With the Spurs in the NBA Finals after sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies last week, they've had a full week off, and will continue to get some more well-deserved rest before Game 1 on Thursday. Over in the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers trumped most critics' predictions by taking the once-thought irresistable Miami Heat to the full seven games. That series was competitive from the get go, with its first two games separated by a total margin of five points. Three of their games have been decided by more than 10 points, but the series has never seemed as if it was fully in one team's favor.
The Heat's weaknesses have been exposed by the rugged defense of the Indiana Pacers and their gigantic center, Roy Hibbert, who has notched more than 19 points in every game but the last, and had four 20-10 games. Hibbert has been in foul trouble, as the Heat continue to drive into the paint to force contact, but his ability to jump straight into the air and contest with verticality has allowed him to stay in the game for longer and affect not only LeBron James' shots, but the rest of the Heat's as well. As soon as the Eastern Conference Finals were destined to go to 7 games, I decided to look into the history of Conference Finals, specifically how many of the series were sweeps and how many went the maximum games allotted.
Starting in 1971, when the NBA realigned itself into two conferences, requiring the need for a Conference Finals instead of simply a Division Finals series. In the 42 seasons since then, there have been four sweeps in the Eastern Conference (1986 - Celtics over Bucks; 1991 - Bulls over Pistons; 1996 - Bulls over Magic; 2003 - Nets over Pistons) and nine sweeps in the Western Conference (1974 - Bucks over Bulls; 1977 - Blazers over Lakers; 1982 - Lakers over Spurs; 1987 - Lakers over Sonics; 1989 - Lakers over Suns; 1998 - Jazz over Lakers; 1999 - Spurs over Blazers; 2001 - Lakers over Spurs; 2013 - Spurs over Grizzlies).
A quick takeaway from this is the surprising amount of appearances by the Lakers in these sweeps, either as the sweeper or the swept. The Spurs also have a good amount of appearances here, having been swept twice by the Lakers, and having swept the Blazers and Grizzlies in turn. In a total of 86 Conference Finals matchups in both conferences, only 13 have culminated in sweeps, which is about 15% of the time. From this, I went on to look at how many of these Conference Finals went the full seven games.
Exhausting the Series
One would think that because the teams that have advanced to the Conference Finals have already defeated a team or two, it would be much tougher to be swept, regardless of how good the 'better' team would be. 15% is a low rate, which agrees with that assumption. Inversely, it would seem only appropriate that Conference Finals go the full seven games.
Looking at the Eastern Conference, there have been a total of fourteen series that have gone the maximum seven games (1971 - Bullets over Knicks; 1973 - Knicks over Celtics; 1979 - Bullets over Spurs; 1981 - Celtics over 76ers; 1982 - 76ers over Celtics; 1987 - Celtics over Pistons; 1990 - Pistons over Bulls; 1994 - Knicks over Pacers; 1995 - Magic over Pacers; 1998 - Bulls over Pacers; 2001 - 76ers over Bucks; 2005 - Pistons over Heat; 2012 - Heat over Celtics; 2013 - Heat over Pacers)
There have been eight such series in the Western Conference (1975 - Warriors over Bulls; 1979 - Sonics over Suns; 1988 - Lakers over Mavericks; 1993 - Suns over SuperSonics; 1996 - SuperSonics over Jazz; 2000 - Lakers over Blazers; 2002 - Lakers over Kings). 22 out of the 86 Conference Finals have gone the full 7 games, for a rate of 26%, a good amount higher than the sweeps, and what a statistician would think would be an adequate amount, as a seven game series can only have four different outcomes.
Now that the Eastern Conference Finals are over, I wanted to find out how many Finals matchups have been between a team that has swept its last opponent and a team that had gone seven games in its past series.
Looking through the history, only six such Finals since 1971 fit the bill, (1982, 1987, 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2013). In 1982, the Lakers defeated the 76ers 4-2, winning the first game of the series even though it was an away game for Los Angeles. They stole home court advantage immediately, and then plowed through their own home games, winning each by double digits. In 1987, the Lakers met the Celtics in the Finals, defeating them by a mark of 4-2. The Lakers capitalized on the rest from their sweep and won their first two home games by an average of 16 points, and then alos took a game at the Boston Garden.
In the 1996 Finals, Michael Jordan and the Bulls came out scorching, winning the first three games of the series against the SuperSonics, before dropping two straight in Seattle. Once the series shifted back to Chicago, the legendary 72-10 Bulls team closed out the series. Two years later, the Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz, who had come off a sweep of the Lakers in the Western Conference. Chicago grinded through a tough seven game series against the Indiana Pacers, but were able to come out strong against the rested Jazz, splitting the first two games in Utah and then winning the next two in Chicago.
At the turn of the millennium, the 76ers and Allen Iverson, one of the new superstars of the era, faced the Shaq/Kobe led Lakers, who had swept their way through the West, not dropping a single game. But this rest may have been too much for the Lakers, who had more than a week off before facing the 76ers, who themselves had toughed out 7 controversial games against the Milwaukee Bucks. In a rhythm, the 76ers were able to steal the first game in Los Angeles, but went on to lose the next four. The 76ers had a record of 11-7 coming into the Finals, while the Lakers were 11-0. Perhaps rust or complacency had taken an effect on the Lakers, and they were not able to stop Iverson, who scored 48 points in the overtime victory. The Lakers screwed their heads back on and went on to complete the backdoor sweep, winning the next four games.
What about the Spurs?
The Spurs come into these Finals with a 12-2 record, and will face the Heat and their 12-4 record. The Spurs have played two fewer games and will have had rested for a week longer than Miami, who has been beaten up in the slower paced and rugged East. The Spurs hold the advantage on the rest front and with momentum, which according to history, is a great sign for success.
Of the five matchups in history between sweepers and winners of max series, four (the 1982 Lakers, the 1987 Lakers, 1996 Bulls and 2001 Lakers) were able to translate their sweeps in the Conference Finals into an NBA championship. Only the Jazz in 1998 could not defeat the Bulls, even though they had just come off a tough win against Indiana.
The Spurs will be well rested, but the Heat are a formidable oppenent who have just overcome Indiana's top notch defense. But the Spurs seem to have the upper hand, with position matchups that favor San Antonio. The Heat are weak in the Center and Forward positions, and the Spurs have the immortal Tim Duncan and the finally-playoff-ready Tiago Splitter to take advantage of the Heat's shortcomings. Keeping their key players fresh will be a huge advantage for the Spurs, who have PATFO to thank for their deep and experienced bench.
And as we wait for the Spurs to play their first game since last Monday, think of this to soothe your pain: it's less time than you have to wait until the next episode of Breaking Bad.