Bubble Ball: A review of all eight NBA Playoffs series, four games in

Good news: we’re over halfway to the second round. Every series has completed exactly four games, with three series already ending in sweeps just like that. Wave goodbye to Brooklyn, Indiana, and Philadelphia, as temporarily, we’re down to 13 teams. We’ve still got to delete five more from the field, but we’ll get there soon enough. For now, let’s discuss these series one-by-one.

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic; Milwaukee leads, 3-1

Milwaukee: Four games in and Milwaukee still doesn’t look quite like the Bucks we watched all season long. Offensively, they’ve started to look pretty solid; the efficiency numbers are just fine, but the level of shots they’re getting is tied for #1 across all playoff teams. 77.27% of their shots have either been at the rim or from three, and they’ve shot better from three (39.13%) than you probably would’ve expected. And yet: they’re committing more turnovers per 100 possessions than any other team in the playoffs. It’s not like they’re playing the Lakers defense already; this is the Magic, a team that did force the tenth-highest turnover rate but ranks third amongst the remaining East teams in defensive turnover rate.

An alarming amount of Milwaukee mistakes have come as unforced errors; their live-ball turnover rate is just fourth-worst in the playoffs, but they’ve committed way more dead-ball turnovers than any other team. Lots of ill-advised travels, several bad passes, and more have made this series closer than it should be. All that said, they’re up 3-1 against a team that doesn’t have the roster to hang with them. Game 5 is of moderate interest, as Milwaukee should be able to close Orlando out easily if they begin to limit silly mistakes.

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Orlando: Oddly enough, if you looked just at the shot distribution stats, you’d think Milwaukee would easily be demolishing the Magic. Orlando has taken just 16.3% of their shots at the rim, an alarmingly low rate for a team with Nikola Vucevic on it. They have taken – and hit – a ton of long mid-range twos, which is not really a way to beat Milwaukee. Instead, they’re taking what the Bucks give them from the three-point line, to the tune of 45.4% of all field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. Sometimes it works out (19-for-39 in Game 3, 18-for-45 in Game 4) and keeps them in games; sometimes, it simply does not (7-for-33 in Game 2).

They’ve shown that, if you have shooters, you can force this Milwaukee defense to look worse than it is. That said, look at those Game 3 and 4 numbers. Combined, Orlando shot 44% from three across two games and only lost the turnover battle by four. They lost both games by a combined 29 points. What more are they able to do?

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(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets; Toronto wins, 4-0

Toronto: Outside of Game 2 and some spare moments in the other three games, very rarely a series where the Raptors had to exert much energy or felt in much danger. They could’ve ran through this series on 80% effort and still likely swept their opponent, given how undermanned Brooklyn was. And yet: isn’t it at least a little impressive that in three of the four games, Toronto thoroughly dispensed with their opponent well above what was expected of them? I initially dismissed Game 1 as a small outlier dependent on three-point shooting, but Toronto went out and scored 150 points in the sweep-clinching Game 4 victory. The Shot Quality metric from pbpstats.com suggests that Toronto was pretty lucky on the whole – an expected eFG% of 51% versus an actual eFG% of 59.2% – but at this point, who are we to distrust anything this team does?

They’ve already overcome the loss of Kawhi Leonard to be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. They have the NBA’s Coach of the Year. They’ve got a deep roster that rarely, if ever, takes a minute off from playing their hardest. Maybe they got a little lucky to win by as much as they did in this series, but I’m not sure it really matters; as I said, even an 80% effort probably produces the same result. Two special notes: firstly, the main lineup of Siakam/FVV/Anunoby/Lowry/Gasol went for 1.251 points per possession in this series; secondly, they really need Kyle Lowry’s injury he sustained in Game 4 to heal ASAP.

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Brooklyn: Well, what else could you have really expected? They ran out a team that was essentially half of a G-League roster, fought for a full 48 minutes in one game, and didn’t have the firepower to hang in the other three. It was what it was. The good news is that Brooklyn got some good performances from various players throughout the series, and I’d say they have a lot more to look forward to next season with a full-strength roster. Barring alterations, FiveThirtyEight ranks the full-strength Nets as roughly the sixth-best roster in the East, and given that the Sixers and Heat both rank ahead of them, it’s fair to consider them a top-half East team next year. For now, they get a lot of time to rest up and watch some of the more fun Caris LeVert highlights as a passer.

