Legendary baseball statistician Bill James once said the big problem with the NBA is that the best team usually wins in the playoffs.
He’s right, the NBA playoffs tend to follow form. And he’s right that we like unpredictability in the playoffs. Baseball has a long grind of a season, but in a seven game playoff series things get random and a hot bat or arm can win it. The NFL playoffs are one-and-done where upsets are common. Last year the eight-seed Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup. We love the randomness of 15 seeds winning a game in the NCAA Tournament, where the person whose system of picking teams is “my grandmother was from Wichita” can win the office pool.
But the NBA playoffs are more predictable. Before the season even starts we have a pretty good idea who the handful of title contenders are.
Bill James would have loved Monday night.
First the small-of-stature, giant-of-heart Nate Robinson led the Bulls to a road win over the heavily favorite, defending champion Heat.
Then an upstart six-seed Warriors team put a scare in — and frankly should have beat — San Antonio, the new favorites in the West (since the injury to Russell Westbrook changed the landscape).
These 2013 NBA playoffs have been unpredictable so far. Which has made these playoffs interesting.
Nobody gave the banged-up Bulls much of a chance against the Heat — our official preview at PBT predicted a sweep. Even Bulls writers such as CSNChicago.com’s Aggrey Sam were predicting the Heat in five.
But we also all knew those games would be close and hard-fought — the Bulls defend and can score inside, two things you have to do to have any success against the Heat. That strategy worked early — the Bulls led by 8 after an 11-3 run to end the first quarter. The game stayed close the entire way, no team leading by double digits.
But through it all we kept waiting for that patented Heat run where they just pull away and there is nothing the other team can do.
It never came. Rather it was the Bulls who closed the game on a 10-0 run behind Robinson to get the win.
The Warriors on the other hand did have a big lead, thanks to Stephen Curry having a seemingly unstoppable night. He finished it all with 44 points and 11 rebounds, hitting 6-of-14 from three and just being devastating.
The Warriors led by 16 in the fourth and it looked like Monday was the night of upsets, but then the Spurs had a late 15-0 run and after some traded buckets we were going to overtime. Then double overtime. And the Warriors led that with 4 seconds to go, but the Spurs did what the Spurs do and Manu Ginobili got wide open for a three and drained it to give the Sours the win.
Still, it was the best game of these playoffs. An amazing night that is just the latest in an amazing playoffs where the lower seed won in 3-of-8 first round series.
Sure, the odds of a Heat vs. Spurs finals is still far better than a Bulls vs. Warriors one. Everything may still follow form. But James goes on to say in his piece that because the NBA playoffs follow form so often the underdog will not try as hard — why dive for a loose ball or make the extra effort if you can’t win? There he misses the point — human nature is to struggle against long odds, at least for some. People do not give up. NBA teams and players do not give up.
We saw that Monday, a sign of the uncertainty the NBA playoffs have found this year. And it’s fun to watch.