The Spurs (the West’s No. 1 seed) got ‘bounced’ in the first round of this year’s postseason and the Bulls (the overall No. 1 seed) were eliminated in the conference finals by the Heat. That means that just two teams with the league’s best regular season record (the 2008 Celtics and the 2003 Spurs) have gone on to win the NBA title over the last 11 years, since the Shaq and Kobe-led Lakers of 1999-2000 won the first of three consecutive NBA championships after winning a league-high 67 games. However, it’s not as if the NBA playoffs have offered too many “surprise winners” as of late, or for that matter, since Bird and Magic entered the NBA for the start of the 1979-80 season. Of the 31 championship teams since that 1979-80 season, 15 (48.4 percent) 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 (including the Lakers last year).
That leaves just three champions from outside the top-three regular season records over the last 31 seasons (9.7 percent), although two of those champs have come in the last seven years. The 2003-04 Pistons finished at 54-28 (sixth-best mark) and the 2005-06 Heat owned a 52-30 mark that year, which represented the league’s fifth-best record that season. The 1994-95 Houston Rockets are the third team. The Rockets (the defending champs) 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 season in David Robinson’s MVP year) in the Western Conference playoffs, to reach the NBA Finals. Waiting for them were the 57-55 Magic, led by Shaq and Penny. 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’s ‘victims’ that postseason had 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.
The Heat and Mavericks have not exactly “come out of nowhere” this postseason. The Heat finished with the league’s third-best record (58-24) while the 57-24 Mavs tied with the Lakers for the NBA’s fourth-best mark. Both teams went 28-13 on the road, tying for the league’s best road record. Of course, “The Decision” made the Heat the team everyone loved to hate prior to the start of the season and while there have been plenty of ups and downs during the year, the Heat are right where they promised they would be. As for the Mavs, the team’s 57 wins were nothing new, as Dallas has won at least 50 games in each of the last 11 seasons. However, the Mavs have no titles and only one trip to the NBA finals to show for it. Worse yet, the Mavs lost that 2006 appearance against the Heat, after taking a 2-0 lead in games. The Mavericks led the Heat 89-76 with 6:30 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 3 in that series as well, but Miami came back to win the game 98-96 and take the series with four straight wins. Dallas then went out the next season and after winning a league-best 67 games, became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in the opening round since the league expanded those series to seven games. Dallas has not lived down those back-to-back seasons, since.
I guess it’s fitting that the Mavs draw the Heat in this year’s Finals. Let me also note that the Mavs are the only other team in the Western Conference to play in the NBA Finals since the strike-shortened 1998-99 season, other than the Lakers or the Spurs. The Lakers have made seven appearance (five wins), the Spurs four (four wins) and the Mavs two (‘06 and now 2011). Nowitzki entered this postseason as one of just four players in postseason history (Baylor, Hakeem and Pettit are the others) to have averaged at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in playoff history. He’s averaged 28.4 PPG (tied for his highest one year average) and 7.5 PPG (the lowest of his 11-year playoff career) this postseason, leaving him at 25.9-10.4, all-time. Terry is the team's second-leading scorer for Dallas this postseason (17.3) and while Marion (11.2) is the only other player averaging in double-figures, Dallas has gotten significant contributions from seven players (including Marion) other than Dirk and Terry.
The Mavs played excellent defense in eliminating the Blazers and Lakers (allowed just 88.2 PPG) and then needed to outscore the Thunder in the Western Conference finals, averaging 105.2 PPG to Oklahoma City’s 101.2. However, Dallas’ defense sure had something to do with the Thunder making just 7-of-46 three-pointers (15.2 percent) in Games 3-5, after they had tied the series at one-all with a Game 2 win in Dallas. Durant averaged 28.0 PPG and 9.4 RPG in the series but shot just 42.9 percent, including 7-of-30 (23.3 percent) on threes. Westbrook averaged 23.6-4.8-4.8 in the series but shot only 36.0 percent (2-of-10 on threes). By the way, Durant’s 28.6 PPG average this postseason, is just ahead of Nowitzki’s average, as the leading scorer of the 2011 playoffs. Durant was the NBA scoring champion this season (27.7 PPG) and with the Thunder eliminated it should be noted that no regular season scoring champion has won the NBA Finals championship in the same season since Shaq did so during the 1999-00 season.