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(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers; Boston wins, 4-0

Boston: What a series. Objectively, this was always going to be theirs to lose, and given how greatly Philadelphia struggled in the regular season just to do anything interesting at all, a Boston in five games outcome would’ve been a fair guess. But for the Celtics to sweep the Sixers – even this particularly frustrating Sixers squad – is notable indeed. If this was something where Boston simply had four straight games of good luck and won all four in a series where it should’ve been 3-1 or even 2-2, it would be different. In all honesty, that wasn’t the case.

When the Sixers’ main five were on the floor (Richardson, Milton, Horford, Harris, Embiid), the Celtics scored 126 points in 103 possessions. No team had a lower Shot Quality in the first round than Philly, because Boston couldn’t stop forcing them into all kinds of bad mid-range twos and ugly attempts from all over. Now, the Celtics themselves rarely got great shots, as they were the second-worst Shot Quality offense in the first round. However, it may not matter much if they’re going to play the defense they’ve been playing thus far.

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Philadelphia: What more can be said about this expensive failure? Generally, people get fired for failing this miserably, and as is the norm in basketball, it will probably be blamed on the head coach as opposed to the front office. However, think about this: Philly’s offense possesses two legitimately good three-point shooters in Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton. Both rank out as C-grade perimeter defenders, per BBallIndex.com – not exactly what you’d like from three-and-D guys. Now, look at the rest of the roster. The next-best starter-level player from downtown is Tobias Harris, a 78th-percentile shooter. He’s a D-plus perimeter defender. The best perimeter defenders – Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle – are bad shooters, with Thybulle being a large negative on offense. Can you see where this went wrong, even before you get to Al Horford’s contract?

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(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat; Miami wins, 4-0

Indiana: Sadness. This year began with, in theory, a full-strength roster heading into the playoffs that could win a series or two and force people to treat the Pacers as a more serious franchise going forward. Their six(!) best players are all 28 or younger, and all six are under contract through at least the 2020-21 season. This was to be the beginning of a potentially monumental two-season Pacer run, and the oddsmakers showed them some quality respect in the offseason, giving them the fourth-highest title odds in the East. They ended up the 4 seed as expected, but without Domantas Sabonis, they’re leaving this postseason without a single win and ending it in undeniably disappointing fashion.

It’s sad to see it happen like this for Indiana, a team that plays hard nightly and did so for most of the season even without Victor Oladipo, but the fact of the matter is pretty simple: their offense was never good enough to justify a playoff run. Only Philadelphia and Boston possessed worse shot quality during their four-game playoff runs, and only three teams were less efficient offensively. Obviously, it doesn’t help that Indiana gave up about 115 points per 100 possessions to Miami, but the Heat have Duncan Robinson and the Pacers don’t. Until Indiana finds better, more consistent shooters, their offensive ceiling is heavily limited.

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Miami: Joy! Let’s revisit those preseason odds. When the season started approximately 25 years ago, the Heat had the seventh-highest title odds in the East and were considered on par with the Brooklyn Nets in terms of win totals. (Congrats to the analytics nerds – all of us – for correctly saying the Nets would be a sub-.500 team. We did it.) Now, they just swept the 4 seed in their conference and are heading into a matchup with the Bucks where it feels like they’ve got the momentum. Momentum is a fleeting thing, obviously, and I don’t know that it really exists.

That being said, this Miami team feels more trustworthy by the game. We all expected Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to look good, of course, but who would’ve guessed that the story would be Goran Dragic? He averaged nearly 23 points a game against Indiana, shot 41.4% from three, and generated more offense than any other player on the roster. I think we all could’ve seen this coming if it were still 2014, but it’s 2020 and he’s long past his prime…or so we thought. I’m loving the Dragon’s renaissance, and he could be a major key in Miami potentially dumping Milwaukee out of the playoffs early.

