Playoff Thoughts

1.    Philly-Detroit:    When Philly took game one, I considered this a complete aberration.  Imagine my surprise to see the Sixers beat up the Pistons in game 3 to put the Pistons in a seriously defensive posture.  Yes, Philly matches up well at the point against Chauncey Billups because Andre Miller was playing well and couldn’t be overpowered by Billups’ size.  But the Sixers’ front court really can’t match up the depth the Pistons offer.  The Pistons also have a demonstrated history of dropping round one games to inferior teams but never losing series.  In fact, a year-by-year review of Detroit’s first round history in the 2000s bears this out:

2001-02, beat Raptors 3-2:  The seven seeded Raptors were playing without Vince Carter and still were competitive with a mix of vets (Antonio Davis, Alvin Williams, Chris Childs, Jerome Williams).  Detroit took the first two home games but dropped the next two on the road, where Detroit struggled to score.  Finally, the Raptors nearly stole game 5, losing 85-82.  These struggles were not an aberration.  This Detroit team was a tough defensive unit in the regular season but were truly pitiful offensively.  Billups, Rip Hamilton, and Rasheed Wallace would all be acquired in the next year.  Instead, they had a line up of Chucky Atkins, Jerry Stackhouse, Michael Curry, Clifford Robinson, and Ben Wallace.  Any team that could break 85 points gave them a hard time.

2002-03, beat Magic 4-3:  Before the 2002-03 season, David Stern changed the playoff format to make the first round a best-of-seven series.  This change spared the Pistons (who were much improved with Billups and Hamilton) from ending up on the short list of one seeds knocked out in the first round.  Detroit fell behind 3-1 because Tracy McGrady was playing at as high a level as any modern shooting guard this side of Michael Jordan.  McGrady averaged 44.5 ppg in the first two games (which they split with Detroit) and followed that up with 28 ppg in the next two wins.  The Pistons bounced back and won the next three, where they didn’t totally shut down McGrady but held him to 26-72 from the field (.361%).

2003-04, beat Bucks 4-1:  Few people remember this series because the Pistons ultimately won pretty easily but the Bucks shocked the Pistons in game 2 behind Michael Redd.  At the time, the Pistons had a demonstrated history of struggling in the first round after the Toronto and Orlando adventures. 

2004-05, beat Sixers 4-1:  The Sixers were a decent seven seed led by Allen Iverson and a slow Chris Webber and not too much else.  The Pistons took a quick 2-0 lead until Allen Iverson’s 37 gave Philly a win in game 3.  The Sixers actually played tough the next two games but were overwhelmed by the Pistons’ depth and lost both games and the series

2005-06, beat Bucks 4-1:  The Pistons were top seeded in the East and a juggernaut at 64-18, playing another middling Bucks team.  This time, the Pistons had two easy home wins, only to lose game 3 in Milwaukee by 20 as old nemesis Michael Redd went for 40.  The win seemed flukey and this was confirmed when the Pistons took the next two games very easily.

2006-07, beat Magic 4-0:  The top seeded Pistons have their easiest first round match up as they swept the 40-42 Magic, with only the final game being particularly close. 

Overall, we’ve seen that the Pistons usually struggle against star two guards.  This year, there’s no T-Mac, Redd, or Iverson running wild.  Instead, we see that the Sixers are standing up to the Pistons man-for-man.  Miller is playing much better than Billups (thrown in Louis Williams and the point guard disparity is large).  This but at small forward Tayshaun Prince has done a great job on Andre Iguodala (10 ppg on 21% shooting) which offsets most of that advantage.  The surprising occurrence here is that Sam Dalembert (10 ppg, 11 rpg) and Reggie Evans (11 ppg, 10 rpg) are playing the Pistons’ front court pretty much even.  I can’t imagine that all these events will continue but the Pistons are actually going to have to focus on negating Evans more.  It’s funny thing to say but he’s really hurt the Pistons.  I expect Detroit to wake up and win the series but Philly has really played well, which is good reflection on their team and coach Maurice Cheeks. 

2.    Suns-Spurs:  I expected the Spurs to ultimately prevail in this series but the 3-0 lead and two dominating victories has been very surprising.  The knee jerk reaction here is to blame the Shaquille O’Neal trade for the Suns’ predicament.  But Shaq has been tougher than anyone could’ve expected (16.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.7 bpg).  The problem here is that the Suns can’t guard anybody.  Shaq can still guard Duncan in the post but he is way too slow to guard Duncan (27 ppg, 14 rpg this series) on the perimeter or on the pick-and-roll.  Once Duncan faces up on Shaq and gets him moving, TD has beaten him to the spot every time. 

