Playoff Thoughts

1.    Recurring Matchups:    While watching the Cavs eviscerate the Wizards last night, I found myself a little bored.  Not just because the game had little competition but also because we’ve seen a bit more Wiz-Cavs than I need to see.  The two teams had a pretty entertaining playoff series in 2005-06 (that the Cavs won 4-2).  Last year, the Wiz were hurt and got shlumped by the Cavs 4-0 in the first round. Now, we are seeing a not too exciting series for the third straight year.  The first game wasn’t bad but this is not a match up, even when competitive, that really sparks the imagination.  

Still, it got me wondering why certain teams always run into each other in the playoffs.  We vividly remember the Knicks and Pacers meeting pretty much ever year in the mid to late 1990s (1992-93, 1993-94, 1994-95, 1997-98, 1998-99, and 1999-00).  We also remember the Knicks and the Heat quite a bit during that time (1996-97, 1997-98, 1998-99, and 1999-00).  Yet, the Knicks never found the Shaq/Penny Magic during the playoffs.  Similarly, we all remember that Hakeem Olajuwon outplaying David Robinson and the Spurs in 1994-95.  But despite the fact that both teams were good for most of the 1990s, they never met in the playoffs outside of 1994-95. 

There is obviously an element of chance and luck in playoff match ups (overall league talent, injuries, and pot luck).  I’m not sure what it all means but for the heck of it, here are some star players and how often they actually met their rivals in the playoffs and their playoff series records against each other: 

Michael Jordan

Larry Bird (0-2)

-Isiah Thomas (1-3)

-Cavs (Price/Daugherty) (4-0)

-Patrick Ewing (5-0)

-Charles Barkley (3-0)

-Dominique Wilkins (1-0)

-Shaquille O’Neal (1-1)

-Karl Malone/John Stockton (2-0)

-Reggie Miller (1-0) 

Magic Johnson

-Julius Erving (1-2)

-Larry Bird (2-1)

-Michael Jordan (0-1)

-Isiah Thomas (1-1)

-Phoenix (5-1)

-Hakeem Olajuwon (2-2) 

Larry Bird

-Julius Erving (2-2)

-Dominique Wilkins (3-0)

-Milwaukee Bucks (3-1)

-Magic Johnson (1-2)

-Charles Barkley (1-0)

-Isiah Thomas (2-3)

-Michael Jordan (2-0)

-Patrick Ewing (1-1) 

Wilt Chamberlain

-Bill Russell (1-7)

-Dolph Schayes (2-1)

-Bob Pettit (1-0)

-Oscar Robertson (3-1)

-Frazier/Reed Knicks (2-2)

-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1-1) 

Bill Russell

-Bob Pettit (3-1)

-Dolph Schayes (3-0)

-Elgin Baylor/Jerry West (7-0)

-Wilt Chamberlain (7-1)

-Oscar Robertson (3-0) 

Shaquille O’Neal

-Reggie Miller (3-0)

-Michael Jordan (1-1)

-Hakeem Olajuwon (1-1)

-Stockton/Malone Jazz (0-2)

-Portland Trailblazers (5-0)

-Tim Duncan (3-2)

-Kevin Garnett (2-0)

-Billups/Wallace Pistons (1-2)

-Jason Kidd (3-0) 

Some points of note: 

-We never got to see a crazy Jordan-Wilkins playoff series when they were both in their primes.

-Likewise, it would have been fun to see the Bird and Jordan match up in the late 1980s when the Celtics were still tough.  Alas, Celts lost it almost at exactly the same time that MJ’s teams ascended.

-Non-Suns fans might forget how much Magic terrorized the Lakers, though the Suns finally upset the Lakers on their last shot in 1989-90.

-As great as Oscar Robertson was, he won only two series before he got with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks.  The Big O was great but just didn’t have the fire power to beat Russell or Wilt.  People should remember that next time they give Tracy McGrady a hard time for his playoff record.

-Shaq terrorized the Blazers routinely.  Those were some good teams too.  Just bad timing match ups for Portland in those days.

-This is the sixth time Shaq and Duncan have squared off in the playoffs.  For some reason, very few of the previous battles of the titans are memorable.  The one series that really sticks out is Derek Fisher’s big shot in 2003-04.  Most of the time, the better team steam rolled the other team in the match ups. 

