As I mentioned in my last article, The NBA’s Second Season, there have been few “surprises” in the NBA Playoffs over the last twenty-three seasons (since Bird and Magic entered the league at the start of the 1979-80 season). During that time, THIRTEEN champions have come from teams that finished with the best or tied for the best, regular season record. Seven other champions had the league’s second best record (or tied for 2nd-best) and two champions owned the league’s third-best regular season record. The LONE exception, was the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, who owned just the sixth-best record in the Western Conference and only the 10th-best overall record, that year.
After two rounds of the 2003 Playoffs, there have some been some “mild” surprises, but the Conference Finals opened on Sunday with The East Finals featuring the Detroit Pistons (the # 1 seed) vs the New Jersey Nets (the # 2 seed). The West Finals open on Monday, with the San Antonio Spurs facing the Dallas Mavericks. The Spurs and the Mavericks both finished the season with identical 60-22 records, the best mark in the NBA this year. The Spurs get the homecourt advantage, by virtue of a tie-breaker.
In the First Round, the only real “surprise”, was the Celtics (# 6 in The East), ousting the Indiana Pacers (# 3 in The East), four game-to-two. In The West, the 5th-seeded Lakers knocked out the 4th-seeded Timberwolves (also four games-to-two), but considering that the Lakers entered as the three-time defending champs and that the Timberwolves had NEVER even won a playoff series, it could hardly be called an “upset”! This year, the NBA expanded its Opening Round series, from five games to seven games and two of the eight series, went the distance. In The East, the # 1 seed Detroit Pistons, fell behind the 8th-seeded Orlando Magic three games-to-one, but came back to win the series’ final three games, to avoid becoming just the third # 1 seed to lose to a # 8 seed, since the NBA expanded to its current playoff format of 16 teams, in 1984. The Pistons comeback, made them just the SEVENTH NBA team in playoff history, to win a series after trailing three-games-to-one and they did it IN STYLE! They won Game Five 98-67, Game Six 103-88 and Game Seven 108-93! That’s three wins by a combined total of SIXTY-ONE points and only the 1969-70 Los Angeles Lakers, who came back to beat the Phoenix Suns by 17, 11 and 35 (a total of 63 points!), have made a more impressive comeback, of the seven teams! The other First Round series to go seven games, was the Mavs-Blazers. Dallas won the first three games, but Portland not only won Game Four 98-79 (ending the team’s 10-game playoff losing streak, which fell one-game short of the NBA’s longest-ever playoff losing streak of 11 games, held by the Denver Nuggets from 88-94 and the Baltimore Bullets from 65-70), but won Games Five and Six also, to become just the third team in NBA history to force a seventh-game, after trailing, three games-to-none! Dallas avoided the embarrassment of becoming the first team to ever BLOW a three games-to-none lead, when they won Game 7 at home, 107-95!
In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the New Jersey Nets completed its first-ever four-game sweep, beating the Celtics. The top-seeded Pistons, won overtime games in Game Two and Game Six (they are now 10-0 this season in overtime games!) and eliminated the 4th-seeded 76ers, four-games-to-two. In The West, the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs eliminated the three-time defending champions, the LA Lakers, beating the Lakers 110-82 in LA, in Game Six! The Lakers found out the hard way, that Shaq’s delay in taking care of his injured toe IMMEDIATELY following last season’s playoffs (a delay that caused him to miss the team’s first 12 games of the regular season and for the Lakers to struggle to an 11-19 start on the year!), most likely cost the team dearly, as they finished with just the 5th-best record in the conference. As we’ve noted, it’s RARE for a team to survive in the playoffs, when forced to play without the homecourt advantage! In The West’s other semifinal, the Mavs were taken to the limit for the second straight series, this time by the Kings. The Kings lost Chris Webber in the series’ second game (a game in which the Mavericks scored EIGHTY-THREE points in the first half, an NBA Playoff record!). In Game Three, the Mavs and Kings treated everyone to an old-style ‘ABA-like” game, with Dallas winning, 141-137, in double-overtime! The Kings forced the Mavericks to a Game 7, when they made 31 of 32 free throw attempts in Game 6! In Game 7, the Mavericks won 112-99, as Don Nelson won his second consecutive Game 7 of this playoff year, after going 1-4, in his five previous Game 7 appearances! On the other sideline, Kings’ head coach Rick Adelman, has now lost ALL FOUR times, when he’s been faced with a deciding-game situation, as Sacramento’s head coach. Previouely, Adelman lost a Game 5 in 1999 to Utah (his first year as the Kings’ head coach), a Game 5 to LA in 2000 and Game 7 of last year’s Western Confernce Finals, again to the Lakers!
