The opening salvos have been as good as it gets, with lower seeds from both conferences surging to early leads. But note to underdogs: Cling to your hopes while you can, because no league serves up fewer postseason upsets
It's Friday night in Portland, the Trail Blazers are hosting the Rockets, up 2--0 in the first round of the playoffs, and the evening feels terribly momentous.
Here is Blazers coach Terry Stotts, pregame in the dank corridors of the Moda Center, staring down a pack of reporters as if at a Senate hearing. His answers are clipped and evasive, lest he reveal some tiny detail about pick-and-roll coverage that decides the series. Down the hall 10 minutes later, a hoarse Kevin McHale, the Houston coach, faces his own media inquisition, appearing in need of a stiff drink. McHale crosses his arms, shifts his eyes back and forth, grimaces, then wonders aloud about his team's desire. He looks like a broken man. "Everybody's frustrated," he says. "Tell you what, if you get your ass kicked and you aren't frustrated, then you're in the wrong business."
Come game time, the 20,000 in the stands freak out en masse, waving red glow sticks and holding signs that read we mess with texas and pumping tattooed forearms into the air. When Blazers guard Damian Lillard blasts downcourt and sinks a transition three-pointer to pull Portland even in the second quarter, the roar is orgasmic, years of pent-up frustration released into the night. In the fourth quarter, after a furious comeback highlighted by Lillard's surreal scoop shot over Dwight Howard, the decibel reading inside the arena hits 109, the equivalent of a power saw at three feet's distance. Meanwhile, four blocks down at the Spirit of 77 bar, an IPA-fueled capacity crowd bounces and chants, "Here we go, Blazers!" while a bartender clangs a bell and, for the first time all night, the free Pop-A-Shot machines sit idle.
It all feels so important in the moment. Dreams are being birthed and dashed. Championship visions are entertained.
Only, if history is our guide, none of it matters, at least not in the long run. Because this is a No. 4 seed (Houston) playing a No. 5 (Portland), and these are the NBA playoffs, where only the best teams win it all.
Don't believe it? Let's say the Blazers—who were up 3--1 at week's end—hold on and win the series. You know how many teams have made the conference finals this millennium as a No. 5 seed or lower? Only one.
Now let's say the Rockets battle back to advance. Guess how many No. 4 seeds or lower have won a title since the NBA instituted the 16-team postseason format in 1984? Again, just one.
More so than any major team sport, the NBA postseason favors the superior team. The NFL playoffs and the NCAA basketball tournament offer one-game windows for fluky brilliance or monumental choking. In baseball, wild-card teams like the 2011 Cardinals can put together a great run behind pitching and timely hitting, but winning the World Series doesn't mean you're necessarily the best team—or even one of the top few—just that you got hot at the right time.
But in the NBA the home court advantage, the best-of-seven format and the greater importance of superior talent act as bulwarks against flukes and Cinderellas. That's why, coming into this season, No. 8 seeds had won only 8.3% of first-round series in the modern era, and No. 7 seeds had fared no better: They were also 5--55. Even No. 6 seeds, seemingly not that inferior to most third-seeded teams, had a dismal success rate of 26.7%.
This spring has provided hope, however, with a first round as exciting as any in recent memory. The eighth-seeded Hawks went ahead of the imploding Pacers 2--1, though Indiana, even before taking Game 4, was still favored in Las Vegas to win the series. In the Western Conference the No. 8 Mavericks similarly shocked the Spurs, going up 2--1, while the No. 7 Grizzlies and the No. 6 Warriors were tied at 2--all with, respectively, the second-seeded Thunder and the third-seeded Clippers. One surreal moment followed the next: Kevin Durant's fadeaway four-point play ("The best shot ever?" asked ESPN the next day) gave way to recent D-Leaguer Troy Daniels's game-winning three-pointer for Houston (to which a nation of bleary-eyed viewers responded in unison, "Who the hell is Troy Daniels?"), followed a day later by Vince Carter's pump-fake, heels-up game-winning trifecta against San Antonio (a shot that sent Mavs owner Mark Cuban galloping onto the floor like a smugger version of Jim Valvano, bear-hugging everyone in sight).
