This year’s NBA postseason has been a striking reminder of the difference between regular season and playoff basketball, particularly with respect to individual performance. The three finalists for the MVP award — James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George — all failed to match their production from the regular season in this year’s playoffs. On the other end of the spectrum is Kawhi Leonard, who after “load-managing” his way through the regular season, is now considered one of, if not the, best basketball players alive and has the Toronto Raptors one win away from their first NBA championship. (That win could come Thursday night in Game 6 in Oakland.)
Before this year, LeBron James was the often-cited case of the rare player who took his already outstanding game to an even higher level in the playoffs. But during this year’s postseason, it’s Leonard, the two-way force of nature, who has become the go-to example of a player who seemingly flips a switch and magically turns into a better version of himself once the playoffs start.
During the regular season, Leonard posted a +5.0 box plus/minus (BPM), a catch-all stat designed to capture a player’s all-around impact. Leonard’s regular season BPM was 15th best in the league. But in the playoffs, Leonard’s BPM has risen to +9.0, tied for second-best among all postseason players.
It’s rare to see a player of Leonard’s stature lift his BPM at all in the playoffs. Of the 15 players that had a regular season BPM of +5.0 or better,1 only Leonard and Nikola Jokic increased their output in the playoffs. It’s even rarer to see someone as productive as Leonard lift his BPM by as much as he did.
Leonard’s BPM playoff bump — +4 — is tied for the 16th largest increase since the NBA-ABA merger among players that logged at least 2,000 regular season minutes and 500 playoff minutes in a single year. Some other players to increase their BPM by at least 4.0 points include Hakeem Olajuwon during the 1997 playoffs, Tim Duncan during his 2003 title run and LeBron James during his 2016 title run, to name a few.
And this isn’t anything new for Leonard: He’s been upping his game in the postseason ever since he came into the league as a role player with the San Antonio Spurs.
Below is a similar chart to the first, but this time we’re looking at career performance — comparing a player’s career average BPM in the regular season to their career average BPM in the playoffs since the merger in 1977. (In order to make sure our sample consists of players who played often in both the regular season and deep into the playoffs, each player’s career average BPM has been weighted by both their minutes played in the regular season and playoffs.2 This gives us a better representative sample of players to compare Leonard’s career against.)
Most of the players that have a similar career BPM in the regular season to Leonard are right at or just below the dotted line, meaning they either get worse during the playoffs or at best they don’t improve. The few players who buck that trend include Michael Jordan, LeBron, Olajuwon and Leonard himself. Each of these players consistently dominated the league in the regular season and even more so in the playoffs.
The players with the biggest difference between their regular season and playoff career BPM tend to be toward the middle of the pack in regular season BPM for the simple reason that the lower a player’s regular season number, the more room they have to improve their playoff production. Still, despite having one of the higher career BPMs in the regular season, Leonard ranks sixth on the list. The players in front of him are Isiah Thomas (the Pistons legend, not the other more recent one), Draymond Green, Rajon “Playoff” Rondo, Derek Fisher and Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry. Those are the type of guys Green was referring to when he talked about the difference between 82-game players and 16-game players.
Kawhi steps up his numbers in the postseason
Biggest average change in Box Plus/Minus (BPM) between the playoffs and regular season, among NBA players with at least 10,000 regular season and 2,500 playoff minutes since 1977
Regardless of whether the Raptors ultimately finish off the Golden State Warriors and win the NBA title, Leonard’s performance this postseason will instill dread in opposing fan bases of “Playoff Kawhi” for years to come. Leonard wasn’t kidding when he referred to the 82 games during the regular season as “practice” and that the “playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.”
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): One game into the NBA Finals, and #WarriorsIn4 is already over. But what a first game! The Toronto Raptors led for most of the contest but weren’t able to put away the Golden State Warriors until the very end.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I’m gonna be honest. I was second screening Game 1 because my eyes were glued to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I learned some new words that I’m gonna try to sneak in here, so you all better have your dictionaries ready — I’m about to drop some
Though, I’m not gonna lie, I turned to that after the game was over.
neil: Fortunately, the NBA can’t declare an eight-way tie for the championship. (Sorry, Celtics.)
sara.ziegler: Chris, you’re in Toronto right now. What was the game like up close?
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): The atmosphere was incredible, and loud — both during the game and then pretty wild after. The fans here are insane.
I think the game was what we hoped it would be, after years of watching relatively uncompetitive series with a team that couldn’t defend Golden State well enough. The Raptors’ defense is no joke, and it challenged the Warriors all game long. Toronto presents real problems for a club missing someone like Kevin Durant.
neil: Yeah, Chris, this was the Warriors’ 20th-worst shooting game of the season by effective field-goal percentage. They still managed to get to the line, but they had a lot of turnovers, and Toronto held the non-Steph Curry scorers mostly in check. Fred VanVleet even did an admirable job keeping Curry from truly exploding.
chris.herring: The Warriors shot 23 percent on contested shots last night, the worst mark they’ve had in a playoff game in the Steve Kerr era, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.
neil: And you have to think that Durant — one of the best tough-shot makers in history — would have boosted that some.
chris.herring: Yeah. I’m really curious as to where Curry is going to have problems with VanVleet — we mentioned in our preview that he’d done very little scoring this season — averaging just 10 points per 100 possessions when VanVleet is the man defending him. That continued last night.
Final count was 2 Curry points on 29 possessions as VanVleet as his defender, according to @SecondSpectrum.
So, in 2 games this season, 6 points on 68 possessions.
sara.ziegler: FiveThirtyEight’s most valuable player (valuable in the most literal sense), Pascal Siakam had an amazing NBA Finals debut, scoring 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting. How surprised were you at how well he played?
tchow: You could say Siakam was shining bright like a pendeloque last night.
chris.herring: The Warriors got a lot of questions here about Siakam after last night’s performance. Draymond Green said it’s clear that Siakam is “a guy” now — meaning that we might not have treated him as a difference-maker before, but we sure as hell will now.
sara.ziegler: He’s a now.
chris.herring: Golden State basically acknowledged leaving certain guys open to begin the game in hopes of taking away Kawhi Leonard. That process worked, in a way. Leonard wasn’t efficient.
But as a result, everyone else — particularly Siakam and Marc Gasol, who played brilliantly — got going. Danny Green was also himself again. And Golden State was never able to turn off that faucet.
chris.herring: I understand why GSW was willing to take that gamble with Siakam. He’s become very good from the corners but is right around 30 percent — if not worse — from above the arc. The real issue was letting him get whatever he wanted in transition. He was 5 of 5 in transition and hit 11 shots in a row at one point — the longest streak in a finals game over the last 20 years. As good as he is, that simply can’t happen in a game like that if you’re the Warriors.
Golden State gave credit to Siakam but also largely chalked the game up to them not having seen this Raptors club before. They hadn’t played since early December, and Toronto has added Gasol, while Kawhi obviously took turns in and out of the lineup to rest.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, no one was expecting this from Siakam, so game-planning it would have been tricky.
chris.herring: I feel like I should get my apology in now.
Although I don’t know if I’m apologizing to a person or an algorithm.
neil: Or are you apologizing directly to CARMELO Anthony? Lol.
chris.herring: Our model narrowly had Toronto winning this series. I ruled that possibility out pretty swiftly last week.
But Thursday’s game was enough for me to think that their defense is good enough to win the series — particularly if Durant doesn’t return, and perhaps even if Durant is back but doesn’t jell right away after the long layoff.
neil: I wanted to go back to what you said about loading up to stop Kawhi. Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala did a good job limiting his efficiency, although it seems like that played a little into Toronto’s hands. Jackie MacMullan had a great reaction story about just how many other efficient options the Raptors have now if a team tries to focus too much on Kawhi.
Only two of the seven Raptors who played at least 10 minutes averaged fewer than 1.2 points per individual possession, according to Basketball-Reference. (For reference, the Warriors as a team averaged 1.17 points per possession in the game.)
sara.ziegler: And even with Kawhi bottled up, he still scored 23.
neil: And! I worry about Iguodala’s health after he came up limping late. He did the bulk of the job guarding Leonard.
chris.herring: Yeah. That was the one other concern we mentioned in the preview: While the Warriors clearly could use Durant on offense, their defense becomes really, really thin on the wings without him. Especially if Iguodala is hurt or isn’t himself. This is now the second time he’s been banged up — he didn’t play in Game 4 against the Blazers, either.
Speaking of Durant: The Raptors’ starting front court outscored Golden State’s 75-18.
How much of a problem is that for the Warriors? If there’s no scoring help for Steph and Klay?
neil: Certainly Draymond wasn’t much of a factor. Yes, he got the rare 10-10-10 triple double, but he also shot 2 of 9 from the floor and was a minus-8.
chris.herring: They’re now 29-2 when he records a triple-double.
neil: And both losses have come this postseason.
chris.herring: I think what we saw yesterday is this: The Warriors, without KD, don’t have anyone who can shoot outside of Curry and Thompson.
sara.ziegler: That seems … bad.
chris.herring: I think Quinn Cook is probably the most reliable guy outside of those two.
neil: How weird is it to think about the Warriors not having enough shooting?
chris.herring: That’s where Durant’s ability to get his own shot comes in handy. He forces enough defensive attention to where he can play other guys open. Generally speaking, Steph often commands a second defender’s attention, so that’s enough to get someone else open and get the ball moving. It’s a tougher task when the other team can guard him and everyone else straight up.
chris.herring: We haven’t talked much about DeMarcus Cousins’s return, but that’s both the blessing and the curse of having him
You hope he can create an occasional double-team. But by the same token, his spot could have been used on a guard — and I think some people were of that opinion when they first got him: that the Warriors might have been better served by having another shooter.
neil: Yeah, I thought the Warriors might go smaller and take somebody like Gasol out of the game, but either Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell played most of the game, and Gasol logged nearly 30 minutes. Meanwhile, Cousins played eight minutes and didn’t really do much of note.
tchow: They have to play with rhathymia. (Am I using that right?) Just be the fun-loving Warriors we know.
tchow: I also agree with Neil in that the Warriors could afford to play smaller and get Gasol out of the game. He’s been solid all playoffs like an imbirussú for the Raptors. Otherwise, the Raptors could embarrass you again. Calembour intended.
(OK, now I’m just forcing it.)
neil: Tony, you’re banned from watching the spelling bee at work ever again.
chris.herring: It’s a lot tougher for the Warriors to dictate the tempo without Durant. Playing smaller alone doesn’t get it done if you don’t have enough shooting to force the Raptors to come out and guard you on the perimeter.
sara.ziegler: It’s interesting to me, too, that Kyle Lowry didn’t add much on offense again. He had as many field goals as charges forced. If he heats up, that’s a different wrinkle for Toronto.
neil: Lowry continued his trend of being associated with strong Raptors play (+11) despite garbage individual stats.
chris.herring: Frankly, if they’re getting what they got from everyone else — Green, Gasol and Siakam — they don’t need Lowry to do anything but bring energy. He had massive moments in that last series, and he’s always going to give you what he has on defense.
