers in the first round. If they were to face any other team in the West that first round, Portland would have among the best chances to upset as they have two starters back and among the best backcourts in the league.
Then again, the best way to wake people up is by taking down the No. 1 seed in the conference, right?
— Houston Rockets
The unorthodox, small-ball Rockets have the talent to compete with almost anyone, led by James Harden and Russell Westbrook. So while they’re currently the No. 6 seed in the West, don’t be surprised to see their playoff seeding change after the final eight seeding games.
Houston could advance to the No. 4, as they’re only one game back of it currently. The bigger question, though, is if the Rockets can pick up two and a half games on the Nuggets and get the No. 3 seed. It won’t be easy, but doing so could greatly impact their playoff run as they’d face the No. 6 seed in the first round and avoid the Lakers until the West finals.
We’re just excited to have basketball back.