Beginning the postseason with a 4-0 sweep should indicate that your team is going all the way, and in 2013, it just might be the case with both the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs looking like the strongest teams in each conference, but more often than not, a team that starts out too hot burns out before the ending, rarely fulfilling that early promise and going all the way to win the NBA title.
In fact, only two teams have won the NBA title since the NBA moved the playoffs to a 7-7-7-7 format in 2003 with a non-finals sweep. The Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 playoffs, beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals 4-0 before advancing to beat the Miami Heat in the NBA finals (4-2), and the Lakers in the 2010 NBA playoffs, beating the Utah Jazz 4-0 in the conference semifinals, eventually needing six games in the NBA finals to beat the Boston Celtics.
But a first round sweep? That never ends well. In general, teams that sweep in the postseason, even twice, or at least since the format has been changed, finish the season with a loss despite the promising start. The trend began in the 2003 playoffs, as the #2 seed New Jersey Nets beat the Detroit Pistons 4-0 in the conference semifinals, followed by sweeping the #1 seed, the Detroit Pistons, in the conference finals. They ended up losing to the Spurs after six games in the final.
A year later, in 2004, three teams began the playoffs with a sweep. None of them even reached the final. The Indiana Pacers were the #1 seed in the East, and swept through the opening round against the Boston Celtics. After beating Miami in the semis, they lost to the Detroit Pistons in the conference final. The New Jersey Nets, a #2 seed, began with a sweep against the New York Knicks before losing to the Pistons in the next round. The San Antonio Spurs swept through the Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, including that 0.4 Derek Fisher shot, in six games a round later.
2005 – The Miami Heat, with Shaquille O’Neal on board, had home court advantage in the East, and had no problem beating the New Jersey Nets and then the Washington Wizards in 8 games. In the conference finals, they had a 2-1 and 3-2 lead, but lost the final two games, including game 7 at home, to the Detroit Pistons. The Phoenix Suns swept through the opening series against the Grizzlies, but were halted in the conference finals by the San Antonio Spurs in five games.
In 2006, the Dallas Mavericks were the only team to record a sweep during the playoffs, beating the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, which was pretty much a given between 2004-2006. Dallas did reach the NBA finals, but dropped a 2-0 lead against the Miami Heat, losing the series in six games.
2007 – Three teams began the postseason with a sweep: The Chicago Bulls over the defending champions Miami Heat; the Detroit Pistons over the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers, with LeBron James, against the Washington Wizards. The Bulls lost to the Pistons in the semifinals, and the Cavs beat the Pistons in the conference finals, including that 48 points performance in game 5, scoring 29 of the final 30 points. In the NBA finals, the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cavs in the only Finals sweep over the last 11 years.
On to 2008, and the favored Los Angeles Lakers begin the postseason with a sweep against the Denver Nuggets. They reached the finals, losing to the Boston Celtics in six games, completely embarrassing themselves in game 6.
In 2009, it looked like LeBron James had himself the kind of team that will be good enough to take him all the way. They finished first in the East after he won his MVP award, and swept the Detroit Pistons and the Atlanta Hawks, feeling quite lucky they didn’t have to face the Boston Celtics in the next round. Instead, the Orlando Magic surprised many by beating the Cavs in six games in the conference finals.
2010 – One team that swept in the semifinals, the Lakers, did go all the way. Two more teams had a 4-0 series or two: the Phoenix Suns humiliating the Spurs in the Western semis, and the Orlando Magic with a very dominant looking start, sweeping against the Bobcats and the Hawks before losing to the Celtics in the conference finals. The Suns lost to the Lakers in the Western finals.
2011 – The Dallas Mavericks won the title with a sweep in their resume, but in the conference semifinals. The Boston Celtics began the playoffs with a sweep against the New York Knicks, but lost in five games to the Miami Heat in the next round, with C’s fans blaming Dwyane Wade for taking out Rajon Rondo in order to complete that semifinals elimination.
Last season the Oklahoma City Thunder were the team to begin with a first round sweep, beating the defending NBA champions, the Dallas Mavericks. They went on to reach the NBA finals, losing in five games to the Miami Heat. The San Antonio Spurs had a semifinal sweep over the Los Angeles Clippers, but lost to the Thunder in the conference finals.