The NBA Season Just Got Challenging
During the regular season, the favorites are generally secure, and, at least compared to other sports, picking games is relatively straightforward. Similarly, as we saw a few weeks ago, the first round of the postseason generally goes according to chalk. The better-seeded teams usually don’t have much trouble in advancing and keeping their opening series short.
The second round is when things get messy. Higher seeds, even top seeds, are suddenly at risk and almost anything can happen. Regular season records and first-round dominance need to be taken with a grain of salt as we hit the meat of the NBA Playoffs.
Here’s a look at what you need to know to navigate things.
Beware the Favorites
When we looked at first-round series results, the chalk was everywhere. A No. 1 seed hasn’t lost in the NBA Playoffs First Round since 2012. No. 2 seeds have been secure in the opening round since 2010, and a three-seed hasn’t lost since 2018 as the top three seeds won more than three-quarters of their first-round games.
Now, with all the teams that struggled to make the playoffs cleared out, things get significantly tighter, and that means much more danger for top-seeded teams.
To find the last time a No. 1 seed has lost in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, we’d have to go all the way back to … last year, when they both did. Out West, the top-seeded Utah Jazz lost in six games to the Los Angeles Clippers, while, back East, No. 1 Philadelphia lost to No. 5 Atlanta in seven. In fact, only one of the last four No. 1 seeds has advanced past the second round. In 2020, No. 5 Miami dropped top seeded Milwaukee in five.
Over the last four years, No. 1 seeds have survived the second round exactly half the time, posting a 4-4 series record against the No. 4 or 5 seed. In games, things are just as tight, with the top seed going 22-21, .512.
Things aren’t much better for the No. 2 seeds. Only one of the last four two-seeds have advanced. No. 2 Brooklyn lost to Milwaukee in seven last year, while No. 2 Phoenix swept No. 3 Denver. In 2020, both No. 2s lost.
Over the last four years, two and three (or six) seeds have split their eight series, going 4-4 against each other. The No. 2’s have a better game record than the No. 1’s, however, going 28-21, .571.
The Myth of Rest
We told you that many of the top teams in the first round wrap up their series early, winning in a sweep or five games.
As any NBA announcer will tell you, that’s important, because the Playoffs are a marathon, and a team needs to get as much rest as possible. Wrapping up a series early gives the winning team a few extra days to recover before jumping back into things. Coming after a long regular season, that has to be a big benefit, right?
Not So Fast
Over the last four years, teams that swept their first-round opponent did not take advantage of their extra rest to keep the momentum going. They went on to win just four of their seven second-round series, going 21-20, .513 in individual games. Granted, some teams that won in sweeps went on to meet each other in the second round, which wiped out the best advantage for both teams, but it’s still just a slightly better than a coin flip to take a team that swept its first-round foe.
Teams that barely survived the first round, winning in seven, would seem to show weakness heading into the second round, having exhausted themselves to advance by the skin of their teeth. They were able to shake that off in round two, however.
Teams that went seven in the opening round actually have done better than sweeping teams in the second round. They won four of their six second-round series and have a 20-14, .588, record in round two.
What to Do
As the postseason goes on, the number in front of a team’s name means less and less. Set aside the seedings and any storylines about momentum—good or bad—carrying over from the last round.