Thursday, April 25, 2019

Slant Pattern NBA Playoff Musings

By Kevin Beane

I've seen complaints that this year's edition of the the NBA playoffs is boring, because only one series is close; as of this writing, the afternoon before the games of Tuesday night April 23rd, only one series is neither either finished nor standing at 3-1 (Nuggets/Spurs at 2-2)

But even if the first round is a dud (and I would say things like the Clippers record-breaking comeback in Game 2 against the Warriors, and the chippy tension of Nets/Sixers, Thunder/Blazers, and Rockets/Jazz are just a few reasons I've been amply entertained this first round), this stands to be the most fun playoffs in quite a few years.

Why? Because not only are we not going to get Warriors/Cavs for the fifth year in a row, but the Warriors are looking like just one of five or six teams that could win it all. They look beatable.

True, every other team still looks even more beatable, and I still think the Warriors are slight favorites to take home the trophy again. But they are laying down some stinkers that they haven't in years past; blowing the 31-point lead at home to the Clippers is just one example. They also lost to Phoenix at home and the Celtics in a blowout (also at home) down the stretch. Each of those regular season losses has promised to be a wake up call for Golden State, without turning out to be so.

Granted, the first round could be more fun if some underdogs could close the deal. Since the 2015 playoffs, teams in the first round seeded sixth or worse have split the first two games (thereby giving themselves home court advantage in games 3-7) six times. They have gone on to win that series zero times. If the Nuggets win their series with the Spurs and the other teams up 3-1 win their series, then those underdogs will be 0-10 in that situation in the last five years (I grant it's a bit of a cherry-picked stat in that it doesn't count New Orleans' first round victory over Portland last year in that the Pels won both games in Portland). Gets some poise and finish it off, underdogs!

Speaking of that Nuggets/Spurs series, the conventional wisdom is that even if they Nuggets survive, they aren't making it past the conference semifinals. Denver is the Rodney Dangerfield of the 2019 NBA playoffs.

It's easy to see why; most if not all of the advanced metrics and basic stats do not have Denver anywhere near the second-best team in the West, yet they deserve some credit for scrapping their way to the second-best conference state that matters most; wins and losses.

But, I genuinely believe Denver is underestimated as a threat in these playoffs; they go very deep (nine players averaging over 16 mpg in the playoffs) and play strong defense.

Other bits of conventional wisdom are confounding me, as well; one is that the Celtics are the team to get behind in the East. Scot Pollard echoed a lot of pundits I have read when he tweeted, "If you don't think the @celtics are coming out of the east I've got news for you: They are. Didn't even have a good series and swept the Pacers. Hayward peaking at the right time. Looking at ease, finally, on that formerly bad wheel. The pieces are falling into place."

This would be easier to agree with if the Bucks showed any chinks in the armor whatsoever against the Pistons. Like the Nuggets, the Bucks seem to invite more skepticism than anything. I suppose that will always be true of teams who haven't been in deep playoffs waters in their current iteration. But the Celtics, as Pollard pointed out "didn't even have a good series" against the Pacers, and they will find not having a good series against the Bucks means they will lose. Gordon Hayward's resurgency is not enough to significantly mitigate the Greek Freak's dominance, and they Bucks are showing absolutely zero greenness except in their uniforms.

There's one more bit of conventional wisdom I'd like to debunk. I follow a lot of sports bettors and wagering writers, and they were all taking the Rockets last night (who lost). Their reasoning (at least their public reasoning) was shockingly superficial: Harden had one of the worst games of his career in game three and they still won, so what hope does Utah have when he inevitably returns to form?

It's true that Harden arguably has the most impact on his team, and on the outcome of the game, as any other NBA player. But he's still only one dude. The Rockets are still capable of losing with him having a good game. To wit: This game against the Grizzlies on March 20th. Harden shot 46.2% percent from the field (slightly better than his shooting percentage for the year), had 8 assists against just 3 turnovers, and scored 57 points. It all added up to a game score of 44.2 for Harden, his fourth-best performance (by that measure) of the regular season. You guessed it, the Rockets lost.

I guess the lesson there is, don't take gambling advice if said advice only contains one single bit of rationale, only a lone factor. Take it from me, the guy who told you last column to bet against Tiger Woods at the Masters.

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