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How every Eastern Conference underdog can win their first round series (and why they probably won’t)

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Ben Mertens makes the case for David over Goliath in Every First Round Series

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Playoffs are finally, mercifully here! But maybe you’re not as excited as you wish. A lot of these first round matchups look like foregone conclusions. Could the second round get here already?

(Want to check out my Western Conference breakdown? You can find it here.)

Worry not. To get you excited and in prime “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” mode, I’ve made the case for how the underdog can win each series- and then, for the sake of balance, explained why the favorite will probably still pull it out in the end, before offering a prediction for each series. I’ve also ranked the chances of an upset on the following highly scientific scale:

1- No Chance in Hell

2- You’re probably better off just buying a powerball ticket than predicting this

3- So you’re telling me there’s a chance

4- The spirits of Joe Namath & Baron Davis smile on you, noble underdog

5- This wouldn’t even be an upset. The wrong team is favored

Onto the Eastern Conference

(All Stats per Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted)


Pistons (8) vs Bucks (1)

Why the Pistons Can Win

Despite limping into the playoffs by finishing 4-6, the Pistons did lock up a spot in the playoffs by smashing the Knicks on the last day of the season to secure the 8th seed. Yippee! As a reward they will get to face this year’s best team, the Milwaukee Bucks. Less Yippee.

When the Pistons attack on offense, they’ll have the chance to bomb away from 3 if they want- the Bucks allow the most 3 point attempts in the league. That’s by design. The Bucks defensive system is focused mostly on barricading the rim- they allow the lowest attempts and FG% at the rim of any team in the league. To do that, the Bucks are willing to overhelp from bad and so-so opposing shooters, particularly above the break, and dare those guys to beat them. While the Bucks will stay attached to guys like Wayne Ellington, shakier shooters like Reggie Jackson, Ish smith, and even Blake Griffin will probably find themselves left open from behind the arc, with the basket calling their name.

They should resist the temptation. If you are open from 3, the Bucks left you open on purpose. You may make some, but you won’t make enough over a 7 game series to win, especially since the Pistons are in the bottom 10 in 3 point accuracy in the league. The Pistons should be comfortable with their best shooters letting it fly, but their more average shooters should instead look to attack the closeout and try to finish at the rim against the scrambled defense, or kick out after making it to the paint to a better shooter. That’s not a perfect strategy, since the Bucks, again, are the best rim protection team in the league. But by attacking the now out of position defense, the Pistons may find enough decent looks at the rim to get by.

Avoiding taking too many 3’s is also important for Detroit because missed 3 point attempts also don’t allow as good a chance for offensive rebounds as missed layups. The Pistons need offensive rebounds to win this series. Their best hope is to suck the pace out of the game and snatch extra possessions off of offensive rebounds and try to win a low scoring, grind it out affair. In other words, play like it’s still 2004. DEEEEEE-TROIT BASKETBALL!

The Bucks are as good at taking away offensive rebounds as the Pistons are at getting them, ranking in the top three in the league in preventing opposing offensive rebounds. For the Pistons to pull off a grit and grind strategy, they’ll need peak Andre Drummond. The big man has played the best basketball of his life over the last couple months, averaging nearly 6 offensive rebounds per game (and a jaw dropping 17 total rebounds per game, along with very efficient scoring). The Bucks will send multiple huge bodies at the glass to prevent him from getting the rebounds, and if Detroit sends too many guys at the offensive glass the Bucks will get out in transition, where they rank, you guessed it, in the top 3 in scoring efficiency. That means Drummond will often alone in trying to haul in those offensive rebounds.

Why They Probably Won’t

The chances of the offensive gambit described above are low. The Bucks excel at defending the rim and keeping opponents off the glass. The Pistons may struggle to generate much offense at all- the Bucks are full of long, nasty perimeter defenders who can snuff out the Pistons pick and roll attacks. If the Pistons succeed in generating a switch, they may not even create much of an advantage- Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton will still make Blake Griffin’s life miserable even if they do switch onto him, and the Bucks as mentioned will be happy to send help at Blake post-switch and dare Reggie Jackson to beat them from distance (they are also long and quick enough that they can usually recover to get at least a semi-contest against the guys they purposefully leave open). Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe will both be able to chase Ellington around and prevent him from getting clean looks. The Pistons may finish a lot of possessions with bad mid-rangers and contested desperation 3’s.

