Ness Notes: NBA's 'Final 4'

by Larry Ness

How did we get here? For the first time in NBA history, a play-in tournament preceded the playoffs. The Celtics earned the No. 7 seed and the Wizards the No. 8 seed in the East, while over in the West, the Lakers grabbed the No. 7 seed and the Grizzlies the No. 8 seed. It was then on to the first round of 16 teams, which the NBA has featured beginning back in the 1983-84 postseason. The No. 1 seeds were Philadelphia in the East and Utah in the West (Jazz owned the NBA's best overall record). Neither was tested, advancing in five games. There was just one 4-0 sweep, as Milwaukee avenged its second-round loss in last year's postseason. Just one series went all seven games, as the Clippers fell behind the Mavs 2-0 but was able to push the series to a Game 7. The visiting team won the first six games of the Mavs/Clippers series (for the first time in NBA history) but the Clippers won Game 7 at Staples Center 126-111. Of note was that the NBA's two most-storied franchises, the Celtics and Lakers (each own 17 NBA titles), were both just No. 7 seeds and both got KO'd in the first round. The only lower seed to advance was the East's No. 5 seed (Atlanta) beating the NY Knicks (No. 4 seed) 4-1. However, it was hardly considered an upset, as both teams finished the regular season with 41-31 records. Closing the book on the first round numbers, home teams finished 22-21 SU (.512) and 20-23 ATS (46.5%). Those following the famous (infamous) "Zig-Zag Theory" checked in at 15-20 ATS or minus-7.0 net games. Over/Under bettors saw 24 overs, 18 unders and one push through the 43 first round contests (57.1%). 

The four second round series featured a surprising 4-0 sweep and two series that went a full seven games. Phoenix (West's No. 2 seed) took down Denver (No. 3 seed) in four games, extending the team's playoff winning streak to SEVEN straight. The Suns won those seven games by an average margin of 16.3 PPG, so it will come as no surprise that they were also 7-0 ATS. Both of the East's two semifinal series were extended to seven games. The Nets and Bucks saw the home team win each of the first six games (5-1 ATS) but the Bucks broke through on the road in Game 7, winning 115-111 in OT at Barclays Center. As for the East's No. 1 seed (Philadelphia), the Sixers were shocked by the Hawks in Game 1 but Philly rebounded with 16-point wins in Game 2 and 3. However, the 76ers blew big leads in back-to-back losses to Atlanta in Games 4 and 5. They then fell behind the Hawks by 12 points early going of Game 6 in Atlanta but were able to pull out a five-point win. Philly got to play Game 7 at home this past Sunday but was unable to 'hold serve,' as the Hawks won 103-96. The West's No. 1 seed (Utah), jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the No. 4 seed (LA Clippers). As the series  headed to LA for Games 3 and 4, the Jazz had won and covered SIX straight games but 'the wheels came off.' The Clippers won Games 3 and 4 to even the series at two-all and then, with Kwhi out after re-injuring his knee in Game 4, the Clippers won Game 5 in Utah and Game 6 in LA, overcoming a 25-point deficit to earn a 131-119 win, marking the largest comeback victory by a team in a series-clinching win over the last 25 seasons. The Clippers, who fell behind 0-2 to Dallas in the first round before winning in seven games, are now the first team in NBA history to rally from a pair of 2-0 series deficits in the same postseason. Closing the book on the second round numbers, home teams finished 15-9 SU and 13-10-1 ATS with nine overs, 14 unders and one push. Adding in the first round, home teams are 37-30 SU (.552) but just 33-33-1 ATS (50.0%). Over/Under bettors have seen 33 overs 32 unders and two pushes. Those following the "Zig-Zag" Theory will open the conference finals 22-33 or minus-14.3 net games.

The NBA's 'Final 4' features the No. 2 Suns vs the No. 4 Clippers in the West and the No. 3 Bucks and the No. 5 Hawks in the East. I noted in my NBA 2021 Playoff preview article that we rarely get 'surprise' champions in the NBA. The Knicks are the lowest seed to ever make the NBA Finals, doing so as a No. 8 seed back in the strike-shortened season of 1998-99 (lost 4-1 to teh Spurs). The lowest seed team to "win it all," was the Houston Rockets back in the 1994-95 season, as a No. 6 seed (swept the Magic of Shaq and Penny). However, it's true that for just the second time since the NBA/ABA merger (1976-77 season), neither No. 1 seed made the conference finals. The only other exception was back in 1993-94 season when the West's No. 1 seed (Seattle) was KO'd in the first round by the 8th-seeded Nuggets, 3-2 (first round series didn't become best-of-seven until the 2003 postseason). Over in the East that year, Atlanta (No. 1 seed) was ousted 4-2 in the second round by the 5th-seeded Pacers. That season's Final 4 included two No. 5 seeds (Indiana and Utah), which both lost to No. 2 seeds New York and Houston. In case you are wondering, the Rockets beat the Knicks in the NBA Finals, 4-3. As for this year's Final 4, the two West teams, Phoenix and the LA Clippers, have NEVER won an NBA title. The Suns are in their 53rd season in the NBA and the Clippers in their 51st season (note: The Clippers are in a conference final for the first time in the franchise's 51-year history!).  As for the East's two teams, the Bucks' lone title came back in 1971 (Alcindor and the Big O), while the Hawks' lone title came back 1958 when they were based in St Louis (Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan). The Suns opened at -200 to win the West (Phoenix took a 1-0 lead on Sunday) and the Bucks have opened at -420 to win the East. Odds provided by BetAnySports.