It also helps a ton that VanVleet can stay attached to Curry so well in the minutes that Lowry is taking a breather.
neil: I’ve come around on this, Tony, and I applaud your spelling work here.
tchow: Can we all pretend to be a marmennillfor a minute? What do you think is going to happen now? Do the Warriors still three-peat? Do the Raptors pull this off?
sara.ziegler: Our model (which accepts Chris’s apology) now has the Raptors at 63 percent to win it all. That feels right to me.
chris.herring: The Raptors are the lone team that the Warriors haven’t beaten this season, and they have now won all three matchups against Golden State. I expect Golden State to respond. But stuff will get SO interesting if Toronto takes Game 2 as well.
neil: 63 percent kinda makes more sense than our pre-series projection, to be honest. Home teams that win Game 1 of the NBA Finals win the series 78 percent of the time, historically. So this suggests that Toronto has far less of a talent edge than the typical home team that takes a 1-0 finals lead. Which is definitely true.
tchow: This is anecdotal, but I was chatting with my cousin who lives in Toronto during last night’s game, and he said: “There’s just one guy outside our building somewhere screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Let’s go, Raptors, over and over.” I can’t imagine what that guy will scream if the Raptors pull this off. That city is gonna be WILD.
neil: I love seeing how excited Toronto fans are. (Drake aside.) Nav Bhatia was going nuts trying to distract Warrior free-throw shooters.
chris.herring: I decided to walk home last night, about 35 minutes to my hotel. These two people were shouting “Let’s go, Raptors!” for entire blocks. I thought it was a crowd of people, and it was actually just those two guys.
But between that, and all the car horns going off last night, people are on a noisy cloud here right now. Sort of how Milwaukee was to begin the last series. So we’ll see how it plays out.
tchow: The city is gonna be as loud as a large flock of emberizines.
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The NBA conference finals are just three games old, but we’ve already seen two of the most entertaining games of the entire playoffs.
After Golden State easily dispatched Portland in Game 1 in the West, Milwaukee needed a furious comeback to take down Toronto in the East’s first game. And then came Thursday night, when the Trail Blazers led the Warriors by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, but Golden State used a 27-8 run to get back into the game. The teams traded leads down the stretch, but the Warriors prevailed.
Let’s start with the Golden State-Portland series. What have you made of these first two games?
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): The “Warriors are better without Kevin Durant” crowd has gotten REALLY loud.
I’m not stupid enough to say they’re better without KD, but I can see the argument being made that they might be more fun to watch?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Tony, that feels like a way to rationalize the idea that KD will feel dejected or something by the Warriors because they can win without him so he’ll have to come to the Knicks.
tchow: I’m still auditioning for my Knicks GM job, Nate.
I think Portland losing on Thursday was pretty brutal. It’s sounding more and more like Durant won’t be back in the conference finals, and a win would have gone a long way toward making this a series again. It’s hard to imagine them winning four of the next five.
tchow: You’re not kidding about the heavy ball movement, Chris. Per Second Spectrum, the Warriors have averaged 42 more passes per 100 possessions when KD was not on the floor during these playoffs.
natesilver: I guess the question is whether the Warriors could win grind-it-out, slower-paced, half-court-type games at the same rate without KD.
chris.herring: And that’s the thing. When the Warriors play that way, it’s changing the pace of the game. If you have a game with fewer possessions, I’d venture to guess it leaves things to random chance more often and helps the underdog.
tchow: Yeah, even with that scoreline at halftime, after the first three minutes of the third quarter, I think all of us kinda went, “Oh, the Warriors are winning this.”
natesilver: The Game 6 closeout against Houston, in a game where the Rockets played pretty well, was impressive. But I’m still not sure I really have a great sense for how Golden State is going to match up with Milwaukee or Toronto, with or without KD.
sara.ziegler: A Portland win would have completely changed the tone of this series. And it was close to happening — even after the Warriors stormed back!
natesilver: “Were the Blazers actually close to winning or was it all just an illusion” is a fun epistemological question. I mean, obviously, a win probability model or whatever would have them ahead for a lot of the game. But the Warriors have made SO many third-quarter comebacks over the years that I just don’t really know.
sara.ziegler: When the Blazers were up 8 with 4:28 left, I thought they could really win it.
natesilver: What if Seth Curry woke up one day and had Steph Curry’s skills, and vice versa? That feels like a weird/bad movie plot.
tchow: “Freaky Friday 2”
natesilver: Would the Blazers play McCollum at the 3 or something? It would be a really weird team.
chris.herring: I already feel like it’s a weird team as is.
Credit to them for adjusting heavily after how bad Game 1 was.
tchow: You knew they had to do something about that pick-and-roll defense.
chris.herring: Enes Kanter was back at the free-throw line in Game 1 and then moved much farther up to contain their pick and rolls in Game 2. That made Golden State’s looks far more challenging, which you almost have to do in order to have a chance.
sara.ziegler: The Blazers didn’t get much on offense from Kanter on Thursday, though. What was going on there?
tchow: I’m actually not sure what else they can do. They played well on Thursday and still lost. I feel for Portland fans, I really do. But our predictions give them a 6 percent chance of making it to the finals which seems … high?
chris.herring: Realistically, unless Golden State has another major injury, that was probably it. I don’t see a whole lot of adjustments for a scenario where you were in control most of the game. You just have to finish the game. Period.
natesilver: I guess the one piece of good news for Portland is that it’s not obvious that KD’s going to play any time soon.
tchow: Chris mentioned that they needed another huge bench performance to have a chance, but both Rodney Hood and Seth Curry had pretty decent games. I don’t know where else it could come from. Zach Collins?
sara.ziegler: Meyers Leonard! He had a pretty good game.
chris.herring: Collins had five fouls in eight minutes yesterday, somehow. Leonard was impactful, though.
tchow: Yeah, some of those Collins fouls were bad fouls, too.
chris.herring: That’s why it’s hard to see Portland doing this: Everything seems really scattered right now.
natesilver: Maybe Draymond secretly hates KD and so ups his effort level when KD is out?
sara.ziegler: LOL. I kind of want that to be true. Since the NBA is just a soap opera, at its core.
tchow: “The Plays of Our Lives”
sara.ziegler: OMG, yes.
Moving on to the East: Chris, you wrote after Game 1 that the Raptors would likely be kicking themselves for letting that get away from them. How important was that outcome to the series?
chris.herring: Not nearly as much of a killer as Game 2 for Portland. But still potentially big.
There’s that saying that a series hasn’t begun until a road team wins a game. And on some level, that may be true. I just think that if you’re going to beat Milwaukee, it makes sense to grab the winnable game when it’s there. And the Bucks played really poorly in some regards, yet they still won. They are a complete team, whereas the Raptors look very stilted on offense at times.
And it’s part of why I continue to like Milwaukee’s chances of winning this whole thing.
tchow: It’s been really impressive seeing how well the Bucks have continued to play when Giannis Antetokounmpo is not on the floor.
natesilver: The thing I’d hate if I were a Raptors fan is that I felt like my team played pretty well in Game 1, and it still wasn’t enough. Obviously, not everything was perfect — the cold shooting in the fourth quarter — but it felt like a relatively fair contest.
chris.herring: Yeah. I guess there are two ways to view it:
1) Lowry is probably never going to shoot like that again.
2) There’s probably no way they’ll ever get less of a contribution from the rest of the team than they did in Game 1.
tchow: 3) Brook Lopez will not have a game like that again.
chris.herring: I’m not completely sure about No. 3! If Toronto doesn’t go smaller, the Raptors are going to have to sacrifice something defensively. I don’t know that he’ll have almost 30 again, but the Raps are going to dare Brook and guys like him to prove they can make that shot as opposed to letting Giannis run wild in the paint.
That’s the risk.
sara.ziegler: To your second point, Chris, you can’t imagine a scenario happening again where no Raptor aside from Lowry makes a single shotin an entire quarter.
chris.herring: Yeah, those stats — 0 for 15 aside from Lowry in the fourth, and 1 for 23 in the second half outside of Lowry and Leonard — were some of the more insane ones I’ve ever seen.
tchow: The last time Lopez had a double-double while scoring more than 20 points was … one second, I’m still scrolling up on Basketball-Reference.
chris.herring: That part is true. But him scoring a bunch wouldn’t shock me based on how they’re defending him. Brook isn’t the biggest rebounder, in part because he’s more concerned with boxing out and making sure a teammate collects the miss. (But also, their minutes are longer in the playoffs, meaning he’ll have more chances.)
tchow: Found it! Nov. 3, 2017, when he was on the Lakers. And it was the Lopez revenge game because they played the Nets.
chris.herring: Remember: Milwaukee was 11 of 44 from three! That’s 25 percent. So the Bucks left a ton of points on the table. And many of them were wide-open shots.
As I was saying, I think Toronto may want to consider playing a little smaller. That would potentially crank up the tempo to a level Lopez isn’t comfortable with, and potentially give him more defensive responsibility, to where he has to come out farther to defend.
natesilver: I dunno, I feel weird about slicing-and-dicing the Raptors’ shooting stats into so many little pieces. Overall, they shot 15 of 42 on threes, which is pretty average/good.
chris.herring: Lowry was 7 of 9 by himself!
natesilver: They didn’t shoot great on twos, but a lot of teams don’t do that well against MIlwaukee. They made 85 percent of their free throws.
chris.herring: The statistics illustrated that in Game 1. Leonard drove 15 times, and 11 of them were to his left. During the season, he drove to his right a little more than 57 percent of the time.
sara.ziegler: That seems to be a huge focus for the Bucks — and it looks like it’s paying off. But again, the Raptors almost stole Game 1. It would be huge for them to get Game 2 tonight.
While I still think Milwaukee is clearly the stronger team in this matchup, I wouldn’t be foolish enough to say that Toronto is out of this, regardless of what happens tonight. This is a more evenly matched set of opponents than with Portland and Golden State, clearly.
sara.ziegler: So let’s end on some soft predictions. How long will each series go?
tchow: I believe Dame and CJ can do enough to get at least one win in Portland.
chris.herring: Agreed on the West.
In the East, I’ll go six, with the Bucks winning. Though if Milwaukee wins tonight, I wouldn’t be shocked if they closed it in five.
natesilver: I’m going to go seven games for the East. Despite what I said earlier about Game 1 being a bearish indicator for Toronto, I still think they’re a liiiiiiittttle underrated, and Nick Nurse probably has more ways to make adjustments than Mike Budenholzer does.
WHAT IF DURANT HAS PLAYED HIS LAST GAME FOR THE WARRIORS?!?!?
tchow: * searches in google * Durant Knicks jersey
chris.herring: That doesn’t sound as crazy to me as some people might think.
If it’s a more serious strain, and it’s closer to a month than it is a one-week or two-week injury, then the NBA Finals or the middle of the finals would be more realistic for him.
But if the finals aren’t competitive …
natesilver: So Knicks fans should be rooting for a Warriors sweep?
chris.herring: I don’t know. It would be really interesting. If the Warriors win easily without him, it would be weird for him to stay if he wants validation. If the Warriors LOSE, it gets interesting. Because, obviously, the last time the Warriors lost, he went and signed with them.
tchow: I just really want Curry to win his first finals MVP trophy.
sara.ziegler: Would THAT push KD to the Knicks?
natesilver: I think the BEST-case scenario for the Knicks would be if the Warriors are like up 3-1 over Milwaukee in the finals, and then KD comes back and they LOSE.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): So we just witnessed what our friend Zach Lowe called the “wildest lottery ever.” The Zion-Williamson-to-the-Knicks (or its less-heralded cousin, Zion-to-the-Lakers) hype train gained a ton of steam when both teams were revealed to be in the Top 4 … and then it crashed and burned on live TV as the Lakers ended up at No. 4 and the Knicks at No. 3.
