The Thunder’s close save with the Rockets — a 105-102 victory Wednesday night that gave OKC a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series — was a little close for comfort. The Thunder led by 15 points in the fourth quarter, then Houston went on a 21-2 and led 95-91 with 31/2 minutes left, before the Thunder rallied.
That’s against an overmatched, short-handed opponent, which is often the case in a series between a No. 1 seed and a No. 8 seed. So it got me to thinking. How often does an NBA Finalist have such a first-round game at home? Is it rare? Is the Thunder playing like that a sign that it’s not Finals-caliber.
To find something similar, I had to go all the way back to … 2012. The Thunder won the Western Conference last season despite opening the playoffs with not one but two survival games at home against seventh-seeded Dallas, which entered with a 36-30 record, a winning percentage of .545 that actually is slightly worse than Houston’s this season (.549).
Last season against Dallas, the Thunder opened with victories of 99-98 (Kevin Durant hit a game-winner) and 102-99 (Jason Terry missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer). And then the Thunder rolled. In 2011, the Thunder beat Denver 100-97 in Game 5 at Chesapeake Arena, after trailing 91-82 with 31/2 minutes left. Of course, that Thunder team didn’t win the West. It lost to Dallas in the West finals.
So I kept looking for other NBA Finalists who had a nail-biter at home in the first round. How about the 2010 Lakers, who in Game 2 against the Thunder survived 95-92?
And the 2009 Magic, which lost Game 1 at home to sixth-seeded Philadelphia 100-98 before winning the East.
There were no nail-biters in 2008, though the 66-win Celtics had to go seven games to dispatch Atlanta in the first round.
In 2007, the Spurs won the title, but they lost their playoff opener to the sixth-seeded Nuggets 95-89 in San Antonio.
In 2005, the Spurs won the title, but they, too, lost their playoff opener, this time to the seventh-seeded Nuggets 93-87 in San Antonio.
In 2004, the Lakers won the West but opened the playoffs with a 72-71 squeaker at home over seventh-seeded Houston. That same year, the third-seeded Pistons won the NBA title but lost Game 2 of their first-round series at home to Milwaukee 92-88.
In 2003, the Spurs won the NBA title but opened the playoffs with a 95-94 home loss to eight-seeded Phoenix. Go back and check out the Spurs. San Antonio won NBA titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007 — and lost their playoff opener all three times, despite being an overwhelming favorite.
That same 2003 season, the Spurs beat the Netropolitans for the title. New Jersey was a second-seed yet lost Game 2 of its opening series 88-85 to Milwaukee.
In 2002, the Nets made the NBA Finals — and lost their playoff opener as a No. 1 seed, 89-83 to Indiana.
In 2001, the 76ers made the NBA Finals — and lost their playoff opener 79-78 to eighth-seeded Indiana.
In 2000, the Pacers made the NBA Finals — and top-seeded Indiana survived Milwaukee 88-85 in Game 1 of their opening-round series and then lost Game 2 104-91.
So that just goes back to the turn of the century, and the playoffs are full of eventual NBA Finalists who had their opening-round struggles.