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Your sleeper teams in the East and West for these upcoming playoffs?
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Steve Aschburner: Miami in the East, Portland in the West. Designating “sleeper teams” requires some parameters, doesn’t it? Are we talking about teams that aren’t considered serious title contenders, but could really mess up a bracket? Or would that be a “spoiler?” Whatever … the Heat are so well coached and tied together that I think they’re capable of reaching the East finals and scaring their opponents there. They’ve already surpassed many folks’ expectations by sitting fourth in the East, no reason to stop now. They added players not long before the shutdown, too, such as Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala to tighten up defensively. As for Portland, everyone sees how much healthier they are now. And driven to make up for how sideways things went with Jusuf Nurkic out, then Zach Collins. Both are back (Rodney Hood isn’t), big assets on defense. And determined Damian Lillard did some yakking about proposed restart ideas, so he should be plenty motivated now that a playoff berth is snaggable via the play-in mechanism.
Shaun Powell: In the East, I’ll be curious about the Sixers and Celtics. Assuming Joel Embiid stays healthy, Philly retooled the lineup by putting Shake Milton at point guard and Ben Simmons at point forward and therefore reducing the dependance on Al Horford, who has been dreadful next to Embiid. As for Boston, I see them as a sleeper team to win it all; a healthy Kemba Walker and next-level Jason Tatum is the evidence. In the West, you’d better not dismiss ‘Melo, Dame, CJ and the Blazers if Portland gets the eighth seed from Memphis. Of course, that would mean a first-round matchup with the Lakers … and if Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside can negate the Lakers’ height, I believe the basketball Earth might get shook. If Portland doesn’t make the playoffs, scrappy OKC will ruin someone’s grand plans.
John Schuhmann: In regard to point differential, the Bucks have been almost twice as good as any other team in the East. So any team below them qualifies as a sleeper, and there are four very good candidates. The Raptors have the best chemistry, the Sixers have the highest ceiling (and the worst chemistry), and the Heat have been the best team (9-3) in games played within the East’s top six. But, with a top-five defense and so much off-the-dribble potency, the Celtics should be the most dangerous team below Milwaukee. There’s an argument for Oklahoma City being the most dangerous team below the Lakers and Clippers in the West. The Thunder had the league’s third best record after Thanksgiving and they may be the healthiest team in Orlando. Their three-guard, my-turn-your-turn attack should translate well to the playoffs and a healthy Andre Roberson gives them something they’ve been lacking: a big wing to guard the best players in the West.
Sekou Smith: I don’t believe anyone is sleeping on the Portland Trail Blazers, so I request they be known hence forth as the West wild card team. A healthy Jusuf Nurkic paired in a jumbo frontcourt with Hassan Whiteside is intriguing. When you pair them with a dynamite backcourt like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and a slender Carmelo Anthony, the Trail Blazers boast a starting five that could cause problems for any team in a playoff series. They have to actually catch the Grizzlies and steal that No. 8 spot for any of it to matter. In the East, Miami serves as the team with championship components that no one talks about being in the mix. They have shooters, a one-two All-Star punch in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, versatility and a great blend of up-and-coming youngsters and veteran leadership. They play with a collective edge that usually serves the franchise well and Erik Spoelstra is easily one of the most underappreciated coaches in NBA history.
Michael C. Wright: I’ll limit myself to the teams we know that are already in, otherwise New Orleans or Memphis might be my picks in the West. In the East, give me the Miami Heat. They go into the seeding games sitting at 41-24, good for fourth in the conference. They recently got back Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn, and they’ve got plenty of solid outside shooting. Defensively, any lineup including Adebayo, Butler and Andre Iguodala could be stifling. In the West, I like Oklahoma City as a sleeper because of what the Thunder have been able to do behind Chris Paul in clutch situations. That comeback against Philadelphia on Sunday showed OKC’s clutch gene remains active. Plus, I’m a sucker for feel-good stories, and I think we may see one emerge with Andre Roberson, who knocked down a couple of clutch 3-pointers against the 76ers despite having not played since early 2018.