The more I watch the NBA playoffs, the more apparent it is to me that late-season performance is a vastly more important factor than we've been led to believe. For instance, in the last three seasons, Detroit, San Antonio and Miami all made runs after the All-Star break that were much more impressive than their full-season results.
And since a lot of observers (ahem) didn't account for this fully, they ended up underestimating two of those teams' chances in the postseason (San Antonio in 2005 being the exception; didn't take a rocket scientist to pick that one).
But just in case I didn't quite get the point, the basketball gods hammered it over my head in the first round of the playoffs this season. New Jersey, which finished strong, knocked out Toronto, which didn't. Miami, which finished badly, was swept with shocking ease by Chicago.
And then there was Golden State. Its win over Dallas would have been easier to see coming, perhaps, if we had taken more note of just how well the Warriors had played since Baron Davis came back on March 5.
I've already beaten that point into the ground, but I failed until this weekend to notice the opposite half of that argument -- that as good as Dallas' season was, the Mavs didn't exactly finish with a flourish.
In particular, something caught my attention that I don't think has been discussed much, if at all. A friend e-mailed me after the series and said that Dirk Nowitzki's only possible excuse was that he was hurt and not telling anyone. Well, I went digging through the info on his player card, and remembered that Nowitzki did indeed hurt his ankle on March 28 against Milwaukee.
No, I'm not launching an after-the-fact defense of Dirk. Regardless of how he felt, pretty much everybody is less than 100 percent this time of year, and besides, he couldn't have been hurt as badly as Baron Davis was in Game 6.
Instead, my point is that this research caused me to stumble upon something vastly more enlightening -- the fact that Nowitzki wasn't nearly as good after the All-Star break as he was in the first half of the season. Check out his season splits, for instance, and look at that swan dive his numbers took in March and April. Better yet, go through his game log and look for the games with more than 30 points -- you'll notice there are 14 of them before the end of February, and none afterward.
Seen in that context, Nowitzki's failure to deliver in the Golden State series wasn't some colossal collar job. It was the continuation of a second half that fell far short of what he accomplished in a sparkling first half, especially in the month of January. Whether it was a bad ankle or bad feng shui isn't important to me, but what is important is that we could have seen this coming if we had focused more on year-end play. Between Dirk's spring slump and the Warriors' hot finish, the result would have been a whole lot less surprising.
So let's learn from our previous mistakes. Today, I'm doing a reseeding of the remaining eight playoff teams, based on what we know about how they finished the season and how they performed in the first round of the playoffs.