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.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Now that every NBA team has played Game 82 of the regular season, we can finally get to the real business at hand: The playoffs. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference, where the Milwaukee Bucks earned the franchise’s first top seed since the league adopted the 16-team playoff format in 1984.
What do we think about the big picture in the East? The No. 1 Bucks and No. 2 Raptors were the most dominant during the regular season, but seeds 3 and 4 (Philadelphia and Boston) have as much talent as anybody in the conference on paper. Who do you think should have the edge and why?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I’m going to go ahead and agree with our algorithm that there’s a big gap between the top two (Milwaukee and Toronto) and No. 3 and 4 (Philly and Boston). Milwaukee and Toronto were a LOT better in the regular season. I agree that Philly might have as much talent on paper, but they didn’t really get it together. I’m not sure you can say that about Boston, especially with Marcus Smart out.
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Yeah. I spent some time around the Sixers over the past week, and Brett Brown admits what Nate just said: That the Sixers have an enormous amount of talent on paper, but he almost would’ve preferred to have less rest if it meant having more cohesion with that group.
The Marcus Smart injury could end up being really problematic for the Celtics for a couple reasons, too — we don’t know exactly how much time he’ll miss, but it could even be a bad sign in this series vs. Indiana.
Smart would have been the guy guarding Bojan Bogdanovic, who’s essentially taken over as the Pacers’ top gun since Victor Oladipo went down with injury.
Bogdanovic struggled against Smart all season, and his worst numbers of the year were against Boston because of it. But now, I assume they’ll go to Jaylen Brown to defend him, and that hasn’t worked well at all in those instances.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): Our predictions give the Celtics a 79 percent chance to advance. Even with the Oladipo injury for the Pacers, that still seems … high?
chris.herring: Probably a little high, yeah. Especially now, without Smart.
natesilver: I mean, I think people tend to underestimate how little luck there is in a seven-game series. The better team tends to win out, especially if it has home-court advantage.
chris.herring: I tend to think the Pacers are The Little Engine That Could. They play very hard … but that will probably only get them so far.
natesilver: For what it’s worth, our algorithm is giving Boston some credit for being more talented “on paper” than they played like during the regular season. Jayson Tatum is probably a better player going forward than what he showed this season, for instance. Gordon Hayward is obviously in a different category, but maybe him, too. Boston also had the point differential that you’d associate with a 52-win team instead of a 49-win team, which is not huge, but it’s something.
chris.herring: Yeah. Hayward has come on really nicely as of late, including a 9-of-9 game vs. Indiana last week. If he’s getting back to his old self, it could be tough for Indiana.
natesilver: It does seem, though, that it’s a team with only one real star-level talent right now, and Kyrie Irving seems pretty checked out. That’s subjective, I know, but they have a pretty big hill to climb — having to win three road series against three VERY good teams (likely Milwaukee, Toronto and Golden State, in that order) even if they get past Indiana.
chris.herring: I’ll be honest: I’m not very amped about the East’s first round at all. But that second round will probably be eons better than the West’s conference final.
neil: Yeah, it sounds from this like Boston-Indiana is the first-round series that has caught your attention the most. But that might be by default.
natesilver: The Nets are kind of a buzzy team. But Philly, maybe in contrast to a Marcus Smart-less Boston, has enough talent that maybe they can be slightly subpar and still win fairly easily.
chris.herring: Yeah. I don’t expect much from Brooklyn, but I could see them making things interesting because of the limited time the Sixers have had together. Other than that — and some slight interest in how Boston looks without Smart/what it means for Indiana — I wish I could just simulate the East’s first round like a video game or something
chris.herring: Maybe that isn’t fair to Orlando, though. They’ve been good for a decent amount of time now.
neil: They’ve been on fire (11-2) since mid-March.
chris.herring: I just feel like it ultimately won’t matter against a club like Toronto.
natesilver: I also think Philly has more flip-the-switch potential than Boston. Maybe Jimmy Butler accepts his role as what’s essentially a third fiddle on offense and plays dominant defense and starts hitting 3s again. Maybe they treat the playoffs as a fun eight-week road trip instead of worrying too much about how the team is constructed in the future.
tchow: Just tell me what needs to happen to get Sixers vs. Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
neil: Well, the Raptors would have to lose in the second round AGAIN. How soul crushing would that be for that franchise? This was sorta supposed to be their year after LeBron left the East. (Especially after adding Kawhi Leonard.)
chris.herring: I don’t know how I feel yet about the Sixers-Raptors series, assuming it happens. But I think the Bucks should be favored against everyone, honestly. I think everybody has downplayed them, even as they’ve had this unbelievable season, with the likely MVP and coach of the year.
natesilver: The Raptors somehow won 58 games with Kawhi only playing 60. That’s seriously impressive.
chris.herring: I don’t know if it’s a small-market thing. Or if it’s just that people seem to be a year late on everything. It is impressive!
