The First Round
By the Elias Sports Bureau
How do we top this?
The NBA playoffs have gotten off to such a rousing start, that commentators have all expressed what our eyes have suggested: That we're in the midst of the greatest first round of the playoffs in anyone's memory. Do the numbers support that conclusion? Read on.
A bit of history: The NBA traces its history to 1946 (it was known as the Basketball Association of America -- the BAA -- prior to 1949), and has used a number of different playoff formats over the years. But as the league expanded to its current total of 30 teams, the formats evolved until, in 1984, the total of teams participating in the playoffs was increased to 16, where it has remained. The eight first-round series in which those teams participate were contested under a best-of-five format through 2002; the current best-of-seven format was implemented for the 2003 playoffs.
So this is the 31st season in which the first round has included 16 teams, presenting a two-week smorgasbord of basketball that fills most every hour of every evening and all day long on weekends. This year's presentation has been marked by a remarkable number of close and competitive games, and by the extraordinary degree of success earned by teams playing on the road. Let's look at those elements discretely, or, in hoops terms, "in isolation."
The highline number through the first 11 days of the playoffs is the total of overtime games played -- eight, which is a record for any round of the playoffs in any season in NBA history. (The previous high was the six overtime games played in the first round of the 2006 playoffs.) There have been four straight overtime games in the Thunder-Grizzlies series, three overtime games in the Trail Blazers-Rockets series, and one in the Bulls-Wizards matchup.
In fact, there has been only one other playoff series in NBA history in which an extra period was required in order to determine a winner in as many as three different games. (That was a Bulls-Celtics series, also in the first round, five years ago, in which there were four overtime contests. Though the Bulls won three of the overtime games, the Celtics took the series, four games to three.)
Margin of Victory
But there are other indicators of close games. If you include, in addition to games decided in overtime, any games that were decided by a winning margin of five-or-fewer points, 18 of the 36 playoff games played through Tuesday night qualify. Think about that: Through the first 11 days of the playoffs, the same number of games had been decided by five-or-fewer points, or in overtime (a total of 18), as had been decided by six-or-more points (18).
You have to go back to the 1957 playoffs -- when Red Auerbach directed the Celtics to their first championship, with the team led on the court by veteran Bob Cousy and rookies Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn -- to find the last year in which more playoff games were decided by five-or-fewer points, or in overtime, than were decided by six-or-more points. But keep in mind that in 1957, the NBA was an eight-team league, and that the entire postseason consisted of only 17 games (which included a seven-game Finals). But, for the record, of those 17 games, 10 met the standard of a "close game" as outlined above.
The efficiency -- dare we say "dominance" -- of teams playing on the road has also exceeded past measurements. An NBA-record 21 of the first 36 games played were won by the visitors, a winning percentage of .583. To put that figure in perspective, consider that prior to this year, the all-time winning percentage for road teams in NBA playoff games was .338! In only two of 67 past years have road teams finished the playoffs having won more games than they lost -- and they finished just one game above .500 in each of those years. (In 1966, road teams went 14-13, for a winning percentage of .519; and in 1981, road teams went 27-26, for a .509 percentage.)
Put all of those factors together and we have seen breathtaking competition throughout the first round. Through the first four games of each series, five of the eight series stood even at two wins apiece. That's the highest total of first-round series standing at 2-2 since the best-of-seven format was introduced in 2003. We should mention, however, that back in 1984, the first year in which there were eight first-round series and when the format was still best-of-five, six of the eight series were tied at 2-2 and went to a winner-take-all-game -- a record for the most winner-take-all games in the first round of the playoffs. With only two series wrapped up this season, wouldn't it be nice, and fitting, for the greatest first round in the history of the NBA playoffs to match that total of six winner-take-all games? Stay tuned.