But Shaq is hardly the main culprit here.  Steve Nash is getting eviscerated by Tony Parker (33 ppg, 8 apg).  Throw in 24 ppg from Manu Ginobili and the Spurs are already at  84 ppg before throwing in a single bench player this series.  The Suns have never been a great defensive team but they are being picked apart now.  This hurts even more when Grant Hill isn’t at full strength and the Suns need more points from the small forward.  

On some levels, the Suns look worse because they lost a nip-and-tuck game 1, which changed the complexion of the series.  Still, this team looks old and kind of shot.  There is still a lot of talent here and management and the coaching staff should not be punished, even if this series ends in a sweep.  But with summer vacation looking imminent, this does seem like a time when the older Suns could use a few more young legs–which is somewhat ironic considering that they’ve dumped their first rounders to save cash annually. 

Finally, the Spurs’ hold over the Suns is at another level now.  The Tim Duncan Spurs have been as annoying to Suns fans as the Magic Johnson Lakers were to the Suns in the 1980s.  We all remember how Magic & Company would dash the hopes of all sorts of fun Suns teams in the 1980s until Kevin Johnson broke the curse in 1989-90.  Well, check how TD has treated the Suns: 

-1997-98, Spurs beat Suns 3-1 in first round

-1998-99, did not meet

-1999-00, Suns beat Spurs 3-1 (Duncan did not play because of knee injury)

-2000-01, did not meet

-2001-02, did not meet

-2002-03, Spurs beat Suns 4-2 in first round

-2003-04, did not meet

-2004-05, Spurs beat Suns 4-1 in conference finals

-2005-06, did not meet

-2006-07, Spurs beat Suns 4-2 in second round 

Here’s how the Lakers did against the Suns from 1979-90: 

1979-80, Lakers beat Suns 4-1 in second round

1980-81, did not meet

1981-82, Lakers beat Suns 4-0 in second round

1982-83, did not meet

1983-84, Lakers beat Suns 4-2 in conference finals

1984-85, Lakers beat Suns 3-0 in first round

1985-86, did not meet

1986-87, did not meet

1987-88, did not meet

1988-89, Lakers beat Suns 4-0 in conference finals

1989-90, Suns beat Lakers 4-1 in second round 

So, Duncan is about to be 5-1 against the Suns  (really 5-0 if you discount the year he did not play in the playoffs), the exact same record the Suns had against Magic.  It’s hard to say which team put more of a hurt on the Suns.  I’m leaning towards the Spurs because of the whole suspension fiasco last year that had to be the most bitter of any of the playoff losses they’ve had, besides the back-to-back Hakeem Olajuwon wins in 1993-94 and 1994-95.

3.    Some Miscellaneous Playoff Thoughts:  

It’s Over, Buddy:  Toronto is not that much worse than Orlando.  Chris Bosh is near Dwight Howard’s level as a player and the Raptors are better at the point.  Throw in Rashard Lewis matching up with the hustling but limit Jamario Moon and the fact that Jameer Nelson is playing well and that spells the end of the Raptors.  The bottom line here is that Howard is a force that is going to be a problem for the entire league. 

It’s Over, Buddy, Part Two:  The Lakers, while better than Denver, are NOT that much better.  Last night, the Lakers smoked Denver by 18 in a game where the Nuggets did not compete.  If Luke Walton continues to outplay Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets will continue to look like a non-playoff team.  In reality, the Nuggets are a pretty formidable bunch.  They’ve had bad timing (the West is loaded) and bad seeding luck (a match up with the Hornets might’ve been better) but there is no reason that a little re-tooling and some possible regression from a couple of teams (Dallas, Phoenix or Houston) can’t raise the Nuggets into the next level of contender in 2008-09.  At this point, however, they are fringe contender and first round fodder against a better team.  While one would expect the Nuggets to put up more of a fight if they were playing better, the ultimate outcome shouldn’t be view as surprising.  

It’s Over, Buddy, Part Three (probably):  The Rockets played tough but could not pull out another win in Utah last night, giving the Jazz a commanding 3-1 lead.  The Rockets were nice defensively but could not score when the Jazz stuck on Tracy McGrady.  Given how close each game has been, you can’t completely write off the Rockets (they’ve been tough on the road) but unless Rafer Alston or someone else can hit a hot streak, T-Mac and Carl Landry won’t be enough to generate the points they need to win.  At the very least, I think the Rockets can force a game 6.