But let’s say their offensive plan does succeed, and the Pistons scrounge together a good offensive showing. They still don’t have a prayer of defending the Bucks on the other end. The Pistons allow one of the highest percentages at the rim, where Giannis Antetokounmpo absolutely feasts. The Pistons’ best hope is probably to have Blake Griffin guard him, but Blake’s athleticism is not what it once was and Giannis will be able to win that one-on-one battle more often than not. From there, it’s a matter of pick your poison- leave Blake alone and let Giannis get whatever he wants inside, or send help at Giannis and let him kick it out to an open shooter, of which the Bucks have a plethora. Brook Lopez’s 3 point range at the center spot means Andre Dummond will spend huge chunks of the game defending at the 3 point line, which will allow the Bucks to grab some offensive rebounds of their own. Middelton and Eric Bledsoe are both capable secondary playmakers who can get buckets for themselves and others even if the Pistons force the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands. The Pistons have things they can try, but Milwaukee has too many counters.

Upset Rating: 1- No Chance in Hell

Most Likely Outcome: Bucks in Four

Orlando Magic (7) vs Toronto Raptors (2)

Why the Magic Can Win

The Magic are ROLLING, and even if momentum isn’t as big a deal as our recency bias addled brains would think, they can still feel confident in their recent performance. The Magic went 15-8 post All-Star break and had the 5th best net rating in the NBA during that time, an impressive +6.6. The Magic were a great defensive team for most of the season, finishing in the top 10 in defensive rating, and played even better on that end down the stretch. They also had an offense to match as the season wound down, posting an offensive rating of 113.7 in their final 23 games, an elite mark that would’ve been 5th best in the league if sustained for the whole season.

Can they continue to play at such a high level against a team with legitimate Finals aspirations? Defensively, they have the personnel at least to make the Raptors earn it. The Magic start a huge front court, with Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac at the 3 and 4 alongside All-Star Nikola Vucevic. That makes them well suited to defend the Raptors, who also start two big and skilled forwards in Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, alongside Marc Gasol at center. The Magic have the size at least to stop Toronto from just overwhelming them with size and length, which Toronto has done against smaller teams. The Magic use their size well, preventing teams from getting to the rim while also not giving up too many 3 pointers.T he have a chance to force Toronto into a ton of tough looks.

On offense, their best bet is to force Marc Gasol, a strong post defender who’s lost some his mobility in his older age, to defend Nikola All-Star Vucevic in space. Vucevic can pop after setting the screen, extending Gasol out to the 3 point line and giving Vuc the option to shoot or drive past him, or he can roll and force Gasol to hedge between him and the ballhandler. Vuc is a threat to score himself in either situation or playmake for others.

Why they Probably Won’t

The Raptors can counter the Magic’s best plans far too easily. When the Magic use Vuc in the pick and roll on offense, The Raptors have two excellent help defenders in Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard who will be guarding two shaky shooters, and will be happy to play far off of Issac and Gordon to muck up the pick and roll. If the series comes down to Jonathan Issac being able to hit 3 pointers, the Magic are in trouble. Crafty cutting can mitigate this somewhat, as can using Gordon as the handler in pick and roll with Vuc, but trusting Gordon to dribble and playmake with playoff mode activated Kawhi Leonard guarding him is a big risk.

Running actions for Evan Fournier? Danny Green, one of the best guard defenders in the league, will hound him on or off the ball. The Raptors are too athletic, smart and engaged to allow much scoring off cuts if the Magic use Vuc as a playmaker as a passer at the elbows or from the post. Kyle Lowry will make D.J. Augustin’s life hard.

And on offense, while the Magic do have the size to make the Raptors take some tough shots, the Raptors excel at tough shots. Leonard is one of the best isolation scorers in the league, no matter who’s guarding him. Jonathan Isaac is the right kind of defender to stick on Siakam, but use Siakam as the screener in pick and roll with Kyle Lowry can create favorable outcomes for Toronto. if the Magic try playing Terrance Ross and Fournier together to increase their spacing on offense, one of them will end up having to guard Leonard or Siakam. Good luck with that.

Upset Rating: 2- You’re probably better off just buying a powerball ticket than predicting this.

