The NBA Playoffs turned all wonky on Sunday, as the following two things happened:

1. The Dallas Mavericks (who have the best record in the league) succumbed to the Golden State Warriors (a team that qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season), and

2. The San Antionio Spurs (who have the best record in the NBA since the All-Star Break) were defeated by the Denver Nuggets (a team that struggled all year due to injuries, suspensions, and chemistry problems).

Now, mind you, I don't think -- even for a single millisecond -- that the Warriors and/or Nuggets are going to win their respective series. I have full confidence that the Mavs and Spurs are going to wake up and assert their dominance, probably starting in Game 2. But...this isn't supposed to happen, is it? Aren't the best teams supposed to come out and immediately show why they're the best teams? I mean, the Mavericks won 67 games (which has happened only nine times in NBA history). The Spurs won "only" 58 games, but they coasted through the first half of the season, and they have a handful of championship, and bucketloads of playoff experience. So what gives?

Well, I read an interesting observation over at TrueHoop yesterday:

"Dallas vs. Golden State, San Antonio vs. Denver, and Chicago vs. Miami all feature one team that come into the postseason on a big tear, and one team that basically limped home. While Golden State finished 9-1 in their last 10, Denver 10-1 over their last 11, and Chicago 10-3 over their last 13 (all fighting for playoff spots/seeding) Dallas rested starters and finished 2-2 in their last 4, San Antonio 0-3 in their last three, and Miami 2-4 over their last six."

This theory makes a whole lot of sense when you think about it. The Warriors and Nuggets have been in "playoff intensity" mode for weeks, whereas the Mavs and Spurs just kind of coasted in (I think the term "limp" is a little strong). In this case, the lower seeds were simply more ready for playoff basketball than the higher seeds.

This doesn't happen only in basketball, by the way. Remember a few years ago when the Indianapolis Colts won their first 13 games and then sat their starters for the rest of the regular season? Their first playoff opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, had to win their last five games just to make it into the playoffs. By the time the two teams met, the Colts hadn't played a meaningful game in almost two months. The Colts were rusty, the Steelers were sharp, and the Colts lost. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.

The rustiness isn't as much of a problem in the NBA, since there are best-of-seven series rather than a single elimination tournament. You can lose a game and come back. The Spurs lost Game 1 to the Nuggets in 2005 and went on to win the next four straight. Still, losing Game 1 at home is never good. You surrender home court advantage, and you provide your opponent with momentum and (more importantly) hope. Even if you win the series, it means playing one or more games than you wanted to, which increases fatigue and the potential for injury.

Anyway, this all brings me back to Mike D'Antoni. When the Phoenix Suns clinched the second seed in the Western Conference, he continued to play his starters 30+ minutes over the last few meaningless games. The media wondered what he was doing, the bloggers wondered what he was doing, I wondered what he was doing. It seemed like madness. What was the point? There seemed nothing to gain and everything to lose.

But hey, maybe he knew what he was doing after all. The Suns certainly didn't play their best ball in Game 1, but they were sharp enough to execute down the stretch and hold off the Lakers. So I guess what I'm saying is: I'm sorry, coach D'Antoni. You're the coach and I'm the fan. You followed your game plan, and it's worked so far. I will now trust you without question until you screw up. Thank you.

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3 Comments:
Blogger J.E. said...
Just to drive home ‘the hotness’ point a little more, the Warriors might be one of the greatest 8th seeds ever. Check it:

"Golden State became the first 8 seed to win nine of its last 10 games. And no other 8 seed had a better record in its final 21 games than the Warriors' 16-5 run, which started with Baron Davis' return from a knee injury."
-- Mavs Blog

And great point about D’Antoni playing the starters, guys.

Blogger Hersey said...
Never been a fan of resting starters unless they're injured. Most teams play an 8-man rotation in the playoffs and the Suns 8-man group is set and cohesive. The key to the first round for the elite teams is short series because the quality of the opponent increases significantly in the second round. It happens often that a lower seed gets hot to make the playoffs and the higher seed cools off by resting guys. Messing around with those teams can hurt a playoff run. I think the losses on Sunday are wake-up calls more than anything though.

Blogger Al James said...
As it stands the Warriors have beaten the Mavs four straight times. What would that do to Dallas if Golden State steals another one tomorrow night. Biggest first round flop ever.

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