Last 12 months, a dismal horse contender pulled off consecutive upsets to win the NBA championship. Who might be this 12 months’s Raptors?

Friday night time’s motion featured 3 of the ones darkish horses: the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics.

Saturday’s games in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, will display us a handful extra:

Miami Heat vs. Denver Nuggets (1 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

New Orleans Pelicans vs. LA Clippers (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET)

Toronto Raptors vs. Los Angeles Lakers (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

We requested our mavens to wreck down the main contenders outdoor the massive 3 — the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers. Here’s how these seven groups can wreck thru in Orlando to make a marvel look within the NBA Finals.

MORE: Three ways to beat the NBA’s top team


Chances of attaining NBA Finals
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI): 7%
FiveThirtyEight: 13%

How the Rockets may just crash the NBA Finals
The primary explanation why is a rested James Harden. He seemed very contemporary Friday, scoring 49 issues in 43 mins right through Houston’s opening seeding recreation. When Harden performs that method, the Rockets are an actual danger.

Over the previous 4 common seasons, Harden’s worst true taking pictures share is .598. In the playoffs, his very best mark over that span is .583. Naturally, all gamers develop into much less environment friendly in opposition to playoff defenses, however this impact has been pronounced for Harden. It’s unclear how a lot that has to do with Harden’s recreation being more straightforward to prevent with familiarity as in comparison to the impact of fatigue, however we’re going to get a greater thought this season with Harden entering the playoffs extra rested. If he is as dominant as he has been within the common season, the Rockets might be onerous to prevent.

Why the Rockets would possibly not make the Finals
Can Houston in reality make it thru 3 rounds with out encountering a group in a position to exposing its small lineup? In explicit, the Clippers appear to be a suboptimal matchup for the Rockets given their talent to compare Houston perimeter participant for perimeter participant and loss of a standard heart to play off the ground.

Given Houston’s earlier incarnation seemed incapable of a deep playoff run, it could be a mistake to indicate the Rockets will lose as a result of going small, however that feature may in the end result in the group’s death.

What we are gazing maximum carefully within the seeding games
The extent to which the Rockets can get Harden and Russell Westbrook going on the identical time. Westbrook’s surge with higher ground spacing matched up with Harden’s recreation slipping after an MVP-caliber begin to the season.

That’s more than likely now not a accident. Basketball-Reference.com’s recreation rating presentations a constant inverse correlation between Harden’s good fortune and Westbrook’s, with Westbrook’s recreation rating losing via a 3rd of some degree for every level Harden’s recreation rating improves. Can trainer Mike D’Antoni have the opportunity to get the most productive out of each MVPs on the identical time? Keeping his activity may rely on it.

Friday’s recreation used to be encouraging in that regard, as Harden and Westbrook each crowned 30 issues in the similar recreation for most effective the 6th time all season. — Kevin Pelton

MORE: Bubble buzz — Giannis’ MVP form; Blazers’ playoff push


Chances of attaining NBA Finals
BPI: 12%
FiveThirtyEight:

How the Mavericks may just crash the NBA Finals
The Mavs exploded for 149 issues in an additional time loss on their first night time again. But that used to be no shocker, as a result of Dallas has, statistically talking, the most productive offense in NBA historical past, averaging 115.nine issues in line with 100 possessions this season after Friday’s recreation.

Luka Doncic, who posted a 28-13-10 triple double Friday, seems to have his early-season burst again after improving from a twice-sprained ankle and different bumps and bruises. Kristaps Porzingis, now a full-time heart, is a big matchup drawback who poured in 39 on Friday, one level in need of his occupation excessive.

The Dallas offense been much more prolific with Seth Curry within the beginning lineup (119.nine offensive ranking in 131 mins with that quintet). Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr., the 2 best, high-volume spot-up shooters within the league this season, have the benefit of the entire consideration defenses will have to pay to the Mavs’ younger cornerstones. That potent offense makes Dallas bad.

Why the Mavericks would possibly not make the Finals
The Mavs were completely depressing in crunch time this season, and that value them Friday’s giant recreation in opposition to Houston when Dallas placed on a stunning display for 3 quarters, constructed a large lead and fell flat within the fourth on how one can a deflating overtime loss.

That’s why the Mavs sit down 7th within the standings regardless of having the third-best level differential (plus-5.nine in line with recreation) within the Western Conference. The Mavs rank 28th in grasp internet ranking (minus-17.nine issues in line with 100 possessions) essentially as a result of that traditionally elite offense has been terrible down the stretch of shut games.

It’s onerous to quite imagine the younger Mavs will dramatically support that flaw underneath playoff force in opposition to elite festival. Doncic has proved himself in high-stakes eventualities with Real Madrid and the Slovenian nationwide group, however this would be the first style of the NBA playoffs for Porzingis and him.