Guys, take me through each of your experiences and emotions as you saw what unfolded.
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I think we saw right away how crazy this new lottery system has the potential to be. By flattening out the worst teams’ odds of winning, you get a higher probability of something like last night playing out. It was insane at the actual lottery here in Chicago. There were these enormous gasps when they announced that the Bulls were going to pick seventh, the Suns were going to pick sixth, and the Cavs were going to choose fifth.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I was at a fairly nice Italian restaurant with a friend who doesn’t really like basketball, and I made him pull out his phone along with my phone just so we could see who had the faster livestream. Unfortunately, this restaurant had a lot of wood paneling or something that was causing the signal to be pretty weak. Anyway, the livestream cut out right when it looked like the Knicks might be shut out of the Top 4 entirely, then it came back on and they were in the Top 4, and then right after that they got the No. 3 pick. As dumb as it sounds, the experience of having my expectations lowered made the No. 3 pick seem a lot better as a quasi-Knicks fan.
Also, we ordered pasta for dessert, which people should try.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): My fingers and toes were crossed from the time Boston’s 14th pick was announced. I started jumping up and down on my couch and screaming sometime between Phoenix’s sixth pick reveal and Cleveland’s fifth. There was a moment during that window that I thought 14 percent really meant something like 98 percent, and I was ready to buy my Zion Knicks jersey.
chris.herring: Hahahahaha. Brutal.
neil: Our colleague Chad Matlin had a great experience as well that he granted me permission to share:
“a small anecdote from brooklyn last night: I’m walking home from dinner down Flatbush Ave and a man appears half a block behind me and starts violently screaming something, but I can’t quite make out what. he keeps screaming. I only catch snippets. “FUCKING!!!” “ALL!!!” “LOSING!“”” this goes on for 90 seconds as he crosses street aimlessly, screaming the same thing over and over. I finally piece it together: “ALL THAT FUCKING LOSING FOR NOTHING!!”
And that’s when I found out the Knicks didn’t win the lottery.”
Suffice to say, emotions were running high here in New York.
natesilver: I had run the numbers beforehand, and the No. 3 pick — in a draft where there’s a clear drop-off between Nos. 3 and 4 — is slightly above the expected value for the Knicks pick. Even if you think Zion is going to be reaaaaaaaaaaaly good, a 14 percent chance just isn’t that high.
chris.herring: On some level, the lottery process and unveiling is really, really challenging for the average person — even for me — to follow along with if you aren’t focused on a single team and where they’re ending up.
tchow: Yeah, Chris, in the hysteria last night, the graphics on TV really played a trick on me: They had the Top 4 picks in individual blocks on top, while 5 through 14 were listed below as they were revealing the picks. As the blocks were getting filled in, you saw the Lakers, then the Grizzlies and then the Pelicans, and I went, “Holy shit, we got No. 1!”
chris.herring: One team being slotted lower than you expect is useful information, but it’s hard to know exactly who it benefits until there are only two or three teams left.
Rachel Nichols was explaining it in real time, but it still takes a hot second or two to register what it all means, because of the pick swaps and protections, etc.
neil: It’s kind of incredible that so many of us devote time to watching the unveiling of the results of pingpong balls based on probabilities, which each have obscure caveats (protections, etc), and it actually makes for compelling TV. The NBA is amazing.
natesilver: Maybe they should reveal it one pick per day at a time over the course of the playoffs, sort of like an advent calendar.
Think of all the opportunities for #content.
chris.herring: I’m still kind of shocked that New Orleans ended up getting it. Makes a huge difference for them going forward. All this time, analysts were suggesting that they make a deal with the team that wins the lottery for Anthony Davis. Now they have the No. 1 pick AND Anthony Davis.
chris.herring: It seemed that might have been his preference.
tchow: Can you imagine all the “it’s rigged” people if the Hawks did end up getting No. 1 after the logo double tap?
chris.herring: Can’t remember too many people WANTING to go to Atlanta, but I actually hoped he’d end up there after that.
tchow: Zion with Trae Young is really intriguing.
But if we’re playing alternate universes and what-ifs, can we play “what if Zion did go to the Knicks?” Neil thinks owner James Dolan would have somehow messed it up anyway. I disagree.
neil: Right, my take was always that he should be happy he didn’t go to the Knicks. Everything that franchise touches goes to ruin.
tchow: But he could have changed that, Neil!
chris.herring: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was reporting pretty adamantly that the Knicks wouldn’t have traded him. So it seems like they would have moved forward with him, and then gone into free agency shooting for the stars.
natesilver: I think it would have been dumb to trade him. Like, more dumb than people realize. When you consider the contracts, and that the Pelicans don’t rally have much leverage, I think you can even argue that Zion straight up is TOO MUCH for AD, without all the other assets that the Knicks were likely to have to throw into the deal. But, anyway, I guess we don’t have to worry about that now.
chris.herring: I agree. You’re going to want and need cost-controlled contracts for when you get other stars, anyway. Having Zion would allow you to do that.
tchow: Is it wrong of me to think that this is even more proof that the lottery was rigged? Like, the results were so much the complete opposite of what you thought a “rigged” one would look like that it’s almost too opposite. Am I making sense? Like, the results seemed to be what someone would produce to prove that something wasn’t rigged when it actually was.
natesilver: Tony I think you’re overthinking this just a liiiiiiiiiiiiittle bit.
neil: Of course, they did invite some of this rigging speculation by having Patrick “Frozen Envelope” Ewing there to represent the Knicks.
chris.herring: As someone who’s been in the room, it’s not rigged. They go to great lengths to let people watch it. And make the actual process available on YouTube shortly after.
I think the variance is going to be really wild going forward because of how they’ve flattened out the odds for the worst few teams, though. And honestly, it will make it more fun and heartbreaking.
tchow: I know it’s not rigged. But……
neil: But yeah Chris, I wanted to ask about that. Did we see the death of tanking last night?
Look at how much the results at the top differed from the ranking in order of worst records:
natesilver: I mean, that’s how the system is supposed to work, right?
neil: Well, I’ve always thought these tanking teams underestimated the luck involved in the lottery. Even under the old system.
chris.herring: Last night’s outcome was probably about as solid as you could hope for from the league’s perspective if that’s the message you wanted to send. That being awful gives you a better chance but by no means guarantees you the very best — or even second-best — pick.
tchow: Big win for Mr. Silver. (Adam, not Nate.)
natesilver: And it’s not like the Knicks were categorically different than the Cavs, Suns or Bulls. They were just better at tanking. No. 3 is a comparatively good result vs. the rest of that group.
BTW, someone should check the lottery ball codes to see what the results would have been under last year’s system.
neil: Yeah, it’s weird to think of the Knicks as “winners” last night. But things could have been worse.
chris.herring: The Knicks were the only team with the best lottery odds that didn’t fall out of the top four!
natesilver: I really don’t get the losers talk, and I think it goes to show how people’s intuitions about probability aren’t very good.
tchow: 14 percent means 100 percent, Nate!
natesilver: People were treating it like 60 percent or something, I swear.
neil: Knick fans’ expectations are always out of whack with reality, though… (This is a franchise that wins like the Mets but acts like it has the pedigree of the Yankees.)
tchow: Neil, this is an NBA chat.
chris.herring: I’m on record saying that I feel like the average Knick fan expects bad things to happen.
neil: Maybe it’s more the New York media than rank-and-file fans, Chris.
natesilver: This does leave open at least the tantalizing possibility of trading for Anthony Davis. If the Knicks do want to make a play for AD, this is one of the better scenarios for them. There’s no one who can trade Zion to the Pels since they already have him! The No. 3 pick is probably comparable to the best single asset that the Celtics and Lakers can offer. And if the Knicks get Kyrie Irving, maybe the Celtics don’t even try to get AD anyway.
The Lakers do have the No. 4 pick, but at least based on the scouting consensus, there’s a big drop-off between 3 and 4. We’ll see if the Pelicans agree with that or not.
chris.herring: I honestly don’t have a sense of what the Pelicans would prefer at this point.
The Celtics would obviously be in play, based on their young talent and the draft picks they have. The Knicks just got the No. 3 pick and have two picks they got from Dallas in the Porzingis trade. Though those picks could end up being lower-end ones, depending on how the Mavericks are in the future. And then there are the Lakers, who just landed the No. 4 pick, plus all the guys they reportedly offered in February for Davis already.
So it’s a combination of which players the Pelicans like, plus how they value the notion of future picks that would likely be lower in the draft, as opposed to higher ones they could make use of right now.
natesilver: Fun hot take: RJ Barrett could be the new Carmelo Anthony. High-volume, medium efficiency, good rebounder, mediocre effort on defense despite good athleticism.
tchow: Looking at the different mock drafts, it does seem like there is a consensus on Top 3 (Zion, Ja, RJ in that order) and the fourth pick is immediately where you start seeing disagreements.
neil: Which I think speaks to how few truly elite picks are in this draft class, Tony.
chris.herring: Totally agreed.
neil: But the Lakers can’t complain too much. They only had the 11th-best odds going on, so even moving up to fourth in a three-star draft is something.
chris.herring: On Tuesday I walked past Gar Forman, from the Bulls’ front office, and he had a pretty grim look on his face after the team finished No. 7. Thought it was noteworthy that the Bulls’ John Paxson all but acknowledged that with a pick that low, the team was more likely to trade for a veteran as opposed to making it work with a rookie.
It’s far more of a crapshoot outside of the Top 3.
chris.herring: There are a lot of options now for New Orleans. A lot of people were wondering out loud, too, whether getting Williamson might make the Pelicans more likely to find a deal for point guard Jrue Holiday, who could help a ton of teams as well.
tchow: Chris, Paxson also had another pretty optimistic outlook on the results that I hadn’t thought of last night:
John Paxson: "My mind immediately went to the fact that three of the top four are going out West and New York didn’t get No. 1. So that’s something in our favor."
chris.herring: Yeah, that quote infuriated Bulls fans here. It read like something out of The Onion.
neil: Do the Pels have more or less leverage in an AD trade now than they did at the deadline?
natesilver: Weirdly, they have less, because there’s no one who can trade them Zion!
chris.herring: Exactly. Likely less leverage but more flexibility in terms of the path they take, since they can feel pretty comfortable about building their future around him.
natesilver: Are people too confident that Memphis will take Ja Morant and not RJ Barrett? They both have one glaring flaw (Morant: defense, Barrett: shooting), and historically, you’d rather go with the guy who can fix his shooting than a guy who is probably too undersized to ever be a great defender. Barrett’s also almost a year younger.
Just to show how much a year can matter, compare Morant’s stats this year vs. last year:
natesilver: I don’t think Memphis has any business keeping Conley either way.
chris.herring: I’m interested in that question, too.
natesilver: And I’m not sure it affects their pick much. If you want Ja, you can keep him and use Conley as a mentor if you want.
chris.herring: Memphis is one of the smaller markets in the league, and because of that, I think they maybe hold on to players a year or two longer than they should. Perhaps because of the ties those fans feel to certain players.