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Western Conference

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers; Los Angeles leads, 3-1

Lakers: Throughout the seeding games and Game 1 of this series, the issue of Can the Lakers Hit Open Shots was becoming a serious topic. When you go 5-for-32 from downtown in any game, many are going to react to it in a certain way. Los Angeles was pretty consistently at the league average, sometimes above, in hitting wide-open shot attempts this season. They went 2-for-16 on wide-open threes in the first game, something that was very unlikely to repeat. Guess what? Since then, on the bevy of wide-open attempts Portland’s Swiss cheese defense allows every game, the Lakers are 22-for-55 on three-point attempts where there’s no defender within six feet. Even funnier, to my eyes, is the fact they’ve gotten 17 two-point attempts that were wide-open, the second-most by any team in the playoffs. (In first, surprisingly: the Orlando Magic, with 21.)

As soon as Los Angeles began to take advantage of all of the opportunities Portland was going to give them, the series was going to end. Had they hit their threes in Game 1, this would’ve thankfully ended last night with Portland getting wrecked by 20 points in a game that wasn’t that close. If there’s any benefit to all of this, it’s that we do get to enjoy seeing Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent, Jr. attempt to guard LeBron James one more time.

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Portland: Well, it was probably always going to end this way. Portland made a lot of bad roster construction decisions last offseason, essentially trading their two best defenders for Hassan Whiteside, Carmelo Anthony, and several mediocre wings. (When Gary Trent, Jr. is the best available wing defender you have, you have a bad roster.) Dame Time dragged them into this series in the first place, but the clock has been broken for several games now. @Tim_NBA on Twitter has been doing a fantastic job of exploring how Los Angeles has completely changed their pick-and-roll coverage from the regular season, running almost no soft hedge/drop coverage at all and instead forcing Lillard to be guarded by 1.5 defenders at all times.

From both a Lillard perspective and a Portland perspective, it’s worked almost flawlessly. Lillard has just (I know, just) 97 points through four games, a far cry from when he scored 154 in the final three regular season games. He’s shot just 13-for-31 on twos, has committed 14 turnovers, and no one on the remainder of the Blazers roster has helped pick up the slack. With Lillard unfortunately picking up what looked like a scary injury in Game 4, Portland could be embarking on their final game with almost no consistent scoring option to speak of. Yes, I know C.J. McCollum would still be out there; so what?

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(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks; series tied, 2-2

Clippers: Well, here we are: the Clippers are embroiled in what’s looking like a seven-game battle with a Dallas team that had the third-highest net rating in the West but had issues closing out games late. Los Angeles probably feels confident that they can win two of three, but they’ve had some serious defensive issues thus far. We all expected the Clippers to turn it on defensively, and in some aspects, they have. Per PBPStats.com’s Shot Quality metric, Dallas has been held to the fifth-worst expected value on their shot attempts. That’s good, and to be sure, the Clippers have been a tad unlucky in this series: no Patrick Beverley for games 2-4 has hurt, and Dallas outshooting their expected eFG% by a full 8% is unsustainable. (Over the course of their regular season, no team overshot or undershot their expected eFG% by more than 4%. Regression comes for everyone.)

That said, the Clippers simply aren’t making it easy on themselves. Everyone knew the ball would be going to Luka for the final shot of Game 4. So why in the world would you guard him with Reggie Freaking Jackson of all players? Didn’t you just spend the last 13 months telling everyone about how Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were the defensive keys to a title? Where were they when the game was on the line? Luka went a perfect 5-for-5 against Jackson when he was in the game, and though that wouldn’t be sustainable over multiple games, it was important then and important now. When Kawhi matched up on Luka, he held him to 2-for-6 from the field and forced two turnovers. Kawhi switched off of Luka for the final possession, which is pretty strange in its own right and also can’t happen again.