Random Thoughts (Head Coaches): Tom Thibodeau was named the NBA's Coach of the Year for the 2020-21 season. Thibodeau took over a Knicks team that hadn't made the playoffs in seven seasons (since 2012-13) and one that had gone an abysmal 147-329 (.309) the previous six years. New York ended the season winning 16 of its final 20 games and at 41-31, claimed the East's No. 4 seed, earning the tiebreaker over the 41-31 Hawks by winning the season series 3-0. He did a fabulous job, so you'll get no argument from me. That said, how about showing a little 'love' to two head coaches who still have teams playing, Atlanta's Nate McMillan and Phoenix's Monty Williams.

The Atlanta Hawks hired Lloyd Pierce as their head coach prior to the start of the 2018-19 season but he was fired on March 1 of this season, after the team's 14–20 start (his record with Atlanta was 63-120, .344). Nate McMillan took over and would lead the Hawks to a record of 27-11 (.711) the rest of the way, the best record of any NBA team during that span. McMillan and the Hawks haven't stopped there, beating the Knicks 4-1 and the 76ers 4-3 this postseason, winning FIVE of seven road games. The Hawks have advanced to a conference final for the first time since the 2014-15 season and more impressively, for only the FOURTH time since moving from St Louis to Atlanta for the 1968-69 season (note: The Hawks appeared in the conference finals in each of their first two seasons in Atlanta). 

Then there is Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns, who was hired prior to the 2019-20 season. His team famously went 8-0 SU & ATS in the Orlando 'bubble' during last year's pandemic-shortened season but just missed out on a playoff spot. Expectations were high that the Suns would finally break their 10-year postseason drought this season but few (if any) expected them to finish with the NBA's second-best overall record (51-21) and its second-best ATS mark (42-28-2). However, that's exactly what the Suns did and then, after falling behind the defending champion Lakers 2-1 in the first round, the Suns have run off EIGHT straight wins and covers (sound familiar?). The first seven wins in the Suns' current winning streak came by an average winning margin of 16.3 PPG, before they edged the Clippers 120-114 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, playing without PG Chris Paul. Kudos to both Nate and Monty.

Random Thoughts (Players): Luka Doncic (Mavs) led a group of SEVEN players to average 30-plus points per game in a first round series by putting up a line of 35.7-7.9-10.3. However, his team lost in seven games to the Clippers, whose Kawhi Leonard posted a line of 32.1-7.9-4.6. Damian Lillard of Portland averaged 34.3-4.3-10.2 but his Blazers fell in six games to the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic (33.0-10.5-4.5). Boston's Jayson Tatum averaged 30.6-5.8-4.6 vs the Nets but it was not nearly enough to overcome the Brooklyn's "Big 3" of Durant, Harden and Irving, who combined to average 85.2 PPG, the most-ever by a trio in a single NBA playoff series. By the way, KD was part of the 30-plus 'club,' averaging 32.6 PPG and 7.4 RPG, as the Nets KO'd the Celtics in five games. Finally, Washington's Bradley Beal averaged 30.0-6.2-4.2 but like Tatum, it was not nearly enough against the East's No. 1 seed (Philadelphia), which eliminated the Wizards in five games.

Just THREE of the above seven moved on to the second round, Denver's Jokic, Brooklyn's Durant and the LA Clippers Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is the only player to advance past the second round but his story needs a caveat. Kawhi averaged 27.3-7.5-4.0 vs Utah through four games but re-injured his knee in Game 4. He did not play in LA's Game 5 and 6 wins over the Jazz, nor did he play in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. Paul George, has come "to the rescue," scoring 30-plus points in FOUR of LA's last five games. It's also noteworthy that he's scored 20-plus points in all 14 of LA's postseason games so far, averaging 26.6-8.9-5.3. The scoring star of the Clippers/Jazz series was Utah's Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 34.8 PPG on 45.7% shooting from the three-point line. Neither Jokic nor Durant's teams made it out of the second round. Jokic did not have a great series (by his standards) in the Suns' 4-0 sweep, averaging 25.0-13.3-5.8. However, no one is blaming K.D. for his team's failure to get past Milwaukee. Durant scored 49 points in Brooklyn's Game 5 win and then set an NBA record with 48 points in a Game 7, as the Nets fell at home 115-111 in OT. Durant and Mitchell (34.8 PPG each) were not the only 30-point scorers during the second round, as Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the Bucks Game 7 win over the Nets, recording his FIFTH straight game of 30 points and 10 rebounds. Giannis averaged 31.9 & 12.9 in the series and has produced a double-double in all 11 of Milwaukee's playoff games so far, averaging 28.8 PPG and 13.6 RPG.

However, two playoff 'rookies' may be making the most 'noise' of any performers this postseason. Atlanta's Trae Young has averaged 29.1 PPG and 10.4 APG through Atlanta's 12 games (Eastern Conference Final start Wednesday in Milwaukee), while the Suns' Kevin Booker continues to impress in his first-ever postseason. He had 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists for his first career triple-double in Game 1 vs LA on Sunday and is now averaging 29.0-7.4-5.4 through 11 playoff games. Enjoy the rest of the 'ride' and I'll return with a recap of the 2021 playoffs after The Finals.

Good luck...Larry

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