Analysis: As NBA’s first quarter ends, the contenders emerge

Nov 21, 2022, 11:45 AM | Updated: Nov 22, 2022, 1:47 am
Boston Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, left, speaks with guard Marcus Smart, right, in the...

Boston Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, left, speaks with guard Marcus Smart, right, in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

              Boston Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla sits on the bench in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
            
              Boston Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, left, speaks with guard Marcus Smart, right, in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
            
              Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after a 3-point basket by teammate Klay Thompson during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks in San Francisco, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
            
              Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after a 3-point basket by guard Klay Thompson (11) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks in San Francisco, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Miami Heat President Pat Riley has a longstanding belief: After 20 games, a team knows its identity.

He’s right. And after 20 games, title contenders are usually known as well.

Think of this as the end of the season’s first quarter. That’s basically where the NBA is right now, with teams starting to approach the 20-game mark. There’s much basketball left to be played, but 20 games has proven — almost without fail — to be more than enough of a sample size when determining which teams have a legitimate shot at a championship.

The numbers show it. The teams know it, too.

“We look at 20 games,” Phoenix coach Monty Williams said. “It can get stretched out a bit if you have injuries, but for the most part, your identity and who you are is pretty much set. You’ve gone through the league to a degree. … You kind of have an idea of who you are, where you need to improve, your strengths from a numbers standpoint, and then the players pretty much have an idea of what kind of team you’re going to be.”

In 2005-06, Miami had the league’s 13th-best record through 20 games; the Heat were just 10-10, though few knew at the time Riley was about to return as coach. In 1997-98, Chicago — then winners of five of the league’s last seven titles– was 11th-best in the NBA through 20 games; the Bulls looked bored and were 12-8.

Those are the only two instances of an eventual NBA champion not being in the top 10 in terms of record that deep into a season. (In fairness, there were a few seasons without 10 teams back in the early days, but play along.)

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

Each of the last 16 champions have had no worse than the fifth-best record through 20 games.

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

They all won titles.

That’s good news for the Boston Celtics, who are well on their way to having the best record in the NBA at the 20-game mark this season. That’s not great news for the Warriors, who are 8-10 and 11th in the West — but are still well within striking distance of everyone. That’s also not great news for the Heat, who finished with the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference last season and are 7-11 now with a slew of key players hurt.

“We need to figure out what it’s going to take to win and figure out what everybody needs to do differently, more consistently,” Golden State guard Stephen Curry said. “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’re feeling good about ourselves. We’re still searching and chasing a little bit.”

The Celtics aren’t chasing. They’re among those being chased. The team with the best record through 20 games has won the title 34 times in the league’s first 76 seasons.

“You have to be able to make each other better whether you have the ball or not,” said Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla, who in the span of less than two months has gone from being an assistant coach, to the person in charge after the Ime Udoka suspension, to the coach of a team that’s a popular pick to win the NBA title. “And our guys are bought into making each other better if they have the ball or not. It’s cool to watch.”

The Celtics should be the first team not to write off anyone. They were 10-10 through 20 games last season and wound up in the NBA Finals, where they fell to Golden State in six games.

Besides, rallies from near the middle to the top have happened before.

The 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs were ninth-best after 20 games; the 1998-99 Spurs were eighth-best, and both those clubs went on to win titles. During Michael Jordan’s first championship season, 1990-91, the Bulls were 10th in the league after 20 games.

And in the NBA’s initial two seasons, the first two champions got off to slow starts. The 1946-47 Philadelphia Warriors were fifth-best out of 11 teams through 20 games; a year later, the Baltimore Bulls were fourth-best out of eight teams.

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

So, maybe this will be the season when a team can buck the trend, shake off a slower-than-anticipated start and become a contender after all.

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

In seasons, it tends to go the same way. And the first quarter is about to end. If a team is going to get into the race, this would be a good time to get into gear.

___

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

___

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

A migrant laborer paints The Pearl Monument, a sculpture depicting an open oyster shell with runnin...
Associated Press

Qatar says worker deaths for World Cup ‘between 400 and 500’

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — A top Qatari official involved in the country’s World Cup organization has put the number of worker deaths for the tournament “between 400 and 500” for the first time, a drastically higher number than any other previously offered by Doha. The comment by Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary-general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee […]
1 day ago
Australia's fans celebrate after winning the World Cup group D soccer match between Tunisia and Aus...
Associated Press

Australia plays Denmark for last 16 spot at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Scenes of wild celebrations featuring flares and fire are not the norm in Australia after World Cup matches. Yet that was exactly what happened in Melbourne’s Fed Square after the Socceroos beat Tunisia on Saturday for just their third win in 18 World Cup matches. Now, Australia is after something even […]
1 day ago
Players warm up during a training session of Mexico's national soccer team in Jor, Qatar, Sunday, N...
Associated Press

Mexico faces early World Cup exit against Saudi Arabia

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Mexico is going to have to suddenly find goals — and perhaps even several of them — to extend its knockout-round streak at the World Cup. Mexico has reached the round of 16 at the last seven World Cups, tied for the longest current streak with Brazil. But in Qatar, El […]
1 day ago
FILE - Players from Germany pose for the team photo as they cover their mouth during the World Cup ...
Associated Press

Analysis: As Qatar World Cup unfolds, planet keeps spinning

LONDON (AP) — Soccer — or football, to most of the global billions watching the World Cup this month — is not human society itself, with all its thorny issues. But at times, the game is a reflection of the entire planet — of nations, their disputes, their aspirations and those of a multitude of […]
1 day ago
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side's opening goal during the World Cup grou...
Associated Press

Messi, Argentina play Poland for survival at World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi has already come to Argentina’s rescue at the World Cup. He might just have to do it all over again. Another emotionally charged evening awaits Messi and the soccer-mad south American nation that worships him when Argentina meets Poland on Wednesday for a match with so much on the […]
1 day ago
Canada's goalkeeper Milan Borjan embraces Canada's head coach John Herdman, left, after they scored...
Associated Press

Croatia charged for World Cup fans’ taunts of Canada goalie

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — FIFA opened a disciplinary case against Croatia on Tuesday because of its fans’ taunts aimed at the Canada goalkeeper who has Serbian family ties during the teams’ World Cup game. FIFA said the charge against the Croatian soccer federation was “due to the behavior of its fans” and cited rules relating […]
1 day ago
Analysis: As NBA’s first quarter ends, the contenders emerge