We reached the middle of the first round of the NBA playoffs over the weekend, assuming at least one of the eight series will go the distance, so let us examine which underdogs have the best chance to extend theirs to seven games — or even pull off the upset. These are your first-found playoff underdog power rankings.
(BetMGM series odds in parentheses.)
8. Denver Nuggets (+2000)
Third-seeded Golden State Warriors lead series, 3-1
Avoiding the sweep on Sunday softened the misguided criticism of Nikola Jokic's presumptive forthcoming second straight MVP award, but we saw how much had to go right for the Nuggets to win Game 4. They needed 45 points on 22 shots from Monte Morris and Aaron Gordon, who combined to average 22 points on 20 shots over the first three games of the series, and still needed to break a tie in the final minute just to survive.
Denver has played the Warriors close at home, where Jokic is averaging a 37-13-6 on 65/63/87 shooting splits in two games, but the Death Poole Lineup feeds off the Chase Center energy. Jokic has a matchup advantage against Golden State's smaller lineups, and he could steal one game in San Francisco if he gets any semblance of help, but these Warriors are not losing four straight and twice at home to these Nuggets.
7. Brooklyn Nets (+1400)
Second-seeded Boston Celtics lead series, 3-0
The Nets sounded defeated after losing Game 3 in Brooklyn. At the very least, they are fractured.
Kevin Durant conceded that the Celtics' defense is in his head. Kyrie Irving simultaneously lamented his team's inability to jell over the course of the season and failed to recognize that his anti-vaccination stance is the primary reason he and Durant played only 17 games together with their teammates in the regular season. Ben Simmons confirmed reports of his potential availability, only for coach Steve Nash to dismiss the notion entirely. The Nets are openly wondering if Blake Griffin could be their series-altering adjustment.
As Durant said, "It's a lot of s***, but overall we're just losing."
Boston has been everything Brooklyn has not through three games. The Celtics are playing championship-level defense, and their stars are scoring both in the flow of the offense and when crunch-time calls. At the same rate, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. They can get hot, and that gives them a chance each game until they are eliminated. Either that or quit, which may have already happened.
6. Chicago Bulls (+2500)
Third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks lead series, 3-1
Losing back-to-back home games against the Khris Middleton-less Bucks by a combined 54 points is not a great look. Neither is DeMar DeRozan disappearing for three losses, resurrecting ghosts of his playoff past. And potentially losing Alex Caruso to concussion protocols for Game 5 is a problem for Chicago's defense.
Still, the Bulls have their best guys. DeRozan played at an All-NBA level for the entire regular season (and in Game 2). Zach LaVine can go off, even if he has yet to in his first career playoff appearance. The front office should formally apologize to the city of Chicago if Nikola Vucevic cannot win his battle with Brook Lopez. They know that is enough to beat the undermanned Bucks in Milwaukee, because they have done it before.
Sending the series back to Chicago is not out of the question. Nor is winning a home playoff game. Taking three straight from Playoff Giannis Antetokounmpo is a different beast. Antetokounmpo is nearly averaging a 40-20-10 per 100 possessions in the series — better than last season's historic postseason performance. Even Patrick Williams cannot be convinced that Patrick Williams' defense will end the Finals MVP's reign.
5. Utah Jazz (+110)
Tied with fourth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, 2-2
The Jazz needed an alley-oop from Donovan Mitchell to Rudy Gobert in the final seconds of Game 4 to avoid losing both games at home and falling behind the wounded Mavericks, 3-1. This is not where they wanted to be as Luka Doncic eases his way back into the series after missing the first three games.
It is somewhat encouraging that the Jazz did not completely fold at the first opportunity to plan their vacation, but they are teetering on that edge. Big changes are coming for the franchise in the offseason, and Utah's core is not raging against those changes. They are embracing them, criticizing their own team chemistry, even as they overcome it to tie a series they have no business not leading through four games.
Doncic totaled 30 points (11-21 FG, 4-10 3P, 4-4 FT), 10 rebounds and four assists over 34 minutes in his first game back from a calf strain. His defense in Game 4 revealed that he is still not 100%, but if Jalen Brunson can cook the Jazz without Doncic, the two of them should be able to topple Utah over the edge.
