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Ranking Biggest Dark Horse 2014 NBA Playoff Teams

Joshua J VannucciniSenior Analyst IIIMarch 24, 2014

Ranking Biggest Dark Horse 2014 NBA Playoff Teams

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    It's do or die time.

    The San Antonio Spurs, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat are the only three teams officially locked in for the postseason, but you can bet there's a few notable squads that'll join them. While that's great news for some, it's bad news for others that are struggling to snatch a playoff berth.

    The next few weeks will be pivotal for teams in both conferences, in hope that their seasons don't end prematurely to their expectations. There's only a couple that have a chance to sneak into the postseason, but let's take a look at the biggest dark-horse playoff teams of the 2013-14 NBA season.

Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The poor Denver Nuggets.

    Of all the candidates on this list, the Nuggets have, by far, the hardest schedule. Over the next 12 games, Denver will face the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs twice, the Memphis Grizzlies twice, the Houston Rockets twice, the Golden State Warriors twice and the Los Angeles Clippers.

    Ouch.

    It isn't like Denver was all that likely to break in anyway, as the team currently sits nine-and-a-half games back from the final spot in the Western Conference. The team's 32-38 record (.457) is a far cry from what's needed to make the postseason in the competitive West, with the Dallas Mavericks holding onto the eighth seed with a .592 winning percentage.

    As such, the Nuggets hold a 16-24 record against the conference and every game from here on out is against the West. 

    It'd be a feel-good story to see Denver surge and slip into the playoffs, but it's seemingly impossible. It would take major collapses from the Mavs, the Phoenix Suns and the Minnesota Timberwolves, as all three are the Nuggets' competitors for the final spot.

    Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried have been playing terrific two-man basketball, but it's come too late in the season after battling injuries. Denver did secure wins over the Heat (Mar. 14) and the Clippers (Mar. 17), but it's by far a reach to expect the Nuggets to dominate going forward.

    There's always next season.

Detroit Pistons

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Just like the Nuggets in the West, the Detroit Pistons' chance to make the postseason is beyond slim.

    It doesn't help the team is in the midst of a five-game losing streak either. The Pistons' entire season has been in disarray at 25-44, one that was supposedly directed for a return to the playoffs and to step away from rebuilding.

    The signing of Josh Smith hasn't gone to plan, with his placement on the perimeter forcing him to shoot low-percentage, long-range shots that aren't his strength. Detroit's defense has also been shoddy all season, ranking No. 27 in opponent field-goal percentage. 

    The Pistons are six-and-a-half games back from the eighth spot, but games against strong opponents going forward, like the Heat, the Pacers and the Chicago Bulls, leave little room for error. Detroit would need a sudden turnaround to overtake teams currently ahead in terms of winning percentage, and that's impossible given the team's recent play.

    Although the Pistons are 20-21 against Eastern Conference opponents, it's a case of too little, too late. 

    The Pistons are a far worse team than the Nuggets, but find themselves ahead on this list. The competitiveness of the Western Conference severely hinders Denver's chances to be a dark-horse team, but the lack of dominance in the East means Detroit still has a chance, despite the risk of being overtaken by the Boston Celtics (two-and-a-half games), a team focused on rebuilding through the draft.

    That just about sums it up for the Pistons. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Nothing has gone right for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    From injury, to the failed Andrew Bynum experiment, to Anthony Bennett's poor rookie season, the Cavs can't catch a break. And it isn't about to get any easier, as the team will lose Kyrie Irving (left bicep) for at least eight games over a two-week stretch.

    Cleveland is five-and-a-half games back from the eighth seed, trailing the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks with a 27-44 record. The Cavs were able to knock off the Knicks on Mar. 23, but still have matchups against Eastern Conference playoff teams like the Pacers, the Toronto Raptors and the Brooklyn Nets.

    In fact, every game remaining on Cleveland's schedule is against an East opponent, but the Cavs are just 15-26 against the conference. It would have already been a stretch for the team, but it will be even harder to break in without Irving on the court.

    Since he went down, the Cavaliers have allowed 105.0 points per game over the last four, but have scored 102.0 points per game. It's clear the team isn't ready to go down without a fight, getting within single-digit margins against the Heat, the Thunder and the Rockets prior to their six-point victory against New York.

    Cleveland has six games at home and five on the road going forward, but are 15-20 and 12-24 in each category respectively. Obviously it's much easier to win with a cheering crowd behind you, but the Cavs have a reasonably similar record home or away.

    It's more than unlikely for this Cleveland team to appear in the postseason, but it isn't impossible considering their recent play. If it can continue, and Irving comes back strong, the Cavs have a slim chance. 

    But it's based more on the fate of the other East teams vying for a spot, as it could go either way for Cleveland, hence the team's lower rank on this list.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    The last time the Minnesota Timberwolves finished a season above .500 was all the way in the 2004-05 season. The last time the Timberwolves made the postseason was the season prior to that, led by Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. 

    Yes, it's been that long.

