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Going into the playoffs, most analysts look at regular-season record to judge the ability of a team to advance to the finals and win.
If they have managed to secure the top seed in the conference, many analysts mistakenly surmise that they have the inside track to advance to the NBA Finals. After all, if they have won this many games in the regular season and will host every playoff series leading up to the NBA Finals, surely they will continue their winning ways in the postseason.
However, recent NBA history has shown that working hard to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs does not guarantee postseason success, even for championship-tested veteran teams.
For example, look at 2006. The Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs were a year removed from their epic seven-game war in the NBA Finals the previous year and both teams came into the next season on a mission. The Spurs won 63 games (securing the top seed in the West and home-court advantage throughout the West playoffs) and the Pistons won 64 (securing home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs).
Every prognosticator was predicting both teams would repeat the previous year's finals. They were experienced, they were deep and they had each won a title in the last two years. It was an easy championship prediction. But it didn't happen. The Spurs lost in the second round to the Mavericks and the Pistons fell to the Heat in the conference finals.
Being the top-seeded team is an accomplishment, but other than the Lakers (which have advanced to the finals as the top seed every time in the Kobe Bryant era), holding the No. 1 seed offers no guarantees of postseason success.
Since 1999, the No. 1 seed in the East is only 4-7 in NBA Finals appearances that same year. The West has been better about holding onto home-court advantage, going 6-6 during that span, but that's mostly because the Lakers are 4-0 as the top seed since 1999 in finals appearances.
So why does a team play so well in the regular season and then struggle in the playoffs?
Part of it is style of play. The Phoenix Suns had several excellent regular seasons in the 2000s because their up-and-down brand of basketball would overwhelm some opponents in the regular season. But it did not translate well to the slower-paced format of NBA playoff basketball. They always lost to the Spurs, which thrived playing that style.
Other reasons are injuries and exhaustion. It can be extremely tiring to play well enough all season to win 64 games. The energy expended is enormous as many teams cannot maintain that pace in the regular season and playoffs.
Matchups are another factor. Dallas won 67 games in 2007, but there was one team they could not matchup with and that was the Warriors. If the Mavericks had faced the Kings or Clippers in the first round, maybe they get to the finals, but facing their worst possible matchup was deadly in the postseason.