The top-seeded teams in both conferences lost Game 1 of their first-round series on the second day of the NBA playoffs on Tuesday, only the third time in history that has happened, so naturally we must wonder ...
Can either eighth-seeded team actually pull off the upset?
There is precedent for condensed seasons producing a first-round upset of a No. 1 seed. The only two lockout-shortened seasons in NBA history both resulted in shockers for different reasons, neither of which offers a roadmap for the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic beating the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. But for the Portland Trail Blazers? We have absolutely seen this movie before, starring the 1999 New York Knicks.
Those Knicks were in the midst of a 14-year playoff streak in 1999 and had not lost in the opening round for seven seasons running. They were no ordinary No. 8 seed, having lost Patrick Ewing and a newly acquired Latrell Sprewell for prolonged stretches of a jog through a regular season that forced other teams to sprint.
Similarly, this year’s Blazers are working on a seventh straight playoff appearance and coming off a Western Conference finals appearance. The hiatus allowed starting center Jusuf Nurkic to return from a yearlong leg injury, and the Blazers are a different team with him on the floor, operating at an elite level. Their 100-93 win over the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday was the latest in a string of big wins by Portland, and the Lakers should hope their playoff opener was just rust that looked worse next to a well-oiled offense.
But the Blazers bear a resemblance to even more classic upsets. The “We Believe” 2007 Golden State Warriors and the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” 2011 Memphis Grizzlies embraced their identities and knew their roles. They played together, and they understood they belonged on the same floor as the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, respectively. I am not convinced this year’s Magic have that same confidence against the Bucks, but any team with Damian Lillard on it fears nobody, not even LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The 2007 Warriors are the more interesting comparison. The other four eighth seeds to pull off first-round upsets — the 1994 Nuggets, 1999 Knicks, 2011 Grizzlies and 2012 76ers — all had established defensive identities. Those Warriors owned a bottom-10 defense and a top-10 offense, just like these Blazers, and they beat a Mavericks team that ranked top-five on both sides of the ball by shooting them off the floor.
Golden State made 20 more three-pointers than Dallas over the course of their 2007 series, covering the 40-point gap between them in six games. The difference in Portland’s win on Tuesday? The Blazers shot 13-for-34 from deep, and the Lakers made just five of their 32 attempts. Portland was the league’s third-best three-point shooting team this season, and 13 was their average made per game. There is reason to believe they can replicate that discrepancy against a Lakers team that ranked 21st in three-point shooting.
The Magic do none of these things. They are an average defensive team that has lost its best defensive player, Jonathan Isaac, for the season, and they are a subpar offensive outfit, mostly because they are among the worst-shooting teams in the league. They just happened to make 16 three-pointers on Tuesday, something they had done just four times all year, each against lottery teams. Game 1 felt more like a fluke.
Orlando does not even benefit from injury, the way the Sixers did in their 2012 upset of the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls. The closest comp for the Magic is the 1994 Nuggets, more so because Milwaukee is closer aligned to the Seattle SuperSonics of that year — a regular-season juggernaut helmed by a ferocious rim-attacking athletic specimen. Shawn Kemp was an unstoppable force until he ran into a playoff defense designed to stop him, and the Bucks should worry about Giannis Antetokounmpo suffering a similar fate.
Just not in this round, most likely. That Denver team featured Hall of Fame center Dikembe Mutombo as the anchor of a top-five defense. Orlando has ... Nikola Vucevic? The 6-foot-11 Montenegrin was an All-Star in his 2019 contract season, and while he was great in Game 1 against Milwaukee (35 points, 14 rebounds and four assists), he is hardly the sort of series-tilting presence Mutombo was in leading three different franchises out of the first round in his prime. I do not see Vucevic finger-wagging Giannis any time soon.
The best thing the Magic have going for them is Game 1 in hand. Three of the five first-round upsets of top-seeded teams started with an underdog win. The 1994 Nuggets lost their first two games to the Sonics in a five-game series, and the 2012 Sixers lost Game 1 to the Bulls — the game in which Rose tore his ACL. The 1999 Knicks, 2007 Warriors and 2011 Grizzlies all set the tone for their upsets in Game 1 of the first round.
Keep in mind No. 1 seeds have beaten their eighth-seeded opponents in 49 of their 54 opportunities. Only 14 times has a No. 8 seed even won Game 1. Two of them came on Tuesday. Nine of the 12 previous times an eighth seed won the opener, the series either went the distance or resulted in the underdog’s favor. Only once did an eighth seed win Game 1 of a first-round series and fail to log a second victory, and that was a best-of-five series between the Indiana Pacers and a Sixers team Mutombo helped lead to the 2001 Finals.
Since the NBA extended first-round series to a best-of-seven format in 2003, only nine times has a No. 8 seed won Game 1. Three resulted in upsets, two ended in seven games and two went six games. The other two happened on Tuesday. At least look for the Blazers to make more noise before this round is over. LeBron has lost a single first-round Game 1 in his playoff career — in 2018, when the Pacers pushed his Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games — the only time he has ever faced a win-or-go-home game so early.
There is a reason Milwaukee remained a heavy favorite after its loss to Orlando and the Lakers’ odds of winning both their first-round series and the 2020 championship fell so sharply: Historical precedent.
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