All 30 teams were in action on the final day of the regular season (last Wednesday) with all 16 playoff berths already having been clinched. The East was settled with all eight seeds already having been decided but in the West, the Lakers, Mavs, Thunder, Hornets and Grizzlies still had some “skin in the game,” regarding their final seeding positions. The Lakers blew a huge 4th quarter lead at Sacramento but prevailed in OT to finish at 57-25. The Mavs, down by three at the half, outscored the Hornets 63-28 in the second half to also finish the season at 57-25 but LA got the No.2 seed due to it having won the Pacific Division. The Thunder (winners of the Northwest) lost at home to the Bucks, a defeat which didn’t cost them since the Mavs had clinched the No. 3 seed with their win. With the Hornets losing at Dallas, the Grizzlies could have gotten the No. 7 seed over New Orleans by winning at the LA Clippers Wednesday night, but the Grizzlies lost 110-103.
The Bulls secured the No. 1 overall seed by beating the Nets, combined by the Spurs losing at the Suns. A San Antonio (No. 1 seed in the West) win would have forced a coin flip between the two teams to decide home court advantage, just in case they were to meet in the NBA Finals. The Bulls’ 62-20 record marks a 21-game improvement for a team which was 41-41 last year and the East’s No. 8 seed. The Spurs (61-21) made almost as big of a jump (seeding-wise), as they were the West’s No. 7 seed last year, although they did have a solid 52-30 record. The East has three new playoff entries this year (from last) in the Knicks (No. 6), the 76ers (No. 7) and the Pacers (No. 8), who are the lone sub-.500 team in this year’s playoff-field at 37-45. The Cavs, the East’s No. 1 seed each of the last two years finished 19-63, the Bobcats went from 44-38 to 34-48 and the Bucks from 43-36 to 35-47.
The Lakers, who have been to three consecutive NBA Finals (winning the last two), failed to capture the West’s No. 1 seed for the first time since the 2006-07 season. The Suns fell from 54-28 last year to 40-42 this year while the Jazz went from 53-29 to 39-43. Replacing those two West playoff entrants from last year are the Hornets (46-36, up from 37-45) and the Grizzlies (46-36, up from 40-42). Memphis was the regular season’s best ATS team (52-29-1) with the Bulls second at 49-31-2. The Magic own the worst ATS mark of any playoff team this season at 35-46-1. The Heat finished with the league’s best point-differential (plus-7.5), the Bulls were second (plus-7.3) and the Lakers (plus-6.1) were the only other team at better than plus-6.0 PPG. Just two of 16 playoff teams finished with a minus point-differential, the 37-45 Pacers (minus-1.1) and the 44-38 Hawks (minus-0.8).
As I always like to remind everyone at this time every year, the NBA playoffs rarely offer any real surprises. Bird and Magic entered the NBA for the start of the 1979-80 season, rejuvenating what was a 'dying' league. Here's what a check of the history books tell us. 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). 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 and deserve a special mention. You may remember that following a third straight NBA title in 1992-93 with the Bulls and the tragic death of his father, MJ decided to pursue a career in MLB. With MJ in the minors and not on an NBA court, the 1993-94 Rockets (coached by Rudy T and led by Hakeem) won the title in a seven-game series over the Knicks, who were coached by Pat Riley and led by Patrick Ewing.
The following season, the Rockets 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 year 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 (remember him?), who had eliminated the Bulls and MJ (who returned late in the that season from his MLB 'sabbatical'). 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 '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.
Opening Weekend of the 2011 postseason: If this year’s postseason is “not going to offer any surprises” (as I just noted), I sure can’t use this past weekend to support that notion. The Bulls and Heat both struggled before winning (although neither covered) on Saturday over the Pacers and 76ers, respectively. The Hawks, who entered the postseason on a six-game losing streak and with a minus point-differential on the season (minus-0.8) despite a 44-38 record, promptly went into Orlando and beat the Magic, 103-93. Dwight Howard scored 46 points and grabbed 19 rebounds to become just the sixth player since the NBA-ABA merger to score 46 points in a home playoff loss. He is the first NBA player with at least 45 points and 15 rebounds in a playoff loss since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1987. The Mavs beat the Blazers 89-81 Saturday night, as Dallas became the lone home team to cover in Saturday’s four games.
Sunday brought two more upsets and two more near-ones. The Grizzlies won their first-ever playoff game since moving to Memphis from Vancouver (had opened 0-12 SU and 2-10 ATS) by beating the Ginobili-less Spurs, 101-98. Randolph and Gasol combined for 49 points and 23 rebounds while San Antonio’s guard trio of Parker, Hill and Neal shot a combined 10-of-33 (30.3 percent). The Hornets then went into Staples Center and beat the Lakers 109-100, as Chris Paul had 33 points, seven rebounds and 14 assists (his backup Jarrett Jack added 15-4-5). As I’m sure you all heard (but it’s surely worth repeating), this is the first time a conference has seen its No. 1 and 2 seeds both lose their first games in the same postseason since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1983-84. It also marked the first time a Phil Jackson-coached team has lost a Game 1 at home.
Sunday evening saw both home teams (and higher seeds) win but neither covered. The Celtics led for just 60 seconds in the second half until Ray Allen sank a go-ahead three-pointer with 12 seconds left, as Boston beat the Knicks 87-85. Kevin Durant scored 41 points and Westbrook added 31 but it was Kendrick Perkins (who scored just four points) who made the biggest basket in Oklahoma City’s 107-103 win over Denver. Perkins was credited with a tip-in off a Westbrook miss with 1:06 remaining to put the Thunder up 102-101. Several Nuggets looked for it to be waved off as basket interference and coach George Karl insisted after the game: "Obviously it was goaltending." And so it goes....
When the ‘dust’ had settled after the weekend, home teams were 5-3 SU but only 1-7 ATS. Over/Under bettors saw two overs and two unders on Saturday with three of the four games going over on Sunday (5-3 favoring the over for the weekend). Two games are scheduled for Monday night, the 76ers at the Heat (Miami is favored by 9 1/2 points and the total is 189 1/2) and the Pacers at the Bulls (Chicago is favored by 12 points with a total of 193 1/2). Those following the “Zig-Zag Theory” (playing ‘on’ the SU loser of the previous game), get their first chance tonight with plays on the 76ers and Pacers. However, as noted for quite awhile now, ‘blindly’ playing the Zig-Zag Theory has not been profitable for quite some time now. I’ll keep you updated Monday through Friday at 2:00 ET with my Playoff Journal.