Most Likely Outcome: Raptors in 4.

Brooklyn Nets (6) vs Philadelphia 76ers (3)

Why the Nets can win

I think this matchup will be a tougher one for Philly that what the starting lineups would make you think. It’s true that Brooklyn doesn’t have star player on the level of Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons, or even Jimmy Butler.

What they do have is a team that fits together well, plays an impressively team-oriented style of basketball, and at it’s best makes up for it’s a lack of a true superstar creator by taking high value shots- Brooklyn takes the 5th most 3 pointers in the NBA per game while taking less dreaded midrangers than all but a handful of teams, per cleaning the glass. The Nets only make their 3’s at a league average clip of about 35%, but taking a bunch 3 pointers and converting at an average rate is still better than taking a bunch of mid-rangers and making them at a high volume. If the Nets get hot (or lucky, if you prefer) and knock in their 3’s at rate closer to 40%, they can hang with Philly.

The Sixers are very good at defending the 3 point line, ranking in the top 5 in the league in both number of opponents 3 point attempts allowed and opponent 3 point percentage. However, the Sixers do tend to struggle against fast, trigger happy point guards running pick and roll. Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell are both threats to rise up off the dribble if Philly gives them space to do so in the pick and roll, and both are capable playmakers in the pick and roll- if Philly overhelps they’ll be able to find catch and shoot opportunities for teammates.

Brooklyn also has a chance to catch the Sixers at a time Philly is still trying to figure things out. Since trading for Tobias Harris in February, the Sixers have a net rating of just +1.7. We would expect a team with such a net rating to win only 45 games over a whole season. (On the season as a whole, the Sixers posted a net rating of only +2.6, which would translate to about 47 wins). If you think the Sixers are closer to being a 45 win team than a 51 win team, it doesn’t seem so implausible to think the Nets could push them in a series. Since the Harris trade, Philly has been league average on offense and defense, despite the presence of so many scoring threats. The Nets have been a top 10 defense for the last two months of the season, and have big defenders like Rodions Kurucs and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson who can give Simmons, Butler and Harris problems. If the Sixers get stuck offensively and the Nets are in the zone from deep, Philadelphia could find itself in trouble.

Why They Probably Won’t

If Philly does click into place, it’s curtains for Brooklyn — Philly can overwhelm them with star power if their roster is firing on all cylinders. There’s a good chance that happens.

Philly’s current starting 5 has logged only 353 possessions together, but they’ve posted a gargantuan +22.4 net rating when they’ve played as a unit. They’re all available heading into this series, and Philly’s lack of depth which is the real reason their net rating has been so pedestrian since the trade, will matter less in the playoffs when Brett Brown can just play the starters even more (though it still will matter some, particularly in later rounds, that Philly’s best player off the bench is probably...TJ McConnell)

Even if Philly does continue to look disjointed and gets absolutely nothing from its bench (likely), they still have a major edge: they can throw the ball to Joel Embiid and the Nets will have little chance of stopping him. The last time these teams faced off in the regular season (the only time the Nets played the Harris iteration of the Sixers) Embiid dropped 39 points on the Nets’ heads, while also racking up 6 assists. Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis will not be able to stop him one-on-one down low.

The Nets have some counters- they can try to double Embiid, who gets turnover prone when he tries to play point guard. They should be comfortable ignoring Simmons and McConnell almost completely when they’re off the ball. The Nets have gone to a zone defense often this season, which barricades the paint and forces teams to try to beat them from 3 point land, and that too could give Philly some headaches. But Embiid is a monstrous force- the Nets will be hoping to keep him off balance and limit him, not stop him entirely. Even if they succeed, the Sixers have enough playmaking (from Simmons and Butler) and shooting (from Redick and Harris) to capitalize when Brooklyn sells out to stop Embiid. Embiid is battling an injury, and if he’s limited Brooklyn’s chances improve, but I would still assume he’ll play 30+ minutes per night.

Brooklyn has a better chance than the teams records would indicate, but in the end Philadelphia has 4 of the 5 best players in the series, arguably the top 4. Their talent advantage should win out in the end.

Upset Rating: 3 - So you’re telling me there’s a chance

Most Likely Outcome: Sixers in 6.

