One-and-done mentality of underdogs keep playoffs exciting
The urgency of underdog teams, like Memphis, has kept the playoffs competitive
The best-of-seven format gives mid-major teams extra opportunities
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The NBA gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. That's why the owners are now quarreling among themselves over how much money the richest markets should be sharing with the less rich, and why the "less attractive" franchises want the next collective bargaining agreement to provide them with a better opportunity to hold on to talents like LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Deron Williams.
But if it's true that a chasm separates the upper half of the playoff bracket from the underdogs, then how do we explain the outstanding play of those underdogs during the postseason's opening week? The powerful Spurs and Lakers -- the top two teams in the West -- lost to the Grizzlies, minus Rudy Gay, and the Hornets, minus David West, respectively. The bottom-seeded Pacers have threatened the No. 1 Bulls three times, and the short-handed Knicks have almost beaten the Celtics twice.
This has been the best NBA season of modern times, with more championship contenders than we've seen since before the days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Now that competition is giving way to a playoffs that appears to be every bit as unpredictable.
The reason the underdogs have given themselves so many chances to win is because they carry a different point of view into these playoffs. Potential titleists like the Lakers, Spurs and Celtics see this tournament as a two-month journey to the Finals, but their opponents can't afford to consider the long term. For the Hornets, Grizzlies and Knicks, each game has turned into their version of the NCAA tournament.
They're viewing this as one-and-done. They've opened on the road understanding they need to win now or else. Their nothing-to-lose urgency has elevated these playoffs and given the NBA a March Madness unpredictability.
The Pacers -- the only playoff team with a losing record -- are like a school from some mystery hinterland conference daring to take on Kansas. The most talented team (or should we say player?) has prevailed in the end as Derrick Rose pulled out a trio of backstretch wins.
The Knicks have played a similar role. Carmelo Anthony suffered early foul trouble and didn't make an impact on Game 1, while Amar'e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups were absent for much or all of Game 2 -- which means the Knicks have looked very much like a bottom-heavy team with no-name role players. Yet they could have won either game in Boston.
Chris Paul led his depleted Hornets to a split in Los Angeles. The Nuggets -- a team without stars -- will argue they were jobbed by the erroneous goaltending call at the end of their Game 1 loss at Oklahoma City, and Blazers coach Nate McMillan picked up a $35,000 fine for complaining that the officiating handed Game 1 to the favored Mavericks. Each underdog believed it would have won if not for those interventions. Then Portland returned home to hold serve in Game 3 anyway.
These playoffs are swarming with inspiring teams that have every reason to surrender, but instead are forcing the contenders to forget all about working their way into the tournament. Suddenly no one can take anything for granted. The best teams won't be able to advance on reputation, as Kobe Bryant (who was forced to cover Paul throughout Game 2) or Manu Ginobili (rushed back from a painful hyperextended right elbow for San Antonio's Game 2 against Memphis) have learned.
For years I've wondered if the NBA would be better served by shortened series in hope of introducing some unpredictability to its postseason. Now that the games have become so competitive, the best-of-seven format has converted from a weakness to a strength, giving mid-major teams like the Grizzlies, Knicks and Blazers extra opportunities to antagonize or upset the major conference favorites. It's the best of both worlds.
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