By the time you read this, one or more of this season's underdogs may have reached the second round. This might even be the year that a bottom-four seed—perhaps Portland, to the delight of all those Rose Quarter denizens—finally breaks through and wins a ring, which hasn't happened since the No. 6 Rockets knocked off the Magic in 1995.
More likely, however, the odds will win out. But then that's what makes NBA playoff upsets so magical, and memorable, when they do occur.
A QUICK STORY about the power of upsets. In 2002, during the final season of LaPhonso Ellis's career, he was playing for the Heat. Once a dynamic power forward, Ellis was then a 32-year-old bench player, averaging 14 minutes. During a midseason game against the Sonics, a Miami teammate was injured on a shot attempt. The opposing coach got to choose anyone on the Heat bench to take the free throws. Seattle's Nate McMillan selected Ellis. It was a breach of NBA protocol, something you didn't do to a respected vet. Miami teammates were upset.
After Ellis hit his two free throws, he realized something. He turned toward McMillan. "Nate," shouted Ellis, "was that intentional?" McMillan looked down, then away. Says Ellis, "To this day I don't know, but I think he did it on purpose. For beating him back in 1994."
Perhaps you recall 1994. The Sonics won 63 games to earn the West's top seed. Meanwhile, the No. 8 Nuggets (42--40) were the youngest team in the league. Seattle cruised through the first two games at home behind stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, with McMillan contributing six points and four rebounds in Game 2. "If we can go to Denver and sweep and get some rest, I think it would be good for us," Kemp said. Denver coach Dan Issel would later admit, "To be honest, we just wanted to get some playoff experience this year."
And, well, you know what happened next. John Elway led cheers at the arena. Denver won, then—after Dikembe Mutombo announced he'd dreamed that the Nuggets would prevail in Game 4—won again to send it back to Seattle, where the Sonics had lost only four times all season. And that led to the indelible scene of a 7'2" man lying on his back, crying and holding a basketball at arm's length as if afraid to let go. If there were action figures made of Mutombo in this pose—and, really, there should be—no doubt they'd still sell in Denver.
Looking back, Sonics general manager Bob Whitsitt says the upset was driven by Denver's big men—Mutombo, Ellis and reserve Brian Williams (who would change his name to Bison Dele). "Their size really did nullify Kemp," says Whitsitt, whose teams made the playoffs in 16 of his 17 years in the league. For his part, Ellis credits the win to an "ignorance is bliss" attitude, which Williams summed up at the time quite nicely: "Basically at the beginning of the year we were young, dumb and full of potential. Now we have no reverence."
Whitsitt says he rarely revisits the moment. When a reporter calls to ask about that series, Whitsitt claims—perhaps a bit dubiously—that it's the first time someone has asked him about it in 20 years. There are, he says, so many other series and games that were more important. Who wants to talk about some first-round series?
Denver sure does. This spring the team flew out the primary players for a two-day celebration of the 20th anniversary, complete with a halftime ceremony and all manner of speeches and ovations. The victory remains, in many respects, the high point in Nuggets history. And, for someone like Ellis, the reminders are weekly, if not daily. When he saw George Karl recently, the two hugged, and then the former Seattle coach said, "Your greatest moment was the worst moment in my coaching history."
WHEN IT comes to the anatomy of an NBA upset, context is important. In 2012, when the eighth-seeded 76ers beat the top-seeded Bulls—one of only five No. 1 vs. No. 8 upsets since 1984—Philadelphia played well, but the series hinged on a season-ending knee injury to Chicago point guard Derrick Rose.