Morant is seemingly good enough where you draft him and then figure out the answer to that question with Conley later.
natesilver: The Grizzlies have historically been a bit allergic to high-usage-rate guys, and both Barrett and Morant use a lot of possessions, so in some ways neither one feels like a natural Grizzly.
chris.herring: Wow. Knick fans would love if you became the Grizzlies’ GM.
natesilver: The thing that’s really hard to project with Barrett is his defense. A lot of the comparables are pretty unflattering because people want to typecast him as Andrew Wiggins 2.0, maybe just because they’re both Canadian. But Wiggins was thought of as a guy who was going to be a plus defender, and he’s been pretty darn terrible instead. If Barrett’s a good defender, though, you start getting into a whole different set of comps, more along the lines of Jimmy Butler (if he tamps down the usage rate a bit) or Victor Oladipo.
neil: Just goes to show how much defense — which I think can go overlooked for prospects at times (and is difficult to predict out of college) — can really alter a player’s pro trajectory. This, from ESPN’s mock draft on Barrett, sounds like it’s ripped out of the Wiggins scouting report: “he wasn’t the defender his physical tools suggest he should have been.”
chris.herring: In fairness, Morant’s defense isn’t all that great, either. That’s part of what makes the No. 1 pick so easy, among other things.
natesilver: Barrett was a much better rebounder, which counts for something. A much better and more active passer. And he was using a ton of possessions, which sometimes yields lower effort on defense. And Duke played a very tough schedule.
I don’t know. If Barrett had shot 38 percent from three instead of 31 percent, I think people would be talking about him and Williamson like it’s … I don’t know, the Kevin Durant/Greg Oden draft or something. And of course, you can’t just disregard the difference between 38 percent and 31 percent. But he’s a pretty spectacular prospect if he learns how to shoot.
chris.herring: It’s so hard to tell in college. The shooting is somewhat predictive. But even if he had shot 38 percent this year, I think there would be room to ask whether it was completely real.
neil: It’s also worth remembering that Barrett was actually the No. 1 prospect in that star-studded class going into their freshman seasons. But I’ve seen studies that indicate the weight given to even one year of college should far outweigh our priors for prospects coming out of high school.
tchow: This chat is just becoming a conversation about how Duke players perform in the NBA.
gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): After a lopsided and — let’s face it — largely uninteresting first round, the second round of the NBA playoffs is delivering on its promise. We have only one team that’s already punched its ticket (Milwaukee). Philadelphia and Portland were each able to force a Game 7 last night with clutch wins at home, but let’s start with the Golden State-Houston series, which resumes with Game 6 in Houston tonight. The extent of the Kevin Durant injury is not totally known, but we do know he is out for the remainder of this series. This possibly devastating news was likely a little bit easier to swallow for Golden State fans considering that many people (including myself) looked at that noncontact injury Wednesday and assumed he injured his Achilles.
Does this give Houston a legitimate shot to take this series? Or did they blow a crucial opportunity by not stealing Game 5 when KD went down?
If they lose the series, they’re going to kick themselves for what happened in Game 5. But that said, they still have a decent shot to pull the upset. The margin for error is so much less now without KD there. They have to play well enough on offense while hoping that either Steph Curry or Klay Thompson are simply ineffective for a game or two. Steph reached down deep and remembered who he was in that fourth quarter, but it’s not inconceivable to me that Houston takes advantage of this.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It absolutely gives them a shot. Golden State was basically the equivalent of half a star player better than the rest of the top tier (Houston, Milwaukee, Toronto). Take that player away, and they’re probably a half-step behind instead. Without KD, they’re underdogs in a neutral-court series against all of those teams. HOWEVER, the Warriors only need to win one of the two remaining games to close out against Houston, and one of those games is at home, so they’re still overall favorites (64 percent favorites, more precisely) to win the series.
natesilver: At the same time, although Harden disappeared down the stretch run for Game 5 and that wasn’t great, I think Houston gets a little bit too much grief. Beating the KD-less Warriors is still a big feat — remember, they won 73 games without KD! — especially at Oracle Arena.
chris.herring: It’s just that Houston had erased a 20-point Warriors lead and taken the lead on the road, with KD out of the picture, and Steph struggling. If you win that game, you’re up 3-2 with a chance to close it at home. They can still do it, but now they have to come back instead of merely going in for the kill.
neil: We often talk about the seeming inevitability of Golden State winning these past few years. But if they win again, that fourth quarter will be looked back at as a turning point of sorts, I think. A place where they made their stand as the season could have begun slipping away. Curry even started to get things rolling in that fourth quarter, after a brutal series for the most part.
natesilver: I don’t know — the whole game felt like Golden State’s to lose. The first half in particular was wide-open and sloppy, which you’d think was the Warriors’ jam more than Houston’s.
chris.herring: Just a couple of really clear things that killed the Rockets. Paul has never shot that poorly in a playoff game. Kevon Looney basically became PJ Tucker for a night, with all the offensive rebounds. The bizarre, fluke play at the end of the game.
natesilver: Sometimes I wonder if these analytics-heavy teams don’t emphasize offensive rebounding enough. Of course, they’ve spent way more time looking at the data than I have. But certain types of situations increase offensive rebound percentage more than others, and it can be a hidden source of value.
chris.herring: Maybe it was just GSW’s game to take unless the Rockets took it from the Warriors, which goes to Nate’s point about the game having been in Oakland.
I’m just really stuck on the “What if?” of that outcome. What if that was the last game at Oracle, potentially, and the Rockets could close this out tonight at home? The hype surrounding tonight would be insane.
I guess similar to last year, when Houston had a 3-2 lead but without Paul.
neil: It’s worth noting that with KD on the court in the series, the Warriors are +8.8 per 100 possessions; without him, they’re -6.2. So this injury really does add a huge late wrinkle to what was already a mega-interesting series.
chris.herring: I know the Warriors have won championships without KD and have even played stretches without him since he joined the team. But I do think it’s interesting that they’d gotten so used to relying on him this postseason.
He’d led them in scoring for eight straight games.
neil: He also completely changes HOW they play. They run so many more isolations with KD.
chris.herring: Even for Steph and Klay, going from that to having to do it all themselves again is a shift.
gfoster: Obviously, Curry and Thompson will need to step up on the offensive side to make up for that lost production — and both have been pretty so-so if not bad. But without DeMarcus Cousins and with a thin bench, I wonder how this affects them defensively. How do you think both teams adjust?
chris.herring: I would assume the Warriors are going to start Looney without Durant there.
You don’t have a ton of options, really.
But the Rockets can shade their defense a lot differently without Durant in the mix.
natesilver: I guess the one thing about Golden State is that with both KD and Steph out there — and Klay! — there are probably some diminishing returns in terms of being able to get good looks. Meaning, KD won’t hurt quite as much as if they didn’t have another super-high-usage player (Curry) and another super-efficient player (Thompson). Maybe there’s less margin of error against Houston’s defense, though.
neil: If the Warriors’ lack of depth was ever going to finally catch up to them, it’s now.
natesilver: Yeah, what I really worry about for GSW is the bench units. Curry still doesn’t look exactly right, and if you’re playing him 42 minutes, or whatever, that probably isn’t great.
But also not great if you’re playing him 38 minutes and have 10 minutes of a pretty terrible lineup.
gfoster: Likewise, Draymond Green gets into foul trouble again, and it’s even more complicated.
chris.herring: It’s pretty wild to consider how inevitably we talk of the Warriors winning it all again when an injury like this — one that keeps him out the remainder of the series, but not for the entire playoffs — is so consequential.
natesilver: For the past several seasons, our model has usually had Golden State at about 50 percent to win the championship when the playoffs begin. Sometimes a little higher, sometimes a little lower. Either way, though, that’s a long way from 100 percent.
chris.herring: I’m interested to see how Paul responds tonight. And to see whether Tucker is a pest again the way he was in Game 4.
neil: Tucker, Paul and (weirdly) Austin Rivers seem to be the bellwethers for Houston. When they play well, the Rockets have won. Harden, on the other hand, has been pretty even in production between wins and losses this series.
natesilver: Which is usually how it works, Neil. But I agree. This is one of those series where I think basically every game was the deserved outcome, notwithstanding some of the foul controversies in Game 1.
neil: Well, my point is that it hasn’t exactly been Harden abnormally taking over games to will Houston to their wins. (To the extent that 35 points per game is just normal for him, haha.)
natesilver: I agree, it’s been the entire game plan working. And I don’t think the game plan really worked in Game 5.
gfoster: The Trail Blazers and Nuggets will play Game 7 in Denver. Game 7s in the NBA playoffs strongly favor the home team: Nearly 80 percent of them have gone to the home side. How are Portland’s chances of being in that 20 percent group?
natesilver: We actually have Denver at “only” 76 percent, so a bit lower than the historical norm, and we account for the fact that teams at altitude have a bigger home court-advantage. But the home team in Game 7 is by definition the higher seed, and the thing about the Nuggets is that they aren’t as strong as a typical highly seeded team.
chris.herring: The Blazers’ chances are wonderful if they can get one more game of bench production like the one they just got in Game 6.
neil: Rodney Hood! He knows a new contract is coming. Averaging 16.2 PPG in this series.
It was also big for Dame Lillard to get hot from three again like he was against OKC.
natesilver: If Zach Collins and Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood are having breakout games … maybe that just means that Denver isn’t very good?
chris.herring: The Nuggets haven’t been able to take Nikola Jokic off the court at all.
gfoster: I wonder how much fatigue will begin to play a factor, which we have obviously seen in these long series. Dame looks a little gassed no?
natesilver: Jokic has also looked gassed at times, except that’s how he always looks so it’s hard to read too much into it.
chris.herring: Dame hit some ridiculous shots yesterday — both of the “he’s in a different area code” sort of way, and one where he was falling over and just threw something up and got it go down anyway.
natesilver: Did we discuss the four-overtime game? I thought some of the player usage decisions were pretty ridiculous, in terms of teams not incorporating their benches more.
neil: Yeah, there were some wild minute totals being recorded in that game. Jokic played 65 minutes!
gfoster: C.J. McCollum played 60. Dame played a relatively breezy 58.
chris.herring: It’s been tough. Denver’s backup point guard, Monte Morris, who in my opinion was one of the two or three most consistent bench players in the league, has scored 4, 3, 0, 2, 6 and 0 in this series.
And trusting a bench that is consistently giving you negative returns whenever Jokic takes a breather … there isn’t time to watch negative returns roll in!
It’s the playoffs. Every minute is huge.
natesilver: Random aside, but it does seem like teams that are dependent on a PG or a C can have more problems with their depth than a look at their roster might imply. If your star is a SG or SF or maybe a PF, you can slide guys around a lot more and give the team different looks. It’s hard to replace a guy like Jokic, though, in way that’s fluid with your overall gameplan.
neil: Yeah, there’s a lot more benefit to versatility in the middle of basketball’s “defensive spectrum” (or whatever we’re calling it).
chris.herring: 100 percent, Nate.
neil: Both ends call for more specific skills that aren’t as easily replicated when your star needs a breather.
natesilver: This is also sort of an interesting problem with on/off statistics. If certain types of players make roster construction harder, and lead to worse lineups when they’re off the floor, a lot of the +/- stats will mistakenly give them credit for that.
chris.herring: There was that game to start the playoffs that Denver lost, where Jokic took only nine shots. I was close to writing an entire story about that notion.
They’ve done a much better job making sure he’s constantly involved in everything since then. They just have a limited bench.
