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NBA's 2nd Season
by Larry Ness - 04/19/2013
NBA’s Second Season
The Utah Jazz were not eliminated from this year’s playoff field until they lost at Memphis on Wednesday. That defeat allowed the Lakers to clinch the final playoff spot still available in the West and the Lakers took advantage of that opportunity late Wednesday, beating the Rockets in OT, which allowed them to move up to the No. 7 seed. Other developments on the NBA’s final regular season night were the Warriors securing the No. 6 seed by sending the Blazers to their 13th consecutive loss and the Clippers winning at Sacramento, thereby giving them the home court edge in their first round series with the Grizzlies. All was quiet in the East on Wednesday, as all playoff seedings were “locked in” prior to the beginning of play.
Six teams from each conference are back in the postseason from last year’s field, with Brooklyn (No. 4 seed) and Milwaukee (No. 8 seed) replacing Orlando and Philadelphia from last year’s Eastern Conference Field. Out West, Golden State (No. 6 seed) and Houston (No. 8 seed) are new in 2013, as 2012 entrants Dallas and Utah are through playing for the season. In the case of Dallas, the Mavs will sit out the postseason after participating in each of the last 12 seasons. The Spurs own the longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances with 16, followed by the Nuggets, who will be making their 10th straight postseason visit .
The Spurs entered the NBA in for the 1976-77 season (along with fellow ABA teams the Nets, Nuggets and Pacers) and are not only the only former ABA team to win a title (the Spurs have won four) but only the Lakers have been in more postseasons than the Spurs these last 37 years. The Lakers are in the postseason for the 18th time in the last 19 years (missed in 2004-05 season) and 35 of the 37 years since the merger. The Spurs have played in 23 of the last 24 postseason (missed in 1996-97) and 33 of the 37. Ironically, LA’s win over Houston on Wednesday gave us an LA/San Antonio first round matchup.
The NBA consists of 30 teams and just 12 have won championships since the 1976-77 merger, with only seven winning multiple titles. The Lakers lead the way win 10, followed by the Bulls (six), Celtics (four), Spurs (four), Pistons (three), Heat (two) and Rockets (4). Of the five teams to win single titles since the merger, all but the Mavs win in 2011 came more than 20 years ago. The Blazers won the first NBA title post-merger in 1977, followed by the Bullets (now Wizards) winning in 1978 over the Sonics (now Thunder) and then the Sonics “returning the favor” the following season by beating the Bullets. The fifth team to win a single NBA title since the merger was the 76ers, who won with Moses and Doctor J in that famous Fo’, Fo’ Fo’ season of 1983.
The Heat are the defending champs (LBJ’s 1st) and finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record. However, I will note that the last team to win the NBA title after finishing the regular season with the league’s best record, was the 2009 Celtics. That said, it’s not as if the NBA playoffs typically serves up “unlikely” champs. Bird and Magic entered the NBA for the start of the 1979-80 season, rejuvenating what was a 'dying' league. Here's what a check of the history books tell us. Of the 33 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 15 have been teams which finished the regular season with the best regular season record (or tied for the best record). Nine champs have been teams which finished with its second-best mark and four others with its third-best record.
That leaves just FIVE champions from outside the top-three regular season records over the last 33 seasons (or just 15.2 percent). That includes last year’s Heat, who finished with only the league’s fourth-best record but I doubt anyone thought of Miami as a ”dark horse” before last year’s postseason began. However, while just five champions have come from a group outside of the top-three regular season records these last 33 years, it would be foolish to not realize that FOUR of those five have come in the last nine years (a pattern?).
In fact, the 2011 champion Mavericks, like last year’s Heat, finished with the fourth-best record that year (57-25). The other two recent teams to do so are the 2003-04 Pistons, who finished at 54-28 (sixth-best mark) and the 2005-06 Heat, who owned a 52-30 mark that year, which represented the league's fifth-best record that season. The 2004 Pistons deserve an asterisk, because after acquiring Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons owned the NBA’s best record after the All Star break and by year’s end, were HARDLY considered the league’s sixth-best team. As for the 2006 Heat, they owe the Mavs as big favor, as Dallas coughed up a 2-0 Finals lead, losing FOUR straight games (Mavs made up for that ‘choke’ in 2011). That leaves the 1994-95 Houston Rockets as the fifth team to win an an NBA title these last 33 years, without finishing the regular season with at least, the league’s third-best regular season record. That squad deserves a “special mention.”
You may remember that following a third straight NBA title in 1992-93 with the Bulls and the tragic death of his father, MJ decided to pursue a career in MLB. With MJ in the minors and not on an NBA court, the 1993-94 Rockets (coached by Rudy T and led by Hakeem) won the title in a seven-game series over the Knicks, who were coached by Pat Riley and led by Patrick Ewing. The following season, the Rockets finished with a record of 47-35, tied for the 10th-best mark during the regular season. However, they beat in order, the 60-22 Jazz, the 59-23 Suns and the 62-20 Spurs (owners of the league's best record that year in David Robinson's MVP year) in the Western Conference playoffs, to reach the NBA Finals. Waiting for them were the 57-25 Magic, led by Shaq and Penny (remember him?), who had eliminated the Bulls and MJ (who returned late in the that season from his MLB 'sabbatical'). The Rockets swept the Magic in four games, giving Rudy T and Hakeem back-to-back titles and giving Clyde Drexler (who was acquired from Portland during the season in a trade), the lone NBA title of his Hall-of-Fame career. Houston 'victims' that postseason had gone 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.
Eastern Conference: The Heat are the overwhelming favorites, considering the next three seeds are the the Knicks, Pacers and Nets. The Knicks are in the postseason for the third straight season but the franchise has lost in the first round in each of its last four postseason appearances, last advancing past the opening round way back in 2000 (not exactly a typical No. 2 seed). The Pacers gave the Heat a ‘scare’ in last year’s second round, leading two games to one with Game 4 at home in Indiana but went on to lose three in a row. More importantly, the Pacers have hardly looked like “the team to beat” as of late, losing FIVE of their final six games, while going 0-6 ATS. As for the Nets, they’ll be lucky to get past the Bulls in the first round. How can’t Miami make the NBA Finals?
Western Conference: The Thunder won the West last year and after beating the Heat in Game 1 of The Finals, folded like an accordion. OKC will have plenty of motivation this year and note that while the Thunder were six games worse than the Heat in the regular season (60 wins to Miami’s 66), no team had a better point-differential, as OKC checks in at plus-9.2 PPG, to Miami’s plus-7.9. The Spurs/Lakers matchup features great “history” but with no Kobe, if the Spurs lose to the Lakers, they ought to reapply to the ABA. The Warriors/Nuggets series could be interesting. Yes, this is just Golden State’s second playoff appearance in the last 19 years but how does one ignore the fact that the Nuggets have lost in the 1st round in EIGHT of the last nine years! That said, how do the Warriors win in Denver, where the Nuggets are 38-3, including 23 consecutive home wins.
Like Last year, the first round’s best series is likely to be the Grizzlies vs the Clippers. It went seven games last year, with the Clippers winning a Game 7 in Memphis. This year, the Clippers will have the home court edge, plus there's a feeling around the league, that this year’s Clippers team just may be “for real.” This year’s playoff 'journey' begins with four games on Saturday and four more on Sunday.