The first round began with a string of predictable finishes and expected blowouts, but since then the postseason has offered up a host of competitive, entertaining series. Between Thursday and Friday alone, we'll bear witness to six Game 6s -- each capable of extending the life of that particular series or eliminating a team from the postseason.
Some underdogs are a legitimate risk to strike an improbable upset, while others are merely hanging around in a series that is all but decided. Below is an ordering of those underdogs, beginning with the most likely upset candidates and finishing with the least likely.
1. Brooklyn Nets (down 3-2 to the Chicago Bulls)
Upset Threat Level: Moderate
After losing Game 5, the Bulls have two more chances to pull out a series win amid a mess of injuries*. Joakim Noah has nobly dragged his aching foot up and down the court to surprising effect, but it's this latest calf injury to Kirk Hinrich (which will keep him out of Game 6, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune) that gives me pause in evaluating Chicago's close-out efforts. The Bulls' roster is in such a state that every high-end rotation player is essential, and, in the context of this series, Hinrich may be one of the Chicago's most important players. His heads-up defense against Deron Williams has both set the tone for the Bulls in coverage and bought time for a slowed Noah and consistently spotty Carlos Boozer to rotate into proper position, which is to say nothing of his bit scoring or steady playmaking. Hinrich has carved out a successful career by playing unspectacular basketball, but there's been a certain daring to the way he's badgered Williams so relentlessly and a profound and measurable difference in the way the Bulls defend with him on the court.
The injuries to Hinrich and Noah make it consistently difficult for the Bulls to guard the Nets' two best players, Williams and Brook Lopez. The pair managed 51 points on just 34 shots in Game 5, along with 10 assists from the former and 10 rebounds from the latter. But Chicago has shown it can survive a great game from Lopez as long as the rest of the coverage is airtight -- a virtual impossibility without Hinrich active and mobile.
In better health, Chicago seemingly could be counted on to wrap up this series. But at the moment, there are just way too many factors in play that could aid a potential upset (a regression to the mean for the Bulls' oddly efficient scoring, a potentially exhausted Nate Robinson, another potentially passive performance from Boozer, a bounce-back game or two from Gerald Wallace, some added impromptu scoring from Joe Johnson, etc.).
*In addition to Noah's and Hinrich's injuries, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are ill and will be considered game-time decisions for Game 6.
2. Denver Nuggets (down 3-2 to the Golden State Warriors)
Upset Threat Level: Moderate
I hesitate to say that Denver turned the corner in a game it won by such uncharacteristic means (nearly matching Golden State in threes doesn't exactly constitute "Nuggets basketball"), but there were a few very encouraging signs for the Nuggets in Game 5. First and foremost: a more heavily involved Andre Iguodala, who put together his best offensive game of the postseason (25 points on 17 shots, seven assists, 12 rebounds) while face-guarding Stephen Curry for significant stretches. It's draining to expend that much energy on both ends in a series with this many possessions, but at this point I'm not sure that Denver has any choice; Curry has just assaulted the Nuggets' on-ball traps and off-ball scrambles, and figures to do so again if given the opportunity.
Beyond that, it's nice to see Kenneth Faried moving around more freely, as it's clear his speed and explosiveness are returning after he suffered an ankle injury at the tail end of the regular season. He's become so important for Denver as both a floor-covering close-out option and a lone big man in smaller lineups, and the fact that he's leaping for boards and sprinting toward loose balls with more zest should be something of a relief to George Karl and the Nuggets.
Still, Denver has been the lesser team over the course of this series, and has a lot left to prove in these final games. The half-court offense remains problematic -- particularly late in games -- and upping Iguodala's responsibilities isn't some defensive panacea. The Nuggets are still at risk of botching rotations and messing up their switches, particularly if the officials respond to Mark Jackson's recent accusations of underhanded tactics by calling a tighter game. That kind of shift in officiating could well help the Nuggets (whose offense is built on driving, if to a fault) as well, to say nothing of the way that entire subplot seems to have gotten players on both sides riled up.
By tightening the screws defensively and unsettling Curry a bit, the Nuggets have at the very least made this series an open contest. But with Denver's range of performance so wide, there's really no telling how this series might break.
