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Five dark horse teams to watch during NBA Orlando restart

Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin runs through the top storylines to keep an eye on leading into the NBA restart in Orlando.

We all know the contenders: The Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers. In the East, Boston or Toronto will be there should Milwaukee stumble.

But who are the NBA dark horse teams? What teams could come out of the pack to make a surprising deep playoff run?

Here are the five dark horse teams to watch at the NBA restart in Orlando.

1) Houston Rockets

Small ball — microball, really, with their best center being 6’5” P.J. Tucker — could be big in Orlando.

While Houston’s unorthodox style gets all the press — they do put out athletic lineups that can score a lot of ways — the real key is James Harden and teammates are rested. In his last five games before the league was shut down Harden looked worn down, shooting just 37.4% overall and 25% from three. His legs were not under him. Same with Tucker, who was asked to play more minutes and a larger role in this small-ball system and shot 30% overall and 25% from three in his last five games before the break.

Now Tucker and Harden are rested (Harden had 24 points and 10 assists in the Rockets first scrimmage), paired with the athletic Russell Westbrook (whose shot selection improved over the course of the season). Plus, Eric Gordon is finally healthy and the addition of Robert Covington should be a perfect fit. The Rockets are going to launch threes, attack the rim, put up points, and unapologetically be who they are under Mike D’Antoni. It all could come together and surprise some teams — the Rockets and their small-ball ways are poised to make a deep playoff run.

2) Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers have been a sleeping giant all season long. The problem was their big off-season acquisition, Al Horford, was just not fitting in. When Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Horford shared the court this season, Philadelphia’s offense scored less than a point per possession (0.98) and had all the spacing of a New York subway at rush hour.

At the Orlando restart, Horford will come off the bench and Ben Simmons will start at the four, working more off the ball. That means Shake Milton will get the start at the point, adding a second ball handler and a catch-and-shoot threat. The starting five will be Embiid, Simmons, Milton, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson. Will it work? Who knows, that lineup has played zero minutes together this season. But it works on paper, especially now that Simmons is now fully healthy — he even hit a corner three in a scrimmage this week.

If this comes together quickly, Philadelphia is a serious threat to Milwaukee to come out of the East. It could work. If not, coach Brett Brown likely pays the price.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were already better than you realized: From Dec. 1 until the shut down they were 33-13 with a +3.9 net rating, and OKC had a top 10 offense and defense. Chris Paul, in the midst of a bounce-back season, has been arguably the most clutch player in the NBA all season — he has shot 57.7% in the clutch (last five minutes of a game within five minutes) and orchestrated a dangerous offense.

Oklahoma City has been at its best this season with a three-guard offense of CP3, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+28.6 net rating in those minutes, giving up less than a point per possession defensively).

Roll that threesome out for some key minutes, get the usual solid minutes from Steven Adams, and the Thunder could surprise teams in the West. OKC simply is better than many fans realize and are a real dark horse in the NBA Orlando restart.

4) Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic. Do we need to say more?

Dallas has the ultimate pick-and-pop partner for Doncic in Kristaps Porzingis (he can roll and finish a lob, too), plus a lot of shooting depth across this roster. Seth Curry looked fantastic in his first game back. They have guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith who knocked it down this season.

Most importantly, Dallas has depth — which can translate into versatility — and a coach in Rick Carlise who knows how to use it. Look for Dallas to move up the West ladder in the seeding games and be a real threat once the playoffs start.

5) Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler showed up and was a perfect fit with the Heat culture this season — now he’s healthy, rested, and ready to go. Remember how far he led Philadelphia last season in the playoffs (but for a couple of crazy Kawhi Leonard bounces the 76ers could have been in the Finals).

The Heat have Bam Adebayo at center, who made the leap to All-Star level player this year. They have scoring off the bench in Goran Dragic. They added veterans who should fit in perfectly in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. They have talented rookies in Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. There is just a lot to like about this roster, and how a smart coach like Eric Spoelstra can make it all fit together.

Miami could burn a few teams in the East this postseason.