I still wouldn’t like their chances in the next round. But if KD takes a while to come back, at least they’d be playing another thin team in GSW, assuming the Warriors find a way to get one of the next two.
gfoster: Moving to the East, Philly staved off elimination and will go back to Canada for Game 7 — and they didn’t get booed (that much) by their home fans, so that’s big. Obviously, this was a big game for Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, but Joel Embiid posting a +40 in 36 minutes while only scoring 17 is absurd.
neil: Philly’s Big 3 were amazing in Game 6. They finally got it all together at once.
chris.herring: I thought Simmons was the story of the night.
natesilver: While Embiid’s +40 stood out in Game 6, I noticed that Simmons has had a positive rating in every Philly win so far in the playoffs and a negative one in every Philly loss.
chris.herring: Simmons had 21 points in Game 6, but had only managed 33 TOTAL in Games 2-5.
natesilver: I guess that isn’t hugely surprising, but still — Simmons is one of the ultimate “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” players.
chris.herring: I think it’s somewhat unlikely that he has a repeat performance in Game 7 on the road. But even if they can get 15 or so from him on halfway efficient shooting, it’s massive.
We know what he is for now.
natesilver: I was sorta-kinda persuaded by the argument that his natural position is as a stretch center.
chris.herring: But I think that’s part of what works against him in these playoffs: If you keep him and Philly out of transition, he’s going to struggle to score, and he’s going to clog the paint in that dunker’s spot
I really loved that story, too, Nate — and was going to find a reason to post it in here.
neil: “A bigger and more athletic version of Draymond Green with more scoring ability”
chris.herring: And in a way, that’s what he did yesterday.
natesilver: I think he’s become a bit underrated at this point. Like, even if you concede the argument that he and Embiid are a bad fit together, if I’m one of the 29 other GMs, I’d be looking for a way to buy low on Simmons.
chris.herring: He scored off a couple putbacks. And he scored on fastbreaks. Your challenge is that you can game-plan him during the playoffs as an opposing defense.
The fact that he isn’t a jump-shooting threat whatsoever — like, we KNOW he’s not going to shoot — makes him different in that sense than a Draymond, or a Giannis Antetokounmpo. It puts more pressure on the other guys to find ways to score while playing defenses that take advantage of that.
But he’s still really, really good.
natesilver: If Simmons shot a Giannis number of threes, could he shoot at Giannis’s percentage? It’s not that high a bar to clear.
chris.herring: Nah, I’ve watched him warm up several times before. Whereas most NBA players, at any position, can knock down a handful of threes without much trouble, it doesn’t come natural for Simmons at all.
chris.herring: You’re more likely to see him miss five or six triples in a row than you are to see him hit three or four out of 10 when he’s warming up wide-open.
chris.herring: I think it’s a real possibility, yes. When you watch him shoot with his right hand, it looks more natural than with his left.
And I said it on Twitter recently: I think Giannis will be a league-average shooter from three next year.
neil: Is perimeter shooting a skill that a player can learn to at least be competent at with enough work? I guess Giannis is a weird comparison point because his best 3-point percentage in a season was still the 34.7 percent he hit as a 19-year-old rookie.
natesilver: Historically, lots and lots of players have learned to shoot the three, especially recently.
natesilver: But with Simmons, his free-throw percentage is pretty bad, and he’s bad on long twos, so that does suggest there might be something structurally wrong with his shot.
chris.herring: Anyway, I think the Raptors should be fine at home. The series has showcased a number of swings in either direction. If they keep Simmons out of transition, Kyle Lowry doesn’t lay an offensive egg at home, and Kawhi Leonard is himself, I think they’ll be OK
gfoster: Kristaps Porzingis aside, was there a bigger trade deadline move than Toronto getting Marc Gasol? I suppose we could point back to Rodney Hood.
chris.herring: Gasol was tailor-made for this series, and the matchup with Embiid. He’s not nearly as talented, but he can hold his own with a player who otherwise would have had a chance to break this series open.
(Although it’s fair to point out that Embiid has also had, like, three different illnesses this series, somehow.)
natesilver: It’s a pretty high-leverage Game 7 in that whichever team loses isn’t going to feel at all good about its season. Not like, say, Portland, which to be honest can be pretty happy even if they get blown out in Denver.
gfoster: Does Brett Brown keep his job if Philadelphia loses?
natesilver: I don’t think so.
chris.herring: I’d like to think he *should* be safe with a loss, since the series made it seven games. But the owner has been pretty clear in saying that he wanted to see progress with how all-in the Sixers just went. And losing in the second round again, technically, wouldn’t be progress.
natesilver: I know Philly has a bunch of weird fits, but Occam’s razor is that a team with Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick ought to be VERY good, even with no bench.
chris.herring: We talked about it before, but I don’t know if I could blame Brown for not getting more out of a group that hasn’t spent that much time together. Especially with Embiid being less than healthy this series. But I’m also not the one making multimillion-dollar decisions in these trades, hirings and firings.
neil: Yeah, even though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they went in a new direction, it would feel a little unfair given the fit and the lack of cohesion.
natesilver: I do sort of wonder if they trade Simmons if they lose.
gfoster: Does Butler return if they lose?
chris.herring: The city of Philadelphia will riot if they don’t bring Butler back.
chris.herring: He’s been fantastic at times, and it’s clear how much he cares about winning. I think the better question is whether they’ll bring Harris back — and if so, at what money.
neil: I’m always shocked at how young Butler is. He feels like he’s been around forever.
natesilver: Who they would trade Simmons for is a tricky question, because his salary is still pretty low next year. On Twitter the other day, I suggested that an interesting trade might be Simmons straight up for the No. 2 or 3 overall pick, and everyone semed to hate that.
chris.herring: A Simmons trade could immediately improve the playoff outlook of the team, but he’s also so young to where it’s very easy to see how and where he could improve. But it’s part of the reason why I’d at least like to see him experimenting with a jumper during games. You really can’t go entire postseasons without so much as even attempting a shot outside the paint. And playing center on a team with Embiid won’t work long-term.
natesilver: Because he’s only making like $8 million next year, though, it’s hard to trade him for a veteran talent without having to package him with someone else and messing up your books. So if you could trade him for a young point guard, and actually use Butler as your primary ball handler in a lot of lineups, that might be interesting.
gfoster: Speaking of next season’s plans, I wanted to touch on Boston quickly, who was knocked out this week by Milwaukee (who we haven’t even mentioned). What is going to happen with that team? Does Kyrie Irving stay?
chris.herring: I just want to reiterate here: I think Milwaukee can, and probably will, win the whole thing this year.
The Bucks haven’t gotten quite enough credit for taking care of business. We wrote the piece about the Celtics having shut down Giannis in Game 1 — and then didn’t mention them again. The Bucks have been impressive as hell.
neil: If the Rockets hold court at home in Game 6, the Bucks will be the only team to advance in less than seven games. (And they did it in five.) Although idk how much that says about the Celtics.
chris.herring: But Kyrie … who knows with this guy?
natesilver: Good news, New York: Kyrie Irving is now officially enough of a headcase to play for the Knicks!
neil: LOL, Nate.
chris.herring: I don’t think you can go as far as to say that Kyrie burned bridges with the Celtics. But there were so many odd moments where he seemed to be talking about his teammates and what all they needed to do when it wasn’t clear that Kyrie had the stature to say those things.
What I mean by that: If you aren’t all the way in, and you waffle on the idea of being somewhere long-term, it looks weird if you readily critique your younger teammates, who probably feel just as invested, if not more invested, as you are. So it was interesting to see Terry Rozier say that he felt he dealt with BS all season. It was interesting to see Jaylen Brown’s many faces on the bench as their season was winding down.
natesilver: It’s still hard to see him coming back. I mean, he hasn’t been that subtle about conveying his intentions. Which doesn’t mean he couldn’t change his mind later.
Yeah. I think he’s gone. Knick fans had to be ecstatic at how that all played out.
natesilver: It’s also not clear how much Boston wants him back. Certainly the fans have turned on him. His teammates don’t love him. He doesn’t provide that much value relative to the max contract. I’m pretty bullish on Kyrie, but he’s not a huge bargain.
chris.herring: Aside from wanting to make up for whatever this season was, I don’t know why Kyrie would return to Boston at this point if he feels over the whole situation.
gfoster: I think Kyrie’s status in Boston is contingent on whether the Celtics pursue Anthony Davis, right? Wouldn’t he stay in that scenario?
chris.herring: I never understood why he committed to staying as the season was starting. But the fact that he did, if he doesn’t actually want to be there, doesn’t mean he should still follow through with it. I think they’ll likely pursue Davis regardless of Irving.
natesilver: Mayyybee not, Geoff? A lot of the other teams that Kyrie might go to could also put together a decent offer for AD.
chris.herring: The challenge there is if Irving is gone/leaving, you would have a pretty bare cupboard to entice Davis to stay. Because he’ll be a free agent pretty soon, too.
natesilver: By this point next week, we’ll know who has the No. 1 overall pick, too.
chris.herring: That was the risk the Celtics waged by trading for Irving in the first place. (They gave up a banged-up Isaiah Thomas, so it wasn’t a huge risk. But still.)
This risk would likely involve Jayson Tatum and other important pieces. You’d have to make sure Davis wanted to be there before pulling that trigger, I’d think.
natesilver: If push comes absolutely to shove, the Celtics still have Tatum and Brown on cheap deals, a ton of extra draft picks and a good coaching/scouting/analytics staff.
So that’s a fair bit of assets to fall back on. It might make you a little more risk-averse, even though Danny Ainge has a reputation as a gambler.
gfoster: So under the new lottery rules, the Knicks, Cavs and Suns each have a 14 percent chance at landing Zion Williamson. The Bulls are 12.5 percent, Atlanta 10 percent, Wizards 9 percent.
natesilver: Which is the most annoying scenario? That he ends up in Cleveland, maybe?
gfoster: It’s like when the Edmonton Oilers won the lottery in four out of six years. (hockey reference!!)
chris.herring: Maybe I’m too much of a purist? The idea of them winning a fourth lotto in such a tight window would be insane (and maybe depressing on some level, because it feels like incompetent ownership would be gifted with a star yet again). But I also think it would make the Cavs interesting. That said: If he goes to the Hawks, that would be kind of fascinating — perhaps the most interesting fit of the teams with a realistic chance.
neil: Trae Young + Zion, let’s GOOOOOO.
chris.herring: If he goes to the Knicks, the hype will be like something I’ve never seen in my lifetime. Especially with the KD/Kyrie rumors having been out there, too.
gfoster: I do like the idea of Ja Morant on the Knicks.
natesilver: Would you trade him for Anthony Davis, though?
chris.herring: Will give a lot of voice to the idea of the Knicks swapping the No. 1 pick for a Davis package or something
natesilver: WOULD YOU DO IT, CHRIS, IF YOU’RE THE KNICKS?!?
gfoster: All-caps questions need answers.
neil: Yeah, I feel like the bottom part of this chat has just been Nate angling to get AD, KD and Kyrie on the Knicks.
chris.herring: If I had a really strong sense that I was going to get Durant and/or Kyrie, I would be fine with that. If it was just Davis, and no pieces around him, no. I don’t trust the Knicks enough to truly build it from the ground up, with a single star player in place.
Hopefully that makes sense and won’t get me stoned by the Knick fans who read this.
chris.herring: He’s not. But man, it would be great to hold on to him if you could.