Nice Fight:  They still have no shot of winning the series but I was pretty surprised to see Atlanta get a win against the title favorite Celtics that had nearly 30 more wins in the regular season.  Is this rare?  Obviously, Dallas and Golden State showed us that a one seed can lose a lot more than one game in the first round but that was a once-a-decade type upset.  Here are how number one seeds have done in the against eight seeds (one seeds mentioned first with their ultimate playoff run in parentheses): 

1983-84: Celtics beat Bullets 3-1 (won NBA title)

                Lakers beat Kings 3-0 (lost in NBA Finals)

1984-85: Celtics beat Cavs 3-1 (lost in NBA Finals)

                Lakers beat Suns 3-0 (won NBA title)

1985-86: Celtics beat Bulls 3-0 (won NBA title)

                Lakers beat Spurs 3-0 (lost in conference finals)

1986-87:  Celtics beat Bulls 3-0 (lost in NBA Finals)

                 Lakers beat Nuggets 3-0 (won NBA title)

1987-88:  Celtics beat Knicks 3-1 (lost in conference finals)

                Lakers beat Spurs 3-0 (won NBA title)

1988-89:  Pistons beat Celtics 3-0 (won NBA title)

                 Lakers beat Blazers 3-0 (lost in NBA Finals)

1989-90:  Pistons beat Pacers 3-0 (won NBA title)

                 Lakers beat Rockets 3-1 (lost in second round)

1990-91:  Bulls beat Knicks 3-0 (won NBA title)

                 Blazers beat Sonics 3-2 (lost in conference finals)

1991-92:  Bulls beat Heat 3-0 (won NBA title)

                 Blazers beat Lakers 3-1 (lost in NBA Finals)

1992-93:  Knicks beat Pacers 3-1 (lost in conference finals)

                 Suns beat Lakers 3-2 (lost in NBA Finals)

1993-94:   Hawks beat Heat 3-2 (lost in second round)

                 Sonics lost to Nuggets 3-2 (lost in first round)

1994-95:   Magic beat Celtics 3-1 (lost in NBA Finals)

                  Spurs beat Nuggets 3-0 (lost in conference finals)

1995-96:   Bulls beat Heat 3-0 (won NBA title)

                  Sonics beat Kings 3-1 (lost in NBA Finals)

1996-97:    Bulls beat Bullets 3-0 (won NBA title)

                  Jazz beat Clippers 3-0 (lost in NBA Finals)

1997-98:    Bulls beat Nets 3-0 (won NBA title)

                   Jazz beat Rockets 3-2 (lost in NBA Finals)

1998-99:    Heat lost to Knicks 3-2 (lost in first round)

                   Spurs beat Wolves 3-1 (won NBA title)

1999-00:    Pacers beat Bucks 3-2 (lost in NBA Finals)

                   Lakers beat Kings 3-2 (won NBA title)

2000-01:    Sixers beat Pacers 3-1 (lost in NBA Finals)

                   Spurs beat Wolves 3-1 (lost in conference finals)  

2001-02:     Nets beat Pacers 3-2 (lost in NBA Finals)

                   Kings beat Jazz 3-1 (lost in conference finals)

2002-03:     Pistons beat Magic 4-3 (lost in conference finals)

                    Spurs beat Suns 4-2 (won NBA title)

2003-04:     Pacers beat Celtics 4-0 (lost in conference finals)

                    Wolves beat Nuggets 4-1 (lost in conference finals)

2004-05:      Heat beat Nets 4-0 (lost in conference finals)

                    Suns beat Grizz 4-0 (lost in conference finals)

2005-06:     Pistons beat Bucks 4-1 (lost in conference finals)

                    Spurs beat Kings 4-2 (lost in second round)

2006-07:      Pistons beat Magic 4-0 (lost in conference finals)

                     Mavs lose to Warriors 4-2 (lost in first round) 

In all, it appears that losing a game in first round makes little difference to ultimate playoff destiny.  In 48 playoff first rounders, one seeds swept eight seeds 22 times (almost 50% of the time).  Of the sweepers, 11 went on to win titles, four went to the Finals and lost, and six lost in the conference finals (none lost in the second round).   Oddly, since the NBA went to seven games in the first round, none of the four sweeping top seeds have made the NBA Finals. 

-These Series Don’t Start ‘Til Someone Loses at Home:  I don’t have much to say about Dallas-Hornets or the Wiz and Cavs yet.  I think the Hornets and Cavs are the better teams right now but both of the underdogs can make these series go long by holding serve at home today.  We’ll look at this more later in the week…

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