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

No intro needed here; it’s the NBA Playoffs. Instead of a normal game-a-day review, I decided to take a broad look at all eight series currently going, with a GIF representing each team. Let’s begin.

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic; series tied, 1-1

Milwaukee: No one thought they would get rocked in Game 1, but pretty much everyone expected them to respond appropriately in Game 2. The Bucks finally looked like the Bucks everyone watched from October to February…in some fashions. For reasons unknown, Khris Middleton – AKA, one of the most efficient shooters in the NBA – has had an absolute disaster of a series. He’s 5-for-20 from the field, 2-for-10 from three, and has turned it over way more than he did at any point pre-pandemic. You’d imagine he’ll find his way out of this, but the Bucks need him to do so as quickly as possible.

Giannis has gone for 59 points and 37 rebounds through two games, and often it feels like it’s just Giannis on the court. Part of this is because the Bucks are happy to run HB Dive and HB Slam with Basketball Jerome Bettis on their side, but part of it is also that no one is helping Giannis consistently. Through two games, the second-best Buck has been Eric Bledsoe, and not exactly by way of standing out. He’s averaging 14 & 6, which is fine, but not at all what you’d want the second banana of a title contender to be posting. Milwaukee looked way more attentive on defense in Game 2; now, we have to monitor how long it’ll take for them to figure out the offensive details clearly plaguing them. It’s probably not a good thing for them to have the same main problem as their 8-seed opponent, though they should be fine in this series.

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Orlando: Two totally different games: looked unbeatable in Game 1, looked sweep-able in Game 2. Game 1 was strange for both teams, in that Orlando looked like the much more excited and focused roster, not at all how it went in the regular season. They keep saying that the Bubble will produce strange results that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have come about. Game 1 was an easy one to chalk up to that. In a normal world, you’d imagine that a Milwaukee slow start gets turned around at some point simply because it’s a true road game. Fans don’t affect the game nearly as much as some sportswriters want them to, but they do have an effect, and it would’ve helped the Bucks.

For Orlando, the series essentially has boiled down to this through two games: how far can Nikola Vucevic drag this roster, and will anyone step up to help him? In both games, Vucevic has been fabulous, posting 35 & 14 in Game 1 followed by 32 & 10 in Game 2. Those are Giannis-like numbers, and he’s having a heck of a series so far. That said, he needs help. In Game 1, Orlando got five double-digit point efforts from non-Vooch players, including some serious surprises in James Ennis and Gary Clark. The Magic also had an unusually great day from downtown while Milwaukee had an unusually bad one. Game 2 flipped the script: Vooch was great, as mentioned, but no one else scored more than 12 points. Also, the Magic were an awful 7-for-33 from three and took an absurd amount of bad mid-range twos. The only reason the game was within 15 points was Orlando benefitting from several questionable foul calls on the Bucks throughout the game. Until Orlando can replicate the Game 1 effort again, they’re in trouble.

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

Toronto: All the nice things about Brooklyn that were said do ignore that the Raptors probably should’ve won Game 2 by double digits. The Raptors had back-to-back outlier shooting performances, but Game 1’s was the positive side (22-for-44 from three) while Game 2’s was a negative (9-for-35). Odds are that, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle for Toronto. Fred VanVleet isn’t going to shoot 8-for-10 every night from three, just like he won’t always shoot 3-for-11. The Raps can thank Norman Powell completely taking over the paint for getting them over the top in Game 2; he went a perfect 8-for-8 in the paint while going 3-for-9 from everywhere else. On the whole, the Raps figured out fairly early they weren’t going to be making a lot of threes and still did a good job of getting to the rim. This is a very adaptive team that knows how to win games, and even if they aren’t always pretty, that has to count for something in a league where both 1 seeds lost their first game.

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Brooklyn: As hard as they’re trying and as admirable a mission as they’re undergoing, they simply don’t have the firepower. In Game 1, they couldn’t buy a three for large stretches of the game, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was the only player that seemed to be able to score consistently. The issue lies with the fact they’ve got a bunch of role players in roles they aren’t meant to be in. Jarrett Allen is a good player, but he’s just a roll & cut big that protects the rim well defensively; the team can’t run through him. Caris LeVert would be a perfect sixth man on a better team. Joe Harris is best as a catch-and-shoot option. And so on! It’s far from a perfect roster…and yet, had they not pushed out a horrendous seven-minute offensive stretch to open the fourth quarter in Game 2, this series very well could be tied at 1.