At the same time, they won 59 last year without him. So I’m more impressed by the Bucks essentially having the same cast and transforming into what they are now. I don’t know. Maybe it’s simply Milwaukee’s newness that I’m taken by.
neil: Are we also maybe holding Toronto’s playoff track record against them? (Even if it’s a relatively new version of that team this season?)
chris.herring: Nah. I’m not. Kawhi is such a different player than DeMar DeRozan, who had a game that didn’t translate all that well to postseason. Also, Pascal Siakam has improved by leaps and bounds. You could ignore him before on defense, and now that’s tantamount to having a death wish.
natesilver: They also have one of the two real stars in the East that’s won a ring before (Kawhi, with Kyrie being the other). Which I know sounds like boilerplate sports radio talk, but our research has found that playoff experience is actually fairly predictive.
chris.herring: I think Toronto fans have wanted to believe their team was different for a couple years now. Almost like that “Shawshank Redemption” scene where Red keeps going to the parole hearing and saying he’s a changed man, ready to rejoin society. But this time, the Raptors are different. Kawhi alone would have made them that way, but Siakam is a different player. As is Lowry, who hasn’t quite looked himself at all times. But has the experience, and has a better roster around him.
natesilver: Our algorithm also thinks that all six of their top rotation guys are above-average defensively. So that’s likely to keep them in every game unless they get mentally checked out.
Which, I don’t know. I wouldn’t totally rule out the possibility that they take a rough loss in a Game 1 or 2 somewhere and start panicking, and Kawhi starts thinking about how nice the Clippers could look next year with him in L.A.
But on balance, I think I’m on the side that says people are reading too much into the Raptors’ past playoff failures. It’s a different team this year, and there’s no LeBron.
chris.herring: Like the Munchkins when they realize the Wicked Witch is dead. Why do I keep using these movie references? What is wrong with me?
tchow: As of right now though, our model actually favors Toronto (slightly) over the Bucks to make the Finals (46 percent vs. 42 percent). Toronto fans have to be happy to see that.
neil: Do you guys agree?
natesilver: Yeah, that surprised me a bit. But Toronto has more playoff experience and Milwaukee has some injury issues.
tchow: I guess it’ll go a long way in the “playoff experience” argument to see how far a team like the Bucks go this year after that seven-game series last season against Boston. I have a hard time betting against them in the East though.
natesilver: On the flip side, Giannis Antetokounmpo is presumably going to start playing 37-38 minutes a game now after only playing 32.8 minutes in the regular season. That actually makes a pretty big difference.
chris.herring: That surprises me, but only a little. Their records aren’t that far off. The Raptors have played Kawhi a lot fewer games than Giannis.
What I do think will be key at some point, which we haven’t talked about yet, is the Bucks’ need to get back to full strength. They’ve been without Malcolm Brogdon, and Tony Snell has missed time, too. It doesn’t matter in a round 1 matchup. But it comes into play in a very big way in the following two rounds, should they get that far.
natesilver: I do wonder if Milwaukee’s whole floor spacing thing will work slightly less well in the playoffs. If you can contain Giannis — obviously not at all easy — there really isn’t a second iso-ball scorer on the whole roster. Maybe Eric Bledsoe, I guess.
chris.herring: I just don’t know how it’s done
natesilver: Containing Giannis you mean?
chris.herring: Before, there wasn’t much trust or belief. But now, you kind of either have to help in the paint against him, or leave open someone like Brook Lopez, who will gladly shoot a triple.
There were screenshots last postseason of four Celtics standing in the paint at one time to stop him, because Milwaukee wasn’t trained to score outside of his drives to the basket.
Now, even Giannis will pull 3s every now and then, just to keep defenses honest. Bledsoe’s had a nice year. Lopez is there, but wasn’t before.
@JonAriasRadio agree Giannis needed to play better but the below image is why he struggled to get more shots off. Spacing. Brogdon sitting in the corner makes a world of difference. Instead you have Bazz and Jabari collapsing the lane. pic.twitter.com/VXdYo7oYiE
neil: And for what it’s worth (maybe something?), Milwaukee beat Toronto in three of their four regular season matchups. Those games were also before all the little upgrades Milwaukee made around the trade deadline. But we’ll have to see how the Bucks look at full strength and if they and the Raptors can even make it all the way to the Conference Finals to face each other.
Let’s move on to the West, where — here’s a surprise — the Golden State Warriors are the No. 1 seed, for the fourth time in five years. Our model currently gives the Warriors a commanding 78 percent chance of winning the conference (and a 60 percent chance of winning the NBA title). On the one hand, that is amazingly high, but does it sound right to you guys?
natesilver: The West playoffs feel a lot less climactic to me now that the Rockets wound up on the same side of the bracket as Golden State.
chris.herring: It sounds about right to me. The one side of the West bracket is the equivalent of Michigan State and Duke being in the same region.
natesilver: Utah is also a pretty rough first-round matchup for Houston. Rudy Gobert is going to make it much harder for James Harden to get to the rim.
neil: Well, Chris, we were talking the other day this idea that the Rockets may have actually wanted the No. 4 seed so that they’d face the Warriors sooner. Can you explain a little about what you meant there?
chris.herring: I fully believe the Rockets may be happy with this setup. At this point, they’re probably of the opinion that they can beat anyone other than GSW (and maybe them, too).
