Before the Philadelphia 76ers were blown out at home 107-91 by the Boston Celtics Wednesday night, the 2012 NBA Playoffs found its Eastern Conference matchups in an interesting position.
Prior to Wednesday’s lopsided win, the Indiana Pacers had brought the Eastern Conference Semifinals into a four-way tie with their 78-75 victory over the Miami Heat down in South Beach on Tuesday. What’s more, both the 76ers and Pacers had stolen home court advantage from their favored opponents, making their paths to the Conference Finals a far more likely scenario.
And while their offensive ineptitude cropped up once again in Game 3, the 76ers may have the luxury of going back to Beantown with the series tied 2-2, provided they can go into their next bout with the Celtics playing the same basketball they were playing in their first two meetings.
What is most interesting about these playoff matchups, though, is the prospect of both the eighth seeded 76ers and third seeded Pacers advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Since 1984, when the NBA converted to the current 16-team playoff format, seven third seeded teams have reached the NBA Finals, only two of which have been from the Eastern Conference. Of those seven teams, four have actually gone on to win the championship, the only Eastern Conference representative being the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
In short, the Pacers can become only the third Eastern Conference third seed to advance to the Finals.
Meanwhile, though the Celtics are seeded even lower than the Pacers at the fourth seed, the more interesting prospect is this 76ers team, which has the chance to become only the second eighth seed to ever reach the Conference Finals (the New York Knicks did it in 1999, and later became the only eighth seed to make to the next round, where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs).
Pair this with the 76ers equally lousy and periodically nonexistent offense, the Eastern Conference Finals may be a very long—and painful—series to watch.
To make the matchup even less enticing (from not only an entertainment standpoint, but also one of business) neither team has a marketable superstar to sell the public on. Will fans really flock to their televisions to see if Andre Iguodala can win his first NBA title? Or Danny Granger? Would anyone want to watch a series with teams that haven’t even been able to average 90 points per game in the playoffs?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this matchup—outside of the arbitrary third/eighth seed thing—is that it is so very uninteresting. There is virtually nothing compelling about either team outside of their respective fan bases. It would be far more entertaining (and profitable) to see a series between two teams with equally pressing claims for a Finals berth like, say, the Heat and Celtics. Will LeBron James finally get his ring? Will the Big 3 in Boston be able to squeeze one more championship out of their old, battered bodies?
Now, let it be said that I normally have a strong aversion to conspiracy theory, but this would be a perfect opportunity for David Stern and the league to pull something funky a la the Game 6 debacle from the 2002 Los Angeles Lakers/Sacramento Kings matchup. I’m certainly not crying foul (terrible pun not intended) about the officiating so far (even if many thought refereeing in Game 1 of the Pacers/Heat series was shaky), but I also would not be surprised if we saw some more questionable calls lean towards the more popular franchises, especially if one series looks like a definite upset. If you’re Stern, why not at least try to salvage half the Eastern Conference and have the Celtics or Heat push through to the Finals?
And what if the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most under-watched and under-appreciated franchises in the NBA, also slip into the Finals? The NBA would lose even more money with a Spurs/76ers or Spurs/Pacers Finals.
Again, while I generally don’t believe in fixed or influenced games—especially after Tim Donaghy—the NBA is an entertainment business after all. And if you’re the NBA, and you have the potential to lose millions of dollars because of the wrong matchup, don’t you do whatever possible to keep it from happening?
Whatever the case may be once the Conference Finals come about, these semifinals will be interesting to watch not just because the underdogs have a chance. It will also be interesting to see, if those upsets really have the potential to become reality, if the league would even take that risk in the first place.