The Nets keep throwing everything they have available at Toronto, forcing one of the worst Raptors offensive games of the year in Game 2. Their defense allowed a lot of attempts at the rim, but they also demanded Toronto shoot over them to very little success. Toronto won that game in spite of their awful three-point shooting, which included a 3-for-14 run in the second half. Where it was TLC that kept Brooklyn in it offensively in Game 1, it was a good performance by Garrett Temple in Game 2 that almost got them there: 21 points, 5-11 on 3s. They continue to play ultra hard every night, even if it doesn’t look pretty. If they could find a way to combine TLC’s Game 1 with Temple’s Game 2, they’d steal a game before this series ends.

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(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers; Celtics lead, 2-0

Boston: They’ve offered no real surprises, maybe beyond how little they’ve let Philadelphia get into the series. All three of Tatum/Brown/Walker have been pretty fantastic, though the Gordon Hayward injury news is very unfortunate. The most impressive thing, clearly, should be how strong they’ve been in forcing Philly to take a ton of bad mid-range shots. In particular, an astounding 41 Philadelphia shot attempts in Game 2 came from the mid-range, and even if they hit 17 of them, it proved that Boston’s defensive structure is not allowing Philly to get to the rim or get the shots they really need to be getting. If they play this well the rest of the way, they should be properly recognized as a championship contender.

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Philadelphia: Looks like garbage, thanks. The only standout player for this overpaid, infuriating squad is Joel Embiid; everyone else looks various shades of uninterested, overwhelmed, or both. While Embiid has taken his fair share of possessions off out of frustration, he’s done his part in attempting to force Philadelphia into this series: 60 points, 26 rebounds, and, when he’s wanted to go there, some great paint work. Embiid is 7-for-10 at the rim, and to be fair, he’s shot 11-for-20 on mid-range attempts. Unfortunately for Embiid, Philadelphia is required to place four other players on the floor, and none of them have seriously attempted to provide him with the help he needs. Josh Richardson is Philly’s second leading scorer at 18 a game, but look at the other guys: Tobias Harris is 10-for-30 from the field. Shake Milton is 10-for-15, but is getting roasted on defense with ease. Alec Burks is 7-for-23. Al Horford has taken ten – TEN – shot attempts. No one else is worth mentioning.

When Embiid forces his way out of Philadelphia in one of the next two offseasons, no one should be surprised or upset with him. He has earned a shot somewhere else, and he deserves a team with either a competent owner, a competent general manager, or preferably both. Any player talented enough to average 30/13 against this legitimately excellent Boston team deserves better. The Sixers will not be winning this series; the only question remaining is if they get swept or if they have enough dignity to pull it together and get one win.

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(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat; Heat lead, 2-0

Indiana: Unfortunately, a pretty short discussion to have: they simply don’t have enough firepower. Had the Pacers had Sabonis available, I really do think this would be a much different series. They probably would’ve split these first two games, and they would’ve had a much easier time scoring offensively. With Sabonis on the court this season (2,159 minutes), the Pacers scored about 112.4 points per 100 possessions. Not beautiful, obviously, but enough to push them into a top ten offensive rating. In the 1,365 minutes they played without Sabonis, they were much worse: 107.9 points per 100, or the 25th-best offense in the league.

So far in this series, they’re posting just 106.4 per 100, and a large part of it stems from their inability to get good shots against this Miami defense. Only 30.6% of the Pacers field goal attempts have come at the rim, while they’ve shot 20-for-51 from a midrange game that’s starting to abandon them. They have five players averaging double figures through two games, but it doesn’t mean much when the opponent has a player that can easily go 7-for-8 from three as well as a better player than your best player. Indiana might have something for the Heat next year, but it’s not going to happen in 2020.

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Miami: I really didn’t expect this roster to turn out as well as it has, but they’re pretty vicious when they want to be. Obviously, you knew Jimmy Butler was going to continue to be a fantastic player, and he’s been so, scoring 46 points through two games. However, did you expect Goran Dragic to be out here scoring 44 points? Or Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro to be the team’s third and fourth-best scoring options? Or for the Heat to overcome a relatively quiet series from Bam Adebayo by way of nearly everyone else playing above their means?

