Things to know about the NBA playoffs, which start today

The Associated Press - April 20, 2024 8:38 am

By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer

(AP) — The Boston Celtics had almost no trouble at all with the 14 teams that didn’t make the playoffs this season, going 35-4 against those squads.

Against the teams that actually made the postseason, the Celtics were really good as well.

Taking into account only the 16 playoff teams — and their games against one another — the No. 1 overall seed Celtics come up No. 1 yet again. Boston went 29-14 against the eventual playoff teams this season, the best such record in the league.

Close behind: Oklahoma City (26-15), Minnesota (25-18) and Denver (23-17).

Oklahoma City emerged as one of the best stories in the NBA this season, led by MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Thunder improved their win total by 16 last season — and then it improved it again by 17 more this season. However, they don’t exactly get a cakewalk here in Round 1, with a 49-win Pelicans team coming in as the opponent. Even though Zion Williamson will likely miss most, if not all, of the series with a bad hamstring, New Orleans is still going to be formidable.

A key matchup to watch will be Gilgeous-Alexander vs. CJ McCollum. No team would dare have one person take on the task of guarding OKC’s best player, but McCollum will have to use all of his veteran savvy against the Thunder star. And here’s a key nugget — McCollum has more career playoff points (1,273) than everyone currently on the Thunder roster combined (990).

The Thunder won 22 games three seasons ago, then 24 games the year after that. Those days are long gone already: 40 wins last season showed the potential, and 57 wins this season — with no full-time starter over age 25 — suggest that OKC’s time may be now.

“It means a little more, how we got here, for sure,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder guard who is a legit MVP candidate after averaging 30.1 points this season. “But at the end of the day, it’s home-court advantage, I guess, until the Finals. And that’s always a plus when your home court is like ours.”

They are young, they might be brash, and they certainly are fun. Thunder guard Jalen Williams was asked why he wasn’t wearing his division title T-shirt when the Thunder clinched the No. 1 seed: “This leather jacket cost a lot,” he said, drawing laughs.

The Thunder weren’t expected to be in this position; they were given 100-1 odds to win the NBA title when the season started.

The rest of the league’s record against playoff opponents: Indiana (23-19), Milwaukee (24-20), the Los Angeles Lakers (23-20), Phoenix (20-20), the Los Angeles Clippers (20-22), New Orleans (19-22), Orlando and Philadelphia (both 18-23), Dallas (17-23), Cleveland (17-25), New York (17-26), and Miami (14-26).

Indiana (122.0 points per game) had the top offense against playoff teams, followed by Boston (117.9) and Milwaukee (117.5). The best defenses, in terms of points allowed per game, were Minnesota (107.9), Denver (109.6), and Miami (110.1).

Dallas’ Luka Doncic actually had more points per game against playoff teams than the non-playoff clubs. Doncic averaged 35.0 points against the teams that made the 16-team bracket, 32.9 points against the teams that didn’t get in.

LEBRON THINGS
The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James will extend at least two league playoff records in every game he plays for the remainder of the season.

Nobody has played in more playoff games than James (282). And nobody has played in more wins (182) or more losses (100). By default, two of those three marks will grow with every game in which he appears.

Some of James’ other postseason ranks: first in points (8,023, ahead of No. 2 Michael Jordan by 2,063), fourth in rebounds (2,549, behind Bill Russell’s 4,104, Wilt Chamberlain’s 3,913, and Tim Duncan’s 2,859), second in assists (2,023, behind only Magic Johnson’s 2,346), and third in 3-pointers made (behind Golden State’s Stephen Curry’s 618 and Klay Thompson’s 501).

Including regular season, playoff, play-in tournament and the NBA Cup final (the league does not recognize play-in games and the Cup final as official games played), James has appeared in 1,778 NBA contests. That’s third-most in NBA history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,797) and Robert Parish (1,795). So, that’ll be another record James breaks — either with a deep playoff run this season, or early next season.

DOMINANT DENVER
Denver went 16-4 in the playoffs last season. Since the playoffs were expanded to a best-of-seven format in all four rounds 22 years ago, only two other teams have won a championship with that good of a record in the postseason.

Golden State went 16-1 on the way to the title in 2017. San Antonio went 16-4 in its run to the 2007 crown.

There are a few teams that should also be remembered for how dominant their postseason records were, even though the playoff format when they captured championships was slightly different. Among them: the 2001 Lakers (15-1); Philadelphia in 1983 (12-1); the 1999 Spurs, the 1991 Chicago Bulls, and the 1989 Detroit Pistons (all 15-2); the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks and the 1982 Lakers (12-2); the 1950 Minneapolis Lakers (11-2); and the 1996 Bulls, 1987 Lakers, and 1986 Celtics (all 15-3).

