As the first quarter of the NBA winds down, the contenders emerge

Miami Heat president Pat Riley has a long-standing belief: After 20 games, the team knows who it is.

he is right. And after 20 matches, the title contenders are also known.

Think of this as the end of the first quarter of the season. This is where the NBA is now, as teams are starting to approach the 20-game mark. There’s still a lot of basketball to play, but 20 games proved – almost without fail – to be more than adequate for the sample size when determining which teams have a legitimate chance at the tournament.

The numbers show it. Teams know that, too.

“We’re looking at 20 games,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said. “It can stretch a little bit if you have injuries, but for the most part, who you are and who you are is pretty much set. You’ve been through the league to a certain extent. … You kind of have an idea of ​​who you are, where you need to improve, your strengths from a standpoint. numbers, and then the players pretty much have an idea of ​​what kind of team it’s going to be.”

In 2005-2006, Miami was the 13th best in the league with 20 games played. The Heat was just 10-10, though few knew at the time that Riley was poised to return as coach. In 1997-98, Chicago—which then won five of its last seven league titles—was 11th in the NBA by 20 games played. The Bulls looked bored and were 12-8.

These are the only two instances of an eventual NBA champion not being in the top 10 by scoring depth for a season. (In fairness, there were several seasons without a 10-team comeback in the early days, but play along.)

That’s bad news for a lot of teams right now.

Each of the last 16 champions has had no worse than the fifth best record over 20 matches.

Golden State last season, the best record through 20 games. The 2018-19 Toronto Raptors and 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers both had best records over 20 games. 2014-15 and 2016-17 Warriors, best record over 20 games.

They have all won titles.

That’s good news for the Boston Celtics, who are on track to have the best record in the NBA at the 20-game mark this season. This isn’t great news for the Warriors, who are 8-10-11 in the West — but they’re still within striking distance of everyone else. This isn’t great news either for the Heat, which finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season and are now 7-11 with a slew of key players injured.

“We need to know what it takes to win and figure out what everyone needs differently and more consistently,” said Golden State guard Stephen Curry. “Forget the road record, you can’t even find a sustainable period of success when habits start to form and we’re in a position where we feel good about ourselves. We’re still searching and chasing a bit.”

The Celtics don’t chase. They are among those being pursued. The team with the best record through 20 matches won the title 34 times in the first 76 seasons of the league.

For a coach of a team considered a popular pick to win the NBA title, Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzola, who transitioned in less than two months from being an assistant coach, to the person in charge following Ime Udoka’s suspension, said. “And our players are bought to make each other better if they have the ball or not. It’s great to watch.”

The Celtics should be the first team not to strike anyone out. They were 10-10 over 20 games last season and ended up in the NBA Finals, where they fell to Golden State in six games.

Besides, marches from near the middle to the summit have happened before.

The San Antonio Spurs, 2002-2003, had the 9th best finish after 20 games. Tottenham were eighth between 1998 and 1999, and both clubs won titles. During Michael Jordan’s first championship season, 1990-91, the Bulls finished 10th in the league after 20 games.

And in the first two seasons of the NBA, the first two champions started slowly. The 1946-47 Philadelphia Warriors team was the fifth-best out of 11 teams through 20 games. A year later, the Baltimore Bulls were the fourth-best team out of eight.

And this year, let’s face it, mediocrity reigns supreme. It’s still early. Not enough time has passed for anyone to truly separate themselves. A five-match winning streak could see some clubs move up the standings. A five-game slide could send some teams into a free fall.

So, maybe this is the season when the team can buck the trend, pull off a slower-than-expected start and become competitive after all.

But in games, the team that leads after the first quarter usually wins.

In seasons, you tend to go the same way. The first quarter is coming to an end. If the team is going to start the race, that would be the time to start the race.


Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for the Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)


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