On the first day of the 2012 TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown -- where some of the world's finest basketball analysts compete against a crowd of bloggers and my mom for glory, fame and perhaps an off-beat prize or two -- Matthew Stahlhut predicted the Denver Nuggets would lose to the Lakers in seven games.
It was an unremarkable pick; two others chose the exact same thing.
But Benjamin Morris, last year's winner, picked the Lakers in five. And as it happens, that's the difference, for now, between first and second place.
Morris and Stahlhut both came new to the Smackdown last year. Both have worked in sports gambling professionally. And, in a trend that's emerging, both make very similar, and very good, picks.
Last year Morris won. Stahlhut came in third, a victim of underestimating the Mavericks not once, but twice.
This year, consider their many identical predictions:
Bulls in five over the Sixers
Heat in five over New York
Pacers in five over Orlando
Celtics in six over the the Hawks
Spurs in five over Utah
Thunder in five over Dallas
Clippers in six over Memphis
Heat in five over the Pacers
Spurs in five over the Clippers
Thunder in five over the Lakers
But how many games it would take the Lakers to move on against the Nuggets, that, so far, is the difference between first and second place. Two points, the bonus for correctly picking the number of games.
And another looms: Both picked the Celtics to beat the 76ers, but again Morris (who tells us he has evidence picking the home team in five or the road team in six is a best practice, regardless of talent discrepancy) chose five. He won't be getting the two bonus points, as that series is tied 3-3.
Stahlhut chose seven, and could gain a further two-point advantage if the Celtics hold court in Saturday's Game 7.
If the 76ers win, however, both leaders get no points at all, like almost all of the rest of the field. It would be a meaningless series, in terms of the Smackdown, other than that last year's runner-up, Stephen Ilardi, would be saved from one of the lowest scores in Smackdown history.
Meanwhile, most of the rest of the field feels let down by either the Nuggets or the Grizzlies. Those close-fought series both went to Los Angeles teams. Had things gone differently, neither Stahlhut nor Morris would be at the top, and Hollinger, Galletti or "the crowd" would be the ones with something to brag about.
As for my mom ... she's just three points behind former champion Jeff Ma and two points ahead of Ilardi. She's also essentially pointing at the left-field fence as she steps to the plate for the final three series. So that making picks won't interfere with a trip to visit family, she has already predicted the whole rest of the season.
Coming tomorrow: Western Conference Finals picks from the entire field.