Let’s continue with Part 2 of our First Round review, the Western Conference (Part 1 can be found here)….
-Jazz v. Grizzlies: The Grizzlies have hung tough but are down 2-1, despite shocking the Jazz by beating top seeded Utah in the first game. That got me wondering how often a top NBA seed has dropped Game 1 of a First Round series and what happened thereafter. We will limit the inquiry a bit to span from 2002-03, when the NBA changed the First Round to the seven game series format, through 2018-19 (2019-20 was played in the Bubble and there were no home games). In that span, there have been 34 top seeds. Of the 34, only five lost the first game of the series at home versus an eight seed. Here’s the group with how they did overall:
2002-03 Spurs: Lost Game 1 versus the Suns on an incredible bank shot by Stephon Marbury. The Spurs would go on to win the series 4-2 and, ultimately, win the title.
2006-07 Mavericks: Dallas looked like the title favorite at 67-15 but the Mavs were famously upset by the feisty “We Believe” Warriors 4-2 in the First Round.
2010-11 Spurs: The Spurs couldn’t beat the Grit ‘n Grind Grizzlies and lost to Memphis 4-2 in the First Round. It was clear that the Grizz were better than an eight seed when they followed 2010-11 with several more good playoff seasons.
2013-14 Pacers: This one is forgotten because the Pacers were not really considered the best team in the East (Miami was). Indiana lost Game 1 versus the Hawks in the First Round. The Pacers even were down 3-2 but were able to pull it out and win in seven games. Indiana lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to Miami.
2016-17 Celtics: This Celtics team was, like Indiana, another good team but not considered dominant. Boston actually lost the first two games at home to the Bulls (as an aside, doesn’t 2017 seem like it was 20 years ago?). Rajon Rondo had been playing great for Chicago but he broke his hand and the Celts ended up winning the next four straight. Boston would lose to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Utah looks to be in pretty good control of this series and the chance of an upset by Memphis feels very remote. It’s not clear what that bodes for the future for Utah but the three teams above who got out of the First Round made, at least, the Conference Finals.
When they last met: Utah and Memphis have never met in the playoffs before this season.
-Suns v. Lakers: This series has swung wildly a few times. First, the Lakers stole a road game in Phoenix and looked to be in control. Then, in Game 4, the Lakers gave back the home court advantage, thanks to Anthony Davis’ groin injury. If AD is hurt, the Lakers are cooked.
While the Lakers are not a typical seven seed, we should recognize that seven seeds have upset two seeds exactly as often as eight seeds have upset one seeds (five times each). In addition, only one seven seed has upset a two seed since the NBA went to the seven game series format in 2002-03. That “upset” occurred when the 2009-10 Spurs (50-32) beat the 55-27 Mavs. The teams were not as far as the seeds would indicate. Actually, the Spurs were much better in SRS than Dallas (5.07 for the Spurs versus 2.66 for the Mavs).
When they last met: Speaking of the 2009-10 playoffs, it was also the last time Phoenix and the Lakers met. The Suns had swept the aforementioned Spurs in the Second Round. Phoenix, which was in the midst of its final run with Steve Nash/Amare Stoudemire, then met Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers would win the series 4-2 thanks to Kobe’s dominance (33.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 8.3 apg).
-Nuggets v. Blazers: This is a difficult series to get a handle on. Are the Nuggets, even without Jamal Murray, still the slightly better team? For now, the Nuggets have leaned on Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo at the guard slots. While they both have played pretty well, they are not Murray On the other hand, Damian Lillard might be the toughest guard to stop in a game (or series) that comes down to a single possession. The Lillard Factor has been key in beating better teams in playoff series in the past (2013-14 Rockets and 2015-16 Clippers are the best examples).
As a Blazers fan, are you still worried about the Blazers having to win a Game 7 in Denver? We only have to look back to the Second Round of the 2018-19 Playoffs when the Blazers came from 15 points behind at the half in Denver to win Game 7. Lillard had a terrible shooting game (3-17 from the field) but did other things wells and CJ McCollum carried the scoring load (17-29 from the field, 37 points). I doubt Lillard will shoot so badly again. In any event, there is documented history that Portland can beat Denver on the road again.
Final weird stat note: Jusuf Nurkic has more assists than Nikola Jokic so far this series.
When they last met: We just noted above that crazy 2018-19 series so we won’t talk about it more here. Before that meeting, the Blazers and Nuggets hadn’t had a playoff series against each other since 1985-86 when the 40-42 Blazers lost 3-1 to the 47-35 Nuggets. The series was moderately entertaining because the teams had done a challenge trade in 1984 when Denver gave up Kiki Vandeweghe for Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, and some other things.
Kiki played his usual offensively-oriented game that series (28 ppg but only 1.3 rpg and 2.0 apg). Natt was great (23 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and Lever was pretty good too (16 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 5.8 apg). The consensus was that the Nuggets won this deal.
-Clippers v. Mavericks: The weird series. Frankly, this Clippers team has been good but weird for a couple of years now. They blew a 3-1 lead last season to Denver. Now, they tanked the end of the year to draw the Mavs, only to lose the first two games at home but bounced back to easily win the next two games in Dallas to even the series.
Though this is a series between a four and five seed, the numbers indicate that the Clippers (47-25, 6.02 SRS) are vastly superior (Dallas was 42-30, 2.26 SRS). The Mavs had played well early but Dallas’ three-point shooting, particularly from Tim Hardaway, didn’t seem sustainable. The series feels similar to the 2016-17 Bulls/Celtics series noted above when the better Boston didn’t relinquish control after a bad start.
When they last met: The only other time these teams have met in the playoffs was in the First Round of last season’s Bubble playoffs. The Clipps won 4-2.