Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Best of the first round: Warriors, MJ and Rex's clutch three

Barry Gossage

The goal in mind for all 16 teams when the playoffs tip off every April is the same: Sixteen wins. Sixteen wins and the commissioner hands out the Larry O'Brien Trophy and Queen's We Are the Champions blares over the P.A. system. Sixteen wins and clips from your Playoffs run are embedded in historic postseason highlight packages for years to come.

But before a team can get to 16, it needs to get to four. Granted, the numbers have changed over the years. Back in 1949, only eight teams made the Playoffs and the first two rounds were best-of-three, with only The Finals being best-of-seven. So before a team could get to eight, it needed to get to two. But you get the idea.

While the greatest moments in Playoffs history tend to come on the grandest stage of The Finals, there have been plenty of classic performances in the first round. Here are some of the best.

Best first-round upset

2007 -- Golden State Warriors 4, Dallas Mavericks 2

The Warriors snuck into the Playoffs as an eighth seed while the Mavs won a league-best 67 wins en route to the No. 1 overall slot. Instead of sticking to what got him there, Dallas coach Avery Johnson changed his starting lineup before Game 1 to contend with Golden State's speed. By that time Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Nellie Ball already had won. Basketball people swear that Oracle Arena during that series was the best home-court advantage a team has ever had.

Runner-up: 1994 -- Denver Nuggets 3, Seattle Supersonics 2

Eighth-seeded Denver came back from an 0-2 deficit to shock the Sonics and Dikembe Mutombo was left crying tears of unbridled joy.

Honorable Mention: 1999 -- New York Knicks 3, Miami Heat 2

It's the only other 1-8 upset, but it doesn't have the same pizzazz as the other two because A) The final score in Game 5 was a brutal 78-77, B) It happened during the screwy lockout-shortened season and C) Allan Houston's game-winner was a leaner that got a lot of help from a lucky bounce on the rim.

Best of Michael Jordan

1986 -- Game 2 -- Boston Celtics 135, Chicago Bulls 131 2 OTs

After missing nearly all of his second season with a broken foot, a neophyte shooting guard out of North Carolina hangs 63 points -- the most ever in the history of the Playoffs -- on the eventual champion Celtics. "I think he's God disguised as Michael Jordan," said a prophetic Larry Bird afterward. "He's the most awesome player in the NBA." Jordan played 53 minutes, shot 22-for-41 from the field and 19-for-21 from the free-throw line. No retrospective video of his career is complete without showing the grainy video from that game of him yo-yoing the ball between his legs on Bird and pulling up for a baseline jumper.

Runner-up: 1989 -- Game 5 -- Chicago Bulls 101, Cleveland Cavaliers 100

It was one play that encapsulated everything Jordan ever was as a player -- clutch, confident and supremely talented. Jordan received an inbounds pass near half court with three seconds left, sprinted to the foul line, elevated over poor Craig Ehlo and guided in a dagger. Jordan scored 44 points and gave the Bulls a date in the second round. His high-jumping, fist-pumping celebration that followed is almost as impressive as the shot itself. It was Jordan's first Playoffs series win after going 1-9 in his first three trips to the postseason.

Honorable Mention: 1992 -- Game 3 -- Chicago Bulls 119, Miami Heat 114

Jordan scored 56 points and erased an 18-point Miami lead to sweep the Heat.

1997 -- Game 3 -- Chicago Bulls 109, Washington Bullets 104

His Airness' second-most famous double nickel (55 points) bounced his future team from the postseason.

Best near upset

2007 -- Phoenix Suns 4, Los Angeles Lakers 3

This series had it all, from the league MVP Steve Nash facing off against Kobe Bryant (who was snubbed for the award after averaging 35.4 points per game in the regular season) to Tim Thomas resurrecting his career to hit big shot after big shot to Bryant feuding with Raja Bell to Bryant hitting two dramatic shots in Game 4 to give L.A. a 3-1 series lead to the Suns storming back to take the series after Bryant attempted only two shots in the second half of Game 7.

Runner-up: 2008 -- Boston Celtics 4, Atlanta Hawks 3

Boston won 67 games in the regular season and faced off against a 38-win Atlanta team. The 29-game differential was the fourth-largest gap between first-round opponents in NBA Playoffs history. But the young Hawks pushed Boston to the brink and started a cold-blooded rivalry that carried over to this season.

