Enjoy the First Round, But Don’t Overreact to It (Especially in Basketball)

Posted: 04/16/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Hockey

I was going to write a bunch of words about the first round of the hockey playoffs and the first round of the basketball playoffs. But I decided not to, at first because the fact that they start within a few days of each other made the previews super daunting. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that going super deep into all of the first round matchups is not only time-consuming but also probably isn’t the right way to approach the first round. How often does a great team struggle early in the playoffs only to right things when they have to and go on a run? It happens to LeBron’s team almost every year (last year was an exception, as the Cavaliers destroyed playoff opponents from the get-go). I seem to remember a couple of bad games against the Grizzlies for the Warriors in their championship season after which many analysts (I’m talking to you, Charles Barkley) declared that this is why a jump-shooting will never win a championship.

To a lesser extent, the same is true in hockey. Two years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks had two of the top four goal differentials in the NHL and ended up making the Stanley Cup Final. In the first round, though, the Lightning went down 3-2 while the Blackhawks lost twice by at least three goals before closing out the Predators.

My point is that usually, when you think a great team’s fatal flaw has been exposed in the first round, you’re probably overthinking things. This is certainly the case in basketball, where elite regular season teams almost never get upset in the first round. Since 1984 (when the playoffs were expanded to 16 teams), a top seed has been upset by a #8 seed just five times. Once, that only happened because Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of a Bulls-Sixers series. Of course, not all elite teams are #1 seeds and not all elite teams are #1 seeds. This year, for example, I would call the Cleveland Cavaliers — defensive issues and all — an elite team, while top seeded Boston is probably the fourth best team in its conference. I would be stunned if the Cavaliers lose their first round series but I think the Bulls have a pretty good chance to knock off the Celtics, so take that #1 seed stat with a grain of salt.

I’m not saying that elite basketball teams are flawless and unbeatable. It’s just that they aren’t likely to be beaten or even pushed by the teams they play in the first round. This is one of the consequences of having more than half the league make the playoffs — a lot of mediocre teams are played up a lot more than they should be just because they won one more game than a lottery team.

This is all a lot less true in hockey, where there’s a lot more parity than in basketball. If the rule is that great teams never lose in the first round, there are a lot more exceptions to that rule in hockey than in basketball. And because the best teams aren’t as dominant, there are more real title contenders and thus more consequential first round series’. With that being said, people still overreact wayyy too much. Sorry, Leafs, but winning one game in Washington doesn’t convince me that you’re a serious threat to defeat the Capitals. The first round of the hockey playoffs is also super exciting, so on a scale from “What does this win by the Leafs mean??” to “Wow, the Leafs just won in double overtime! That was cool,” you know which end I would advise you to lean towards.

Again, I’m not advocating that you ignore the first round. Quite the opposite, actually. I’m saying that you should watch the first round and enjoy the close games. When the Pacers are trading blows with the Cavs or the Maple Leafs are going to consecutive overtimes against the mighty Capitals, watch the game and root for the underdog. Just don’t overreact.

So when is the time to start looking closely at every individual matchup in each hockey and basketball series in order to try to figure out who’s eventually going to win the championship? That’s easy: next round. There’s a big difference between 16 teams and eight teams. There are never 16 good teams in the NHL or the NBA. There are almost always eight good teams who are at least capable of making the best teams try their hardest.

Consider this a general guide to playoff viewing. Unfortunately, it won’t really work in basketball this year, because instead of the usual four or five teams that have a legitimate chance of winning it all, this season there’s only one. I’ll be totally stunned if the Warriors fail to win the title (assuming they stay healthy). Maybe I’ll be shocked, but I think most would agree that Golden State is at the very least a heavy favorite to win it all. That sucks, because it removes the intrigue from rounds two, three, and four, the ones I’ve told you to pay attention to when trying to predict a winner. If you want intrigue this year, you’ll have to settle for rooting for some minor first round upsets. Or you can just tune into the hockey playoffs, because I think there are seven or eight teams who could legitimately win it all (Washington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Montreal, New York, San Jose, Nashville, St. Louis).

To end this, here are a couple of lists regarding the thoughts I have about the first round (because I can’t resist):

In order, the most likely NBA upsets (seed-wise):

  • Jazz over Clippers
  • Bulls over Celtics
  • Hawks over Wizards
  • Bucks over Raptors

* For the record, I’d pick all of the favorites.

We’re too deep into the hockey playoffs for me to do this for NHL upsets. Duh, the Blues are likely to upset the Wild and the Predators are likely to upset the Blackhawks.

Best teams in basketball:

  • Warriors
  • Cavaliers
  • Raptors
  • Spurs
  • Wizards

Best teams in hockey:

  • Capitals
  • Penguins
  • Predators
  • Blackhawks
  • Canadiens

And finally, the second round matchups I’d be most excited for:

  • Raptors-Cavaliers
  • Penguins-Capitals
  • Ducks-Oilers (I love Edmonton!)
  • Senators-Canadiens (go Canada!)
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