4. Atlanta Hawks (+1800)
Top-seeded Miami Heat lead series, 3-1
This series has been a tough look for Trae Young's campaign to be considered a playoff difference-maker. He is averaging 16.5 points on 35/21/79 shooting splits and six assists against six turnovers in the series. Just a brutal encore to Young's performance during Atlanta's Eastern Conference finals run a year ago.
In retrospect, the Hawks beat a wildly overachieving New York Knicks team in the first round last season and edged the Philadelphia 76ers in a seven-game conference semifinals, largely because Ben Simmons inexplicably vanished in fourth quarters. But let us not pretend this Miami team is some 60-win juggernaut.
Kyle Lowry is battling a hamstring injury that kept him out of Game 4, and the Hawks have essentially played the Heat to a standstill when Lowry is off the floor. Reserves Max Strus and Gabe Vincent should only be able to limit Young so much, and when help comes, Atlanta has the weapons to make Miami pay. Whether or not the Hawks have the heart to extinguish Jimmy Butler and Heat Culture is another matter.
3. Toronto Raptors (+2000)
Fourth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers lead series, 3-1
This series is a Joel Embiid buzzer-beater away from being tied.
Granted, the Sixers were without the unvaccinated Matisse Thybulle for both games in Toronto, but Scottie Barnes also missed the Raptors' losses in Games 2 and 3. Thaddeus Young is playing through injury, and Gary Trent Jr. is playing through illness. All three should feel incrementally better for Monday's Game 5. Game 6 is back in Toronto, where Thybulle cannot play, and then you have to trust Philadelphia in Game 7.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, Fred VanVleet ruled himself out for Game 5 with the hip strain he suffered on Saturday. That is quite a blow to the Raptors. The Sixers are not without their own injury issues. The torn ligament in Embiid's shooting thumb contributed to his subpar 21-point performance in Game 4. He missed his only 3-point attempt and finished 1-for-4 from outside the paint. If Embiid is neutralized at all, the pressure will mount on James Harden the longer the series extends, and we all know his playoff history.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves (+230)
Tied with second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, 2-2
Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards have vacillated between high-level and nonexistent offense throughout the series, D'Angelo Russell is shooting 31% through four games, and Minnesota is headed to Memphis — a venue where the Wolves have already won — for the first of what is now a three-game series.
More troubling for Memphis, should the Timberwolves discover the consistency that made them so dangerous in the second half of the season, is the health of Ja Morant. The All-Star point guard admitted he is not 100% after another rough outing in Game 4, telling reporters, "I'm not Ja right now. I'm not playing above the rim." That admission is a tough pill to swallow for a player whose perimeter shooting is suspect.
The Grizzlies were also 5.1 points per 100 possessions better with Steven Adams on the floor this season, and he cannot contain Towns on the perimeter. Jaren Jackson Jr. is committing 7.6 personal fouls per 36 minutes through four games, and Towns should force that issue more in the paint. Desmond Bane has been Memphis' best player, and if that remains the case, this series is Towns' to lose — which he very well could.
1. New Orleans Pelicans (+230)
Tied with the top-seeded Phoenix Suns, 2-2
Devin Booker is hurt. His hamstring injury will likely keep him out for the remainder of the first round. The Suns, who finished eight games better than any other NBA team and outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions without Booker during the regular season, should still get past the 36-win Pelicans.
They are also getting outscored by 5.8 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the bench in this series. Not having your best scorer on the court is a much bigger deal in the playoffs, given the nature of defensive adjustments and increased pressure, and the juxtaposition between Phoenix's performance without Booker during the regular season and in the playoffs is a perfect example. Suddenly, Chris Paul's burden increases, as does the need for shot creation from wing players whose games are predicated on complementary roles.
This is all bad news for Phoenix. The performance of Brandon Ingram has not helped, either. The Pelicans forward is averaging a 30-7-5 on 51/50/88 splits and looking comfortable in a playoff atmosphere. CJ McCollum and Jonas Valanciunas have been here before, and they will get their numbers. The rest of the rotation fits nicely around them, and they are all playing like they have nothing to lose, because no one expected them to be here. All the pressure is on Phoenix, leaving an aging Paul to bear enormous weight.
Just imagine if sidelined Pelicans star Zion Williamson ever appears on the injury report as questionable.
– – – – – – –