49 FOR 8
Make this make sense: There have been two instances in the last 20 years of a 47-35 season being good enough to earn a No. 2 seed for the playoffs.

New Orleans went 49-33 this season — and is seeded No. 8 in the Western Conference.

The only other teams to win at least 49 games and get an 8 seed in the last 20 years: Denver (50 wins) in 2009, Oklahoma City (50) in 2010, and Dallas (49) in 2014.

It hasn’t been uncommon for much-worse records to get much-higher seeds than what the Pelicans earned this season. In 2004, a 39-win season got New York the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. There have been a slew of instances in recent years where going 41-41 turned into a No. 6 seed for teams, and one where it turned into a No. 5 seed. In 2004, Miami went 42-40 — and got a No. 4 seed. The Heat were a No. 3 seed in 2007 at 44-38, a year after Denver did the same.

PLAYOFF STREAKS
It’s hard to make the NBA playoffs. There are only five teams who have been part of the playoffs in each of the last five seasons (not including play-in tournament games, which technically aren’t part of the playoffs).

Boston is in the playoffs for the 10th consecutive year. Milwaukee is in for the eighth in a row, Philadelphia is in for the seventh straight year, Denver for the sixth and Miami has made it in each of the last five seasons.

Orlando, Indiana, and Oklahoma City all snapped three-year absences by getting in this year. On the flip side: Charlotte missed for the eighth year in a row, while San Antonio and Detroit each missed out for the fifth straight year.

COACHING NOTES
With Miami assured of at least four more games this season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is assured of climbing into seventh place on the NBA’s all-time playoff games coached list.

Spoelstra enters the playoffs with 184, one behind George Karl. If the Heat can upset Boston, Spoelstra would almost certainly pass No. 6 Larry Brown (193). Yet if the Celtics win the series, by any margin, four Boston coaches would benefit.

That’s right — four. Joe Mazzulla would obviously have won the series, and Spoelstra would be assured of falling behind former Celtics coaches Red Auerbach, Tom Heinsohn, and K.C. Jones on the playoff winning percentage list.

The current difference between Spoelstra, Auerbach, Heinsohn, and Jones on that list — a mere .005.

DIVISION CHAMPIONS
Starting with 2012, every team that made the NBA Finals — except one — did so after winning a division championship.

The exception: Golden State in 2022, when it beat Boston for the title.

If form holds, that means either Boston, Orlando, or Milwaukee will win the East, and the West champion will be either Oklahoma City, Dallas, or the Los Angeles Clippers.

REFEREE NOTES
Veteran referees Scott Foster and Marc Davis might hit some milestones this spring.

Foster enters these playoffs with 241 postseason games worked, nine away from 250. And Davis is 11 games shy of reaching the 200-game mark for his playoff career.

Of the 36 referees picked for Round 1, there are eight with more than 100 playoff assignments: Foster, Davis, Tony Brothers (187), James Capers (178), Zach Zarba (146), Bill Kennedy (139), Ed Malloy (136), and John Goble (125).

Playoff officials are selected through a combination of their Referee Operations grades and rankings, play-calling accuracy, and team rankings. The evaluations continue in each round of the playoffs to determine which referees continue to advance.

WAITING FOR FINALS
The Los Angeles Clippers — in their 54th year as a franchise, going back to the early days in Buffalo and San Diego — have never been to the NBA Finals, the longest any current franchise has gone without making its first trip to the title series.

Paul George might feel like he’s been waiting that long as well.

There would likely be no one on the Clippers’ roster happier to get to the Finals than George. He’s played in 108 playoff games, the most among active players who have yet to get to the title round.

PLAYOFF POOL
The NBA’s postseason playoff pool has soared in the last two years. It rose nearly $10 million last year — and went up almost $7 million more this year.

This year’s pool total: $33,657,947. For comparison’s sake, last year’s pool was $26,969,000 and the 2022 pool was $17,317,334 — so it has nearly doubled in the last two years.

Every team is assured of at least $452,708 for making the playoffs. The payouts increase considerably as teams advance, and the teams with the best six records in each conference get more money as well.

Boston has already earned $2,035,482 from the pool — $844,074 for having the NBA’s best record, $738,700 for being the No. 1 seed in the East, and then the first-round money as well. If the Celtics win the title, their share of the pool would soar to $12,059,435, which would be far by the most in league history.

 

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