This is a fun roster that’s beating the Pacers for several reasons, but a simple, easy one is that they simply get better shots. Miami is no stranger to the mid-range shot, but they’ve gotten a lot of great looks from three in this series because Indiana’s roster can’t cover lineups that have five shooting options. In particular, the two main lineups that feature Adebayo/Dragic/Butler (plus two of Herro, Robinson, Iguodala, or Crowder) are a shocking +28 in 39 minutes of play. When any one of those three is off the court, Indiana’s been able to hang around, beating the Heat by seven points in the other 49 minutes. Until they find a way to deal with those main three, though, this series is done.

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Western Conference

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers; series tied, 1-1

Los Angeles: Pretty simple equation to break down, actually: they missed a bunch of shots they normally make in Game 1, then went out and made all of them in Game 2. We call those adjustments! In all seriousness, outside of the first quarter of Game 1, the Lakers have almost entirely shut down the Blazers. In that first quarter, which essentially decided the outcome of the game once the Lakers couldn’t hit threes, the Blazers dumped 36 points on 27 possessions (1.333 PPP); over the following seven quarters, Portland’s sitting at 152 points on 171 possessions (0.889 PPP), maybe their worst two-game stretch of offense of the entire season.

What the Lakers are doing is actually pretty fascinating: they’re generally fine with letting Portland get to the rim, but in Game 2 in particular, they closed hard on potential threes and forced the Blazers into tougher twos, which they hit almost none of. Basically, two games in, Los Angeles has completely neutralized the strongest thing the Blazers have going for them. On the offensive side, they’re getting absurdly good shot quality. Through three quarters in Game 2 – i.e., before garbage time – the Lakers’ Shot Quality metric on PBPStats tied the highest they’d had in any game this year. As @Tim_NBA said on Twitter, a lot of the Lakers’ attempts looked like practice shots at the gym. If they’re going to get those looks, this series is over.

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Portland: Here are some basic truths we all knew about Portland heading into this series: they have one of the two best scorers on the planet. They have a strange collection of talent that makes sense together offensively. They play a brand of defense that matadors would be offended by. So far, the first and the third have come true in separate games; the second has yet to make a serious appearance. Dame was not very good in Game 2, but neither was anyone else; his 34 points lifted a Portland offense having a bad night in Game 1 over the top. Portland gave up an absurd amount of wide-open threes in Game 1 that didn’t go in, along with getting lucky on several Laker misses at the rim.

The second issue is a clear one that has no easy resolution. The second-best Blazer through two games is probably Jusuf Nurkic, who has provided just 25 points on the offensive end and is 3-for-12 from the field when not at the rim. Carmelo Anthony, who plays 47 minutes of bad basketball only to show up for the final minute of some games, is 4-for-17 and has five turnovers. Hassan Whiteside barely looks interested on defense. Gary Trent’s gone cold from the field. C.J. McCollum: 14-for-36, 4-for-13, six turnovers. Unless Dame gets some help, the Blazers do not have enough to make this a real series, barring another Laker disaster from downtown.

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(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks; series tied, 1-1

Los Angeles: In some ways, this has been a perfectly fine defensive series for them. Dallas has been forced into a lot of mid-range looks they don’t normally want, the Clippers are winning the battle on both the boards and on turnovers, and fouls have been fairly even. But when you’re playing a team that has the ability to shoot way over what’s expected, you’ve got to match it on your own end, and the Clippers largely haven’t thus far. Kawhi has been as awesome as anyone would’ve hoped: 64 points, 22 rebounds. Lou Williams has 37 off the bench, Marcus Morris, 33. Everyone else has been varying shades of disappointing. Paul George is an embarrassing 14-for-39 this series, including a brutal 6-for-21 from three. Reggie Jackson, God only knows why, has played 43 minutes and is shooting 1-for-8 on twos. Ivica Zubac needs more minutes, but he hasn’t been the defensive stopper Los Angeles normally gets and has needed.