2.    Swept Away?:    The Rockets and Jazz really battled last night, yet through it all one couldn’t help that a 55-win Rocket team was struggling just to hang into the series by its fingernails and a sweep seems very possible.  It doesn’t take a long memory that better teams have lost in the first round.  Still, I wondered what is the best team to be swept in the first round?  It’s a rather off-beat inquiry and we’ll limit our search to the modern 16-team playoffs, where a big sweep would be more surprising/noteworthy.  Anyway, here are the contenders: 

1983-84, Kansas City (38-44): The perimeter-oriented Kings (Eddie Johnson, Larry Drew, Mike Woodson) were the only team swept in the first year of the expanded playoffs (by Magic Lakers).

1984-85, Nets (42-40): A Nets team in some disarray was swept by the nascent Isiah Thomas Pistons (46-36)

1985-86, Nets (39-43): There were five sub-40 win teams in the playoffs, four of whom were swept.  The Buck Williams Nets (swept by the 57-win Bucks) were the best of the sweepees. 

1986-87, Washington (42-40): A non-descript team led by Moses Malone was beat up by the Bad Boy Pistons.

1987-88, San Antonio (31-51): The worst playoff team ever?  They were the only team swept that year (by the Lakers).

1988-89, Utah (51-31): Utah won the Midwest but were upset by the seven-seed Warriors in a Nellie upset.

1989-90, Dallas (47-35): The last gasp of the Derek Harper/Rolando Blackman Era was swept aside by the start of the Drexler/Portland run.

1990-91, Houston (52-30): The Rockets had coach of the year with Don Chaney, who had Houston rally without Hakeem.  Still, they were stuck with the Magic and the 58-win Lakers in round one.

1991-92, San Antonio (47-35):  The Spurs lost to the Suns (53-29) but David Robinson missed the series with a broken wrist.

1992-93, Atlanta (43-39): A middling Dominique Wilkins team was the only to be swept in round one (by the MJ-Bulls).

1993-94, Orlando/Golden State (50-32):  The 1993-94 playoffs ended up being very entertaining in a grind it out kind of way but imagine how the NBA felt to see Orlando (rookie Penny Hardaway and second year Shaq) and the Warriors (rookie Chris Webber with Sprewell, Mullin, etc.) get swept out at the same time that the 64-win Sonics lost in round one to Denver. 

1994-95, Portland (44-38): In between the Drexler run and the Rasheed Wallace run, the Blazers were still pretty good but were steamrolled by the Barkley Suns, who were 59-23.

1995-96, Cleveland (47-35):  The ultimate slowdown team had home court against the Knicks but couldn’t score enough to win a game.

1996-97, Charlotte (54-28):  This Hornet team was fueled by Glen Rice and gave the Knicks fits in the regular season.  In the playoffs, however, the Knicks controlled Rice and had a relatively easy win.

1997-98, New Jersey (43-39): Only team swept in the first round.  John Calipari’s decent team (Cassell, Kittle, Van Horn) couldn’t hang with the Bulls and Jordan.

1998-99, This was the 50-game lockout season, so imputing records is a little rough.  If we had to pick a team, the Suns were 27-23 with Jason Kidd but were taken out by Portland.

1999-00, Toronto (45-37): A young upstart Raptor team featuring Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady actually played the Knicks tough but couldn’t win again a solid Sprewell/Camby squad.

2000-01, Miami/Portland (50-32): Miami ground out a nice season but the older slow plodders like Brian Grant and Tim Hardaway were blown away by the young athletic 46-36 Hornets.  Portland, as noted above, had the misfortune of finding Shaq, Kobe & Company in round one of their title run.

2001-02, Minnesota (50-32): The Wolves were quite good but the Mavs were loaded (Dirk, Nash, Finley).  Kevin Garnett was killed for losing the series but they really had no shot of beating the 57-25 Mavs.

2002-03, No sweeps in round one!

2003-04, Memphis (50-32): Hubie Brown turned around a franchise and his reward was the 58-win Spurs.

2004-05, Memphis (45-37): The Grizz are blown away by a Suns 62-win juggernaut while Bonzi Wells freaks out on the bench.

2005-06, Memphis (49-33): Again, victims of a great conference, the Grizz are blown away by the 60-win Mavs and a funky playoff seeding.

2006-07, Miami (44-38): The aging defending champs were swept by a young Chicago team, presaging a bigger collapse to follow. 

We have some pretty good teams that were swepts but very few of the teams were swept AND upset by a lower seeded.  Only a few were upsets (1988-89 Jazz, 1993-94 Magic, 1995-96 Cavs, and 2000-01 Heat).  Of this group, only the Jazz and Heat were even really surprising.  We’d have to call the Jazz the huge surprise, and the best team of the group by expected wins standard.  The 2007-08 Rockets, if swept, will actually have the best raw win-loss data, though they, too, weren’t actually favored.  All of this is the long way of saying that sweeps are rare and surprising sweeps are even rarer.

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