No other sporting event in North America is as free of suspense as the first round of the NBA playoffs, which begins Saturday. Things pick up considerably in the second round, when the playoffs tend to become a stone gas, but even with most of the outcomes predetermined, the first round is not totally without its charms.
For one thing, we get to see the big teams, the favorites, play meaningful games for the first time. The top three seeds in each conference are almost sure to win four games before they lose four, but they do have to go out and win them. It does matter. For teams like the Timberwolves, the Pacers, the Nets and the Lakers, games haven't meant much since they were assured of making the playoffs. This was when you were doing your Christmas shopping.
Think of the first round as a best-of-seven regular season, hard on the heels of an 82-game exhibition season.
Feel free to skip ahead two paragraphs if you aren't interested in the numbers, but I like to update these stats every year. In the 20 years since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams, 8 seeds have won two of 40 series against 1 seeds. That's a winning percentage of .050. Seven seeds are 4-36 (.100) against 2s, while 6 seeds are 11-29 (.275) against 3s. If you could be transported in time to a randomly chosen game involving the worst team of all time, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, you'd have a 10.9 percent chance of seeing them win. That's better than the 7.5 percent chance you would have of seeing an underdog winner if you were randomly dropped into a playoff series involving a 7 or 8 seed.
Six, 7 and 8 seeds combined have a lower winning percentage -- .142 -- than 14 seeds do in the first round of the NCAA Tournament since it expanded to its current size in 1985. Those underdogs have gone 15-65, a .188 winning percentage, against 3 seeds. The difference is first-round losses take two hours in the NCAA Tournament. In the NBA playoffs they take two weeks.
Welcome back, numbers haters! Here's a look at the first-round series, starting, as always in this column, with the West.
(1) Minnesota Timberwolves vs. (8) Denver Nuggets
The last 8 seed to win a playoff series was the Knicks, who beat the Heat in 1999. Marcus Camby, then a Knick and now a Nugget, says he told his teammates that the last time he was on an 8 seed, his team went to the Finals, which is true. Also true is that the only other 8 seed to win a playoff series was ... the Denver Nuggets! Spooky! In 1994, in best-of-five days, the Nuggets lost the first two to the top-seed Sonics, then won three straight. Those of you who believe in omens and witches' brooms should put a little money on the Nuggets. The rest of us will take the Timberwolves to win their first playoff series ever.
I think the T-Wolves will go to the conference finals, but any of the four teams they might meet there can beat them. As good as they were in winning 58 games and as great as Kevin Garnett is -- he's the runaway MVP -- this is not a championship team.
(2) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (7) Houston Rockets
The Lakers are crowing about how their season-ending victory over the Blazers, a double-overtime job on the road that featured two buzzer-beaters by Kobe Bryant, proved that they've kicked it into gear and are now in playoff mode. "We're ready. We know what we have to do," Shaquille O'Neal said. Well, that exciting win was over the B-team of a non-playoff team. All you have to know about that game is that 19-year-old Travis Outlaw played in it for Portland, scoring four points to double his season total.
When the Lakers signed Karl Malone and Gary Payton last summer they were crowned NBA champs by the same Chicken Littles who declared the Yankees 2004 World Series champions after the Alex Rodriguez trade. It hasn't looked that way for a variety of reasons, most notably the turmoil around accused felon Bryant and the health of Malone, who missed half the season with a bad knee. Malone and Payton are not what they once were, but the Lakers are formidable when the Mailman plays. They're 33-9 with Malone, only 23-17 without him.
The Lakers believe they can flip the ol' playoff switch and win 16 games. It's possible, but everything has to go right. They have no depth, and they don't play a lot of defense. But if the big four are all playing and all reasonably healthy, the Lakers are the team to beat. In the meantime, the NBA couldn't have asked for a better first-round matchup than Shaq vs. Yao Ming. There may not be much doubt who's going to win most of these series, but for the next two weeks, it'll be the Shaq and Yao show.
