Imagining the NBA One Game Playoff

There’s been a lot of talk lately about things that need to be changed about the NBA, not the least of which include reducing the schedule. Well, we here at The Bonus are going against the grain with an idea that would potentially add a game to the schedule: a one game tiebreaker Playoff.

With the final spots in the Eastern Conference Playoffs still not sorted out, and with baseball’s recent return, I’ve been wondering how an old baseball tradition might work in the NBA. Now, to be honest, I don’t even know if Major League Baseball even does one game tiebreakers anymore, what with their recently expanded Playoff format that features two Wild Card teams. But for decades, when two teams were tied for a Playoff spot after 162 games (or 154 if it was long enough ago), the two teams would hash it out in a tiebreaker Playoff.

The potential for drama was often high, and these tiebreakers had their share of memorable moments. The famous Shot Heard ‘Round The World came in the 1951 National League tiebreaker between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. Regular ol’ Bucky Dent became Bucky “Fucking” Dent when he socked a home run over the Green Monster in Fenway Park to help the Yankees defeat the Red Sox in the American League’s 1978 tiebreaker. Most of all, I like the idea of two tied teams having to settle the score once and for all in a single game to get all the marbles.

With more Playoff teams in basketball, it’d be silly to do this if there were two teams tied for the third seed in their conference. On the other hand, if there were two teams tied for that eighth and final Playoff spot, I say let them duke it out in a winner-take-all showdown to see who gets to move on and be slaughtered by the top seed in the Playoffs.

Now, we wouldn’t want our potential eight seed to be entering the Playoffs on a back-to-back, which is why our hypothetical NBA tiebreaker Playoff would take place on the Friday before the Playoffs begin, with the winner of the tiebreaker facing off against their conference’s one seed on Sunday. The current tiebreakers would be used to determine which team had home court for the one game tiebreaker. Using this season as an example: if the Trail Blazers and Nuggets were tied for the eight seed after all is said and done, Portland would host the tiebreaker based on their better record against Denver. That way, the regular season series still matters, and we all get one extra tense Playoff game to enjoy.

Taking this concept an extra step, and since I love wasting time exploring the annals of NBA history on Basketball-Reference, I’m going back to 1984, the first year the NBA introduced the current Playoff format, and finding all of the matchups that would have happened had the NBA decided to go along with my ridiculous one game Playoff idea. And since I especially love wasting time, I’m going to simulate them over at What If Sports (which isn’t perfect, but hey, this is what they’re here for) and wonder about what might have been. Let’s see what happens…

1987-88 Eastern Conference

Washington Bullets, New York Knicks & Indiana Pacers (38-44)

Our first example immediately tests my idea with a three way tie, starting at the 7th seed. We could have a round-robin tournament to settle it out, but let’s go ahead and use each team’s overall record against the other two to find out who gets the 7th seed.

Washington (7-5)
New York (6-5)
Indiana (4-7)

Congratulations to the Washington Bullets for qualifying for the 7th seed. That leaves the Knicks and the Pacers to battle for the 8th and final spot. Since the Knicks went 3-2 against the Pacers this year, they get home court in our very first fake one game Playoff…

The Simulation

New York 102, Indiana 66

Jesus Christ! 24 points and 14 rebounds from Patrick Ewing were more than enough to lead the Knicks over a pathetic Pacers effort which saw none of the players reach double figures. This does not help my argument that these one game Playoffs would be exciting and fun. Anyway, the win gets the Knicks a first round matchup with the Boston Celtics, which is what happened in real life, with the Celtics winning the series, 3-1.

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Even the Knicks look like they expected a better fake game.

