During the last week of the regular season, the Trail Blazers were one of only a few teams certain of their seeding for the playoffs, which begin on Thursday. Portland was locked into the No. 5 berth in the Western Conference with no danger of moving down and no hope of moving up. This, as it turns out, is a good omen.
Since 1984, when the NBA switched its opening-round format to best-of-five, the No. 5 seed has beaten the No. 4 seed 16 times out of 26. Teams seeded fourth have a .385 winning percentage in first-round series, compared with .846 for the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams. Even more startling, not only have No. 4s gone winless in first-round series since '94, but also none have won more than one game. Last season, for example, the No. 4 Cavaliers were bumped off three games to none by the No. 5 Knicks in the East, while the No. 4 Lakers were dumped 3-1 by the No. 5 Rockets in the West.
These putative upsets have led some players and coaches to suggest that the league make the opening round, like later series, best-of-seven—or that it restructure the first round to increase the home court advantage of the team that earned it during the regular season.
The NBA's current first-round structure places the two opening games and the fifth in the higher seed's arena. If the lower-seeded team can steal at least one of the first two games on the road, it can usually ride that momentum into the conference semis. That's what happened last year, when Houston and New York won early in their opponents' arenas.
But were these really upsets? One obvious reason for the fifth seeds' high success rate is that No. 4 and No. 5 teams are more closely matched than any other playoff pair. Since 1990, in eight of the 14 matchups between fourth and fifth seeds, the two teams were within three games of each other in the final regular-season standings. (In the Eastern Conference this season, the No. 4 Hawks finished 56-26 and the No. 5 Pistons 54-28; in the West, however, the No. 4 Lakers ended 56-26, the Blazers 49-33.) Furthermore, in only five of those '90s series between No. 4 and No. 5 did the fourth seed have a winning regular-season record against the fifth. (This year, Atlanta was 1-3 against Detroit, and Los Angeles was 1-3 against Portland.)
Regardless, in a short series, anything can happen. "The longer the playoff series, the more the team that deserves to win it is likely to win it," says Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "If you have to play Jack Nicklaus, you'd rather play him for one hole than for 18, because you might just play your ass off and get a birdie."
One possible alteration would be to start the series with the higher seed on the road for two games before returning home for the final three. The NBA might even ponder a 2-1-1-1 or a 1-2-2 format. But this season, anyway, at least two teams—the Blazers and the Pistons—like the system exactly the way it is.
Tony's a Tiger
At one point this season the 00 on the jersey of the Hornets' rookie guard Tony Delk could have doubled for his stats. Delk did not even appear in 17 of Charlotte's first 35 games. While several of his peers quickly made names for themselves in the NBA, Delk, who played at Kentucky and was drafted 16th overall by Charlotte, struggled to make the transition from college shooting guard to NBA point guard.
"In the beginning, it was sort of like chaos out there on the court for me," says Delk, the 1996 NCAA Final Four MVP. "But I talked to Rick Pitino, and he told me to stay positive and that eventually my time would come."