On the whole, the Clippers have a few kinks they’ve got to work out, but I imagine that they still feel fairly confident they can get out of this series and onto the second round. Kawhi looks like Playoff Kawhi, and when Patrick Beverley is back, they’ll be able to have the perimeter defense they need to slow Dallas down from downtown. Offensively, they need to find a way to up the quality of shots they’re getting. Dallas doesn’t have a very good defense, but the Clippers have settled for a lot of less-optimal shorter mid-range looks and haven’t gotten to the rim at the level I personally would’ve expected. Just 27.9% of Clipper shots have come at the rim so far, 3.5% below their regular season rate. On the flip side, they’ve taken considerably more threes than usual and haven’t hit them as well as you’d expect, going 17-for-56 on non-corner threes. Kawhi and PG are a combined 8-for-30 on these looks, and I know they’re better than that.

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Dallas: The argument that Dallas could be up 2-0 in this series right now does hold some merit. Obviously, they were up by five points in Game 1 before Porzingis was unfairly ejected, and they dominated all of Game 2 when he was in. That being said, a 1-1 series is probably fair. The Clippers forced a lot of Dallas misses in the second half of Game 1 that likely wouldn’t have changed much had Porzingis been in; no ejection would’ve changed the outcome of Game 2. The funny thing about this series thus far is that Dallas really hasn’t gotten a ton of great shots. Per PBPStats, their Shot Quality measurement has been right at 50% in both games, and they actually got considerably more combined rim/three-point attempts in Game 1.

In Game 2, though, they lit it up on longer mid-range shots (8-for-13 on 14+ foot attempts) and took way more advantage of the threes they got, going 13-for-29 after a 15-for-43 performance in Game 1. Luka continues to be at the wheel of this series. He’s hitting more threes than expected, and I think that’ll fall, but more important is that he’s using the gravity he draws to find tons of open shooters. Obviously, the Game 2 bench performances were awesome, but Dallas can’t expect that every night. What they can expect is for Luka to force his way to the rim and, if he demands a double team, pass out of it for an open shot. It’s a simple gravity game, and time will tell how well it works. Perhaps we all shouldn’t have collectively underrated the team with the third-best margin of victory in the West this season?

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

Denver: The Nuggets possess the second-best offense so far, with three players dropping 20+ points per game and the team as a whole shooting over 50% from downtown. (35-for-68, to be exact.) This has been a wild series that’s suddenly turned into the most entertaining series in the bubble. Nikola Jokic is doing his normal stuff, going for 57 points and 21 rebounds, but it’s been Jamal Murray’s emergence that has lifted Denver. Murray’s 34 points in Game 1 and complete dominance of the fourth quarter and overtime got Denver over the top on a night where they had no one to stop Donovan Mitchell.

If the Nuggets had Will Barton or especially Gary Harris available, their defense would look far less hopeless than it has so far. Harris is the team’s best perimeter defender and almost certainly the guy they’d choose to stick on Mitchell. The Nuggets still haven’t picked a firm return date for him, but they seem to think he’ll be back before the end of this series. Whether it’s for the best for his personal development may have to be tossed aside; if he can’t come back by Game 4, it may already be too late.

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Utah: Feels like they have to be pretty happy with the way things are, no? You got an all-timer of a performance from Donovan Mitchell in the Game 1 overtime loss followed by a team-wide demolition of Denver in Game 2. Amazingly, through two games, Utah is the best-shooting team in the field of 16…followed by the Nuggets in second place by a hair. I think both teams will regress, of course. Utah’s shot quality is about the same as it was in the regular season, but the difference is pretty easy to spot: the Jazz are taking and making a ton of non-corner threes.

Through just two games, Utah is 26-for-67 on these three-point attempts, with Mitchell and Joe Ingles combining to go an absurd 18-for-39. (The rest of the Jazz, just for clarity, are 8-for-28.) Mitchell’s 87 points through two games almost undersells just how insanely good he’s been in the bubble; it might very well be the best two-game stretch of his entire career. Couple that with an unusually efficient Jordan Clarkson and Rudy Gobert scoring more than usual and you’ve got the best offense in the playoffs thus far.