1989-90 Western Conference

Houston Rockets & Seattle Supersonics (41-41)

Uh oh, the Rockets and Supersonics split their season series at 2-2. Since they were in different divisions, their records against the Western Conference will decide fake home court advantage. Houston went 28-28 against the rest of the West, while Seattle went 26-30, so let’s head down to Texas for what should be a fake basketball game for the ages…

The Simulation

Seattle 110, Houston 108

Now this is more like it! The Supersonics snatch a close win to advance to the Playoffs, and on the road, nonetheless! According to the play-by-play that What if Sports generated, Michael Cage blocked a potential game tying shot from Hakeem Olajuwon at the buzzer to seal the victory. I’m not sure I believe that would happen in real life, but, this isn’t about real life. Despite having his last shot blocked, Hakeem finishes with 32 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 blocks and 3 steals, falling short despite the monster effort. Now that’s something I do believe would have happened to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets in 1990. Sharpshooting Dale Ellis led Seattle with 27 points and 7 rebounds, while Xavier McDaniel contributed 20 and 8. Michael Cage, along with the big block at the buzzer, chipped in with 11 boards. Seattle replaces Houston as the 8th seed, and goes on to face the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that beat them all four times they met that season.

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Dale Ellis in the ensuing fake first round series between the Lakers and the Sonics in the fake 1990 NBA Playoffs.

1991-92 Eastern Conference

Miami Heat & Atlanta Hawks (38-44)

In real life, the Miami Heat made the Playoffs for the first time in their franchise’s history, while the Hawks faltered thanks to a mid-season injury to Dominique Wilkins, which kept him out for the rest of the year. Of course, What if Sports has Dominique, who only played 42 games that year before being lost for the season, in the starting lineup for the Hawks. That being said, none of the rest of this stuff actually happened, so let’s say that he heroically came back to play in the one game Playoff, which will be in Miami…

The Simulation

Miami 109, Atlanta 106

Glen Rice and Steve Smith each scored 23 points to lead the Heat past the Hawks. Rony Seikaly added 15 points and 11 rebounds. Playing on one leg, Dominique Wilkins submitted a gutty 27 point, 14 rebound, 5 assist performance, and Kevin Willis added 17 points and 14 rebounds, but the Hawks fell short. After a close win, the Heat still make their first Playoff appearance on schedule. Unfortunately for them, it’s against Michael Jordan and the Bulls, who swept them.

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Sorry, Glen Rice, you’re still getting swept by the Bulls.

1992-93 Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers & Orlando Magic (41-41)

For the second consecutive season, we’re going to the Eastern Conference, with the Pacers becoming the first team to appear in two fake one game tiebreakers. Indiana and Orlando split their season series, so the next tiebreaker is their records against the conference, where they both come in at 27-29, so I have to see how they did against the rest of the Playoff eligible teams in their own conference. I’ve come this far, so, here goes…

Indiana (15-19)
Orlando (15-19)

You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me! The next tiebreaker is their records against the Playoff teams from the opposite conference…

Indiana (7-16)
Orlando (6-17)

Finally. After all that, we’re going to Indiana for this fake showdown to see who gets the final spot in the 1993 Eastern Conference Playoffs. This better be a damn good fake game…

The Simulation

Indiana 114, Orlando 105

Damn, I was really hoping we’d get to see Rookie Shaq move on to the Playoffs. Instead, history doesn’t change. Detlef Schrempf sprung for 22 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists to lead the Pacers. Reggie Miller scored 24 and dished out 6 assists, while Rik Smits added 20 points and 8 rebounds. Rookie Shaq did show up to pour in 30 points and grab 19 rebounds (on 14-19 shooting), Dennis Scott scored 21, and Scott Skiles had 18 points and 13 assists. It wasn’t enough to change history, however, and the Pacers advance to the 1993 Playoffs where they lose to the New York Knicks in the First Round, 3-1.

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Detlef Schrempf’s great all-around effort in the fake 1993 tiebreaker would have earned him at least one more guest appearance on Parks & Rec.