Utah isn’t a pushover at all. It’s kind of an amazing first-round matchup that, in most years would be at least a second-round matchup, and in a post-Warriors universe, maybe even a conference finals.
But that said, Houston beat Utah last year. And they did it by neutralizing what the Jazz do best: Take away threes and the rim. They forced the Rockets to take midrange shots, which they basically view as evil. But the Rockets did that — Chris Paul is a midrange specialist and went off for 40 points one game — and were able to win. So if the Rockets can get by Utah again, having the Warriors in round 2 instead of the Western Conference finals might be beneficial. Just so Paul and Harden aren’t exhausted or injured like they were by round 3 last season, when they played the Warriors.
natesilver: Yeah, I think Chris Paul is key in that series. Utah’s pretty optimally designed to curb Harden as much as you can curb him, but CP3 is a big problem for them.
natesilver: Overall, though, I think if I’m Houston, I’d rather have a hope-and-a-prayer that someone else knocks Golden State out before they reach the finals. Or that someone on the Warriors gets hurt.
chris.herring: Yeah. They’d never admit it out loud, but the potential theory that they want GSW early is fascinating to me. If your line of thought is that you’re almost certainly gonna have to go through them anyway, might as well do it before you’re too spent to have a chance.
chris.herring: Golden State doesn’t fear anyone, but I think they would privately acknowledge that they see Houston as the only team that, in optimal circumstances, could beat them
natesilver: It could make the Western Conference finals pretty boring though. Our model says there’s a 93 percent chance the Warriors win the WCF (!) conditional on reaching them.
chris.herring: Yeah. That’s why I keep saying the semifinals are gonna be the best round this year. Especially if Houston-Golden State is the matchup, along with those East series.
tchow: Hey kudos to Oklahoma City for avoiding Golden State AND Denver AND Houston. Actually, OKC vs. Portland is the only series in the entire playoffs where the lower seed is favored according to our model. We give the Thunder a 78 percent chance of advancing.
natesilver: OKC and Denver saw their championship odds improve when Houston wound up in the No. 4 seed, and it’s mostly because of the parlay that Houston beats Golden State (possible) and then THEY beat Houston (also possible). I’m not sure that Denver would have any chance against Golden State in a seven-game series, however.
chris.herring: I feel bad that I don’t believe in Denver, given how well they played all year, with injuries, and with so many young guys on that roster.
neil: Is Denver the weirdest No. 2 seed we’ve seen in recent memory? They didn’t even make the playoffs last year, albeit with 46 wins.
chris.herring: Also, every single time Denver plays Golden State, it feels very much like GSW goes out of its way to show how easily they can dominate the Nuggets when they want to. Basically to show that a playoff series could get embarrassing if Golden State felt like imposing its will.
natesilver: The Nuggets benefited a lot from their depth in the regular season — that’s why they battled so well through injuries — but depth doesn’t mean much in the playoffs.
chris.herring: Their relative inexperience in the playoffs concerns me maybe more than it should.
natesilver: It’s a pretty weird roster, and I think the Nuggets have some offseason work to do to turn a couple of their many, many league-average players into another really good player, especially someone who can play out on the wing.
chris.herring: Part of me feels like they simply may not have another gear. Almost like those Tom Thibodeau teams. Because they’re young, perhaps they don’t know to pace themselves. And how could they? They missed the playoffs in the final game of the season last year.
But the fact that Golden State just runs them out of the building whenever they play very much feels like an experienced team versus one that isn’t and needs some playoff seasoning so that they’re ready for the next time.
neil: They feel destined to become another poster child for the difference between what wins in the regular season and the playoffs, for all the reasons you guys mentioned. But at least they do have a legit star in Nikola Jokic.
natesilver: Denver does have a pretty big home-court advantage because of the altitude. So that they got the No. 2 seed is actually pretty relevant.
chris.herring: That’s true. I at least like that they aren’t reliant on the altitude anymore to win games. (Although those teams that played at a breakneck pace under George Karl — and Doug Moe before that — were pretty fun to watch.)
neil: Good point. They were an NBA-best 34-7 at home this season, and they are in that relatively lesser bottom section of the bracket.
natesilver: I mean, we have the Nuggets with a 53 percent chance of reaching the Western Conference finals … and a 6 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals. That tells you a lot right there.
chris.herring: What else are you all interested to see in the West? Any hope whatsoever for Portland, despite the injury to Jusuf Nurkic?
