With less than a month before the postseason begins, teams are making their final adjustments as they prepare for crunch-time. Only needing 6 wins in their final 8 games in order to beat the ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 regular season record, the Golden State Warriors are easily favorites to be crowned as champions. Next are the San Antonio Spurs who are also looking to set a franchise regular season record. It is hard to imagine that any other team will go on to beat one or even both of these record-setting teams in the playoffs. However, there have been a few interesting developments in a couple of teams as the regular season winds down. Here is a look at some of the potential playoff dark horses who could cause some serious upsets this postseason:
Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers have all but secured the fourth seed in the Western Conference and have just tallied their fourth straight win after holding the Minnesota Timberwolves to 79 points. Before that, the Clippers allowed an average of 91.3 points in their victories over Portland, Denver and Boston. It would seem that the Clippers have been steadily improving their defense since allowing an average of 110 points over five road games beginning March 15 at San Antonio.
While defense looks to be clicking for Los Angeles, bench production has also been paramount over the course of their season. It is pretty obvious that LA has a star-studded starting line-up; with DeAndre Jordan averaging the second highest for blocks and rebounds in the league, J.J. Redick leading the league with a 3-pt conversion rate of 47.1% and Chris Paul top five in both assists and steals. Yet the Clippers’ bench is also the 6th most productive in the league, averaging 37.5 points a game. Jamal Crawford is looking to become the sixth man of the year for the third time in his career and currently leads the league in free throw percentage at 91.3%.
All of this has been done without Blake Griffin, who should make his first appearance since Christmas against the Washington Wizards on April 3. Without much to play for in their remaining games, Coach Doc Rivers will get the chance to see how Blake Griffin will reintegrate with the team before the postseason begins. In 30 games this season, Griffin has averaged 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists in 34.9 minutes, which will most certainly be a welcomed return in LA. Doc has only been able to play CP3, Jordan, Redick and Griffin together in less than 25 games this season and it will be a pretty formidable line-up if they can all operate on the same page.
The combined improvement of defense and bench production as well as the imminent return of Blake Griffin mark the Clippers as a potential dark horse in the playoffs. However, it is more than likely that the Clippers will need to play the Golden State Warriors in the second round, which will be challenging to say the least. LA is 1-7 against Golden State over the past two seasons and in this season alone they have given up over 115 points per 100 possessions to the Warriors. Even if the Clippers did somehow topple the Warriors, they would most likely face the San Antonio Spurs in the next round, another near-impossible task.
Being on this list of dark horses isn’t to say that the Miami Heat will go on to be crowned champions, but they could certainly cause a few upsets along the Eastern Conference road to the Finals. One look at their roster and it is stacked; especially with their recent acquisition of Joe Johnson to accompany Dwayne Wade in their offensive production. Erik Spoelstra has made a good case for himself as the potential Coach of the Year by showcasing his dynamic squad depth and managing big personalities like Hassan Whiteside in the absence of other key players.
When the Heat lost arguably their best player for the season in Chris Bosh, the Heat highlighted their strong bench – which saw some significant reinforcements added before the season. Whereas Miami stumbled this time last year after Bosh’s initial blood clot scare, this year Spoelstra and his staff have added youth to a largely veteran squad. Josh Richardson is the league’s best 3-pt scoring Rookie this season and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc than J.J. Redick, albeit from 90 shot attempts compared with Redick’s 397. Similarly, Justise Winslow has been another Rookie who has offered the Heat versatility as a speedy wing stopper.
Then there is Whiteside who has been flourishing in his new role off the bench – another testament to Spoelstra’s personality management. Since the All-Star break, Whiteside is averaging 18 points, 13.7 rebounds, 3.4 blocks (1.43 more than DeAndre Jordan) in less than 30 minutes a game. There may have been some criticism about how the Heat’s defense operated while Whiteside occupied the court, but those doubts have been quelled with his recent performances. Post-All-Star break, Miami are holding opponents to 5.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when Whiteside plays and he has become freakishly imposing underneath the basket.
Erik Spoelstra has certainly been drilling his Heat players with good habits of late. No team in the East wants to see the Miami Heat in the playoffs. The Heat have transformed from one of the slowest and worst three-point-shooting teams in the league to a team which scores over 100 points a game and has been shooting the second highest 3-pt percentage (40.6%) in the league over the last 15 games. With the possibility of Chris Bosh returning to the lineup come playoffs, the Heat have become a serious playoff dark horse.