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Dallas: LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUKA!!!!! I mean, what more is there to say? On a day without Porzingis, and two days after he sustained a rough-looking injury, Luka merely came out and dropped his second-consecutive triple double, closing it with the signature moment of the 2020 Playoffs thus far. You can call him a superstar now. This is not the time for those of us who correctly said Doncic was easily the best player in the 2018 Draft to take a victory lap; we have 15 more years to do that. For now, focus on how wonderful and fun his game is. Everything about him brings joy, and honestly, everything about the structure of this Mavs offense brings joy. I still don’t think they’re going to win this series, but I think the West should be terrified of Dallas in another year or two.

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(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Utah Jazz; Utah leads, 3-1

Denver: Season’s probably over, which is a shame. Denver was never as good as they should’ve been this year, as it took Nikola Jokic a month or two to play into basketball shape and the rest of the team a while to figure it out. But they kept finding ways to win, they were fun, and they still remain an unusual and fascinating roster. I don’t know if they could’ve controlled two of their starters being out for the entirety of the playoffs, but at the same time, Utah’s missed Bojan Bogdanovic, their #2 scorer, and has been perfectly fine.

If Gary Harris and Will Barton were available, I think it’s undeniable that they wouldn’t look as lost defensively. I don’t think Donovan Mitchell would have dropped two 50-point games within the same series, though I do think it’s been nice watching Jamal Murray play the way a lot of people have wanted him to play for some time. I also think that the Jazz are well overdue for shooting regression, as they’re beating their expected shot value by a Playoffs-high 10.6%. They’ll have a stinker of a game at some point. Will it be too late for Denver?

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Utah: Donovan Mitchell, the Series. What a rise it’s been for Mitchell, who’s been fairly inconsistent ever since his amazing rookie year. Think of it this way: Mitchell has six single-digit scoring outings over the last two seasons while also having five 40+ point games. He takes a lot of shots you wouldn’t want most players to take, but he’s hitting pretty much all of them in this series. Denver doesn’t have an active player that can guard Mitchell, and any time he’s been matched up on Torrey Craig or Michael Porter, Jr., it’s been a disaster for the Nuggets. Surprisingly, this Jazz roster is just a game away from the second round, which is where they hoped to be all along. Funny how things work out, even if the shooting is due to regress hard pretty soon.

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(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder; series tied, 2-2

Houston: Suddenly, the narrative of this series has shifted away from Houston in a fashion I’m sure they didn’t hope for. Russell Westbrook has now missed all four games, and after two games of looking fine without him, Oklahoma City’s offense has started to take advantage of the pockets of Houston’s defense that can’t hang with them. Without Westbrook this season, the Rockets were far worse at forcing turnovers, and Houston’s lost the two games where they haven’t won the turnover battle in this series. They even had a stretch in Game 4 where they hit seven threes in a row and Oklahoma City still won.

After all of this, the pressure is now back on the Houston supporting cast. Harden was fantastic again in Game 4, going for 32 points on 25 shots and grabbing 15 assists…but he also didn’t get to the foul line nearly as often as usual, and no one around him was able to get a stop when the game was on the line. The last time I wrote one of these, I said that you should pretty much never lose a game where you make 20+ threes, and Houston went on to lose a game where they made 23 of them. That’s bad. Either Houston’s got to find a way to slow down Chris Paul and…Dennis Schroder, or an early exit is back on the menu.

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Oklahoma City: Look who’s back! Not only was Chris Paul excellent over the last two games, they’ve gotten a pair of shockingly great performances from one Dennis Schroder. Schroder has never been an analytics-friendly player, as they’ve correctly pegged him as a mediocre defender and moderately-efficient scorer. However, Oklahoma City finally found a way to make the most of him this season: he serves as a pretty solid sixth man for the Thunder, and by asking him to take more shots from the outside, they’ve turned him into a surprisingly effective shooter. (It also helps that in his seventh season, he’s finally turned into an above-average finisher at the rim.)

The key to the rest of this series is probably Schroder. You know what you’re getting from Paul every night, and for the most part, you know what you’re going to get from Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Lu Dort. You don’t always know which Schroder is going to show up. Is it the Schroder who shot 8-for-24 over the first two games and scored just 19 points against six turnovers, or is it the Schroder that went for 59 points in Games 3 and 4? The outcome of the series may well depend on it.

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