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Heat, Spurs took (relatively) easy paths to NBA Finals

Jun 5, 2013, 1:28 PM EDT

Heat' James goes in for a dunk during the first half of Game 4 of his NBA first round playoff series against the Bucks in Milwaukee

Before going any further, I want say reaching the NBA Finals is hard. Really, really hard. Any team that makes it this far deserves a lot of credit.

But sometimes it’s easier win a conference than other times.

There are a couple objective ways to measure the difficulty of the path a team takes to the Finals. One is the seeding of opponents in the first three rounds, and another is the record of opponents in the first three rounds.

By the first, the Spurs had the easiest path the Finals in 24 years. By the second, the Heat had the easiest path in 25 years.

By opponents’ seeds

The Spurs beat a No. 7 seed (Lakers), No. 6 seed (Warriors) and No. 5 seed (Grizzlies) to win the Western Conference. The seeds of San Antonio’s three opponents total 18. No team team has reached the Finals with its opponents’ seeds totaling that large a number since 1989.

Since the NBA instituted its current four-round format in 1984, only four Finals teams have such a high number in this stat:

1. 1987 Lakers, 20

2. 1989 Pistons, 19

3. 1984 Lakers, 18

3. 2013 Spurs, 18

Two of those three teams preceding San Antonio – the 1987 Lakers and 1989 Pistons – won the Finals. This might be somewhat random, but it also makes sense. A team that enters the playoffs as a high seed is more likely to win a championship, and that team is also guaranteed one series against a low seed. Also, by possessing a high seed itself, that’s one fewer possible high seed the Finals-bound team can play.

By opponents’ records

The Heat beat the 38-44 Bucks, 45-37 Bulls and 49-32 Pacers – opponents with a combined winning percentage of .539. The last Finals team with three opponents that had such a low winning percentage was the 1988 Lakers.

Since 1984, just five Finals teams have faced opponents with a worse combined record:

1. 1987 Lakers, .480

2. 1984 Lakers, .496

3. 1985 Lakers, .528

4. 1988 Lakers, .533

5. 1984 Celtics, .537

6. 2013 Heat, .539

Miami’s opponent winning percentage is pretty remarkable, considering expansion has raised the bar for the lower seeds. Now with 30 teams, assuming conference parity, a median team is a No. 8 seed. In 1988, when there were just 23 teams, a median team was a No. 6 team, meaning below-median teams filled the bottom two seeds.

Four of the five teams that reached the Finals with worse opponents winning percentages than the Heat won the title, and the Lakers lost in 1984 only when facing a team also on the list, the Celtics.

Again, this could be random, but it also makes sense. Teams with good records get more series against teams with worse records. Also, every game a team wins – a sign that the team is good – is a game a potential playoff opponent doesn’t win.

So, an easy path to the Finals might actually bode well for teams once they get there. If that holds true for the Spurs and Heat, we should be in for a heck of a series.

Also, in case you’re wondering, the most difficult path to the finals, by either measure goes to the 1995 Rockets. Entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, Houston beat the No. 3 Jazz (60-22), No. 2 Suns (59-23) and No. 1 Spurs (62-20) to reach the Finals, where it defended its title by beating the Magic.

  1. scmems07 - Jun 5, 2013 at 1:31 PM

    Don’t tell that to the nba analysts and commentators, most of them had the warriors and the griz beating the spurs and magic said the Lakers would beat them. I remember when the spurs swept the griz Bill Simmons looked like he was going to cry that the spurs won.

  2. logisticalvoices - Jun 5, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    I’m all for reseeding teams after each round so that the playoff tree is a bit more balanced.

    While we’re at it, I’m also all for returning the first round to a five game series instead of seven. But I know the owners won’t let that happen…

    • money2long - Jun 5, 2013 at 6:19 PM

      leave 1st round as 7 games. just because it’s the 1st round, doesn’t mean that the teams involved are all lowly. the western conference has a lot of worthy teams who all deserve the 7 games for a chance to advance.

  3. scmems07 - Jun 5, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    This is going to be a hard serious for the spurs, everyone knows when the king of basketball is on his game the heat rarely lose….but the heat better win this one because the kings window is closing, he is retiring,I think David stern said in 2014 he is done, so heat fans, better find another team to jump on.

  4. nycalldayz - Jun 5, 2013 at 1:50 PM

    Heat, Spurs took (relatively) easy paths to NBA Finals? When you’re the #1 and #2 seed shouldn’t the path be relatively easy? Being 1 or 2 seed allows that team to have HCA throughout the postseason, but I wouldn’t say the paths for the Heat or Spurs. The Pacers and Warriors pushed the Heat and Spurs hard. Maybe the Heat and Spurs caught a break because both the Bulls and Lakers were depleted with injuries and depth.

    • hwatt - Jun 5, 2013 at 1:58 PM

      pretty much just for the conference finals this year, the #2 seed in each conference wasn’t present. So the seed thing is interesting.

      What may also be interesting is how many games have teams played before reaching the finals?
      The Pacers took these Heat to 7 games, so they certainly didn’t get here the quickest (beat bucks in 4, bulls in 5, makes 18 games played so far) This could perhaps be a very good measure of ‘toughness’ as well. I’d bet there’s tons of teams that took as many games to get to the finals.

  5. taotiger77 - Jun 5, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    You really cannot judge the path by seeds. Everyone know, although it is denied teams tank during the final 15 games. They do not flat out try to lose but the rest their starters and their stars down the stretch. In the end the seeding hunt is more to get a favorable match up in the first round. The Heat just showed how vulnerable they can be by losing games to the Bulls and Pacers. Everyone in the media were holding their breath prior to the end of the Heat’s game 7 with the Pacers because they all picked the Heat to not only win that series but to win it all. Some would say that Corporate NBA made sure that happened. The simple truth is both teams took the games to put them in the finals. The post season is such a different game from the regular season that I do not think either team had an easier go of it.

  6. hehateme2 - Jun 5, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    It will be nice to see some good basketball for a change. That “thug style” that the most desperate Bulls and Pacers tried to play was tough to watch.

    I much rather see a faster pace and more open court plays. Heat in 6.

    • coltsfreek - Jun 6, 2013 at 10:32 AM

      “thug style” Pacers? outside of the flopping…it was one of the best series I’ve seen in a long time. In the end lebron was too much, but the heat as a whole team has mostly sucked the last few games. The Spurs are more mature version of the Pacers and probably win.

  7. reedme16 - Jun 5, 2013 at 3:42 PM

    This post tells me that 80’s basketball probably wasn’t as great as people make it out to be!

    And what does Stern retiring have to do with Lebron. If Stern really had something to do with Lebron he would have made it more with Cleveland! Respect the Heats hard work. Every championship team has a legit 2nd and 3rd option. If management proves that they can’t surround you with that as the best player in the league then you should leave. You shouldn’t have to deal with bad management just to prove you can do it on your own. That’s stupid. Lebron gsm proven he would be the best player no matter if he went with Wade or Rose. When Kobe couldn’t win they went and got him Gasol and Jordan kept premier weapons around Jordan with an All time elite coach. The Lebron needed help argument is old, played out, and lacks perspective

  8. sportsnut101 - Jun 5, 2013 at 4:20 PM

    U can’t pick who u play. What a dumb column

    League should do 1-16. Seedlings for the playoffs No eat west conference Home court goes to best record. Regardless if u win divison or not. This will make the reg season count to get best record. For home court in a playoff series I hope this happens next yr

  9. deiong - Jun 5, 2013 at 6:24 PM

    Stern in 5 :) errr heat :)

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