Losing One's Favor

Griffel Ball

"This is unfair," one fan said.

"Seattle was the best team in the league this year," said another.

"I can't believe that we won't be playing [today]," Supersonic Nate McMillan moaned.

How the mighty have fallen (and not only in basketball).

The past two weeks have seen two number-one teams (Seattle Supersonics, Detroit Red Wings), two number-two squads (Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames) and two number-four teams (San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic) upset in the first round of the NBA and NHL playoffs.

Some fans and players have called foul (no pun intended) that the best teams are out of the dance, but the only people to blame are the players and/or coaches on the losing teams themselves.

Basketball's first round is a best-of-five format, while hockey's is a best-of-seven, so the team with a better record going in has a much higher statistical percentage of winning. For example, if a team has a 60 percent chance of taking a one-game series, its chances to win a five-game series go up to more than 68 percent and more then 71 percent in a best-of-seven. Thus, a bad call or a bad break shouldn't be used as an excuse for a better team losing a series.

When the underdog comes out on top, then that team usually will have done something to earn it. And in the four major professional sports, the fans remember the teams that come out on top in the postseason, not the regular season.

Otherwise, chants of "1940" wouldn't be shouted at the New York Rangers every time they're on the road. Also, the Sonics would be remembered for their 63-win season rather than as the answer to the trivia question--"Who is the first number-one-seeded team in the NBA to lose in the first round to a number-eight seed?"

But the Sonics cannot complain about bad breaks or bad playoff formats. They had a 2-0 lead in their series against Denver and had to win one of the final three games.

And they couldn't.

Look at the once-mighty Penguins--Mario Lemieux and company played very poorly as a team, while the Washington Capitals gelled. The result--a 4-2 first-round exit for Pittsburgh, the team that had won the Northeast Division this year and the 1991 and 1992 Stanley Cups.

It's hard to tell why so many top teams have gotten an early jump on their golf games this spring, but for starters, the reason is often the way a team enters the playoffs. Many of the top teams have known they would be in the playoffs during the last few weeks of the regular season and thus don't play their hardest basketball or hockey down the stretch.

Whether the top players are being rested and can't turn it on come playoff time or whether the team can't get its mental focus again can turn a great team into a mediocre one.

That aspect, combined with the fact that the poorer team in the regular season quite often has to play at its best just to make the playoffs, can give the underdog that extra edge it needs to pull off a playoff upset.

Look at the Supersonics, who had clinched the NBA's best record with a couple of weeks to go in the season, while the Nuggets had to play their best basketball to edge the Los Angeles Lakers for the last playoff berth.

The San Jose Sharks were in a fight for the last playoff position in the Western conference while the Red Wings were the first Western team into the hockey playoffs, and it was the Sharks that had the extra bit in the playoffs.

So, whether or not teams the Sonics or Red Wings came into the playoffs complacent--thinking that by virtue of their stellar regular-season record they would naturally win their series--teams like the Nuggets and Sharks have shown once and for all why the playoffs are decided on the court and ice and not in the locker- rooms or newspapers.