1998-99 Western Conference

Minnesota Timberwolves & Seattle Supersonics (25-25)

The previous season, the Knicks and Nets tied for seventh in the East, but since both would make the Playoffs anyway, no one game tiebreaker was needed. That brings us to the legendary lockout shortened season of 1999. Widely regarded as the worst season ever, it stands to reason that the Timberwolves and Sonics (making their second tiebreaker appearance!) will give us the worst one game tiebreaker ever, though the inaugural one in 1988 set quite a high bar of lousiness. Since the Timberwolves went 2-1 against the Sonics in 1999, we’re heading to Minnesota to find out…

The Simulation

Minnesota 96, Seattle 85

Though certainly not the most inspiring simulation we’ve seen thus far, Kevin Garnett certainly took care of business, scoring 20 points and grabbing 19 rebounds, with Joe Smith chipping in 12 and 10. Terrell Brandon dropped 11 dimes for the T-Wolves. Hersey Hawkins led the Sonics with 17 points and 6 rebounds. Gary Payton had 14 points and 14 assists, and Detlef Schrempf, not in his first one game tiebreaker rodeo, contributed 11 points and 11 boards. I’m sure like the 1999 season itself, this fake game was awful and forgettable. Anyway, the Timberwolves, as they did in real life, advance to the Playoffs where they lose 3-1 to the Spurs.

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Kevin Garnett certainly would have appreciated being able to add this fake game to his early Playoff resume.

2004-05 Eastern Conference

New Jersey Nets (42-40) & Cleveland Cavaliers (42-40)

Our first one game tiebreaker of the aughts results in none other than LeBron James trying to make the Playoffs for the first time in his career against a Nets team that had been around the block by that point. I think anyone would have loved the opportunity to see what young LeBron could do in a one game Playoff. Let’s head out to The Meadowlands and see what fake young LeBron does…

The Simulation

Cleveland 103, New Jersey 94

As you might expect, Jason Kidd did all he could for the Nets, submitting the first tiebreaker triple-double, going for 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Vince Carter added 22 points and 9 rebounds, while Richard Jefferson went for 20 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Brian Scalabrine, in perhaps the most outlandish results that these simulations have produced, chipped in 13 points and 9 rebounds.

LeBron was able to lead his hometown team to a rare one game tiebreaker road victory, just the second we’ve seen so far (the first being Seattle’s fake win on the fake road back in fake 1990). LeBron went for 30 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists to fake clinch his first Playoff berth. Drew Gooden helped out with 17 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks. In real life it was the Nets going to the Playoffs, but something tells me you would have enjoyed seeing LeBron do his thing instead, with the added bonus of him keeping Vince Carter out of the Playoffs after he forced his way out of Toronto. This is the sort of satisfaction that only the one game tiebreaker can provide. In this alternate universe, the Cavs move on to face the Heat, a matchup that would have seen young LeBron taking on Shaq and young Dwyane Wade, two of his future teammates.

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I mean, that Heat team would have killed this Cavs team, but it would have been fun anyway.

2014-15 Eastern Conference

Brooklyn Nets & Indiana Pacers (38-44)

An entire decade has past since our last one game tiebreaker. But finally, our longest drought is over thanks in part to the Indiana Pacers, making their third appearance in our fake tiebreakers. They’ll take on the Nets, who turned up a decade ago in our last tiebreaker. This was the year that Paul George missed all but six games due to his gruesome leg injury. Since that’s not nearly enough to register in the What if Sports database, we’re going to say that the Pacers played it safe and kept him out of this one, despite his late season return to their lineup that helped them even get into this position. Instead of the yucky Meadowlands this time, we’re headed to Brooklyn…

The Simulation

Indiana 101, Brooklyn 100

Damn! According to the simulated play-by-play, a CJ Miles three pointer with two seconds left gave the Pacers their 101-100 victory in what I’m sure was as memorable a fake game as a fake game can be. Brook Lopez led the stunned home team with 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Thaddeus Young chipped in with 14 points and 10 rebounds, though he did miss a potential game winner at the buzzer, per the generated play-by-play. Roy Hibbert led the Pacers with 21 points and 9 rebounds which seems completely unbelievable now, but trust me, this one is plausible (unlike Scal’s 13 point, 9 rebound effort back in 2005, get outta here). This fake Pacers victory would have saved us from having to watch any more of that lousy Nets team, who made the Playoffs in real life and lost a horrendous series to the Hawks, 4-2. It also creates a fake world in which Paul George’s heroic comeback towards the end of the season propelled the Pacers into the Playoffs but, alas, it was just not meant to be.

