The NBA playoffs, especially the opening round, typically hold true to form. Since 2015, the first year under the current format, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have a combined 48-11 record in the first round and all advanced to Round 2. Just one team, the 2015-16 Toronto Raptors, needed the full seven games before advancing. But look a little deeper into the league’s history, back to when the No. 8 Philadelphia 76ers took down the No. 1 Chicago Bulls in 2012 and you’ll know that first-round upsets are not impossible, especially with key players unavailable due to injury.
To find out what upsets appear to be the most likely in 2018, we created postseason probabilities based on the win rates that fuel our weekly power rankings and take into account a team’s actual win-loss record; its expected win-loss record based on points scored and allowed, also known as its Pythagorean winning percentage; and their regressed win-loss record to account for a small sample size of only 82 games played.
With that in mind, here are the most likely upsets for Round 1:
No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz
Chance of a Jazz upset: 49 percent
The Thunder might be the best-possible draw for the Jazz since it allows defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert to be matched up with a traditional center in Steve Adams rather than a more athletic player who would drag him away from the rim and closer to the perimeter. Gobert is the league’s best defender according to ESPN’s Real Plus Minus — a player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 possessions, after taking into account teammates and opponents — and does his best work closer to the basket.
No. 2 Boston Celtics vs. No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks
Chance of a Bucks upset: 44 percent
Boston will be missing Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart from the lineup with only Smart likely to return this postseason. With those two on the court, Boston outscored opponents by 10.2 net points per 100 possessions. That margin dropped to just 1.8 when they were on the bench. Smart was also one of Boston’s best defenders, ranking in the 81st percentile for points per possessions allowed.
Their absence could open the door for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to pull off the upset. Antetokounmpo was in the MVP conversation at times this season after setting career highs in points (26.9) and rebounds (8.0) per game. A dominant force near the rim, the 6-foot-9 wunderkind scored 1.4 points per possession around the basket (95th percentile) and 0.9 points per possession as the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll (80th percentile). That rose to over 1.3 points per possession when he passed the ball to the man rolling to the basket.
No. 2 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs
Chance of a Spurs upset: 42 percent
This is not a typo — the Warriors are vulnerable in the first round.
Since Steph Curry suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee in March, the Warriors have been outscored by 4.3 net points per 100 possessions. They led the league in net rating (plus-9.7) before the injury. That’s roughly the difference between a 64-win and 30-win pace over an 82-game season.
The Spurs have injury issues of their own – two-time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard hasn’t played since January – yet they still own the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA.
No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans
Chance of a Pelicans upset: 41 percent
If not for James Harden and LeBron James, we might be talking about Pelicans’ big man Anthony Davis as the league MVP.
Davis set career highs in scoring (28.1 points per game) and led the league in blocked shots (2.6 per game) and game score (24.4), a metric created by John Hollinger to give a rough measure of a player’s productivity for a single game. His effectiveness around the basket was the best in the NBA this year (1.5 points per possession) and his ability to step out to the perimeter (2.2 3-point attempts per game, 34 percent shooting) makes him a nightmare to defend.
No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers
Chance of a Pacers upset: 35 percent
The key for the Pacers, like any team facing the Cavaliers, will be how well they can limit James from taking over the game. To its credit, Indiana did a good job defending James during the regular season because the Pacers excel at defending iso, or man-to-man, situations, a staple of James’s offense (24 percent of his possessions). Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo all rank in the 70th percentile or better in terms of points allowed per possession and as a team the Pacers rank No. 4 overall (0.84 points per possession).
In the teams’ four head-to-head matchups in 2017-18, James had a positive net rating in just one game which, not surprisingly, was Cleveland’s only win in the series. That’s in line with Cleveland’s 5-30 record this season when James has a negative net rating.
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 6 Miami Heat
Chance of a Heat upset: 25 percent
Miami catches a break in this series — Joel Embiid has a facial fracture and said on Wednesday he won’t start the series — and has the depth and experience to shock a young 76ers team that relies heavily on rookie Ben Simmons. Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade of Miami, on the other hand, have played in 202 playoff games between them.
And while the Heat did not have a player score more than 18 points per game this season, they did have nine players average at least double-digit points per contest. Miami’s bench also outscored opponents by 2.3 net points per 100 possessions during the regular season, the seventh-most in the NBA. Philadelphia’s bench, meanwhile, didn’t even break even (minus-0.6).
No. 1 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards
Chance of a Wizards upset: 12 percent
If the Wizards are to have any chance in this series, point guard and floor general John Wall must take care of the ball.
Wall turned the ball over 20 percent of the time in transition (42nd out of 44 players) and 22 percent of the time when acting as the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll (82nd out of 85 players), resulting in an overall offensive efficiency that places him in the 24th percentile this season. Some of that may be due to his injury – he missed half the season in 2017-18 — but no matter what the reason the Wizards will need Wall at his best to advance.
No. 1 Houston Rockets vs. No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves
Chance of a Timberwolves upset: 11 percent
The Rockets swept the season series with the Timberwolves. Minnesota allows the ninth-most 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, a terrible trait when facing a Rockets team that thrives behind the 3-point line shooting a league-high 42.3 3-point shots per game with a success rate of 36 percent. The Timberwolves are also the worst at guarding the rim (1.3 points allowed per possession), another strength of the Rockets.
If James Harden and Chris Paul somehow miss this series then Minnesota has a chance. With them on the court Houston outscores opponents by 13.5 net points per 100 possessions; it is outscored by 6.9 points per 100 possessions when they are both on the bench.
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