NBA

The sleepers of the 2018 NBA playoffs

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The NBA playoffs finally arrived over the weekend. While we know who the favorites are (hint: it’s the same two teams that have reached the finals in each of the past three seasons), there’s always somewhat of a margin for error, especially in the first round. A handful of unexpected players and teams are capable of making noise. Here are a few.

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The Miami Heat

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Miami entered its first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers in a fantastic position. While duking it out for seeding right down to the wire of the regular season, the Sixers became the darlings of the NBA, running off their longest win streak in franchise history (16 games) and entering the finals discussion. In other words, there’s zero pressure on the Heat. Combine that with one of the league’s best coaches, Erik Spoelstra, having time to prepare his young team, and Miami has more of a chance than it’s getting.

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Jrue Holiday

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Anthony Davis is, of course, The Man for the Pelicans. He reminded us why in New Orleans’s Game 1 theft in Portland. But the Pelicans probably wouldn’t be here at all if not for Holiday, who took over defensively down the stretch Saturday to slow and eventually halt a furious Blazers comeback. Holiday had the best statistical season of his nine-year career and is pretty much a mortal lock for a spot on the all-defensive first team. Sustaining that level of play will go far in determining if the Pelicans can pull off a series upset.

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Khris Middleton

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The Bucks need more than Giannis Antetokounmpo if they want to knock out the Celtics, and Middleton is the perfect sidekick. He posted career numbers this season after an ugly hamstring injury cut his 2016-17 season short, and kept it going Sunday in Game 1 at TD Garden. Middleton is a versatile offensive player who can shoot, get to the basket and take advantage of mismatches, an arsenal he featured in Sunday’s thriller ― in which he played an incredible role (hello, 40-foot buzzer beater!). Should Milwaukee get through Boston, Middleton becomes even more vital, especially if its next opponent is Philly.

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The Utah Jazz

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Utah dropped Game 1, 116-108, to Oklahoma City but looked like it was feeling things out. One thing we know: If Paul George goes for 35-plus and makes eight or more three-pointers in every game, the Jazz are probably finished. That’s unlikely, though, and beyond George and Russell Westbrook, who is scary for the Thunder? Not Carmelo Anthony. Utah got a balanced attack Sunday, including 34 points off the bench, and has the best defensive player in the series in Rudy Gobert, as well as a better coach. Should Utah steal Game 2 and head back to Salt Lake City tied 1-1, watch out.

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Ben Simmons

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Simmons served notice in Philly’s Game 1 thrashing of Miami that there will be little to no drop-off from his incredible regular season performance. Simmons showed during his rookie NBA campaign that he has the ability and talent of a generational player, a point guard who can see above the defense, pass as effectively as anyone in the league, get wherever he wants on the floor at all times and change a game defensively. Can he do all of those things in the postseason? We’ll see. But he’s off to a great start.

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