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If I told you that Roy Hibbert was a two time NBA All Star, would you believe that was fake as well?

2014-2015 Western Conference

New Orleans Pelicans & Oklahoma City Thunder (45-37)

That’s right! After a ten year absence, the one game tiebreaker is back and for the first time, in both conferences. This was a bad year for injuries, as Kevin Durant was limited to just 27 games that year, leaving Russell Westbrook to shoulder the Thunder’s burden alone. In 2017 that’s an everyday fact of life for the team. Back then, this was an enormous disappointment, and Westbrook still almost dragged OKC into the Playoffs. Now, we get a chance to see what he might do in a one game Playoff which, let’s face it, is pretty damn enticing. It doesn’t hurt that it’s against Anthony Davis and his Pelicans, a team that went 3-1 against OKC that year, and will host our fake tiebreaker. Like Dominique Wilkins before him, Kevin Durant is still listed in the What if Sports staring lineup, so let’s just all agree that he decided to suit up for the one game tiebreaker, following in the fake footsteps of fake Dominique…

The Simulation

New Orleans 106, Oklahoma City 78

What the hell happened!? Ryan Anderson scored 20 off the bench to lead the Pelicans, adding 5 rebounds along the way. Omer Asik scored 6 points and grabbed 14 off the glass. Get out of my face, What if Sports! Anthony Davis went HAM and scored 18, grabbed 9 boards, had 4 assists and blocked 8 shots. Meanwhile, a gallant Kevin Durant scored 22 points, but Russell Westbrook had just 13 points and 10 assists—quite pedestrian by his current standards. Enes Kanter went for 11 points and 14 rebounds, but OKC shot just 35.7% from the field and got to the free throw line just seven times as a team. This makes me angry. We might have a new winner for the worst one game tiebreaker. What do the Pelicans get as a reward? A First Round meeting with the Golden State Warriors, which is what happened in real life. The Pelicans were swept.

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Ryan Anderson reading the above paragraph.

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of this hypothetical journey. Those are all the instances since 1984 that would call for a one game tiebreaker. It’s a fascinating alternative to decide the 8th seed, if and when the situation calls for it. Of course, I’m selfish and want to see one extra basketball game. Is this something the NBA would actually consider? I’d have to guess not, especially since they’d have to squeeze in an extra game between the end of the regular season and the Playoffs, and they certainly would rather see everyone get their rest. Was this a giant waste of time that was fun for only me? Also yes, but it did yield some interesting things to think about. Instead of going through several different levels of tiebreakers like we did for 1993’s battle between the Pacers and Magic, why not just let them play? Just imagine LeBron in 2005 trying to make his first Playoff appearance, or the Thunder and Pacers at the end of 2015 each trying to salvage a lost season by sneaking into the Playoffs. Then there’s the inherent pressure that an elimination game provides, combined with the rarity of the situation. It’s only occurred eight times since 1984, so why not give it a shot and see what happens?

Tonight, we might see the Pacers (fake tiebreaker veterans), Bulls and Heat all finish 41-41. It’s already exciting to find out who’s going to finish where, but imagine there’s a potential one game Playoff on Friday night looming over everything. After starting 11-30 and fighting their way to a chance to make the Playoffs, if the Heat finish tied with the Bulls for the 8th spot tonight, they’re not making it in. They’d deserve a chance to punch their ticket to the postseason in a winner-take-all against the Bulls as far as I’m concerned. It’d be a shame to see them win tonight against the Wizards, only to have the Bulls beat the inexplicably resting Nets and make the Playoffs. If they end up tied, they should get to battle it out themselves, not have to worry about whether the Nets are going to play all of their guys.

Shoutout to Basketball Reference and What if Sports, which were obviously used extensively for this article.

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Author: tomeagher

Watching too much basketball.

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