Since most fans would agree that a Warriors NBA title is a foregone conclusion, and as a result have garnered a large majority of the media’s attention, many teams have slipped into the playoffs vastly underrated and under appreciated. While the Western Conference Championship will almost surely be between the Warriors and Spurs (with the Warriors winning of course), the East is a wide open field. Cleveland enters the playoffs as the favorite to clinch the East title, but I’m not so confident in that assumption. There are far too many good teams in the East to believe that any team will make it out without one heck of a fight.
Two teams in particular, in my opinion, are very capable of making a deep run and, even more amazingly, are flying way under the radar. The first team I want to discuss and the team that I have the most confidence in is… Drum roll please… the Charlotte Hornets. I know what you’re thinking. “THE Charlotte Hornets? The same team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002?” The answer to that question is yes. And no. Because this team is completely different from any Charlotte team we’ve seen in the past. The reason? Look no further than point guard sensation Kemba Walker.
Walker is a winner. Since his college days, the only thing he knows to do on a basketball court is win. We all remember UCONN’s historic run to the the NCAA Tournament Championship. When Kemba Walker led his team to an undefeated record in tournament play in 2011 -- after not being ranked in the top 90 teams in the preseason rankings. His game winner versus Pittsburgh in the Big East Tournament is one of the greatest plays in college basketball history. Time and time again, Walker hits game winners in the NBA. He has them against Toronto, New York, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Indiana, Minnesota, the list goes on. The clutchness doesn’t stop there. In the last 5 minutes of close games where the margin is 5 points or less, Kemba ranks 6th in total points with a whopping 142. In fact, in the last minute of regulation or overtime of close games (margin is no greater than 5), Walker has the 3rd most made field goals in the NBA this season with 14. Only Kevin Durant and LeBron James have more, having made 15 each.
Besides the undeniable clutch factor that Walker presents, let’s look at the other things the Hornets have going for them. First off, here’s a statistic that will almost certainly surprise you. Since the All-Star break, the 3 teams with the best record have been the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Charlotte Hornets, in that order. Let that sink in for a second. The 3rd best team in the NBA since the All-Star break is the Charlotte Hornets.
The 6th seed that the Hornets have been given is, to say the least, misleading. After all, the 6th seeded Hornets had the same regular season record as the #3 seed Heat. Both teams finished 48-34, and are squaring off against each other in the 3rd round. So while it seems as though the Hornets should be considered the underdogs in this series, it is more fitting to have them pegged in as the favorite due to their recent streak. Now, I’m not saying that the Hornets will win the East, but you shouldn’t be surprised if they come close.
The second team I want to talk about is the Boston Celtics. It really didn’t take long for this storied franchise to return to relevancy after a brief rebuild. The Celtics have two things going for them that you really can’t talk about enough. The first is Isaiah Thomas, who has been unbelievable this season. Standing only 5’9” tall, Thomas has all the game that makes him a matchup nightmare. He can drive the lane, shoot from distance, and he is a gifted playmaker. I predict that he dominates his matchup with Jeff Teague and propels his team to a 6 game series win.
The second thing that Boston has going for them is Head Coach Brad Stevens. Since his transition from college to the NBA, Stevens has cemented himself as one of the top coaches in the game. The rapid turnaround of the celtics is the direct result of his genius. Even during his days as a college coach, Stevens took Butler to two straight national championship games. They failed to win either, but just getting there is a feat in and of itself considering that Butler is a tiny school of less than 5,000 students.
As the start of the playoffs gets closer and closer, I can’t wait to see these teams in action. Even more, I can’t wait to see these teams shock the world.