neil: Portland is another team with a lot to prove after that unexpected first-round sweep vs. the Pelicans (remember THEM?) last year. But OKC is a very tough draw.
chris.herring: Portland got swept this year by OKC. Our projection model is right to not trust them. And Nurkic not being there is a killer. They had put together a really, really nice run before his injury, and perhaps could have made things interesting.
tchow: I really feel for Portland fans. So many “what ifs” due to injury, and they always seem to happen when it looks like they’re on the cusp of putting it all together.
natesilver: Pretty unusual to have a No. 6 seed be better than a 3 to 1 favorite (OKC is 78 percent to win the series, according to our model), but I think I agree, too.
chris.herring: Yeah. There’s isn’t much to love about Portland’s chances
natesilver: The Thunder are also the team that I’d fear the most if I were Golden State after Houston.
chris.herring: Damian Lillard went nuts during the regular season against the Thunder. Had a 50-point game and averaged better than 30 a night against them, yet they dropped all four meetings.
tchow: Is CJ McCollum going to be back for this first round?
chris.herring: Yeah. McCollum is back. But he had a true shooting percentage of 46 against OKC, his worst mark of any opponent out West that he played at least three times.
natesilver: Tenacious defense + Paul George (especially if he can get back to his midseason form) is a formula that gives you a puncher’s chance against any opponent.
chris.herring: I don’t trust OKC yet. Some of that is Russell Westbrook’s tendencies being all over the place at times. Some of it is George not having played the way he was playing earlier in the year (still not sure his shoulder is completely right at times).
Their defense, which is one of the best in the league, has been merely average since the break. They don’t have enough shooting. But their top-level talent is better than anybody else’s, outside of Houston and GSW. And that ultimately matters. And their side of the bracket is amazing.
natesilver: Jerami Grant shot 39 percent from three this year, although that’s likely a fluke (he’s 33 percent careerwise).
chris.herring: He’s been a big bright spot for them.
natesilver: If they had another wing that was a true 39-40 percent 3-point shooter, that would make a ton of difference.
neil: OK, so to wrap things up, let’s look at the big picture for the title as it runs through Golden State (like always). If we each had to put together a short list of teams — from either conference — who could beat the Warriors in these playoffs, how many teams would be on it and who are they?
Mine might be two: Rockets and Bucks.
natesilver: Our algorithm feels strongly that the list is EXACTLY three teams long: Milwaukee, Toronto and Houston.
natesilver: I guess people — or Neil and Tony, anyway — have trouble envisioning the Raptors doing it.
tchow: Sorry, Toronto.
natesilver: And to be clear, the Raptors would be big underdogs. Like 3:1 underdogs, per our model, despite having home-court advantage.
tchow: Another way to ask that question, Nate, as a fan of gambling, Warriors have a 60 percent chance of winning another title. Would you bet on the field?
natesilver: No. I think that’s a pretty fair price. And it’s pretty close to the Vegas odds, I think.
chris.herring: Yeah. I feel much better about Milwaukee, just based off their season, analytics and star power than anyone else. But I don’t think Toronto would match up poorly at all with Golden State. They’d have guys who could credibly guard Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and have enough offense of their own to make things interesting.
Boston seemed like a good bet to get there in preseason, but I don’t trust them to accomplish that without Smart being healthy., a And without them putting together a solid string of performances, I still ultimately think it’s the Warriors winning it all again. But I hope someone at least gives them a competitive series, be it Houston, Milwaukee (Toronto?) or both.
One of FiveThirtyEight’s goals has always been to get people to think more carefully about probability. When we’re forecasting an upcoming election or sporting event, we’ll go to great lengths to analyze and explain the sources of real-world uncertainty and the extent to which events — say, a Senate race in Texas and another one in Florida — are correlated with one another. We’ll spend a lot of time working on how to build robust models that don’t suffer from p-hacking or overfitting and which will perform roughly as well when we’re making new predictions as when we’re backtesting them. There’s a lot of science in this, as well as a lot of art. We really care about the difference between a 60 percent chance and a 70 percent chance.
That’s not always how we’re judged, though. Both our fans and our critics sometimes look at our probabilistic forecasts as binarypredictions. Not only might they not care about the difference between a 60 percent chance and a 70 percent chance, they sometimes treat a 55 percent chance the same way as a 95 percent one.
Sometimes, there are more sophisticated-seeming criticisms. “Sure, your forecasts are probabilistic,” people who think they’re very clever will say. “But all that means is that you can never be wrong. Even a 1 percent chance happens sometimes, after all. So what’s the point of it all?”
That way is principally via calibration. Calibration measures whether, over the long run, events occur about as often as you say they’re going to occur. For instance, of all the events that you forecast as having an 80 percent chance of happening, they should indeed occur about 80 out of 100 times; that’s good calibration. If these events happen only 60 out of 100 times, you have problems — your forecasts aren’t well-calibrated and are overconfident. But it’s just as bad if they occur 98 out of 100 times, in which case your forecasts are underconfident.
