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NBA: How does a No. 8 seed beat a No. 1? Utah Jazz’s Devin Harris, Josh Howard know

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz small forward Josh Howard (8) takes the ball inside, as San Antonio Spurs small forward Richard Jefferson (24) defends, in NBA action in Salt Lake City, Monday, February 20, 2012.

By Brian T. Smith

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Apr 28 2012 05:14PM
Updated Apr 29, 2012 04:11PM

San Antonio • The Jazz’s Devin Harris and Josh Howard know it can happen. They’ve seen it with their own eyes. They’re living proof.

The first blow draws blood. The final punch: a killer knockout. The victor stands taller than ever, soaking in worldwide attention before moving on to a bigger, brighter stage. The loser rarely recovers. Careers are altered, lives are changed. Even as years go by, the mark always remains.

Only four No. 8 seeds have ever knocked off a No. 1 in the NBA playoffs. Just two teams have done it since 2003, when the league extended the first round to a best-of-seven series.

The most recent victim is the Jazz’s opponent Sunday in San Antonio. An injury-plagued Spurs team crashed hard in 2011, falling 4-2 to Memphis and immediately turning the Grizzlies into the most powerful team ever seeded eighth.

The only other No. 1 downed in the last nine years? The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, who were destroyed, embarrassed and ultimately undressed in the Bay Area, falling 4-2 to Golden State in what many view as the biggest non-championship playoff upset in NBA history.

How does a No. 8 unseat a No. 1? How does the underdog end up on top, reveling in "No one believed in us" stories and "They shocked the world" headlines?

Harris knows. So does Howard. They lived through the 2007 first-round earth-shaker, holding starring roles in the Mavericks’ nationally televised demise. Harris hasn’t been to the playoffs since. Howard’s career hasn’t been the same. But they’re united again in Utah, and they know exactly what it takes for an 8 to punch out a 1.

"When I think about that series, I think about how confident [the Warriors] came out for that Game 1. That kind of set the tone for the series," Harris said. "That’s the most important thing. You’ve got to knock them back on their heels. You’ve got to come out aggressive. You’ve got to strike fear in them."

A Utah (36-30) upset appears almost impossible on paper. While the Jazz have strengths — highlighted by inside depth — the 2011-12 Spurs might be the deepest team Gregg Popovich has ever coached. San Antonio (50-16) is confident and experienced, surging into the playoffs by winning 21 of 23 games, leaving Popovich on the verge of outmaneuvering a lockout for the second time in 14 seasons.

If the Jazz are going to survive the Spurs, Utah will have to follow the road built by Memphis and Golden State. Both teams drew first blood with Game 1 road victories, then rose to a 3-1 advantage by picking up home wins in Games 3 and 4. The Grizzlies and Warriors played to their strengths by either going big (Memphis) or small (Golden State), stole home-court advantage, then didn’t hesitate to put away their top-seeded opponent in Game 6.

Howard said Dallas’ 2007 fall was humbling. It was also devastating for a Mavericks team that won 67 regular-season games. Dirk Nowitzki’s character was questioned, Harris was eventually traded to New Jersey — soon joined by coach Avery Johnson, who was fired by Dallas in 2008 — and it took four long seasons for Nowitzki and the Mavericks to exorcise the "We Believe" Warriors’ shocking triumph.

"They blew up the team after that," Howard said.

For the Jazz to detonate the same explosion, everything from near-perfect basketball to luck will be required. Utah must contain San Antonio’s high-scoring, pick-and-roll based offense. The second-best scoring attack in the NBA (103.7 points) is guided by 11-year point guard Tony Parker, who’s playing the best all-around ball of his career. A multitude of Spurs perimeter shooters can’t be allowed to drain a league-leading 39.3 percent of their 3-point attempts, which is what everyone from Manu Ginobili and Danny Green to Matt Bonner and Gary Neal combined to sink this season. And while key Jazz players such as Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Harris must play the best series of their lives, second-year coach Tyrone Corbin will have to out-think Popovich.

Easy? No way. Probable? Not really. Impossible? Absolutely not.

Harris and Howard have seen it happen. Now they want to write their own history.

"I know we’re going to pose a challenge," Howard said. "We have athletic bigs. We have wing players that can challenge theirs. We have a great coach that’s ready to go in there and give it his first-time shot at the playoffs. With all that [talent] going around, the sky’s the limit. Kinda like what Golden State had going on."

The Jazz are four wins away from again proving No. 8’s greater than No. 1.

bsmith@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribjazzfacebook.com/tribjazz

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