NBA, NHL Playoffs Test Cinderella Trend

The sporting world's infatuation with wacky playoffs demands new criteria for an "upset." Cinderella has been getting so much action lately that they should change her name to Madonna. The big

Apr 19, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

The sporting world's infatuation with wacky playoffs demands new criteria for an "upset." Cinderella has been getting so much action lately that they should change her name to Madonna.

The big league baseball playoffs have advanced five wild card clubs to the World Series in the past four years, with three of them winning it. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl after entering the playoffs as a wild card, then beating the top three AFC seeds on the road. The NHL playoffs are influenced lately by hot goaltenders who guide regular-season also-rans to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The NCAA basketball tournaments are built on upsets, especially this year, when Florida won the men's version and Maryland won the women's. 2006 will always be remembered as George Mason's year in the men's tournament. For the first time since 1980, no top seed made it to the men's Final Four.

Of the major playoff champions since last summer, only baseball's Chicago White Sox won so much as a division title during the regular season. The team that wins it all quite often isn't the best team, but the hottest.

It's spring, bringing us to another playoff season that will keep the winter pros busy until summer. By this time next week the NBA and NHL will be in the process of finally eliminating a half-dozen teams that other sports would bury during the regular season. Whether you haven't yet seen enough pretenders prosper or you'd rather see something really different, like sustained excellence in a champion, the two sets of playoffs give a choice.

The NHL, which went dark last season in a labor dispute, will once again make sports fans break out in sweats with the year's best hockey. The regular season says teams from Carolina, Ottawa, Detroit and Dallas are the frontrunners, but one might as well pick the Montreal Canadiens, who went to their final regular season game without clinching a playoff spot. Les Habs are the kind of story Lord Stanley's cup would love for its return to the athletic picture.

As February began, the Canadiens played barely better than even with the league. Goalie Jose Theodore was said to be wearing out his welcome, then hurt himself during the Olympic break. In early March, the Canadiens shipped Theodore to Colorado, which needed a frontline goaltender to complete its team.

By then the Canadiens were giving the majority of their goaltending starts to 30-year-old rookie Cristobal Huet, who has emerged to join the league leaders in shutouts and goals against average. Since the Theodore trade, Huet has lost only four times, igniting a rally that put Montreal into position to enter the playoffs.

If the force is with Huet, he can take the Canadiens past Carolina or Ottawa in the first round, throwing the NHL playoffs into their usual scramble when hot goalies take out division champs in the early playoffs. Before you know it, the tournament is wide open for the goalie no one can fool, many of the marquee teams are gone and maybe the cup starts over again in Montreal, the hockey capital.

In that case, not at all far-fetched, the hockey playoffs would fall to the form instantiated by almost every other championship. Many will be taken with the turn of events, and an announcer here and there might even probe the television audience for its belief in miracles. But if you're watching a lot of sports, it's more of the same, another Cinderella story.

Which is why one especially welcomes the NBA playoffs. No other championship playoffs can make this claim: To win the NBA championship requires not merely a hot team but an authentically good team, a team that proved its legitimacy through the season and climbed the hard way through the playoffs over a period of years before finally reaching the top.

We don't put up with cheap winners and Cinderellas in the NBA. It's not one-and-done like the pro football and college basketball playoffs. It's not like the pro hockey playoffs, where a goalie who stays sharp for a few weeks takes pressure off everyone else. It's not like the baseball playoffs, where clubs can compress their pitching staffs and play their older guys every day because of all the down time built into the postseason.

In fact, the NBA playoffs become an even tougher test of endurance than the regular season once the first round is done. At that point, the NBA team no longer plays three games per week half the time. It becomes four or five games per week.

If you're that upstart NBA team trying to make a mark, you've got a lot of work to do. Beat Detroit or San Antonio in the conference semifinals and you've accomplished something, but you haven't really beaten Detroit or San Antonio until you've done it four times. Nobody comes from nowhere in the NBA playoffs.

Playoff upsets are so much fun until we wander up to the next round, when the team that advanced by upset sinks way out of its depth. When that doesn't happen, when George Mason goes all the way to the Final Four or the Steelers win the Super Bowl, you say you were entertained, but you don't say you've seen a great champion in action.

Unlike other playoffs with their late-round mismatches and blowouts, we can count on the NBA to still be kicking with its best teams as they work deeper and deeper into the proceedings. We can predict, with almost certain confidence, that Detroit, Miami, New Jersey, Cleveland, San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver and Dallas, the best eight teams in the NBA, will be the final eight teams standing.

Every series will be good because every team is good. No surprises. The best team wins. Always.

You don't win in the NBA playoffs without being the best team. Watching and playing the NBA playoffs is finding out who the best team is. A streak of luck will carry a team for a few games, but that isn't enough to win even a single round.

Prediction: Detroit and San Antonio will meet in the NBA Finals for the second straight year. Cinderella will be watching, not playing.