Calibration isn’t the only thing that matters when judging a forecast. Skilled forecasting also requires discrimination — that is, distinguishing relatively more likely events from relatively less likely ones. (If at the start of the 68-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament, you assigned each team a 1 in 68 chance of winning, your forecast would be well-calibrated, but it wouldn’t be a skillful forecast.) Personally, I also think it’s important how a forecast lines up relative to reasonable alternatives, e.g., how it compares with other models or the market price or the “conventional wisdom.” If you say there’s a 29 percent chance of event X occurring when everyone else says 10 percent or 2 percent or simply never really entertains X as a possibility, your forecast should probably get credit rather than blame if the event actually happens. But let’s leave that aside for now. (I’m not bitter or anything. OK, maybe I am.)
The catch about calibration is that it takes a fairly large sample size to measure it properly. If you have just 10 events that you say have an 80 percent chance of happening, you could pretty easily have them occur five out of 10 times or 10 out of 10 times as the result of chance alone. Once you get up to dozens or hundreds or thousands of events, these anomalies become much less likely.
But the thing is, FiveThirtyEight has made thousands of forecasts. We’ve been issuing forecasts of elections and sporting events for a long time — for more than 11 years, since the first version of the site was launched in March 2008. The interactive lists almost all of the probabilistic sports and election forecasts that we’ve designed and published since then. You can see how all our U.S. House forecasts have done, for example, or our men’s and women’s March Madness predictions. There are NFL games and of course presidential elections. There are a few important notes about the scope of what’s included in the footnotes,2 and for years before FiveThirtyEight was acquired by ESPN/Disney/ABC News (in 2013) — when our record-keeping wasn’t as good — we’ve sometimes had to rely on archived versions of the site if we couldn’t otherwise verify exactly what forecast was published at what time.
What you’ll find, though, is that our calibration has generally been very, very good. For instance, out of the 5,589 events (between sports and politics combined) that we said had a 70 chance of happening (rounded to the nearest 5 percent), they in fact occurred 71 percent of the time. Or of the 55,853 events3 that we said had about a 5 percent chance of occurring, they happened 4 percent of the time.
We did discover a handful of cases where we weren’t entirely satisfied with a model’s performance. For instance, our NBA game forecasts have historically been a bit overconfident in lopsided matchups — e.g., teams that were supposed to win 85 percent of the time in fact won only 79 percent of the time. These aren’t huge discrepancies, but given a large enough sample, some of them are on the threshold of being statistically significant. In the particular case of the NBA, we substantially redesigned our model before this season, so we’ll see how the new version does.4
Our forecasts of elections have actually been a little bit underconfident, historically. For instance, candidates who we said were supposed to win 75 percent of the time have won 83 percent of the time. These differences are generally not statistically significant, given that election outcomes are highly correlated and that we issue dozens of forecasts (one every day, and sometimes using several different versions of a model) for any given race. But we do think underconfidence can be a problem if replicated over a large enough sample, so it’s something we’ll keep an eye out for.
It’s just not true, though, that there have been an especially large number of upsets in politics relative to polls or forecasts (or at least not relative to FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts). In fact, there have been fewer upsets than our forecasts expected.
There’s a lot more to explore in the interactive, including Brier skill scores for each of our forecasts, which do account for discrimination as well as calibration. We’ll continue to update the interactive as elections or sporting events are completed.
None of this ought to mean that FiveThirtyEight or our forecasts — which are a relatively small part of what we do — are immune from criticism or that our models can’t be improved. We’re studying ways to improve all the time.
But we’ve been publishing forecasts for more than a decade now, and although we’ve sometimes tried to do an after-action report following a big election or sporting event, this is the first time we’ve studied all of our forecast models in a comprehensive way. So we were relieved to discover that our forecasts really do what they’re supposed to do. When we say something has a 70 percent chance of occurring, it doesn’t mean that it will always happen, and it isn’t supposed to. But empirically, 70 percent in a FiveThirtyEight forecast really does mean about 70 percent, 30 percent really does mean about 30 percent, 5 percent really does mean about 5 percent, and so forth. Our forecasts haven’t always been right, but they’ve been right just about as often as they’re supposed to be right.
There are a few things we’ve come to expect over the years from San Antonio Spurs basketball. The team will always find a way to make the playoffs, no matter how much talent and pedigree it loses during the offseason. Coach Gregg Popovich will generally deliver grumpy end-of-quarter interviews no matter how well his team is playing. And once in a while, we can expect a furry, winged menace to descend from the rafters and terrorize their home court.
The local bats of San Antonio have long held a reputation as unruly Spurs fans, occasionally crashing games and disrupting play. In recent weeks, though, the bats have claimed season-ticket holder status with the red-hot team, which has won six-straight contests. In three of the team’s past six home games, including this past Sunday, one of the flying mammals has brought a Spurs’ game to a screeching halt for minutes at a time, as various team staffers furiously scrambled to apprehend the flapping intruders.
