Ness Notes: NBA's Second Season

by Larry Ness

After a second consecutive year of a 'Play-In' round, the NBA's 16-team field opened the 2022 postseason back on April 16th.This year's field was missing five playoff teams from the previous postseason. The NY Knicks were a No. 4 seed in the East last season (ending a seven-year playoff drought) but were never really a playoff contender this season. Washington was able to garner a No. 8 seed last year despite a 34-38 record but the Wizards' 35-47 record this year left them EIGHT games 'south' of the final 'Play-In' spot. Toronto saw its run of seven consecutive postseason appearances end last year (Raptors won the NBA title in 2019) but earned a No. 5 seed with a 48-34 record. Chicago ended a four-year playoff drought this season with a 46-36 record, earning the East's No. 6 seed.

Over in the West, the LA Clippers failed to make it out of the 'Play-In' round, ending a run of having played in NINE of the previous 10 postseasons. Portland, which had made the last EIGHT postseasons, finished 27-55, SEVEN games shy of the last 'Play-In' seed (No. 10). The most notable absence from this year's playoff field were the Lakers (the 2020 champs), whose 33-49 record left them one game behind the Spurs (No. 10 seed). Taking those three open spots were the Warriors, T-wolves and Pelicans. Golden St had been to FIVE straight NBA finals (2015-19) but after a nightmare 2019-20 season, didn't make it out of the 'Play-In' round last season. The Warriors challenged the Suns for the West's record early on but ended 53-29, giving them the No. 3 seed. 46-36 Minnesota finished with the No. 7 but earned its way into the playoff field by beating the No. 8 Clippers. It marked just Minnesota's second playoff berth over the previous 17 years (the other came in 2018). The West's final playoff spot went to New Orleans, which played the entire season without 'King' Zion. The Pels were just 36-46 in the regular season but won a home game over the Spurs and then won at the Clippers, to snag the West's No. 8 seed.

It's important to note at this time of year that the NBA playoffs do not typically serve up “unlikely” champs. After all, the NBA consists of 30 teams but just 16 have won championships since the 1976-77 merger. Only EIGHT teams have won multiple titles, with the Lakers leading the way with 11. The Lakers are followed by the Bulls (six), Spurs (five), Celtics (four), Warriors, (three), Heat (three), Pistons (three) and Rockets (two). Taking a closer look, let me return to the start of the 1979-80 season, when Bird and Magic entered the NBA, rejuvenating what was a 'dying' league. Here's what a check of the history books tells us. Of the 42 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 19 have been teams which finished the regular season with the best regular season record (or tied for the best record). Ten champs have been teams which finished with its second-best mark and seven others with its third-best record. That said, the 2021 champion Milwaukee Bucks were the East's No. 3 seed and at 46-26, owned just the NBA's 7th-best record.

The NBA expanded its playoff field to 16 teams for the 1983-84 season but first round series were best-of-five with all remaining series being the best-of-seven. The first round was extended to a best-of-seven series for the 2002-03 season (and has remained in place) with the change arguably benefitting the higher seeded teams by reducing the likelihood of an upset by a lower seed. The lowest seed to reach the NBA Finals was the No. 8 NY Knicks in the 50-game strike season of 1998-99, who would lose 4-1 to the Spurs (the first of Pop's five championship teams). The lowest seed to win an NBA title was the No. 6 Houston Rockets (West) in the 1994-95 season. Houston had won the NBA title the year before, but the team's second consecutive title was an unforgettable one. The Rockets finished that season 47-35, tied for the NBA's 10th-best record. However, Houston won all FOUR series without the home court edge and its 'victims' that postseason had a combined record of 238-90 (.726) during the regular season. No championship team, before or since, has beaten a more impressive group of challengers on its way to an NBA title.

First Round recap: The higher seed won all EIGHT of the first round series. There was just one 4-0 sweep (Boston over Brooklyn), three series went five games and four more went six games. Boston's sweep of Brooklyn was notable, as the Nets were preseason favorites to win the East. Throw in the fact that the Lakers were preseason favorites in the West and didn't even make the playoffs, the league's two preseason favorites did not win a SINGLE postseason game. Three of the four six-game series came in the West. Philly went up 3-0 on Toronto but didn't close out the Raptors until Game 6 in Toronto. How about this factoid? Philadelphia / Toronto was the first Eastern Conference first-round series to go beyond five games in four years! Golden St used a 'small ball" lineup to eliminate Denver in five games, but the other three Western Conference series went six games. The 68-14 Suns were the NBA's best team (EIGHT games better than Memphis) but lost leading scorer Devin Booker in Game 2 of their series with the eight-seeded Pelicans. The Pelicans opened the season 1-12 and finished 36-46 (28 games worse than Phoenix) but found themselves tied at two-all after a game 4 win. The Suns won Games 5 and 6 with Chris Paul playing a "game for the ages" in Game 6, scoring 33 points on 14 of 14 FG shooting. It's the most made field goals without a miss in NBA playoff history. Memphis owned the NBA's second-best overall record and its best ATS mark (52-29-1) but not only needed six games to eliminate 7th-seeded Minnesota (playing in just its second postseason since 2014), but also needed dramatic 4th-quarter comebacks to do so. The Grizzlies are the first team in NBA history to have multiple wins in a single playoff series in which they trailed by double-digits entering the fourth quarter. Memphis overcame double-digit deficits to win Games 3, 5 and 6. The third Western Conference series to go six games was No. 4 Dallas over No. 5 Utah. The series win is the first for superstar Luka Doncic (Mavs had lost in the first round in each of the previous two years) but I'd be remiss to not give a shout out to Jalen Brunson. The four-year vet from Villanova owns a career regular season line of 11.9-3.0-3.7 but averaged 27.8-4.8-4.2 against Utah. Brunson scored 20-plus points in all six games, despite NEVER having had 20-plus points in more than TWO straight regular-season games. Want more? He averaged 38 minutes per game and committed just FOUR turnovers.

Just the facts (numbers). There were 43 games in Round 1, with home teams going 25-18 (.581) but just 19-24 ATS (44.2%). Over/Under players have seen 27 of the 43 games stay "under the closing number," for a win percentage of 62.8%. Those following the "Zig-Zag" Theory are again finding that it has long ago become a useful (winning) tool. The ATS record is 16-19 or minus-4.6 net games. The second round begins Sunday and, in the East, Miami (Butler), Milwaukee (Middleton) and Philadelphia (Embiid) are all dealing with key injuries. Meanwhile, Boston is healthy and since sitting at 25-25 back on the morning of January 29th, has won 30 of its last 36 games! Over in the West, Booker was back for the Suns in their Game 6 series-clinching win against the Pelicans plus Memphis, Golden St and Dallas have no serious injury issues.

Good luck...Larry

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