3. Houston Rockets (down 3-2 to the Oklahoma City Thunder)
Upset Threat Level: Simmering
Life without Russell Westbrook has been rough on the Thunder, who are three unbelievably fortunate bounces -- on one shot, mind you -- away from being on the ropes in this series. Reggie Jackson has done well enough in spots, but Oklahoma City's usual starting (and high-usage) lineup has been a disaster with him involved, leaving Scott Brooks with little choice but to go small (Houston's desired playing style) on a more frequent basis. The Thunder had no problem running and gunning with another high-value shot creator in the fold, but the burden on Kevin Durant has made OKC's offense drag, and the turn to smaller lineups has only helped to highlight some of the team's defensive blunders. Serge Ibaka has been put in an impossible situation in these lineups, with the Thunder depending on him to be an invaluable rim protector and an out-of-place perimeter defender. That's a lot to ask of any big man, especially when so many of the Thunder's lineups feature Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher and the relatively unschooled Jackson on the perimeter.
All of which leaves the Rockets entirely too much offensive freedom and access to too many quality shots. What's interesting, though: When operating in smaller sets, things aren't so different for Oklahoma City's offense working against Houston's defense. Omer Asik is asked to cover an absurd amount of space and help with incredible frequency, all of which should work to the Thunder's favor as they look to score against a mediocre defensive team. We saw some of that in play in Game 5 as Oklahoma City finally grasped that the extra wrap-around/dump pass would be there on most every drive after drawing Asik's rotation, but the Thunder are held back by having worse shooters lining the perimeter and fewer dynamic offensive players overall.
The Thunder are a team built to sustain by way of Westbrook and Durant, and with one out for the postseason, Oklahoma City is very clearly vulnerable. But with Durant still in the fold, the Thunder maintain the edge.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (down 3-2 to the Memphis Grizzlies)
Upset Threat Level: Slipping
Another series that may well be decided by default thanks to an unfortunate injury. Blake Griffin may not have suffered some season-ending break or tear, but the horrid timing -- and rumored swelling -- of his ankle sprain put the Clippers in a very difficult spot. The first four games of this series suggested this would be a seven-game affair, but now Los Angeles will have to find a way to scrape by without its second-leading scorer and rebounder against one of the toughest-defending and most effective rebounding teams in the league. When all involved are healthy, this is an incredible matchup. But with Griffin hobbling (and lacking in the foundation to both battle Zach Randolph on the block and box him out with consistency), L.A. risks seeing the entire Grizzlies defense orient itself to Chris Paul's every move. He's proved that he can score in spite of that kind of attention (as he did with his 35 points on 24 shots in Game 5), but balance will be key and Memphis has done a fine job of also muting some of the complementary rotation types.
If this series extends beyond Friday night, it will be on the basis of Griffin's ankle improving with an extra day's rest, Eric Bledsoe terrorizing the Grizz in the way he often does and some combination of Matt Barnes/Caron Butler/Chauncey Billups giving the Clippers more useful minutes. None of that is beyond possibility, and the additional time off between Games 6 and 7 would only make Griffin and the Clips more formidable in a winner-take-all setting. I just see the Grizzlies as being a bit too much for this Clippers team to overcome, as the series was leaning slightly in Memphis' favor even before Griffin tweaked his ankle and widened the gap.
woke up from an offensive slumber in a Game 5 win. Can they keep it up? (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
5. Boston Celtics (down 3-2 to the New York Knicks)
Upset Threat Level: Exactly proportional to Boston's offensive efficiency
The proposition here is simple: If you trust the Celtics to maintain some relatively steady level of offense over the next two games, then you likely think that they have a realistic chance to win this series. I do not. Boston's execution was far crisper in Game 5 than it has been at any other point this postseason, but the Celtics still nearly fumbled away a game in which Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith shot a combined 11-for-38. Kevin Garnett was great, Jason Terry looked like his old, saber-rattling self again and Jeff Green and Brandon Bass contributed wonderfully. I just don't see it breaking the same way two more times, as Boston has done far too little to inspire confidence in its ability to score consistently.
6. Atlanta Hawks (down 3-2 to the Indiana Pacers)
Upset Threat Level: Chilly
After displaying some offensive command over the first two games of this series and falling apart in the two that followed, the Pacers seem to have rediscovered their game. In Game 5, David West
was as imposing as we know he can be against single coverage (most every Hawks big man had his turn), Roy Hibbert
countered a poor shooting night with 14 free-throw attempts and Indiana found ways to free up George Hill
as a scorer after he had been bottled up in two consecutive games. The Pacers aren't a dominant scoring team by any means, making their pitfalls in Games 3 and 4 relatively understandable. But now Frank Vogel has given his squad a chance to regain its feet, all while maneuvering more effectively through some of the more difficult defensive matchups in play.