With the prominence of the Warriors in the West and the Cavaliers in the East, other competitors are overlooked, or not even considered. Here are three candidates that could steal the show in the NBA playoffs come April.
3. Utah Jazz (18-10, 1st in Northwest Division)
Long gone is the team that made the playoffs 20 consecutive seasons from 1983 to 2002, the Jazz are coming off a four-year postseason drought. However, Utah is trending upward at a vicious rate ranking within the NBA’s top six in offensive and defensive ratings.
The Jazz’ success starts with their defense. Utah leads the NBA in fewest points allowed and their French big Rudy Gobert has established himself as a premier rim-protector. Gobert ranks third in defensive rating thanks in large part to his league-leading 73 blocks. Gobert’s offense is improving rapidly as he leads the league in offensive rating and shooting percentage. In the month of December, Gobert is shooting an unheard of 77.6% from the field.
The surging Jazz may hold the recipe for spoiling the Warriors’ plans at returning to the NBA Finals: depth, veterans and stars. The Jazz have 7 players averaging over nine points per game, added veterans with playoff experience (Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw and George Hill) and progressed breakout stars Gobert and swingman Gordon Hayward. Hayward has bumped up his scoring average in each of his seven seasons in the league and is on the fast track to the category of top scorers in the league.
Look for the Jazz to climb the standings in the West if their injuries dissipate and Gobert continues to steal the show.
2. Toronto Raptors (19-8, 1st in Atlantic Division)
Without the Raptors in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers could probably stroll into the NBA Finals without LeBron James. However, Toronto, winners in 11 of their last 13, intends to be that roadblock in the East which has been non-existent for LeBron over the last six years.
The last team to stymie James in the East? The 2010 Boston Celtics led by the big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Raptors have a similar core to that Celtics team. They have a big three of their own: Demar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan fits the Paul Pierce mold leading their teams in scoring and dominating their team’s usage rate. Valanciunas matches Garnett in his skill set and both match up pretty well in these mirrored seasons (Valanciunas in ’16-17: 12.3 PPG, 9.5 RPG, Garnett in ’09-10: 14.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG). The difference maker is Kyle Lowry. Alongside Boston’s big three was passing aficionado Rajon Rondo. Lowry breaks the mold and takes the role of both Rondo and sharpshooter Ray Allen for the Raptors. While Lowry lacks the ability to match Rondo and Allen’s respective skills of passing and shooting, he houses both skills in spades and denies the pass-only point guard role while also averaging 7.3 assists per game.
What is the missing element for the Raptors? Veterans. In 2010, the Celtics were crawling with veterans: Garnett, Pierce, Rasheed Wallace and Brian Scalabrine to name a quick few. Lowry is the only Raptor with double-digit years of experience in the NBA. The 2010 Celtics had six such players. Before the deadline, the Raptors should look at a veteran dead-eye shooter to bolster their late-game playoff presence–a characteristic lacking in their 4-2 series loss to the Cavs last playoffs.
1. Houston Rockets (21-7, 2nd in Southwest Division)
How do you beat the high-powered Golden State offense? More offense I guess. Since starting the year 11-7, the Rockets have rattled off 10 straight wins beginning with a 132-127 win over the Warriors. Houston is the only team to score 130+ against Golden State.
Their secret? Three-point barrages.
The Rockets average 38.9 three-pointers attempted which is five more than the next closest team. Over their last two games, they have attempted 112 threes and made 41. Last Friday against the Pelicans, the Rockets set NBA records for the most three-pointers made and attempted at a 24-61 clip. Houston has four players averaging more than six three-point attempts–16 teams don’t have one such player.
Another key to the Rockets success this year has been their health. Four of their five starters have started in all 28 games along with their top five scorers.
The Rockets finish near the top of the list for the best off-season in the NBA this year. The additions of sharpshooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have jump-started the Rockets offense, and the shedding of liabilities Josh Smith, Dwight Howard and Ty Lawson.
The Rockets have a seemingly perfect balance of youth and experience, but their frontcourt will be tested with the injury to starting center Clint Capela sidelining him for 4-6 weeks. Look for veteran Nene Hilario and second-year power forward Montrezl Harrell to fill Capela’s void.
Honorable Mention: Russell Westbrook (I mean, Oklahoma City Thunder), Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks