This year’s March Madness has been another example of why you should never underestimate the underdog. The NBA playoffs race is close and the addition of the play-in games has the race as tight as it can be in both conferences. Now that the NBA trade deadline has passed, it’s time for the NBA playoffs push. Some teams have retooled and are poised to make some noise for the rest of the season. We’re going to highlight the six teams that are being slept on to make a late playoff run this season.
6.) New York Knicks
The Knicks have emerged as a serious contender in the Eastern Conference this season on the backs of 1st-time All-Star Julius Randle and the gritty philosophy coach Tom Thibodeau has brought to this organization. The Knicks sit in the 5th seed with a record of 23-22. They will have to continue the hardnosed play and bring the same intensity to the NBA playoffs.
Julius Randle is averaging 23 PPG, 11 RPG, and 6 APG while shooting the three-ball at 43% on 5 attempts per game, all being career highs. The Knicks as a team have played great defense and rebound the ball with some of the best teams in the league. The Knicks are top 5 in defensive rating and are sitting as the 8th best team in total rebounding percentage. The Knicks are 2nd to last in 3 point attempts and pace, so they are a team that will make a series ugly for whoever they match up with. Look out for the Knicks to turn a playoff series into a boxing match in the upcoming NBA playoffs.
5.) Memphis Grizzles
This year’s Grizzlies team is very exciting to watch and might be a team that can push a top team in the West to their limits. This team has all the tools, but the biggest downfall for this squad is the abundance of youth and inexperience. The Grizzles are the 8th best defense in the league while also toting the 6th best defensive rebounding percentage in the league. This team’s youth is also a positive propelling the Grizz to 2nd in Fastbreak points. They also lead the league with the most points off turnovers and points in the paint. This team will be a problem for whoever they face in the NBA playoffs.
The leader of the Grizzlies attack is the dynamic ’19-’20 NBA Rookie of the year, Ja Morant. He’s improved off of a crazy rookie season and is averaging 19 PPG, 3 RPG, and 7 APG. Morant has led this team to a 21-20 record and has them sitting at the 9th seed in the West. The Grizzlies are poised to make a run for the 8th seed but even if they stay put at the 9th seed, they’ll have a chance at the play in games. The youthful Grizzlies still have plenty of room to grow but if they can stay in the race they’ll be a really tough opponent to knock off.
4.) Miami Heat
The Miami Heat had to fight through unreal expectations early this season following the excellent playoff run they had last year. The Heat did not start the year off well at all but made their way back into the NBA Playoffs race by the All-Star break. The Heat may look like a middle-of-the-pack team on paper, but they have something you can’t measure on a stat sheet and that’s heart. The fact that they are a sleeper team despite being the reigning Eastern Conference champions just shows how underrated they are and how little attention they pay to outside noise.
The Heat pride themselves on the culture they’ve built in Miami; tough, relentless, gritty underdogs. The guy that checks off all of those boxes is Jimmy “Buckets” Butler. Butler has led this team to the 7th spot in the Eastern Conference with a 22-23 record. He is averaging 21 PPG, 8 RPG, 7 APG and is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career.
The Heat made a couple of big moves at the NBA deadline that made them a scarier team for NBA Playoffs. The Heat traded for a stretch big in Nemanja Bjelica from the Sacramento Kings, giving up Moe Harkless and Chris Silva in the process. They also made a buzzer-beater trade to pick up All-Star Victor Oladipo. They gave up Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk while also giving the Rockets a pick swap to finish the deal. The Heat are going to hit their stride at the right time for the NBA Playoffs, and the deadline moves helped their case substantially.
3.) Golden State Warriors
The Warriors haven’t been in a position to feel underrated in a long time, but this season the Warriors may have an underrated squad when the NBA Playoffs start. The Warriors are playing team ball with some of the best teams in the league, and that’s when they are truly dangerous. The Warriors have the 6th best defense in the league currently. They were known for insane offense and elite defense in previous seasons, and they have once again leaned on their defense and togetherness this season. The Dubs are sitting at the 10th seed with a record of 22-22, but if this team can get an opportunity to squeak into the play-in tournament the Warriors may upset some people around the league.
Of course, the man leading the charge is none other than the “greatest shooter of all time” Steph Curry. Curry is averaging 29 PPG, 6 RPG, and 3 APG this year, and his leadership has been exceptional this season, lifting this team from one of the worst teams last year to a legit sleeper team this season. Time will tell if the Warriors will make the NBA Playoffs, but if they do, whoever they face will see a team with pieces that have championship DNA combined with young talent. The Warriors have the recipe to shake the NBA playoffs up if they get hot.
2.) Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets are coming off a surprise run to the Western Conference finals last year in the bubble, and this season they are on track to write a similar story. They’ve suffered through inconsistent play for most of the year but still are talented enough to stay in the middle of the NBA Playoffs race. The Nuggets are sitting at the 5th seed in the Western Conference with a 26-18 record and are still trying to find a footing in the wild western conference standings.
The Nuggets made a huge move this trade deadline by grabbing disgruntled star Aaron Gordon from the Orlando Magic. The Nuggets gave up Gary Harris, RJ Hampton, and a first-round pick in exchange for Gordon and forward Gary Clark. The Nuggets received a decent piece to an already top-tier offense, but Gordon will help their defense more than anything. The Nuggets are dead set in the middle of the league defensively but have the 5th best offense.
The elite offense goes through arguably the best big man in the league, Nikola Jokić. Jokić is by far the best passing big in the league, and he is making a solid case for MVP this season. He is putting up video game numbers with 27 PPG, 11 RPG, and 8.5 APG. Those are crazy numbers when you watch Jokić waddle up and down the court as if he’s not trying. The game just comes easy to Jokić, and he has his Nuggets in a great position to send some teams home when the NBA Playoffs come around once again.
1.) Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers are another team in the middle of the NBA Playoffs race, but they have a chip on their shoulder from being slept on year after year. The attitude that their leader Damian Lillard has is that he is underappreciated and overlooked. It’s hard to top the top-tier teams in bigger markets, but Lillard’s play is top-tier and everyone knows it. The Blazers are another scrappy team that just play hard and have a solid offense. The Blazers have the 6th best offense and are 3rd in 2nd chance points. They also take care of the ball, sitting as the 2nd best team in turnover percentage.
The NBA Playoffs are where the Blazers will be able to catch fire and key in on the matchup that’s in front of them. It’s almost impossible to gameplan for a guy like Dame Lillard. His all-around offensive game is on another level. Dame is averaging 30 PPG, 4 RPG, and 8 APG, continuing his dominant play from last season where he put up career highs in almost every category. The Blazers also retooled and picked up an excellent wing 3 & D piece in Norman Powell. His 3 point shooting is elite shooting at 43% from behind the arc. The Blazers traded Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood to Toronto in exchange for Powell.
The Blazers have a vendetta against the Western conference after getting knocked out of the 1st round of the ’19-’20 NBA Playoffs by the eventual NBA Champion LA Lakers. Lillard’s attitude rubs off on his teammates, and they have been to the Western Conference finals just 2 seasons ago and were embarrassed by the Golden State Warriors getting swept in the process. The Blazers have a lot to prove, and if they want to keep this team together, they need to make a deep NBA playoffs run or they’ll be stuck in the middle of the pack for the foreseeable future.
The NBA Playoffs are always a fun time of the year, but it’s so much sweeter to see an underdog come out on top over the overhyped teams in the postseason. These are the top underdogs based on our analysts’ opinions and may be different depending on who you ask. One thing is for certain: all the teams named have something to prove and will play hardnosed basketball to get closer to their goals of a championship.
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