More than any other sport, the cream of the NBA assuredly rises to the top in the playoffs.
This, of course, is a postseason unlike any other.
No fans. No home-court advantage. Everyone hunkered down in the same place.
Will a Cinderella team emerge from the pack at Disney World? Maybe even claim an improbable title?
“I felt that way coming into the whole thing,” said Rick Carlisle, coach of the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks. “Look, there’s no travel, you’ve got really the same environment virtually every game. The digital boards look different and stuff like that, but there’s just a great opportunity here for everybody.”
Indeed, we’ve already seen signs of a topsy-turvy tournament unfolding in the land of Mickey Mouse.
Milwaukee, top seed from the Eastern Conference, lost Game 1 of its opening-round series against eighth-seeded Orlando. The top team in the West, the Los Angeles Lakers, dropped their opening game as well to No. 8 Portland, a team that had to win a play-in game over Memphis just to quality for the postseason.
Both powerhouses bounced back for double-digit wins in Games 2, but these series look like they’ll be more competitive than they would ‘e been if not for the season being upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
Underdogs provide some of the most compelling stories in sports, and there are no shortage of non-NBA teams that have pulled off shocking triumphs.
Just last season, baseball’s Washington Nationals finished second in the NL East but went on to capture their first World Series title, knocking off the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers and the 107-win Houston Astros along the way. Then again, the Nats’ triumph wasn’t all that usual; since MLB added a wild card to its postseason mix a quarter-century ago, seven teams have won it all after failing to win their division.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Kings fired their coach during the season and slipped into the NHL playoffs as an eighth seed, an afterthought in the race for the championship. Shockingly, they knocked off the top three seeds in the Western Conference in dominating fashion, winning 12 of 14 games, before beating the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup final. For that matter, the Devils were also a highly unlikely finalist, having finished sixth in the East.
The 2011 New York Giants barely finished above .500 (9-7) and actually gave up more points than they scored during the regular season. But they found magic in the postseason, winning three straight NFC playoff games — two of them on the road — before knocking off the favored New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Which brings us to the NBA.
In the 70-year history of the league, there have only been eighth champions that went into the playoffs seeded lower than No. 2 in their conference or division, and only two of those were not at least third.
The 1969 Boston Celtics finished fourth in the Eastern Division — the final playoff spot — but they were hardly some plucky underdog. A championship run that seems surprising at first glance actually marked the last hurrah for the game’s greatest dynasty, an 11th title in 13 years to send Bill Russell into retirement with yet another ring.
The NBA’s only true Cinderella champion was the 1995 Houston Rockets, but even their bucking-the-odds crown as a No. 6 seed wasn’t totally out of the blue.
The Rockets were the reigning champions, after all, taking advantage of Michael Jordan’s dalliance with baseball to capture their first title. The following year, a midseason trade that paired Clyde Drexler with Hakeem Olajuwon gave Houston a pair of future Hall of Famers, who carried the team to its second straight title.
Since then, only two teams seeded fifth or lower have gotten as far as the conference finals.
In the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the New York Knicks barely slipped into the playoffs as a No 8 seed but made it all the way to the NBA Finals before losing 4-1 to San Antonio. The fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies pulled off a pair of upsets in the 2013 playoffs before getting swept by the Spurs in the Western Conference final.
The bubble in central Florida could set the stage for another surprise team. All games are being played in a fan-less arena. No one has the comfort of sleeping in their own bed before a game. The most-talented teams are the favorites, of course, but some series might comes down to which team best handles the monotony and boredom of being confined 24/7 to Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
“It just feels like we’re always at work,” Bucks star and league MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “You cannot escape basketball.”
Maybe this unlikeliest of seasons will give us the unlikeliest of champions.
It’s about time.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press.Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org, follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and find his work at https://apnews.com
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.
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