Honorable Mention: 2002 -- New Jersey Nets 3, Indiana Pacers 2

The eighth-seeded Pacers took the top-tier Nets to double overtime in Game 5 before bowing out. Reggie Miller forced the first OT with a 40-foot bank shot at the buzzer.

Most underrated performance

1984 -- Game 5 -- New York Knicks 127, Detroit Pistons 123 OT

Bernard King led the Knicks to a 3-2 series win with 44 points in the clinching game. That's enough to make the game notable, but it becomes legendary when you sprinkle in the fact that King was playing with a 102-degree fever and two dislocated fingers. Isiah Thomas scored the Pistons' last 16 points in a span of 93 seconds to send the game to overtime, and the game also was notable because it was played in a sauna; the air conditioning at Joe Louis Arena was broken. King finished the series with totals of 36, 46, 46, 41 and 44 points to set an NBA scoring record for a five-game series.

Runner-up: 1994 -- Game 3 -- Phoenix Suns 140, Golden State Warriors 133

Charles Barkley went bonkers, scoring 56 points on 23-for-31 shooting and augmenting his line with 14 rebounds, four assists and three steals in the closeout game. Sir Charles, responding to an anything-less-would-be-uncivilized comment by a Warriors player who called him a "punk" during Game 2, came out sharp as ever and scored 27 points on 11-for-11 shooting in the first quarter to set the tone for the victory.

Honorable Mention: 1973 -- Game 1 -- Boston Celtics 134, Atlanta Hawks 109

John Havlicek fired in 54 points against the Hawks on April Fools Day.

Worst mental lapse

2003 -- Detroit Pistons 4, Orlando Magic 3

Up 3-1 against the Pistons, Tracy McGrady, fresh off the league scoring title, acted like a wide receiver who drops the pass because he's thinking touchdown. McGrady told a reporter how good it felt to "finally be in the second round." That's when the magic ran out on the eighth-seeded Magic's upset bid over the No. 1 Pistons. Detroit went on to win Games 5-7, all in blowout fashion. McGrady's teams have yet to make it out of the first round.

Best buzzer-beater

1997 -- Game 5 -- Seattle SuperSonics 122, Phoenix Suns 115 OT

Veteran Rex Chapman, who came into the league as a high flyer but had changed his game to a sharp shooter by this point, made the ultimate driveway shot to send the game into overtime. It's called a "driveway shot" because it had people across the country tossing the ball into the corner by the Buick and counting down "3...2...1" while imitating Chapman's leg-kick-and-swish motion. Neither team went on to win the championship, so history doesn't really care that the Suns ended up losing the game.

Best debut

2006 -- Cleveland Cavaliers 4, Washington Wizards 2

LeBron James had 32 points and a triple-double in Game 1, the first Playoffs game of his career, and joined Johnny McCarthy and Magic Johnson as just the third player ever to hang a triple-double in his first Playoffs game. James followed it up with 41 points and a game-winner in Game 3, 45 points and a game-winner in Game 5 and 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the clinching Game 6 that the Cavs won in overtime.

Highest rated game

1995 -- Game 4 -- Chicago Bulls 85, Charlotte Hornets 84

Jordan, still wearing the No. 45 from his baseball days, closed out the Hornets in Game 4 with 24 points and averaged 32.2 points a game for the series -- his first since his first comeback. "You take him out of the lineup and we win this series easy," said Charlotte's Dell Curry. "His play isn't as important as his presence. You can see the confidence and the pressure relieved off Pippen and Armstrong. He took the pressure off everyone." The game registered a 5.6 rating on TNT. Some 3,606,000 households tuned in.

Best Performance Dwyane Wade is Likely to Replicate

1997 -- Miami 3, Orlando 2

In the Playoffs for the first time without Shaquille O'Neal as a teammate, Anfernee Hardaway put his team full of misfits on his back, scoring 42 points in Game 3 and 41 points in Game 4 to tie the series after the Heat started with a 2-0 lead. Orlando ended up losing in Game 5 by eight points, but Hardaway scored 33 points and had the Magic within three points with 14 seconds remaining. Look for Wade to pull a Penny in the first round against the Hawks this year.

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