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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Intangible Becomes Tangible in NBA Playoffs

Playoff experience may be classified as an intangible, but it's beginning to seem pretty tangible in the NBA's conference championships.
The playoffs so far have followed the seeding very closely. There were two mild upsets in the first round, Indiana (6) over Boston (3) and Washington (5) over Chicago (4). Otherwise, the favorites have won every series.
But now both top seeds are having trouble. The Miami Heat, after sweeping their first two opponents, are 1-1 against the Pistons. Both of those games, of course, were in Miami, so now they're going to Detroit for two, and they'd better win one of them.
The Phoenix Suns, seeded No. 1 in the West, are in even deeper waters. They've lost the first two games, at home, to the San Antonio Spurs.
Notice something about those troublesome No. 2 seeds?
Right. They won the last two NBA championships, the Pistons last year and the Spurs the year before.
The Heat have never reached the championship round and have been to the conference finals only once before, in 1997. This is the farthest the Suns have gone since 1993, when they won the conference title but lost to Michael Jordan's Bulls in the championship series.
In both losses, the Suns led after three quarters only to be blown out in the final period. Phoenix guard Steve Nash, the league's regular season MVP, commented after the second loss, "They have all been here before while our guys are pretty new to this and I think it shows."
Of course, the Suns have also been hurt by the absence of Joe Johnson, who returns tonight. But playoff experience still appears to be the major factor in this series.
Entering this year's playoffs, the Spurs' starters had appeared in a total of 224 playoff games as opposed to 82 for the Phoenix starters. San Antonio's bench had an even bigger lead, 220 to 67.
The Miami-Detroit series is considerably different. Miami actually has more playoff experience than Detroit. The trouble is, most of that experience belongs to Shaquille O'Neal, whose playing time has been limited because of injury. Three of Miami's starters had 15 or fewer playoff games under their belts before this season, while the five Detroit starters had all appeared in 38 or more playoff games.
Miami does have a clear advantage in bench experience, though, with 150 playoff games to 103 for Detroit. The advantage is bigger than those numbers indicate, though: Detroit's Elden Campbell has appeared in 96 playoff games, so the rest of the Piston backups have hardly any playoff experience at all.
Incidentally, the player in the NBA's version of the final four with the most playoff experience is San Antonio's Robert Horry, with 175 games. Shaq is second with 158.