(3) San Antonio Spurs vs. (6) Memphis Grizzlies
Tim Duncan has been nursing a sore knee and the Spurs aren't as deep as they were a year ago. They also can't count on two dangerous playoff opponents to lose their best player to injury, as happened last year when Chris Webber of the Kings and Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks went down. Everything broke right for San Antonio in '03. Not again. The Grizzlies became a solid team this year, and they could give the Spurs a scare, but I think San Antonio will have enough to get by.
(4) Sacramento Kings vs. (5) Dallas Mavericks
This might be the most entertaining series of the postseason, with two teams that just try to outscore opponents and usually succeed. The Kings were looking great for the first two-thirds of the season. They were leading the conference, and they didn't even have their best player, Chris Webber. Imagine how good they'd be when they got Webber back! Then they got Webber back and went in the tank. Webber's return roughly coincided with a bad abdominal injury that knocked out backup point guard Bobby Jackson, who is way more important than the words "backup point guard" would suggest. He's still hurting.
I don't think the Kings will climb out of their tank in the playoffs. This team's just not right, and its moment may have passed, as some typists were saying at the start of the year. I was not among that group, but I've changed my mind in the last two months.
The Mavericks are just silly. Hear me now and remember it well: No team coached by Don Nelson will ever win an NBA championship. You don't win without a great or at least a good center, and Nelson's teams never have one. After a while, like two decades, that becomes not a coincidence. The Mavs will win this series, though, and they're always fun to watch.
(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Boston Celtics
The Celtics might have been better off missing the playoffs and getting into the draft lottery. Of course, that's true for any 8 seed. The Pacers had the best record in the league this year, and they even played well (20-8) against the West, which even the top Eastern teams have rarely done in recent years.
So now they're complaining that they're being overlooked as a title favorite because everyone knows the East has no chance. Well, you know what? They're right. This just might be the best team in the league. OK, I'll stop hedging. This is the best team in the league. I think they made a mistake by running hard down the stretch to gain home-court advantage rather than resting their stars, especially Jermaine O'Neal. But if O'Neal has enough left in the tank, and if Ron Artest doesn't reinjure his thumb, this team should win the East.
(2) New Jersey Nets vs. (7) New York Knicks
The Nets are only as good as Jason Kidd makes them, and Kidd is bothered by a sore knee. They have no chance to go to their third straight Finals, and they do have a chance to be a rare second-seed loser to those old playoff overachievers, the Knicks. Not only are the Knicks the last 8 seed to win a playoff series, they're also the last 7 seed to win one, one year before, against those same Heat.
So they had their old coach Pat Riley's number in the late '90s. So what? The Knicks catapulted into the playoff picture after Isiah Thomas took over by playing .500 ball. That's how weak the East is. They're really not very good. But with Kidd and Kenyon Martin both hurting, the Nets are vulnerable. And remember New York will have the home-crowd advantage in every game because more Knicks fans than Nets fans show up in New Jersey. If I were betting money I'd take the Nets, but since I get paid any old way I'll pick the Knicks to pull the upset, thus contradicting the thesis of this entire column.
(3) Detroit Pistons vs. (6) Milwaukee Bucks
The Pistons are the hip pick to win the East since their trade for Rasheed Wallace. Hear me now and remember it well: No team coached by Larry Brown will ever win an NBA championship. That doesn't mean Brown won't take a team to the Finals, as he did in Philly a few years ago. But if the Pistons meet the Pacers for the conference title, which is extremely likely, they'll go no further. That would of course be a sweet win for Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who was booted by Detroit last summer to make way for Brown.
(4) Miami Heat vs. (5) New Orleans Hornets
As late as mid-February, the Heat were 11 games under .500, but they finished the season 21-8. If you'll recall my theory that individual regular-season games are meaningless but can add up to mean something, I'd say that means enough to earn them a chance to lose in the second round. The Hornets went in the opposite direction, finishing the year 9-15, and their best player, Baron Davis, is still bothered by the sprained ankle that's dogged him for most of the year. He missed nine games recently, returning for the last two. The Hornets are a talented bunch, but this doesn't appear to be their year.
- - - - - - - - - - - -