Two years ago the NBA engaged in one of the best postseasons ever. One night around 2 a.m. in New York, I was still in the giddy throes of the seven hours of playoff hoops, I sent an e-mail to a dozen or so hardcore basketball fans that said something to the effect of: "isn't this great!?"
Admittedly it wasn't my most eloquent e-mail but word-smithing isn't my strong suit late at night. I simply hoped to foster some discussion over coffee the following morning. When I checked my e-mail a few minutes later, eight of my friends, all but one East Coast-based, many with nine-to-fives and kids to get off to school, had responded.
When the NBA playoffs are good, it's the kind of thing that makes sensible people put rational organization of their life on the backburner for a minute. The 2006 NBA playoffs seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing. But this year's playoffs are just as promising. Six of the eight first round series could go either way. If in the Western Conference, the four underdogs won each of their series, no one would bat an eyebrow; the eight teams are separated by seven wins.
This year's playoffs figure to be so good that I'm trying to watch as much as possible, even though I have a pretty solid idea of who will wind up at the top of the heap in mid-June.
The championship celebration parade route goes through Boston. It pains me to say it, too, as I've spent most of the season shrugging off excited New Englanders who claimed that their team was historically good. They were right; this year's Celtics are historically good. What makes them so impressive aren't their stars but their overall team performance. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, et al outscored their opponents by a double-digit margin.
As I mentioned in the baseball preview, margin of victory is the most telling thing about team quality. Great teams pound their opponents into submission. The teams that seem to eek out victories all the time are great fun to watch, but the true behemoths of the sports world are the teams who routinely pull their regulars by the middle of the fourth quarter. Last year the Dallas Mavericks won the most regular seasons games, but the San Antonio Spurs had the best point differential in the league. The parade in June went along the Riverwalk and past the Alamo.
In the NBA, the gold standard for behemoth-dom is a average margin of victory of ten points. The Magic Johnson era Lakers never did it. Nor have the Tim Duncan-era Spurs. The Larry Bird Celtics never did it (though they came close in that Bill Walton year). The Bill Russell-era Celtics came close only once. The championship era Knicks came close in 1970.
That's a pretty elite bunch of teams that never accomplished this feat. Who has? The Jordan/Jackson/Pippen Bulls did it three times during their title run of the '90s (which might underscore how good a TEAM they were). One of the great underrated NBA teams of all time, the Kareem Abdul Jabbar-Oscar Robertson Milwaukee Bucks of the early '70s, did it twice. And unfortunately for them the second time they did it, 1972, they ran smack into the Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Gail Goodrich Laker team.
That L.A. crew won 33 games in a row. And, the current edition of the Celtics have outscored their opponents by double digits. All these teams but one won a title. But who will the Celtics beat? Well, Atlanta, Detroit and probably Cleveland to get out of the East. The Western Conference is much thornier. Give the similarity of the records, point differential is a big help. While my heart says that Denver stands an excellent chance of upending the Lakers, my head knows better. The Lakers have the best point differential in the West, 7.3 which towers over Denver's 3.7. Similarly I would love to see Tracy McGrady's Rockets get out of the first round for a change, but their opening opponent Utah has a 6.9 differential to Houston's 4.7.
The most volatile first round series will pit the new look Phoenix Suns against the reigning champs and point differential likes Phoenix but a hair (5.0 to 4.8). Lastly, New Orleans should be able to take care of the Dallas Mavericks, and that would set up a second round matchup that would feature a two time MVP, Steve Nash, versus the player most likely to win this year's MVP, Hornets guard Chris Paul. See, the fun is only beginning.
In the East, Boston and Detroit should dismiss their first round opponents quickly and easily. Orlando figures to beat Toronto, though I suspect it will be closer than the numbers suggest. The Raptors were lost without all star forward Chris Bosh, and it depressed their team metrics.
The spotlight first round series in the East is Washington versus Cleveland. It's the third straight year these teams have met and players started barking a week ago. Point differential isn't much help here. The Wizards are negative .4 and the Cavs are a negative .3. Boston awaits the winner so this is the season for both teams and they must know it. Still, it's hard to pick against LeBron James if everything else is equal. I'm mostly just glad that neither team is in the West. I'm going to be up late often enough for the next few weeks.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.