Boston Celtics (4) vs Indiana Pacers (5)

Why the Pacers can win

The Pacer’s are a defense-first team, and they will end up finishing the year with the 4th ranked defense in the NBA, per Cleaning the glass. But that’s a bit misleading, because Indiana is not the same team ever since losing Victor Oladipo for the season in January. Since their star shooting guard went down, the Pacers have only the 11th ranked defense, and have been more an above average unit than an elite one without Oladipo. Still: defense is where they’ll make a potential upset happen.

Even after Oladipo’s injury and subsequent defensive decline, the Pacers have been 2nd in the league in forcing turnovers. But that strength is somewhat mitigated by Boston being one of the best teams in the league at avoiding turnovers, ranking third in the league. Something has to give, and if Indiana can force Boston into more mistakes than usual, they’ll be limiting Boston’s offense and giving themselves more transition opportunities- key, since Boston is also one of the best defenses in the league.

Part of the reason Boston is turns it over so rarely is that they almost never attack inside, preferring to take the bulk of their shots from mid-range and behind the arc. That does take away one of Indiana’s biggest strengths — Myles Turner’s elite rim protection. But it also means Boston rarely gets to the free throw line and rarely gets offensive rebounds (a plus- open of Indiana’s lone weaknesses on defense is a tendency to allow offensive boards), and it means Boston takes a ton of shots from mid-range, an area Indiana excels at defending. Boston shoots the 4th highest percentage from mid-range, while Indiana allows the second lowest percentage from mid-range. Just like the turnover battle, something here has to give.

Indiana’s strategy should be to tilt Boston’s shot selection even further to the midrange. Sell out to run Boston’s shooters off the 3 point line, gifting them the inside. Dare them to drive into the paint, confident that the they probably won’t and if they do Turner will be there to meet them. If Boston wins by shooting mostly mid range jumpers, you tip your cap to them. But even for a good midrange team like Boston the midrange is an inefficient shot. If Indy can force Boston into more turnovers than typical and push them into taking too many midrangers (something Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum are very prone to doing), Indy can strangle Boston’s offense .

Why the Probably Won’t

Even if Indy suffocates Boston’s offense, they will have major problems scoring on the other end. Indy caught a major break with the news that Marcus Smart will miss the entire series; Smart is the Celtics best defender and their best option against Bojan Bogdanovic, who has taken over as the Pacers main scoring option in the absence of Oladipo. The Celtics’ most obvious move is to insert Jaylen Brown into the starting lineup and task him or Jayson Tatum with guarding Bogdanovic, but neither of those guys are Smart (to be clear, they aren’t Marcus Smart. But they’re both very intelligent).

The Pacers will need to take full advantage of Smart’s absence and get Bogdanovic high quality looks. When these teams faced off on March 29th, Bojan put up 27 points on an 8-13 shooting night, and the Pacers lost narrowly, falling to a last second Kyrie Irving dagger to lose 114-112. One week later, the teams faced off again, and Smart completely shut down Bogdanovic, who finished with just 4 points on 1-8 shooting. The Pacers lost by 20.

The Pacers boast a balanced attack, with all 5 of their starters and super sixth man Domantas Sabonis all averaging double digit points per game. But Bogdanovic is the bellwether for this series. The Celtics have good personnel for defending a lot of the Pistons other offensive options- Al Horford can handle Myles Turner pick and pops and defend Sabonis near the rim, as can Aron Baynes. If Horford guards Thad Young instead, he can play a lot of free safety without worrying about Young’s shaky 3 point jumper. Darren Collison is exactly the kind of point guard the Celtics are happy to have Kyrie Irving guard, and if they’re not, they can also stick Irving on Wes Matthews, who is a decent 3 point shooter but little else (the Celtics should be thrilled with any possessions that involves Matthews attempting to drive). If Brown or Tatum (or even Gordon Hayward) can stymie Bogdanovic on and off the ball, Indy won’t generate many good shots. If he is able to get it going, Boston will need to focus more attention on him which will open the rest of the team up.

Even if Indy is able to succeed in shutting down Boston’s offense, they’ll need a great offensive performances form Bogdanovic to win. It’s just hard to see that happening 4 times in 7 games.

Upset Rating: 3 - So you’re telling me there’s a chance.

Most Likely Outcome: Boston in 6