The first season in which the NBA used a seven-game series to determine its Conference Finals, was in 1957-58. Over the past 45 years (a total of 90 series), the teams owning the homecourt edge, have won SIXTY-EIGHT times, or 75.6% of the time! There have been TWENTY-FOUR times when both home teams won, TWENTY instances when there’s been a split and just ONCE, when BOTH teams without the benefit of the homecourt advantage, advanced to the NBA Finals. In 1978, the Washington Bullets (44-38) beat the Philadelphia 76ers (55-27) in The East Finals and the Seattle Supersonics (47-35) beat the Denver Nuggets (48-34) in The West Finals. In the NBA Finals that year, the Bullets, without the homecourt advantage, beat the Sonics in a series that went seven games, winning Game 7 in Seattle, 105-99!!
In The East, the Nets are in the Conference Finals for the second consecutive season. New Jersey had lost in its opening series NINE times in 10 previous playoff appearances, before making it all the way to the NBA Finals last season (where they lost to the Lakers 4-0). Now they return to the Conerence Finals, off the team’s first-ever, four-game sweep. Byron Scott has an impressive 19-11 playoff record the last two postseasons and features the league’s best playmaker in Jason Kidd, plus two rising stars in Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson. The Pistons return to the Conference Finals for the first time since 1991. Rick Carlisle has led the Pistons to consecutive 50-win seasons and Central Division Titles, in his first two years, as the team’s head coach. Detroit owns the league’s best rebounder in Ben Wallace, who has also been named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, the past two seasons! Guards Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups are the Pistons top point producers, but the team wins, with DEFENSE. At 87.7 ppg allowed during the regular season (and just barely over 88 ppg allowed thru the postseason’s first two rounds), Detroit was the NBA’s top defensive team. The Pistons however, have not been much of a playoff road team, having won just TWICE, in their last 16 road games! After beating the Nets in sixteen of their last 17 regular season home games, Detroit’s 76-74 home loss in Game 1, puts them in a hole. These Pistons have however, made those two playoff road wins COUNT!! Against the Magic, Detroit won Game 6 in Orlando, forcing a Game 7, which they won handily and against the Sixers, Detroit’s overtime win in Game 6 at Philadelpia, eliminated the 76ers! Don’t count the Pistons out yet!
In The West, the Spurs meet the Mavericks. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan is the most dominant player remaining in the playoffs but the Spurs depth, has also been a major reason the team has been so successful, to this point. Head coach Gregg Popovich, is the only one of the four head coaches remaining, to have won a title. He led the Spurs to the 1999 Championship and owns a 39-26 .600 career playoff record. The Mavericks are the league’s flashiest team, led by the impossible-to-defend Dirk Nowitzki, plus a trio of outside scorers and slashers in Finley, Nash and Van Exel. Van Exel is coming off a series in which he scored 177 points, the most-ever in one series, by a non-starter! The Mavs are in the West Finals for just the second time in team history (they lost to the Lakers in 1988 in seven games), after becoming just the SEVENTH team since 1970, to have won CONSECUTIVE, seven-game series, in the same playoff year. Head coach Don Nelson is back in a Conference Final for the fourth time and the first time since 1986. Nelson took the Bucks to the East Finals three times from 1983-1986, but lost all three times and his 2-12 record, is the worst winning percentage (.143), of any head coach in Conference Finals-history (min. 10 games). If Nelson’s Mavericks lose this year, he’ll join Richie Guerin of the StL/Atl Hawks, for most Conference Finals appearances, without making it to The Finals. Guerin took the Hawks to four Western Conference Finals appearances from 1966-1970, losing to the Lakers in 66, 69 and 70 and to the Warriors in 1967!