What we are gazing maximum carefully within the seeding games
There are some scouts and group executives across the league who’re skeptical that Porzingis may also be the second-best participant on a valid title contender. But he indisputably seemed the section Friday night time, simply as he did within the six weeks prior to the season used to be suspended, averaging 25.2 issues, 10.nine rebounds and a pair of.Five blocks in that span.

Porzingis and Doncic have made vital strides in setting up rapport right through their first season in combination, particularly since Porzingis shifted to heart, hanging him in pick-and-rolls frequently. The Mavs imagine Porzingis may also be an elite two-way giant guy. If they are proper, Dallas will have to have a longer window as a contender. — Tim MacMahon

MORE: Doncic — ‘A lot to learn’ after tough loss to Rockets


Chances of attaining NBA Finals
BPI: 11%
FiveThirtyEight: 19%

How the Celtics may just crash the NBA Finals
Despite 2-for-18 taking pictures from Jayson Tatum on Friday, the Celtics held a fourth-quarter lead over Milwaukee and have been tied within the ultimate two mins, an early demonstration in their talent to compete for the East title in Florida.

Boston’s height six give you the skill and positionless versatility to compare up with any group’s six-man rotation, because of a couple of scorers, playmakers and switch-friendly defenders. Tatum and Kemba Walker are stars, a dynamic one-two scoring punch — assuming Tatum polishes off the rust he confirmed Friday. Jaylen Brown‘s blossoming recreation and Gordon Hayward‘s go back to well being give the Celtics extra choices on each ends. Marcus Smart is among the league’s hardest defenders, and Daniel Theis has been a revelation because the beginning heart. If the Celtics can get sufficient from these six right through what guarantees to be an intense time table, they may be able to contend for the East crown.

Why the Celtics would possibly not make the Finals
Boston’s top-end skill is elite — however there is not a lot after it, which leaves this group with little room for error. Walker’s balky knee is an issue if it continues to trouble him; he used to be restricted to 19 mins in Friday’s recreation. So, too, is the looming absence of Hayward right through the playoffs because of the upcoming start of his kid. When the Celtics have all in their items, they’re as just right as any group. But remove any of the ones hyperlinks within the chain, and issues may just temporarily fall aside in opposition to top-end fighters.

What we are gazing maximum carefully within the seeding games
Who will step as much as toughen the top-line skill? The seeding games might be used as a ramp-up duration for Boston, which is lovely locked in to the 1/3 seed within the East. That method Brad Wanamaker, Romeo Langford, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III might be combating for spots within the playoff rotation. If any of them can earn trainer Brad Stevens’ consider, that might be a boon to Boston’s possibilities of creating a deep playoff run. — Tim Bontemps

Chances of attaining NBA Finals
BPI: 5%
FiveThirtyEight: 3%

How the Nuggets may just crash the NBA Finals
Two phrases: Skinny Jokic. Aside from his inexplicably torpid begin to this season, I’ve all the time discovered the fear over Nikola Jokic‘s body slightly overwrought. But if moving into higher form right through the NBA’s stoppage of play makes Jokic extra cell defensively, giving trainer Michael Malone extra choices for protecting pick-and-rolls with out the type of competitive coverages the Nuggets have liked (in line with Second Spectrum knowledge, most effective the Chicago Bulls used both blitz or display protection extra incessantly than Denver right through the common season), it might make the Nuggets extra bad.

Why the Nuggets would possibly not make the Finals
They simply have not performed properly sufficient this season. Denver’s plus-3.zero differential ranks 6th within the Western Conference, and I’m now not certain the Nuggets could be on this team in the event that they have been 6th within the standings slightly than 1/3. The most effective group since 1999 to make the NBA Finals with a differential as vulnerable as this season’s Nuggets used to be the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers, and I do not believe that group — which had seemed within the 3 earlier Finals and performed in a vulnerable Eastern Conference — is an inexpensive comparability.

What we are gazing maximum carefully within the seeding games
Sadly, more than likely now not “Point Bol Bol” now that Denver is at rather complete energy. So as a substitute I’ll be maintaining a tally of the Nuggets’ different rookie, Michael Porter Jr. Presumably, a part of the common sense in the back of buying and selling Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez used to be clearing extra taking part in time for Porter after he averaged 12.Three issues and six.nine rebounds in 21.Four mins in line with recreation in January because of accidents. However, Porter’s mins have been nonetheless restricted to 12.7 in line with recreation when he returned from damage after the All-Star wreck. I’m curious whether or not he can earn extra mins in these seeding games. — Pelton

MORE: Continuity Rankings — teams with an edge in Orlando


Chances of attaining NBA Finals
BPI: 12%
FiveThirtyEight: 10%

How the Raptors may just crash the NBA Finals
The Raptors’ enjoy at the giant degree — now not most effective having received the NBA Finals final 12 months, but additionally beating a well-oiled Milwaukee system to take action — should not be discounted. Though Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are out of the image, the Raptors nonetheless rated fourth in our fresh NBA continuity rankings.