Especially if you’re giving them Zion/the first pick. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, you’d feel more comfortable giving away.
natesilver: Yeah, I think Zion for Davis is at least fair value for New Orleans, considering that he really just has one year left on the contract. So if the Knicks are giving up a bunch of other stuff too, I start to not like the trade.
gfoster: All right, the lottery is Tuesday, so next week we will have more developments to discuss in this weekly 2018-19 Playoffs/Wild Knicks Speculation chat. Enjoy the conclusion of the second round!
Joel Embiid has described himself as the “most unstoppable player in the league” — and for good reason. When he’s at his best, like in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, he can make defenders look downright foolish as he pump-fakes his way into windmill dunks. But so far in Philadelphia’s series against Toronto, Game 3 has been the exception. The Raptors have all but shut Embiid down on the offensive end, thanks in large part to Marc Gasol — the man who has perfected the art of stopping the league’s most unstoppable player.
If you think those numbers are obscured by Embiid’s recent upper respiratory problem, consider this: Over the past two seasons (which is as far back as the NBA’s matchup data goes), Gasol has played against Embiid on nine separate occasions (including the regular season and this year’s playoffs). During that stretch, the two have matched up on a total of 379 possessions. Embiid averages just 19 points per 100 possessions when Gasol is his primary defender, by far his lowest average against anyone who has guarded him on at least 100 possessions.
To put it another way: Against average competition, Embiid rivals Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden as the most prolific scorer in basketball in terms of points per 100 possessions. But when he’s guarded by Gasol, he essentially turns into Dewayne Dedmon.
At 7 feet tall and 250 pounds, Embiid can usually bully smaller defenders and tactically position himself in the post. But Gasol is too big to be pushed around, and it’s forcing Embiid out of his sweet spots. Throughout the series, Gasol has refused to cede ground to Embiid, denying the entry pass into the post and forcing Embiid to catch the ball outside of the paint. During the regular season, Embiid averaged 7.4 touches in the paint per game. Against Gasol and Toronto in the playoffs, Embiid is averaging just 4.2 touches in the paint per game.
Another factor contributing to Embiid’s lack of paint touches is the crowd that’s been forming right around the basket. Fellow Sixer Ben Simmons can’t shoot outside of 10 feet and so positions himself near the rim, which brings his defender to effectively provide help defense when Embiid is in the post. That’s a problem especially when the help defender is Kawhi Leonard, the player who has guarded Simmons most of the series.
To make up for his lack of paint touches, Embiid has had to rely on his jump shot to generate points. But that’s not his strong suit. In the regular season, Embiid shot 34 percent on jumpers. In this series, he’s just 10 for 37 (27 percent) on those shots. Gasol is forcing Embiid to do what he does least well, and it’s working to the Raptors’ advantage.
The fact that Gasol has given Embiid trouble shouldn’t be all that surprising. Even at 34 years old, Gasol can still play like the defensive player of the year he once was. Just ask Nikola Vucevic: Gasol neutralized the All-Star center during the Raptors’ first-round series against the Magic. Vucevic scored just 17 points per 100 possessions when Gasol was the primary defender — a far cry from Vucevic’s season average of 32 points per 100 possessions.
When Gasol was brought to Toronto in a midseason trade, it was reasonable to wonder whether the big Spaniard had enough in the tank to make a difference on a contending team. Those doubts have been put to rest, in part because Gasol has chiseled out a perfect role for himself. In Toronto, Gasol doesn’t need to anchor a defense while also serving as a primary scorer, like he was forced to do in Memphis. Instead, he’s able to focus on what he does best, which is lock down the opposing team’s best big man.
In all fairness to Embiid, he’s reportedly battled through injury on top of illness during the playoffs. And if we’ve learned anything from his monster Game 3, it’s that a healthy Embiid can live up to his self-proclaimed title. The only question is whether he can do it consistently against an elite defensive stopper like Gasol.
For a long time now, the Golden State Warriors have owned the NBA’s ace in the hole: the Death Lineup. First deployed at the suggestion of assistant coach Nick U’Ren during the 2015 NBA Finals, the lineup quickly became the most dangerous in the league. And it got even scarier when the Warriors swapped out the weakest member of the first iteration of the Death Lineup — Harrison Barnes — for Kevin Durant before the 2016-17 season.
Since Durant signed with Golden State, the lineup of him, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green has played 529 minutesduring theirregular-season run, outscoring opponents by a total of 268 points — and 20.5 points per 100 possessions. Prior to their series-evening Game 4 loss against the Houston Rockets, the grouphad sharedthe floor for 317 playoff minutes, outscoring opponents by 121 total points and 16.7 points per 100 possessions.
In this year’s playoffs, though, the NBA’s most feared lineup has begun to show signs of vulnerability — and the Houston Rockets have taken advantage. In Game 4, Houston outscored that unit by 11 points across 22 minutes — and that figure includes the 14-8 run with which the Warriors closed the game over the final 5:45. Such a performance for the Death Lineup is — to put it mildly — highly unusual.
That unit has now seen the floor together in 32 of the 48 playoff games that encompass the Durant era,1 and it has been outscored in just seven of those 32 games. When the lineup has shared the floor for at least five minutes, it has been outscored just four out of 23 times. And when that group has played 10-plus minutes together, they’ve been outscored only twice in 13 games.
Take a look at the list of seven playoff games in which the Death Lineup has been outscored, though, and see if you notice anything.
The Death Lineup is killing the wrong team
Since acquiring Kevin Durant, the playoff games in which Golden State’s “Death Lineup” has been outscored, 2017-2019
2018: conference finals, Game 2
2019: Round 2, Game 4
2019: Round 1, Game 5
2017: Round 2, Game 4
2017: Round 1, Game 1
2019: Round 1, Game 3
2019: Round 1, Game 2
First, and most obviously, the two worst games that group has played have come against the Rockets. Last year, they were blasted by 18 points in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, and Monday night, they were outscored by 11. But you might also notice that of the seven games, four of them are from this year’s playoff run, which right now is only 10 games old.2
Part of this may be a product of Steve Kerr and the Warriors leaning too much on the Death Lineup. Before this series, the Death Lineup had never been used for more than 22 minutes in a single playoff game. It has now played 22 or more in all four games against the Rockets, including an all-time playoff high of 34 in Game 3, and the Warriors still managed to lose two of those four games. Those losses dropped their playoff record when the group shares the floor for 20-plus minutes to just 2-3, with all of those games coming against the Rockets.3
That the Warriors have had to use their best lineup more often against Houston than anybody else is perhaps not surprising. The Rockets were fairly open last season about having constructed their team specifically to defeat the Warriors — so open that general manager Daryl Morey declared prior to the start of last season that the organization was “obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’”
They nearly pulled it off during last year’s Western Conference finals, falling in seven games after taking a 3-2 lead but seeing Chris Paul get injured in the final moments of Game 5. Houston was criticized in some circles for its offseason maneuvers, namely letting Trevor Ariza walk for a deal with the Phoenix Suns. The crowing got even louder when Houston started the season poorly,4 but here they are again in position to send the Warriors home early. The Rockets don’t have home-court advantage this time around, but perhaps they have another advantage: their bench.
Houston’s in-season pickups of Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert fleshed out their wing depth, and that duo has provided strong minutes during this series. Rivers missed Game 1 with an illness, but the Rockets are plus-17 in his 85 minutes over the past three games. Similarly, they’re plus-15 in 65 minutes with Shumpert on the floor during the series. Nene has been used only sparingly as the Rockets have leaned into small-ball lineups with P.J. Tucker at center when Clint Capela rests, but Houston is nevertheless plus-18 with Nene in the game.
The Warriors’ bench, meanwhile, has been a disaster. All five players who have come off the bench for at least 10 minutes during these four games have seen the Warriors get outscored during their time on the floor. It’s getting to the point where Kerr seemingly cannot trust any of them — including previously reliable role players like Shaun Livingston.
Playoff games in which Golden State has used the bench for 50 or fewer minutes, 2017-2019
2019: Round 2, Game 3
2019: Round 2, Game 1
2019: Round 2, Game 4
2018: conference finals, Game 4
2019: Round 2, Game 2
Kerr gave his bench guys only 47 combined minutes in Game 4, the third-fewest minutes he has ever given them in 48 playoff games since the team signed Durant. Only five times has he given out 50 bench minutes or fewer, and four of them have come during this series, which is only four games old.
With his bench foundering and the Death Lineup no longer delivering its standard kill shot, Kerr is going to have to hope things take a different turn as the series returns to Oracle Arena for Game 5. Maybe that’s Curry busting out of his series-long shooting slump in an even bigger way than he did on Monday night or Klay Thompson finally exploding for the first time in what seems like forever. Maybe it’s figuring out a way to force James Harden into a subpar performance. Maybe it’s something else. But something has to change for them, or else they’re going to be heading home for the summer unexpectedly early.
Even though they held a one-point lead with just more than a minute left in Game 4, Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors found themselves with their backs against the wall on Sunday in Philadelphia.
The Sixers and their raucous home crowd at Wells Fargo Center could almost taste a victory, one that would have given them an enormous 3-1 series advantage over Toronto heading into Game 5. And they would be accomplishing that despite getting a poor scoring effort from Joel Embiid, who was under the weather for the second time during the series.
But as the clock ticked down to that final minute, Leonard, who’d gotten almost everything he’d wanted Sunday, had other plans. He used a screen from teammate Marc Gasol, and four dribbles to his right, but both of Philly’s pick-and-roll defenders — Embiid and Ben Simmons — opted to follow Leonard to the right wing. Where another player might have passed the ball, Kawhi chose to elevate, lofting a rainbow 3-pointer over the outstretched left arm of the 7-foot-2 Embiid.
In this series against Philly, Leonard is somehow averaging 38 points on 62 percent shooting, with a perfect-looking shot chart. He’s drained an unthinkable 21 of his 24 uncontested shot attempts through the four games, including hitting 6-for-6 on Sunday.
Leonard did all this while continuing to have an impact on the defensive end, where he held Simmons in check during the first half before sliding over during the third period and heavily limiting swingman Jimmy Butler, who had scored efficiently up until that switch occurred.
Leonard wasn’t solely responsible for Toronto’s win Sunday. Gasol — who’d been held to eight points or fewer in Games 1-3 — was more aggressive and finished with 16 in Game 4. Similarly, Kyle Lowry looked for his shot early and finished with 14 points after having just seven in Game 3. Danny Green was a perfect 8-for-8 from the line. All of these contributions were helpful in light of Pascal Siakam, arguably Toronto’s second-best player, shooting 2-of-10 from the floor while playing through a calf injury, and Serge Ibaka being the only Raptor to score off the bench.
But make no mistake: Kawhi has played as if he were content to do this all by himself if need be. And in many ways, that spectacle is still noteworthy considering how far a cry it is from what Leonard was earlier in his career, before he became a clear-cut franchise player.
During this postseason, just 33 percent of Leonard’s baskets have been assisted, according to NBA Advanced Stats, while the other two-thirds have been self-created. Snapshots over time illustrate how that’s flipped almost entirely, as he’s become more of a 1-on-1 player. During the 2012-13 regular season, for instance, 65 percent of Kawhi’s makes were assisted. That share of assisted baskets dropped to 54 percent during 2014-15, and to just under 48 percent in 2016-17 before dwindling to just a third during these playoffs.