All of which raises the obvious question: Why is the arena plagued with bats so often?
After spending many sleepless nights investigating the matter — in truth, I just called a couple of local specialists — the answer actually makes pretty good sense. The AT&T Center is 25 miles southwest of Bracken Cave, which is home to more than 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats, making it the largest summer bat colony in the world.4
What’s more, it’s logical that bats would fly past the arena, particularly during the winter months. The stadium is almost directly in the bats’ migration path from Central America and Mexico back to Bracken Cave, where maternal colonies fly to have and nurse their newborns (nearly doubling in number).
Still, the team’s proximity to the real-life Batcave alone doesn’t explain how the bats are working their way inside the venue.
There are a couple of potential factors at play. First, the San Antonio arena — a few miles outside of the city’s downtown area and adjacent to a golf course — is perhaps the closest thing to a suburban venue in the entire NBA. The massive, brightly illuminated presence that attracts moths and other insects in an otherwise quiet area might be appealing to bats5 that are looking for food on a given night, according to Judit Green, who has worked as an urban wildlife biologist for 30 years with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Beyond that, experts suggest that the 750,000 square-foot stadium almost certainly had — or potentially still has — a tiny crevice somewhere, releasing just enough warmth outside to entice bats and birds that are looking to escape the area’s colder-than-usual temperatures for a night. (The Spurs declined to comment or to make a facilities specialist available to be interviewed for this story.)
“I’d guess there’s a small vent or other opening to the outside that’s attracting the attention of migratory bats,” said Merlin Tuttle, an Austin-based ecologist who has studied bats for 60 years and founded Bat Conservation International in the 1980s. “When cold fronts hit, sometimes that’ll drive the bats wintering in San Antonio to look for a place that gets them out of the cold.”
Once a bat does make it into the arena, we’ve seen time and time again what type of hilarity may ensue. It was nearly a decade ago in 2009 — on Halloween, fittingly enough — that future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili endeared himself to Spurs’ fans even more by swatting a disruptive bat out of the air with his bare hand.
To be clear, the AT&T Center isn’t alone in producing odd animal-related headlines. It’s nothing new for pro sports, particularly ones played outdoors, to be interrupted by uninvited animals like squirrels, cats, birds, bugs, dogs and rabbits, just to name a few. And bats have also popped up once each this year at NBA games in Utah and Indiana, respectively.
But the San Antonio arena has developed a reputation for general weirdness over the years. Aside from a pigeon that flew overhead at the arena in early January, a snake was found in the visiting locker room before a playoff game between the Blazers and Spurs in May 2014. A month later, during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the air conditioning stopped working — a development that became controversial after visiting star LeBron James cramped, shifting the momentum of the contest away from Miami and toward San Antonio. The Spurs went on to dominate the series, and James left the Heat the following month in free agency.
While the team did hire a designated pest-control expert following the Ginobli incident, the little-desired task of removing the bats usually falls to arena staffers who just happen to be on the court — and needless to say, it doesn’t always go so well. A handful of Spurs’ employees often give unsuccessful chase to bats, usually armed with nothing more than towels. Even Coyote, the team mascot, has gotten in on it — and, in a few cases, has actually been the one to round up the bats, illustrating just how much of an all-hands-on-deck process it can be.
Rob Wicall, who served as the mascot for nearly two decades before stepping down in 2016, sounded almost envious of all the bat run-ins there have been lately. For years, well before Ginobili’s bat-swat back in 2009, Wicall kept a fishing net he’d bought and the mascot’s Batman costume accessories nearby,6 just in case a bat ever got loose in the arena.
Ginobili took care of the problem just before Wicall could suit-up and come to the rescue back in 2009. But during his farewell season, Wicall got another chance to be the hero before a game in December 2015, and he made it count. He couldn’t see that well — the costume allows little to no peripheral vision — but he tracked the bat into the painted area before somehow nabbing it with his net. When he realized he’d succeeded, Wicall — in Coyote’s full Batman attire, with the PA announcer playing the old-school Batman theme song over the speakers — lifted his arms triumphantly.
“It was one of those bucket-list things for a mascot, because you’ve not only solved a problem in the arena, but you’ve also brought entertainment,” said Wicall, adding that it took him less than 45 seconds total to dash into his changing area and throw on Coyote’s Batman accessories.
But not everyone relishes these run-ins. Spurs forward Rudy Gay sought shelter from a bat by hiding behind ref Zach Zarba last month. And Nets All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell, who has now had two separate bat experiences at AT&T Center the past three seasons, took refuge in the tunnel leading to the locker room as four bats circled over the court.
Bucks center Brook Lopez, on the other hand, would activate a Bat Signal if he could. As a comic-book aficionado, Lopez told SB Nation early in February that he’d welcome being bitten by a bat in hopes that it might make him a superhero.