Sometimes seeding can be misleading. Some years, the gap between a No. 1 and a No. 8 can be more than 20 wins; other years, especially in the West, it's close to single digits. (Though, strangely, there has been only one more upset in the West than the East in the last 30 years.) Timing matters too. In 2011, when the eighth-seeded Grizzlies beat San Antonio in the first round, the Spurs had finished the season in a slump, losing eight of their last 12. Similarly, this year's Memphis team may be a No. 7 seed, but the Grizzlies posted the third-best record in the league in the final two months, once center Marc Gasol returned from a knee injury. And when the Rockets famously won that title in 1995, keep in mind that they were the defending champions. And that they'd acquired their second-best player, Clyde Drexler, midway through the season. Says Drexler, now an announcer for Houston, "We didn't see ourselves as an underdog at all."
Then there is the only No. 8 seed to make the Finals: the 1999 Knicks. It was year three of the New York--Miami blood match, one of the most entertaining rivalries in league history. The Knicks' underdog status came with an asterisk: a lockout-shortened season. In finishing 27--23, they won only six fewer games than the top-seeded Heat. Small forward Latrell Sprewell and center Patrick Ewing had missed chunks of time to injury. The only disadvantage New York had, really, was that of home court.
"We didn't view them as better than us," says Chris Dudley, a reserve Knicks center. The key factor, Dudley says, was unity. "The guys truly liked each other. We had each other's back. It really felt like we were going into battle together." Or, as then assistant Tom Thibodeau put it, in the mantra he repeated to the team: "Maybe outplayed but never outcompeted."
The coach at the time, Jeff Van Gundy, credits players for upsets. "This idea that a coach gives a guy confidence, I'm not sure that's true," Van Gundy said last week, in between calling playoff games on TV. (When first reached for an interview, Van Gundy texted back that he'd rather wait a day because "I'm too nervous watching Charlotte and Miami right now." On TV. In the second game of the first round. Which is why Van Gundy is the best.) "You need to have the right players," Van Gundy says. "Confidence is born out of true belief and success. As a coach you have to give them a plan that they can believe in. But that inner assurance that they could get it done, and we could get it done? That comes from the players."
For Van Gundy, whose Knicks also pulled a No. 7 vs. No. 2 upset a year earlier against Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning and the Heat, that 1999 team will forever define him as a coach. "I go back to NYC or run into a New York fan in the airports, and the first thing they mention is always my stupidity being on Alonzo's leg," he says. "But after that there's always a real appreciation. There's a staying power to that team."
ONLY ONE coach in NBA history has guided a team to three significant series upsets in three different seasons, and these days he spends his time playing poker and watching sunsets in Maui.
In 1989, Don Nelson led his seventh-seeded Warriors to a shocking 3--0 sweep over the No. 2 Jazz. Two years later, again as a No. 7 seed, the Warriors blindsided the Spurs in the first round. And then, in 2007, Nelson became the first coach to lead a No. 8 seed to victory during the best-of-seven era, defeating the Mavericks in six games. (The league had expanded the first-round series to best-of-seven in 2003.) The accompanying story line was irresistible. Dallas had won a franchise-best 67 games and was led by Dirk Nowitzki, the league MVP. Nelson had coached the Mavericks for eight seasons. Golden State had been atrocious for years. The scene at Oracle Arena after the final buzzer of Game 6, as confetti poured from the roof and fans hugged one another like lottery winners, was so electric that it took an act of will for reporters—O.K., for this reporter, born and bred in the Bay Area—to not join in.
Nellie is retired but he still has plenty of ideas. And it is ideas, he believes, that are the key to any upset. "The first thing you got to do if you're the worst and playing the best is you gotta convince your team they can win," Nellie said last week, while preparing for an afternoon of golf. "You tell them, 'We're going to beat those f------.' " He pauses. "Then you go say the opposite to the press."