The question to raise here, of course, is whether it’s possible for Leonard to keep this up. He can’t keep shooting 70 percent from midrange when he was a 46-percent shooter from there during the regular season, right?
On some level, the answer to that may depend on whether the Sixers are willing to be more aggressive about forcing the ball out of Leonard’s hands. We’ve written before about what makes Leonard so different from the other stars in the NBA (aside from how mysteriously quiet he seems to be): He does just about everything at an above-average level, while defending and scoring better than almost anyone. But if there’s one area to test, it’s his playmaking, which generally pales in comparison to LeBron James’s or even Kevin Durant’s. (Both contemporaries regularly enjoy 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratios, while Leonard has yet to post such a season.) Leonard, who had five assists and seven turnovers Sunday, has closer to a 1-to-1 ratio this postseason, with 31 assists and 29 turnovers so far.
Going one level deeper, Kawhi was the NBA’s least efficient wing player5 this past regular season when opposing defenses either blitzed or trapped him in pick-and-rolls, with the Raptors scoring just 0.46 points per chance in such situations, according to data from Second Spectrum.
So while Philadelphia hasn’t been able to stop The Terminator-like Kawhi yet, the Sixers at least have something they can try in hopes of slowing him down as the series moves back to Toronto.
Creative shot makers and flashy passers are the easiest players to appreciate as fans. Less obvious are the role players who contribute to winning even when they don’t have the ball — and few such role players have had a bigger impact than Houston’s PJ Tucker.
There isn’t a formal definition for what constitutes a role player, but role players do have some defining characteristics. For instance, think of the relationship between a player’s minutes per game and his usage rate, which is the share of a team’s plays used by a player while he is on the court. Star players — your LeBron Jameses and Steph Currys of the league — log heavy minutes and have high usage rates. Role players may also log heavy minutes but tend to be comparatively less involved on offense.
Below is a scatter chart that shows the relationship between usage rate and minutes played per game. The relationship is flat for players who see fewer than 20 minutes per game, but there is a strong, positive relationship among starter- and rotation-level players. After all, if you weren’t producing on the offensive end, you wouldn’t be worth playing for long stretches of time. Unless you’re Tucker.
No one in the NBA this season logged more minutes while doing less on offense. Tucker is the first player since Shane Battier in 2008-09 to post a usage rate of less than 10 percent while also playing at least 30 minutes a game. In Game 1 of the Rockets’ series against Golden State, the Rockets were +9 in net points with Tucker on the court even though he scored no points and took only four shots while logging 39 minutes — the same time spent on the floor as James Harden.
Tucker ranks near the bottom in passes made per game and touches per game, and on average he had the ball in his hand for the shortest amount of time per possession of anyone who played at least 30 minutes per game this season. On offense, Tucker’s role is to stand in the corner and wait for a teammate to pass him the ball so that he can shoot an open three, which is the point of Houston’s spread-out, isolation-heavy offense.
So why can Tucker stay on the court for as long he does without doing much on offense? Two reasons.
Second, Tucker’s defense is vital to the Rockets. While he might not be widely known as an elite defensive stopper, he has the profile of one. Five of the seven players he guarded most often during the regular season were Paul George, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nobody matches up with those guys that often unless he’s built for it.
Only nine players since the 1977-78 season have played at least 30 minutes a game while using less than 10 percent of their teams’ plays. The list is a who’s who of the best defensive specialists in NBA history, including Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, Mark Eaton, Bruce Bowen and the aforementioned Battier. Most of those guys went on to win defensive player of the year, earn All-NBA honors or play a critical role on a championship team. Meanwhile, Tucker has never made so much as an All-Defensive team.
Even though the casual fan might not recognize Tucker for his defensive prowess, his peers do. Earlier this year, DeMar DeRozan praised Tucker’s defensive intensity. “PJ is one of the most intense individual defenders on the defensive end,” he told The Athletic. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.”
The good news for Tucker is that he has the chance to raise his profile during the Rockets’ second-round matchup against the Warriors. The bad news is that he has to prove his mettle by trying to guard Durant.
During the regular season, Tucker matched up with Durant on 111 possessions and held him to shooting 48 percent from the field, a tick below Durant’s 52 percent season average. Durant scored 35 points during the Warriors’ Game 1 victory on Sunday, though only 13 of those points were scored while Tucker was guarding him. In reality, the only person that can stop Durant is Durant. But as long as Tucker doesn’t allow him to shoot over 60 percent from the field like he did when he was guarded by Patrick Beverley during the Warriors’ first-round series, the Rockets will have a chance to pull off the upset.
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): We’ve had almost one full week of games in the NBA playoffs, and trends are emerging. Golden State took a 31-point third-quarter lead over the Clippers on Thursday night … and didn’t lose! So after a few early surprises, things seem to be getting back to what we expected.
One series not playing out according to seeding is San Antonio-Denver. The No. 7 Spurs beat the No. 2 Nuggets 118-108 on Thursday to take a 2-1 lead in the series. This comes as a surprise to the FiveThirtyEight NBA Predictions model, which had Denver as an 88 percent favorite to move on. The Nuggets are still favored, but just 60-40. Are you guys surprised by how this series is going?
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior staff writer): Not all that much, no. I think I picked Denver out of respect for the season it had. But this was the one team basically everybody had questions about coming in.
I had the series going seven games, with Denver winning. It could easily be 3-0 Spurs right now.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I am surprised, but I don’t think we really should be. It’s the Spurs being the Spurs again.
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Our model doesn’t like San Antonio very much, so given their regular-season performance and home-court advantage — and Denver has a big home-court advantage — the Nuggets were pretty clear favorites. But it didn’t really like the Nuggets all that much either. They aren’t a great playoff team because their depth doesn’t really help them in the playoffs, the topline talent is not all that good, and they don’t have much playoff experience.
So I’m surprised that we had them as high as 88 percent, frankly! But not surprised that the Spurs are ahead in the series.
chris.herring: On Denver’s home-court advantage: The Nuggets haven’t beaten the Spurs in San Antonio in 14 tries now.
tchow: I am surprised because at one point in the season, our model gave the Spurs just a 4 percent chance of even making the postseason. We had a story a while back that talked about how they started turning it around (better defense, better bench production), but they were still underdogs going into this series, in my opinion.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, I had sort of counted the Spurs out a long time ago.
Let that be a lesson to me: Never count out Pop.
The experience factor really seems to be hurting the Nuggets so far. (And our model took 3 points away from them for their lack of playoff experience.)
chris.herring: Nuggets coach Mike Malone has talked about the experience factor a pretty decent amount in the past week
His young starting point guard, Jamal Murray, began Game 2 going 0-for-8. Malone was asked if he gave thought to pulling him because of Murray’s performance. He said no, in part because he needed to show his young players that he believed in them, and that he’s with them, win or lose. Murray responded by hitting 8-of-9 in the final quarter to bring the Nuggets all the way back for a dramatic win.
The win probably saved their season for the time being. But it speaks to the volatility of having such a young/young-minded club.
tchow: Murray wasn’t much better in Game 3 — just 6 points and two assists. I’m not trying to pin Denver’s failing’s this postseason all on Murray, though. All the Nuggets starters were pretty terrible in Game 3.
chris.herring: It’s a pretty big contrast between the teams.
While we’re talking about the growing pains for a young team, it’s worth pointing out that the Spurs are being led in part by youngster Derrick White, whose defense is his calling card. I think this is his first real exposure to a national audience, but he’s been playing really well for months.
tchow: White’s Game 3 performance was kind of a reminder for a lot of people who don’t watch the Spurs that he existed.
chris.herring: White’s experience has been different because of all the injuries they’ve had. But White and Dejounte Murray are going to be an annoyingly good backcourt once the team is healthy again next season. AND there’s Bryn Forbes, too.
natesilver: The whole Nuggets backcourt feels like it’s way short of championship caliber. It needs an anchor. There are lots of useful pieces you could rotate around that anchor, like Murray and Gary Harris, but without that anchor, it doesn’t quite come together.
chris.herring: It’s tough: They have a fantastic, sure-handed backup in Monte Morris, who led the NBA in assist/turnover ratio.
chris.herring: He may not win a game for you. But he’s extremely unlikely to ever lose one for you, which you could argue Murray either occasionally does, or comes close to doing. Again: These are the growing pains for a young team sometimes.
sara.ziegler: On to another team that has seemed shaky at times this postseason: the Philadelphia 76ers. But they seem to have recovered from their upset in Game 1 — they’ve beaten the Nets convincingly twice in a row now. What looked different for them in Games 2 and 3?
tchow: Ben. Simmons.
natesilver: Sen. Bimmons.
chris.herring: Yeah, that sounds about right. Whether it was Jared Dudley that got in his head, or just him recognizing that he had to be more aggressive, Simmons has been a completely different player since Game 1.
chris.herring: I hate to say this, because maybe it’s premature, but I was beginning to think that the Nets could steal this series if things broke right for them.
tchow: I think a lot of people thought that, Chris. The Nets are legit and play really hard.
chris.herring: The Nets stole home-court advantage in Game 1. Were basically even at halftime of Game 2. And then get a gift rolled out on a platter for them, with Joel Embiid sitting out of a Game 3 played in their home arena, in front of a fan base that hasn’t hosted a playoff game in four years.
Thursday was their chance. And I think with the loss now, that might be about it.
natesilver: I’m in the Ben-Simmons-is-underrated camp. Yeah, he doesn’t really have a jumpshot. But he does pretty much everything else well. And there have been a lot of players throughout NBA history who have survived or even thrived without jump shots — Giannis Antetokounmpo basically does that now. The advanced stats like Simmons.
tchow: I think it’s very different for a player like Giannis to not have a jump shot than Simmons.
chris.herring: While we’re on the issue of Simmons, I think we learned that Embiid not being there might have been a help for him
For all the wonderful things Embiid does, he plays at a plodding pace.
Someone like Simmons thrives in an up-tempo environment because of his inability to shoot.
tchow: Sara, I found the hot take for next week’s Hot Takedown episode: FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring says Sixers are better without Joel Embiid.
chris.herring: They might be in this series! Well, probably not: Greg Monroe was rough.
If they had more depth, they might be.
natesilver: That’s the thing about Philly. Look how bad their bench is:
Everyone’s like, “Why are these four stars such awkward fits together” — and I’ll admit that they’re a little awkward, but with a half-decent bench, it’s an entirely different team.
chris.herring: I don’t think it’s a terrible bench. And the truth is, you can stagger when you have that many stars.
But the spots in which it’s terrible … yeah.
tchow: Sixers’ bench: Who? Who? Who? The big guy. Who? and Who?
chris.herring: That’s their issue, I think. I’m not sure Boban Marjanovic would work against every team. But he’s their backup big.
natesilver: I saw Boban at the United Airlines lounge at Newark Airport one time. He was very big and tall and sitting in a giant lounge chair and still looked very big and tall.
chris.herring: I tweeted last night that I’m pretty sure he dunked last night with one foot still on the ground.
Anyway: I want to talk more about how disappointed I am in Brooklyn
tchow: Are you just disappointed in their central A/C system at Barclays, Chris?
I promise it's no warmer than 8 degrees in Barclays Center right now. Cold as hell in here.
sara.ziegler: Are you disappointed that their slogan is “We go hard,” and then they didn’t?
chris.herring: They did go hard!
