During the last week of the regular season, the Trail Blazers
were one of only a few teams certain of their seeding for the
playoffs, which begin on Thursday. Portland was locked into the
No. 5 berth in the Western Conference with no danger of moving
down and no hope of moving up. This, as it turns out, is a good
Since 1984, when the NBA switched its opening-round format to
best-of-five, the No. 5 seed has beaten the No. 4 seed 16 times
out of 26. Teams seeded fourth have a .385 winning percentage in
first-round series, compared with .846 for the Nos. 1, 2 and 3
teams. Even more startling, not only have No. 4s gone winless in
first-round series since '94, but also none have won more than
one game. Last season, for example, the No. 4 Cavaliers were
bumped off three games to none by the No. 5 Knicks in the East,
while the No. 4 Lakers were dumped 3-1 by the No. 5 Rockets in
These putative upsets have led some players and coaches to
suggest that the league make the opening round, like later
series, best-of-seven--or that it restructure the first round to
increase the home court advantage of the team that earned it
during the regular season.
The NBA's current first-round structure places the two opening
games and the fifth in the higher seed's arena. If the
lower-seeded team can steal at least one of the first two games
on the road, it can usually ride that momentum into the
conference semis. That's what happened last year, when Houston
and New York won early in their opponents' arenas.
April 27, 1997
But were these really upsets? One obvious reason for the fifth
seeds' high success rate is that No. 4 and No. 5 teams are more
closely matched than any other playoff pair. Since 1990, in
eight of the 14 matchups between fourth and fifth seeds, the two
teams were within three games of each other in the final
regular-season standings. (In the Eastern Conference this
season, the No. 4 Hawks finished 56-26 and the No. 5 Pistons
54-28; in the West, however, the No. 4 Lakers ended 56-26, the
Blazers 49-33.) Furthermore, in only five of those '90s series
between No. 4 and No. 5 did the fourth seed have a winning
regular-season record against the fifth. (This year, Atlanta was
1-3 against Detroit, and Los Angeles was 1-3 against Portland.)
Regardless, in a short series, anything can happen. "The longer
the playoff series, the more the team that deserves to win it is
likely to win it," says Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "If you
have to play Jack Nicklaus, you'd rather play him for one hole
than for 18, because you might just play your ass off and get a
One possible alteration would be to start the series with the
higher seed on the road for two games before returning home for
the final three. The NBA might even ponder a 2-1-1-1 or a 1-2-2
format. But this season, anyway, at least two teams--the Blazers
and the Pistons--like the system exactly the way it is.
Tony's a Tiger
At one point this season the 00 on the jersey of the Hornets'
rookie guard Tony Delk could have doubled for his stats. Delk
did not even appear in 17 of Charlotte's first 35 games. While
several of his peers quickly made names for themselves in the
NBA, Delk, who played at Kentucky and was drafted 16th overall
by Charlotte, struggled to make the transition from college
shooting guard to NBA point guard.
"In the beginning, it was sort of like chaos out there on the
court for me," says Delk, the 1996 NCAA Final Four MVP. "But I
talked to Rick Pitino, and he told me to stay positive and that
eventually my time would come."
Delk's game has blossomed in the spring, just as it did last
year. "Maybe it's the warm weather," says Delk, who is 6'2" and
has a 34-inch vertical leap. He was the spark behind the
Hornets' recent nine-game winning streak, a franchise record.
Injuries to veteran guards Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry doubled
Delk's minutes, and he responded by averaging 11.9 points and
3.4 assists--both more than twice his season average--during the
streak. Delk scored 25 points and made five of eight three-point
shots in a 136-111 win over the Celtics on April 9, had 11
rebounds in a 93-85 defeat of the Pistons on April 11 and dished
out 10 assists in a 94-82 victory against the Cavaliers three
nights later. "He's coming on, he really is," says Charlotte
coach Dave Cowens. "He's our point guard of the future."
The Hornets made that clear in February by trading to the
Nuggets their only other young point guard, Anthony Goldwire.
That signal from the front office helped Delk relax. Under the
tutelage of Bogues and guard Tony Smith, Delk has learned to
break down defenses and pass the ball rather than repeatedly
pull the trigger.
"The toughest part this year was watching some of my peers come
into the league and play right off the bat," says Delk. "But
older guys on our team reminded me that it's not where you start
as a pro, it's where you end up."
Line of the Week
Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers, April 17, against the Kings: 15-31
field goals, 12-14 free throws, 12 rebounds, 42 points. While he
was out for two months with a hyperextended left knee, Shaq took
foul-shooting lessons from Magic Johnson. The tutoring appears
to have paid off just in time for the playoffs, as O'Neal, a
lifetime .537 free throw shooter, followed his performance
against the Kings by hitting eight of 12 at the line the next
night against the Clippers. But on Sunday he bricked a crucial
late free throw and made only two of five foul shots in a loss
to the Trail Blazers.
After watching 69 Bulls victories and 68 Grizzlies losses during
a season in which the Bulls' Robert Parish, 43, and the Lakers'
Kobe Bryant, 18, saw action, how better to encapsulate the
1996-97 NBA season than by letting some other numbers do the
1 Win in the Atlantic Division by the Celtics. It arrived,
mercifully, last Friday (119-113 over the Sixers), but 15-67
Boston still tied an NBA low for divisional victories.
2 Points scored by the Mavericks in the third period against the
Lakers on April 6--an NBA low for a quarter.
2 Points scored in overtime by the Hornets and the Nuggets on
Jan. 13--an NBA low for an overtime.
7 Three-pointers made by the Hawks' Henry James in just 10
minutes in the fourth period against the Nets on April 15--tying
a league mark for treys in a quarter.
12 Division titles won by Pat Riley--a league record for a
coach. This season, his 15th as a coach, Riley won the Atlantic
Division crown with the Heat, his third NBA team.
13 Triple-doubles by the Pistons' Grant Hill, which led the
league and moved Hill, after only three seasons in the NBA, into
ninth place alltime, with 24.
13 Losses to start the season by the Suns, who recovered to
finish 40-42 and make the playoffs.
26 Players used this season by the Mavericks--an NBA record.
34 Halftime lead blown by the Nuggets in Utah's 107-103 win on
Nov. 27--the largest such el foldo ever in an NBA game.
39 Fewer wins in 1996-97 than in 1995-96 by the 20-62 Spurs--the
largest one-year decline in NBA history.
40 Field goals attempted without shooting a free throw by the
Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon on Jan. 30 against the Nuggets. Even
without going to the foul line, the Dream scored 48 points.
57 Points scored by the Magic against the Cavaliers on Dec.
4--equaling the lowest total in the shot-clock era.
96.9 Average team score this season--the second lowest in the
1,041 Losses as a coach by the Clippers' Bill Fitch--an NBA
record. "Well," said a philosophical Fitch after losing number
1,000 on Nov. 21, "it's on to the next 1,000."