Any reigning champion that used to be on a just about 60-win tempo and has the most probably Coach of the Year in Nick Nurse — particularly a group that is handled the ungodly collection of accidents Toronto has — will have to be observed as a contender, particularly now that the Raps will in the end be at complete energy.

Why the Raptors would possibly not make the Finals
As superb a participant as Pascal Siakam is (and he is a respectable famous person), he is nonetheless rising into the function of a real No. 1 possibility on offense. And now not most effective is Leonard now not to be had to get giant buckets, he additionally made existence tough on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Beyond that, Toronto constructed maximum of its spectacular report via beating up on subpar festival (35-Four vs sub-.500 groups). So it is honest to wonder if the Raptors — even at complete energy — have sufficient to position them over in opposition to elite groups (11-14 vs. groups .500 or higher this season) in a playoff surroundings.

What we are gazing maximum carefully within the seeding games
After the entire accidents Toronto has been thru this season, how will the membership take care of having a complete deck? Will Nurse tighten up his rotation? How will the gamers, after such a lot of have taken on giant roles this season, take care of the ones adjustments? Stability will have to assist issues. But now that the contest has ratcheted up, with most effective playoff-contending groups, possibly we mustn’t suppose that the Raptors will do a ways higher than prior to just because they are wholesome now. — Chris Herring

MORE: Lowe’s picks for All-NBA, All-Defensive and All-Rookie


Chances of attaining NBA Finals
BPI: 6%
FiveThirtyEight:

How the Jazz may just crash the NBA Finals
The Jazz are at ease in shut games, going 26-11 in games which might be inside of 5 issues within the ultimate 5 mins. Only the Thunder (29-13) had extra grasp wins, and most effective the Bucks (15-4, .789) had the next successful share in the ones games. As he displayed within the restart opener, Donovan Mitchell has the mix of cool and the facility to create offense required to be a go-to man with the sport at the line. And two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert incessantly rises to the instance with game-saving stops.

Why the Jazz would possibly not make the Finals
The lack of Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending wrist surgical procedure right through the hiatus, leaves an enormous void. It’s in reality onerous to interchange an effective 20-PPG scorer, however it is not on the subject of the entire buckets Bogdanovic would get on a constant foundation. As an elite shooter (41.4% on 7.Three 3-point makes an attempt in line with recreation), Bogdanovic opened the ground for his teammates. Utah averaged 113.Five issues in line with 100 possessions with him at the ground and most effective 105.zero when he sat — the adaptation between being the second-best and second-worst offense within the league.

What we are gazing maximum carefully within the seeding games
How are you able to forget about the dynamic between the Jazz’s two franchise cornerstones after the tension exposed and created since March 11? On the intense aspect, the whole lot we’ve got observed up to now within the bubble backs up the conclusion during the group that Gobert and Mitchell can proceed to be one of the most NBA’s most efficient partnerships. Mitchell assisted Gobert 3 and 4 instances, respectively, within the Jazz’s final two scrimmages. To put that during viewpoint, Mitchell had 3 assists to Gobert in a recreation most effective as soon as in the past this season. And Mitchell’s feed to Gobert ended in the successful loose throws in Thursday’s victory. — MacMahon

MORE: 16 things we can’t wait to watch now that basketball is back


Chances of attaining NBA Finals
BPI: 2%
FiveThirtyEight: 33%

How the Sixers may just crash the NBA Finals
The 76ers are the group within the East very best suited to overcome the Milwaukee Bucks the use of the tactic the Raptors demonstrated in final season’s playoffs: have a protracted, sturdy, athletic wing defender play up on Giannis Antetokounmpo and funnel him into layers of huge, defensive-minded bigs to restrict his talent to wreck down the protection and end on the rim. Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Tobias Harris may just put in force this way, and if it once more slows the Bucks’ offense, the Sixers would have a valid probability to topple the most productive group within the East.

Why the Sixers would possibly not make the Finals
The 76ers have now not proven the high-level consistency, at both finish, to display their readiness to topple a juggernaut like Milwaukee. Beating the Bucks calls for groups to put in force and execute a really perfect defensive scheme whilst concurrently flattening photographs at a excessive clip in opposition to the Bucks’ top-rated protection. The Sixers have the dimensions and skill to do the previous and the person offensive skill to do the latter on nights when photographs are falling, however after an up-and-down season, hanging in combination such entire efforts 4 instances in seven games turns out not likely.

What we are gazing maximum carefully within the seeding games
The 76ers want to display that they may be able to constantly rating successfully, in particular from the outdoor. Shooting and spacing were weaknesses all season, in particular once they performed their giant lineup with Simmons on the level and Horford at energy ahead. Coach Brett Brown has moved Horford to the bench in choose of level guard Shake Milton, with Simmons nominally shifting to energy ahead. The 76ers want to display that this adjustment is sufficient to generate higher taking pictures and spacing — and in the end to present Embiid the room to dominate the internal — in the event that they need to legitimately contend. — Andre Snellings

MORE: The Sixers are the most enticing underdog in the NBA restart

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