It’s not a question of effort with them. It never is. But I think what Nate alluded to is exactly the issue here. The Sixers’ bench isn’t great/may be bad. And the Nets’ second-best player is their bench.
natesilver: Yeah, Brooklyn’s not totally unlike Denver. Excellent depth, no playoff experience, frontline talent is meh.
tchow: Nate, they’re both small-market teams. I get it. (Queens represent!)
Tony trying to start a borough war here.
chris.herring: You generally see Brooklyn go on these massive runs in the second quarter of these games. But then after halftime, the game gets broken open, and Kenny Atkinson — who I really, really like — waits too long to call a timeout!
The Sixers went on a 21-2 (!!!!) run in Game 2 before Atkinson called for timeout. It took a 1-point deficit and expanded it to a 20-point lead for the Sixers. And then the game was over.
tchow: Maybe Atkinson is from the Phil Jackson school of letting the players figure it out on their own.
natesilver: What was the atmosphere like at Barclay’s, Chris? I think it’s one of the coolest venues in sports from an architectural/amenities standpoint, but every time I’ve gone, the fans are sort of half-hearted.
chris.herring: Last night was amazing to start the game. But I think they were sort of stunned to see the team run out of steam.
And as Tony said: I was freezing.
sara.ziegler: Well, it is a hockey rink, too.
chris.herring: So maybe the have to have the ice ready? But good lord.
My phone turned off at one point because of how cold it was.
chris.herring: The atmosphere was really great. It’s good to have the playoffs in Brooklyn again. And hopefully Manhattan at some point in the next couple years. (side-eyes Knicks)
natesilver: Knicks fans should be rooting against Boston and against Golden State, right?
natesilver: I think KD could leave either after a championship or a flameout. But Kyrie — yeah, he’s already flip-flopped enough that I think Knicks fans want the Celtics out by Round 2.
chris.herring: I think I’m just too conditioned to believe that nothing overwhelmingly good can happen for/with the Knicks unless there’s an enormous downside that comes with it.
natesilver: My current scenario is that they get Kyrie and also draft Ja Morant and somehow that turns into a disaster.
sara.ziegler: Speaking of Kyrie, the Celtics are making quick work of the Pacers. Indiana doesn’t seem to have quite enough offense so far to hang with Boston.
tchow: I’m actually interesting to read Chris’s thoughts on this series. I remember A LOT of people were down on Boston going into the playoffs.
chris.herring: Yeah. I had some hope that this could be an interesting series.
But I also was tasked with writing an Indiana-based primer for the ESPN side ahead of this series. When I got to the “Why Indiana can win section,” I sat and stared at my screen for like an hour.
So this actually doesn’t surprise me all that much.
They simply don’t have enough offense. Or ingenuity.
natesilver: I haven’t watched much of that series; pretty much my only recollection was seeing a score that was like 76-59 in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and thinking I needed to update my contact lens prescription, but nope, that was the actual score.
chris.herring: They basically hand the ball off to Bojan Bogdanovic and say, “Do something.” Kind of like a kid who does a magic trick, but is still holding the quarter in his hand, in plain sight, for everyone to see.
tchow: Has Boston done anything to change people’s minds about their chances though?
chris.herring: No. They’re merely beating a flawed, weakened team, IMO.
tchow: That’s what I figured about Boston. The real test, if they do end up beating the Pacers, will probably come against Milwaukee.
chris.herring: In fairness to Nate McMillan and the Pacers, this was always going to be an uphill battle, because they’re playing without Victor Oladipo. It was a great accomplishment to go 21-21 this season without their star player after going 0-7 without him last season.
sara.ziegler: Yeah, they don’t really have anything to feel embarrassed about.
chris.herring: I really like Indiana, and have a soft spot for Little-Engine-That-Could sort of teams. But they need some reinvention.
They could use more firepower. But they need better schemes.
natesilver: I feel like the whole first round could use more firepower. Between inexperienced teams, teams with injury problems, teams without any star talent … it feels a little bit like spring training or something.
tchow: I agree, but it has been more interesting than I imagined.
chris.herring: A little.
sara.ziegler: Let’s talk about the other interesting series in the East: No. 2 Toronto has had its hands full with No. 7 Orlando. The Magic took the first game, but the Raptors stormed back in Game 2. The teams will face off Friday night in Orlando. Do we think the Magic have a realistic shot in this series?
chris.herring: It depends on what you define as “a shot.” I think they can get another game, potentially. I don’t think they will win the series. The Raptors responded in Game 2 the way you hoped a top-flight team would.
sara.ziegler: But the Magic are underrated, Chris!
chris.herring: If and when the NBA move the first round back to a best-of-five, they’re going to use this series as evidence as why. (edited)
natesilver: I think there needs to be a mercy rule where you can concede your playoff series and get like three Lottery Balls or whatever.
sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move back to the West. The Trail Blazers are off to a great start, up 2-0 against the Thunder. Our model is surprised at this series — it had given the Thunder a 77-23 edge. Are you guys surprised?
Which, while God awful, is only a slight regression for them!
natesilver: That whole quadrant of the bracket — OKC, Portland, San Antonio, Denver — seems incredibly weak to me.
chris.herring: If OKC had a team full of sharpshooters, I could understand having more confidence.
But Russ still defends Damian Lillard as if he’s surprised that Dame can/will pull up from 35 feet.
The guy needs to be treated as if he’s Steph at this point
tchow: I don’t want to take anything away from Portland. Yes, they lost Jusuf Nurkic, but CJ and Dame have been awesome this series.
chris.herring: I came in thinking that this might be a sweep or a 4-1 series in favor of OKC. Simply thought that not having Nurkic would hurt against someone like Steven Adams. I thought CJ McCollum would struggle to find a rhythm (he’s coming off an injury and wasn’t good vs. OKC during the season). We watched Dame log 35 a night against the Thunder during the season and still get swept 4-0 during the regular season.
tchow: CJ has been
chris.herring: I didn’t think they had a great chance in this series. They had lost 10 playoff games in a row. With the exception of perimeter shooting, I thought just about everything else would be in OKC’s favor. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
tchow: If Dame wasn’t in Portland, would he still be this underrated? It feels like this is a storyline every season.
sara.ziegler: That’s a good question.
How many people regularly see him play?
tchow: Basketball nerds: “Look at Damian Lillard!”
Basketball fans: “Who this?”
chris.herring: I guess we have to define underrated.
natesilver: He was All-NBA First Team last season, no?
But, yeah, Portland has to be one of the least-watched teams in the league, or at least by people not in the Pacific Time Zone.
chris.herring: Even if you know who he is, and how great he is, I think you could objectively look at this series — and what the Blazers have done the last two years in the playoffs (0-8) — and say OKC should have been favored.
tchow: For OKC to take Game 3, they need to ____________.
And don’t say something like “play better” (looks at Nate).
sara.ziegler: SHOOT BETTER
chris.herring: … shoot better than my 4-year-old nephew does from outside of 23 feet.
natesilver: I’d say they need to play better basketball.
sara.ziegler: In the other non-Warriors series out West, the Rockets are handling the Jazz easily so far, setting up a showdown with Golden State in the second round. This has played out about as expected, right?
chris.herring: I had higher hopes for Jazz-Rockets. Am impressed with how dominant Houston has looked, but thought Utah would play better than this. Their defensive scheme has looked downright nonsensical to me
tchow: If Chris has a soft spot for Indiana, I think I have a soft spot for Utah. I love this team and wanted more out of them this series.
sara.ziegler: Utah is a very likable team.
natesilver: I didn’t expect Houston to dismantle Utah quite so thoroughly.
In fact, I think that’s the story of the first round so far. It’s a highly consequential story because the Rockets are absolutely good enough to give the Warriors a series.
chris.herring: The disappointment I feel with Utah is equivalent to how excited I am for the second round, with Warriors-Rockets.
That will seemingly be the Western Conference finals, just a round early.
natesilver: It would be quite something if the Rockets actually need fewer games to dispatch Utah than Golden State needs with the Clippers.
tchow: The Jazz just seem like a team that’s so close to figuring it out. Maybe not to a point where you think they can beat Golden State, but they’re so good in the regular season. I don’t know what happens to them in the playoffs.
chris.herring: Yeah, I sort of agree in theory, Tony.
But I think what I’ve learned is that I have to be leery of a team that relies on such a young player to be its leading scorer.
natesilver: Maybe you just need more isolation scoring in the playoffs? Or more scoring, period?
chris.herring: I remember a stat from last year: Donovan Mitchell was the first rookie to lead a playoff team in regular-season scoring since Carmelo Anthony.
I think there’s a reason we don’t see it happen much. And I think it’s even more problematic for a team built like that to have all sorts of horrible defensive breakdowns, because at that point, you know they have no shot at keeping up in a shootout against one of the best scorers in modern history.
If Quin Snyder rolls out the exact same defensive scheme that he did in Games 1 and 2, this series will end in a sweep.
natesilver: Is Mitchell … a little bit like Carmelo Anthony in that he’s taking too many shots? I mean, I guess he has to take a lot of shots with that lineup. But Utah really needs another player who can create his own shot.
tchow: What if you played a player like Royce O’Neale more? He’s +1.8 on defense (according to our model), and it looks like they do a bit better defensively with him on the floor.
chris.herring: He’s another example of what Nate is talking about, though: A guy that isn’t likely to create his own shot.
This is a team that will need to take a long, hard look at itself this summer despite how well it’s played during the second half of these last two seasons.
tchow: One obvious fix would be to get rid of Grayson Allen.
natesilver: I also think Utah benefits from being a bit unorthodox. Rubio is an unorthodox point guard. They’re defense-first. They can play at a slow pace, although they picked up their pace a lot this year. They’re well-coached. So there’s an advantage from game-planning in the regular season. But Daryl Morey and the Rockets are going to study the hell out of the Jazz and know how to counter.
chris.herring: Some of these teams are built to play really, really well in the regular season. And there’s incredible value in that, for seeding purposes, etc.
But the inability to change your playing style when you’re forced to is often fatal this time of year.
natesilver: It’s not that they’re going to lose to the Clippers, but I do just have to wonder about a team’s mentality when they can blow a 30-point lead.
chris.herring: NBC analyst Tom Haberstroh pointed out that Steph was only averaging 19.9 points per 36 minutes this season with Boogie on the court, and that he essentially morphed into Malcolm Brogdon.
Averaged 31.4 points per 36 minutes without DeMarcus on the floor.
natesilver: I mean, part of that might be that Steph was being deferential in an effort to get Cousins feeling like himself again.
Which … there isn’t time to do that in the playoffs.
tchow: Definitely. I think Steph went through a similar dip when KD joined too.
chris.herring: The last thing you want is Steph playing nice when you need him to be Steph.
natesilver: It does just seem kind of impossible when you have to shut down Steph AND KD and Klay. Even if the rest of the team kind of sucks.
chris.herring: I tend to think this helps them for now, but the Rockets series was one of the overarching reasons they signed Cousins — to make it so Houston couldn’t switch as much as they did on them last year
natesilver: Yeah. So in some ways, we’re back to last year’s series, which was as even as it gets. The Rockets lately are playing as well as last year. And the Warriors without Cousins are basically last year’s team.
sara.ziegler: After this matchup, will we even want to finish out the playoffs??
natesilver: Well, the Western Conference finals are likely to be an anti-climax.
tchow: LOL. Yes! I for one am very interested to see who comes out of the East to play against Warriors/Rockets.