“I’m just going to make myself available [to the bat],” Lopez said. “At that point, it’s up to the bat. A lot of it is up to fate in these superhero stories. But I want to give myself a shot.”
Fate seemed to be listening. A bat flew past Lopez on Saturday in San Antonio. Fortunately — or perhaps unfortunately, given Lopez’s hope of becoming a superhero — he wasn’t bitten.
On the other hand, the Lakers surrendering a 15-2 run — and the lead — over the final three minutes of play may have put the team’s back against the wall in an entirely new way.
With the defeat, LeBron James and the Lakers find themselves staring at just a 14 percent playoff probability in FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projection model, the lowest mark they’ve had all season, and a damning scenario given that there are only 20 games left in the campaign. That 14 percent figure is an enormous drop-off from even a week ago, when the club held 25 percent odds to get in. (Three weeks ago, the Lakers’ number was 41 percent.)
But a number of realities are setting in now. The Lakers are 4 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the seventh seed and 3.5 games back of the San Antonio Spurs, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker (meaning their lead is more like 4 games, since the Lakers would miss out on the postseason if they were to finish with the same record as San Antonio). Perhaps the most disheartening thing, aside from having a lot of ground to make up, is the fact that the other teams vying for the last two spots have much easier remaining schedules.
By contrast, the indestructible Spurs need to go only 10-9 to finish with 44 wins. They have an easier-than-average slate the rest of the way, with 11 of their last 19 games in San Antonio. The Clippers have it even better, needing a 9-9 finish to get to 44 victories, with 12 of their last 18 contests at home. (The young, fun Sacramento Kings are positioned in about the same spot as the Lakers in the standings, needing a 13-7 finish to reach 44 wins. But their remaining schedule is the third-easiest in the NBA, giving them some hope in an uphill battle.)
James has faced late-season pressure to lift his team out of the doldrums each of the past few seasons. But this scenario with the Lakers stands apart, both because of how much time he missed with injury (one that now looks as if it will cost the team a playoff spot), and because of how the young supporting cast struggled to hold the rope during his absence, going 6-11. It’s one thing to coast into the postseason, the way James’s Miami and Cleveland clubs often did. But James himself hasn’t missed the playoffs in 14 years, not since the 2004-05 season.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that the Lakers finally look engaged. They held Antetokounmpo to just 16 points, one of his lowest-scoring outputs in a dominant season. Youngster Brandon Ingram has showcased his scoring ability lately and was unstoppable Friday, finishing with 31 points.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden has been busy this season redefining just how much offense a single player can create. As we near the NBA All-Star break, Harden has scored at least 30 points in an absurd 30 consecutive games and counting, which, according to Basketball-Reference.com, is the second-longest streak in league history. Harden’s streak trails only Wilt Chamberlain’s 65-game run from the 1961-62 season — a season in which Wilt happened to set the NBA record by scoring 50.4 points per game. The way Harden has been filling up the scoresheet, Chamberlain comes up as a frequent comparison, continually amazing for those of us who never thought we’d get to see numbers like Wilt’s in today’s game. But what might be most remarkable about Harden is the way he’s different from Chamberlain — specifically, how his one-man show has changed his team’s offense.
A big reason that Chamberlain keeps popping up is that it’s difficult to find a modern analogue for what Harden is doing. Harden currently has a usage rate of 40.2 percent, meaning he has taken a shot (or turned the ball over) on roughly two out of every five Houston plays when he’s on the court. And when he isn’t trying to score himself, Harden has also assisted on 40.3 percent of teammate baskets. The only other qualified season in NBA history to break those 40/40 thresholds belonged to Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 — and Westbrook was much less efficient that season than Harden has been this year, averaging 6.8 fewer points per 100 possessions on plays he had a hand in ending.
To get a sense of just how far Harden is pushing the boundaries of productivity, here’s a breakdown of all qualified seasons since 1976-77 by possession rate1 versus offensive efficiency. (The outermost points up and to the right are the best combinations of workload and efficiency.)
With 118.6 points produced per 100 possessions on a possession rate of 40.5 percent, Harden is currently having the greatest high-usage offensive season in modern history. From a team perspective, those numbers mean that Houston is funneling nearly half of its possessions through a player who is personally averaging nearly 2 more points per 100 possessions than the league’s most efficient team (the Warriors, at 117.0). So in theory, this should be a very good thing for his team’s scoring rate, which in turn should lead to more and more wins.
And in Harden’s case, that appears to be true. Since Harden’s streak began, he is averaging 122 points per 100 possessions with a usage rate of 42.8 percent, both numbers up from the 114 and 37.3 percent marks he had before the streak, respectively. And over the same span, Houston’s teamwide offensive efficiency has zoomed up from 111.2 points per 100 before the streak (sixth-best in the NBA) to 116.9 (second-best) ever since, with his Rockets’ on/off-court offensive efficiency split (+5.8 points per 100) staying roughly the same before the streak and after. Houston is also 21-9 over the streak, after starting the season 12-14. Of course, the recent return of former All-Star point guard Chris Paul, who missed 18 games during Harden’s streak, has buoyed the Rockets as well — but in general it’s safe to say that Harden’s tear has had a very positive effect on Houston’s efficiency and overall record.