Next, Nelson would look for patterns in opponents. What he could disrupt, where could he find an advantage. In 1989 he focused on Utah's 7'4" defensive juggernaut, Mark Eaton. "He was a real pain to play against," says Nelson. "If you played a big guy against him, where he could stay around the basket, he could just let you run into his body." Nelson's solution? Cover Eaton with the 6'7" Chris Mullin, inducing the Jazz to go to Eaton on offense while offering up no one for him to defend. "And the more Utah went to him, the more it hurt them," says Nelson. "Chris had these quick hands, and he'd slap the ball away. Once [the game] was in the open court, it was over."
In 2007, Nelson again focused on matchups, though he sums up that series as, "They couldn't guard us, and basically we could guard them." He continues: "Teams have patterns, just like individuals. So let's say you're playing a team that has a low-post player who likes the left side of the floor, and you know it. We'd put a hit on him at half-court. Double the ball and force it to the right side, and by the time they got back to the left side, the 24-second clock is down—if they could get it back to that side."
In the Dallas series the hit went out on Nowitzki. Nelson put long, quick defenders on him—primarily 6'8" Stephen Jackson—and then doubled from the top. Meanwhile, the Warriors' small lineup forced the Mavericks to bench their offensively challenged big men, providing driving lanes for Golden State's perimeter players. Dallas never figured it out.
Few people in the Bay Area linger on what happened next in '07—the Warriors were eliminated in five games, just as they were in 1989 and '91—because why would you? For a fan base starved for success, all that mattered was that one improbable series victory. After all, dozens of teams have won the NBA title. None had ever done what the Warriors had.
WHY DO we love upsets?
Plenty of social scientists have studied the matter. In 2010, Slate published a lengthy article citing the findings of this research—how, all else being equal, 81% of us choose to root for underdogs; how once a presidential candidate is described as an underdog he or she is immediately perceived as more likable; how we naturally assign positive attributes to underdogs.
In the end it's simple math: The more unlikely the success, the more rewarding it is. And therein lies the frustration, and the allure, of the NBA playoffs. Underdog victories are exceedingly rare; underdog victories are thus remarkably satisfying.
Which brings us back to this season's first round. On Sunday the Warriors' faithful gathered at East Bay bars to root on their team. At one downtown spot in Berkeley, men sat drinking in run tmc T-shirts, pessimistic about their team's chances, for that is the default position of all Golden State fans. In this case the Warriors were down 2--1 in the series. They'd lost two in a row, one by 40 points. They were without Andrew Bogut, their best defensive player. They had no answer for point guard Chris Paul. And the game was being played under a cloud created by the accounts of racist statements from the Clippers' owner (POINT AFTER).
The Warriors raced to an early lead. Murmurs of interest turned to grunts of surprise and finally to yelps of joy. Soon enough, as Golden State added to its lead and kept it through the second half, nobody cared about Bogut, or history, or anything else. Instead, the fans succumbed to the moment—buzzed with hope, drunk on belief.
Home court advantage, the best-of-seven format and the importance of superior talent act as bulwarks against flukes.
When Ellis saw Karl, the former Seattle coach said, "Your greatest moment was the worst moment in my coaching history."
For Van Gundy, the 1999 Knicks will forever define him as a coach. "There's a a staying power to that team," he says.
Photograph by GLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
TRIPLE TROUBLE Beating the buzzer—and the Spurs—with a three, Carter put the Mavericks up 2--1 against the West's top seed.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
1994 NUGGETS VS. SONICS The comeback led by Mutombo (55) and Robert Pack remains one of Denver's proudest moments.
MANNY MILLAN/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
1995 ROCKETS VS. MAGIC Behind Hakeem Olajuwon (in white), No. 6 Houston became the lowest-seeded champion in history.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
1999 KNICKS VS. SPURS Latrell Sprewell & Co., who lost to San Antonio in five games, remain the only No. 8 seed to reach the Finals.
JONATHAN FERREY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
GLOWING START Much to the delight of long-suffering Portland fans, Lillard (0) and the Trail Blazers were on the verge of eliminating James Harden and Houston for their first series victory since 2000.