Miami essentially sacrificed seasons for salary-cap space these last couple of seasons but that gamble paid off when LBJ and Bosh joined Wade last July (you may have heard about that?). The Heat were just 9-8 at Thanksgiving with speculation growing that head coach Erik Spoelstra could be fired plus criticism abounded that James' and Wade's styles couldn't work together. However, the Heat got it straightened out to finished the regular season 58-24 and the “Big 3” have led them in the postseason. James (26.0-8.9-5.5 APG) and Wade (23.7-7.2- 4.1) have alternated making big shots in the clutch while Bosh (18.6-8.9) has firmly grasped his role as the third scorer. Even scarier is that key reserves Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller are getting healthy at just the right time, after nearly season-long injuries. Miami held Boston to under 100 points in all five games of their semifinal series (an average of just 91.0 PPG) and then after losing 103-82 to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, won four in a row while holding Chicago to 83.3 PPG and 26.9 percent from beyond three-point range. It’s fair to say that three guys can’t guard five, so the rest of the Heat are contributing in ways other than scoring points.
Games 1 and 2 will be played in Miami on Tuesday and Thursday. Games 3, 4 and 5 will be in Dallas on June 5, June 7 and June 9 (more on the 2-3-2 format below). If necessary, Games 6 and 7 will be back in South Beach on June 12 and June 14. ABC televises all the games and tonight’s goes at 9:00 ET with the Heat favored by 4 1/2 points (total is 186 1/2). The Heat opened as a minus-$1.90 favorite to win the series and currently are about minus-$1.75. Dallas has won 10 of 11 games (5-0 on the road), since blowing a 23-point lead in the final 14 minutes of Game 4 of a first-round series against Portland. The Mavs are 12-3 SU and a remarkable 13-2 ATS this postseason plus have won 14 straight regular season games vs the Heat. In fact, Miami’s only wins vs the Mavs going back to 2004 have come in the 2006 NBA Finals, when the Heat won those four straight games, after Dallas had taken a 2-0 lead in that series. However, those were four “fairly important” victories, don’t you think? Home teams are 51-24 (.680) this postseason, going 35-37-3 ATS. Over/Under bettors have seen 37 overs and 38 unders through 75 postseason games in 2011 while “Zig-Zaggers” are 28-30-3 ATS (minus-5.0 net games), all but ensuring a SEVENTH straight losing postseason ATS (last winning year was 2005, when it went 37-31-1 ATS). That sets the stage.
2-3-2: Because of coast-to-coast travel in the early 80s (LA vs Boston or Philly was the matchup in FOUR of five NBA Finals from the 1979-80 season the 1983-84 season), the NBA changed its traditional 2-2-1-1-1 seven-game format in the Finals to the current 2-3-2 format for the 1984-85 postseason (also a Finals which featured Boston vs LA). The team with the home court advantage now opens and closes with two home games, while its opponent gets three consecutive home games in the middle (Games 3-5). At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that this new format could very possibly benefit the team without the home court edge. That hasn't been the case.
Over the last 26 NBA Finals, the team with the home court edge has won 20 of the 26 series played, or 76.9 percent. A closer look shows that over the last 26 years, teams playing Games 1 & 2 plus Games 6 & 7 at home are 50-20 or 71.4 percent in those contests. However, teams with Games 3 thru 5 at home have gone just 37-37 (50 percent) in that same span. Pointing out the disadvantage of this format even more to the team without the home court advantage, is this. Of the six teams which have won the title since 1985 without the home court edge in the Finals (the 1985 Lakers, the 1993 Bulls, the 1995 Rockets, the 1998 Bulls, the 2004 Pistons and the 2006 Miami Heat), history shows that those teams won not so much as a result of them winning their home games but rather by them being able to win their road games.
These six teams did go a combined 13-4 or .765 at home (just 7-4 prior to 3-0 sweeps by both Detroit in '04 and Miami in '06) but more importantly went 11-5 (.688) in their road games! What this points to is that having three consecutive home games in the middle of a seven-game series has certainly been no advantage and that makes sense. After playing Games 1 and 2 in Miami, the Heat and Mavs will head to Dallas for the next three games. The home court edge is mitigated, because the visiting team has almost an entire week in its opponent's city.
If Dallas is to win its first-ever NBA title (and avenge its loss in the 2006 Finals), history indicates that the Mavs will most likely have to do it by winning at least twice in Miami. It's not as if the Mavs can't win all three home games (remember, the Pistons did it in '04 and the Heat did it in '06) but it's highly unlikely that the Heat would lose three straight games in Dallas. After all, the Heat were 28-13 SU on the road during the regular season (NBA’s best mark) and have gone 4-2 away from home in the postseason. The good news here for Dallas fans is that like the Heat, the Mavs were 28-13 on the road during the regular season and after losing their first two road playoff games, have won five straight away games.