    And while Minnesota has come close with a 34-34 record thus far, the team might end just one of those droughts. The Timberwolves are six-and-a-half games back from Dallas' spot in the West, but have lost two-straight games.

    To be fair, each loss came against Houston and Phoenix respectively. But simultaneously, Minnesota will need every victory going forward to have a chance. The team's schedule is relatively balanced, but still has glaring matchups against powerhouse teams that will prove critical.

    The hardest stretch will be Minnesota's play against the Spurs, the Bulls and the Rockets, all in a four-day span.

    The Timberwolves came very close this season, but the team's defense needs an overhaul to really compete. They've allowed more than 100 points in 10-straight games, even allowing 101 points on 52.7 percent against the league-worst 13-57 Milwaukee Bucks on Mar. 11.

    Minnesota can be a strong team when the offense is clicking, but will need to clamp down defensively to have any chance of sneaking into the playoffs. Some games are expected to be losses (vs. Chicago, Miami, San Antonio), but others allow the Timberwolves to have the benefit of the doubt (vs. Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks).

    And they've got to take full advantage. 

New York Knicks

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Just when we thought they were out, the New York Knicks have pulled themselves back in (to playoff contention). 

    It still isn't a sure thing though, as the Knicks remain three games back from Atlanta in the East. New York went on a tear after losing seven-straight games, but saw the eight-game win streak come to a close against Cleveland on Mar. 23.

    The Knicks' have a tougher schedule than the Hawks going forward, facing just three sub-.500 teams compared to their five. New York closes the season with every game in April coming against Eastern Conference playoff teams.

    The Knicks will see Toronto twice, Brooklyn twice, as well as Miami, Chicago and the Washington Wizards. The team is 21-24 in the conference, and will have four of those games at home.

    In terms of the entirety of the remaining schedule, eight games will be on the road for New York. A 13-20 away record doesn't help that, especially considering the opponents going forward and the fragility of the team's positioning in the playoff race.

    Carmelo Anthony's 28.2 points per game over the last 10 has been critical, in addition to a sudden resurgence from Amar'e Stoudemire. He's averaged 17.8 points and 6.6 rebounds on 58.9 percent shooting over his last 10 games, and that pays dividends for the Knicks.

    It makes them a very different team on offense, with Anthony finally having a secondary scorer to look to. New York will need him to continue his production as such, in addition to the entire team stepping up. 

    It's too early to write off the Hawks, despite going 6-14 over the last 20 games. Atlanta is still finding its way without Al Horford, which may play into the Knicks' hands if it becomes cause for concern.

    It's a lot of 'if's for New York, but the team should remain hopeful given their recent play. It'll come down to the wire, but the Knicks are closer than some, giving them the No. 2 spot on the list.

Phoenix Suns

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    The Phoenix Suns are just a half-game back from tying the Mavericks for the eighth seed, and every game going forward will be critical to taking over completely.

    Both teams are 6-4 over the last 10 games, with the Suns on a three-game win streak and Dallas dropping one to the Nets in overtime on Mar. 23. The Mavs then face six Western Conference playoff teams, as well as Phoenix on April 12. 

    The Suns will play against eight teams that are currently in the playoff hunt, six being West teams. They've played more games against conference opponents, going 24-19 against Dallas' 22-19 mark. Phoenix has just four games at home for the rest of the season, while the Mavs will play six in front of their fans.

    The Suns have gone 5-2 since the return of Eric Bledsoe, but most of their opponents have been sub-par teams. That's a major boost for Phoenix, in addition to Gerald Green's 19.1 points per game during March. The team is clicking, and it's coming at a key time during the season.

    Phoenix will remain competitive down the stretch and will have a chance going forward, but much of the team's fortune is tied to what happens to Dallas. The Suns can win all they want, but it'll be for nothing if the Mavericks don't lose a few.

    Dirk Nowitzki's poor 41 percent shooting over the last five games could lead to losses for Dallas if it continues, although it's been uncharacteristic for one of the best scorers in NBA history.

    In addition, the facial injury to Jose Calderon against the Nets remains noteworthy. It isn't reported to be serious, but if he does miss time, the Mavs will lose a bit of firepower that Phoenix can take advantage of, should it lead to less wins.

    The game when both teams face each other on Apr. 12 will be critical for either side, as it will give advantage in the case of a tiebreaker for the last spot.

    There remains the possibility Memphis could drop out, but their strong play as of late (7-3 in the last 10 games) doesn't make it likely. In a case of a tie, the Grizzlies would win as Phoenix has dropped all three games to them this season.

    Much like New York in the Eastern Conference, the Suns will need a lot of luck to slip past Dallas. There's a lot of factors to consider, many that play for and against Phoenix.

    The shear half-game differential between the Suns and the Mavericks makes the former team the top dark-horse candidate for the 2014 playoffs, as even the slightest fault by Dallas will result in Phoenix stealing away a postseason berth.

    Every game will be crucial for both teams, but the Suns are right there behind the Mavericks. If that isn't a dark-horse playoff team, I don't know what is. 

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