Why is that notable, though? Isn’t that simply the logical result of having a highly efficient player dominate his team’s possessions? You might think so, but in a dynamic sport such as basketball, things are often more complicated than they may appear. And the best example of this could be Chamberlain.
Chamberlain’s career was unwittingly one of history’s most fascinating laboratories for basketball experimentation, in large part because he was the NBA’s most extreme statistical outlier ever. Wilt led the league in scoring in each of his first six seasons, with a staggering scoring average of 40.6 points per game over that span; he also led the league in field goal percentage in three of those campaigns, making 50.7 percent of his shots in total (at a time when the NBA average was around 42 percent). With such a high volume of efficient shots, you might expect that Wilt was like Harden, leading his teams to tremendously efficient offensive performances.
But you’d be wrong. Shockingly, Chamberlain’s Warriors struggled to even break league average in efficiency during his seasons with the club, despite the enormous amount of high-percentage scoring Chamberlain did by himself. It wasn’t until Chamberlain switched teams and started scoring less — passing to his teammates more — that his clubs began breaking offensive records.
To better understand the sometimes-counterintuitive effect a single scorer can have on his team’s offense, I reached out to Ben Taylor, author of the book “Thinking Basketball,” who was one of the first researchers to notice this phenomenon in Chamberlain’s numbers. “The arc of [Wilt’s] career is very, very unique,” he said. “Not only do some people consider him the best player ever precisely because of these raw stats, but he goes through many different coaches, they put him in many different situations, and specifically Alex Hannum comes along with this great idea — like, ‘Hey, Wilt, what if you just didn’t shoot that much anymore?’ — and he does this, and the team becomes incredible.”
Chamberlain’s 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons with Philadelphia present the most fascinating test case. According to Taylor’s research, Chamberlain’s own personal scoring attempts in 1966 were much more efficient (averaging about 1.09 points per possession) than those of his teammates when they tried to score (0.94), and the 76ers had a mediocre offense with Chamberlain scoring 33.5 points per game. If anything, that makes it sound like Chamberlain should have shot the ball even more — but instead, Hannum persuaded Chamberlain to spread the ball around the following season. His teammates, basically the same cast of characters, averaged more points per attempt (1.01) on more shots per game, while Wilt himself was far more efficient (1.27 points per attempt!) when scoring “only” 24.1 points per game. The result was a championship for Philadelphia and one of history’s greatest offenses.
Chamberlain’s less-is-more experience is indicative of other one-man shows from throughout NBA history, Taylor said. “You can see it with other high-usage players in a modern setting. I think the classic examples are 1987 [Michael] Jordan, 2006 Kobe [Bryant], guys like that — they’re doing a similar thing, and again you don’t have anywhere near a top-shelf offense.”
But Harden has been able to break that mold by playing differently than other one-man offenses from the past. “Harden’s not the best example of one of these high-usage all time scorers,” Taylor said. “He’s a little weird in that he’s more like Steve Nash — he’s passing and dominating the offense to also set up teammates, and so you have a huge ‘creation’ player. … The stark difference between [Harden and Wilt] is that Wilt, when he was scoring, was more like a black hole, and Harden is just running everything.”
The idea that Harden is what Taylor called a “Scoring Nash” is eye-opening. Playing in a similar (if not exactly identical) system to the one Nash orchestrated for four years under coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden has evolved the role of distributor to include an even greater level of player choice. If one of Nash’s great strengths was drawing defensive attention as a means of setting others up for easy shots, Harden can also use the threat of the pass as a means of giving himself more space to shoot. As a result, Harden has an “offensive load” — Taylor’s metric for measuring direct involvement via scoring or passing within an offense — of 66 percent, compared with Nash’s single-season high of 51 percent under D’Antoni in 2007.
Pass-heavy initiators like Harden don’t always elevate otherwise mediocre offenses to greatness. For instance, Westbrook — who in 2017 set the NBA record for single-season usage rate (just ahead of Harden’s rate this year) — was the centerpiece of a barely average scoring attack that year, despite his record offensive load of 74 percent. But a disproportionate share of history’s greatest offenses were led by players such as Harden, Nash, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and even Golden State’s Stephen Curry — players who stretched defenses into oblivion with the interplay between their passing and scoring.
That’s why Harden’s admittedly impressive scoring streak is only one part of the puzzle that has helped vault the Rockets back near the top of the Western Conference’s contender list. By playing more like the Chamberlain of 1967 than 1962, Harden isn’t just helping the team with his own statistics — he’s also making the players around him better.