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(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder; Rockets lead, 2-0

Houston: How about that? A team with no Westbrook, largely underrated in terms of their potential, comes out and beats the trendy Thunder by double-digits in both games. Most remarkably to me, the Rockets survived a 42-minute dud from James Harden in Game 2 by having several really good performances surrounding him. The key to this team all along has been its supporting cast: when Harden creates open shots for them, will they hit them? Two games in, the answer is starting to look pretty positive. The non-Harden Rockets are 31-for-84 from three (36.9%), about 2.7% ahead of where they were in the regular season. Couple that with Houston playing really tough, consistent defense and forcing several bad Thunder turnovers.

Suddenly, you’ve got a team that has one of the five best players in basketball, a supporting cast capable of hitting 15+ threes in one game, and a defense willing to do what it takes to be one of the ten best in the sport. Sounds fairly dangerous, no?

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Oklahoma City: What was supposed to be a coming-out party for this overachieving roster has turned into a two-game disaster, and it might get even worse with Russell Westbrook’s impending return. The shorthanded and, well, short Rockets have thoroughly owned Oklahoma City through two games, leaving the Thunder no room to breathe on either side of the court. While we knew Oklahoma City likes to take a bunch of analytically-unfriendly shots, they also hit a lot of them and make them worth their time. Obviously, any roster with Chris Paul is going to be that way. So it comes as more than a bit of a surprise that the best mid-range shooting team in the regular season has been one of the worst in these playoffs. Oklahoma City is 9-for-25 on short mid-range attempts, third-worst in the field of 16. On Paul’s beloved longer mid-range attempts, the Thunder have only gotten off 20 through two games, below what I would’ve expected. Couple this with a sudden emphasis on taking more threes – aside from Gallinari and Schroder, not this roster’s strong suit – and it looks like a roster that’s lost sight of what it’s supposed to be.

On the other end of the court, most thought that Houston would get more than their fair share of open threes, but Oklahoma City would own the boards. This really hasn’t been the case. The Thunder own a small edge in OREB% thus far, but in Game 2, Houston got an astounding ten offensive rebounds off of missed threes. On their OREBs in total, Houston got 14 extra points in a game decided by 13. Unless OKC shoots more efficiently from mid-range or takes a greater ownership of the boards, their lights are dimming quickly.

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Restart Reviews: Thunder/Rockets, Game 1

August 18: Houston Rockets 123, Oklahoma City Thunder 108; Houston leads, 1-0

Theoretically, this was the perfect game for Oklahoma City to win. The Thunder were missing Lu Dort, their best perimeter defender, but the Rockets were missing Russell Westbrook. Considering it’s Lu Dort vs. Russell Freaking Westbrook, you would think Houston lost that trade. It sounds obvious, but Oklahoma City needed to run up the score in the first 2-3 games before Westbrook returns.

As you can guess from the score above, they did not.

It’s a pretty simple game to evaluate: for whatever reason, Houston came out hyper-attentive on defense and happily willing to make the extra pass. It’s the most fun they’ve looked as a full roster since the 2018 Western Conference Finals. They stayed strong on defense for most of the game, which is great, but critically, they hit a ton of wide-open threes. That hasn’t happened often, as we discussed last week when they played the Pacers and lost.

If you hit 20 threes in a game, you should win, full stop. Houston did, and it was never in doubt after the first few minutes or so.

First, we should talk about the defense, the side of the ball that has most often evaded these Rockets. Oklahoma City’s offense is not all that special, but they’re capable of hitting a bunch of mid-range shots and have the capability to hit plenty of other shots, too. They never had that chance against Houston until it was too late. Houston forced a ton of bad long mid-range shots and made the shorter mid-range looks tougher than usual. Pretty much everyone on the OKC roster struggled to hit these looks they adore so much, as we’ll explore later.

Houston went full-throttle until it was safe to let off the gas, i.e. the fourth quarter. It was funny to see them do this, because the most full-throttle member of the roster was on the bench in a Yeezy Brand-esque tee cheering his team on. Russell Westbrook makes this defense better, especially in the playoffs, where his energy is boundless and he uses all that’s left of his athleticism to keep his guy in front of him. But: it might be time to have a discussion about Houston’s offense while Westbrook is on the bench.

With Westbrook on the court this season, the Rockets have scored 112.34 points per 100 possessions in his 2,049 minutes – a pretty solid rate, one that would rank 10th-best in the league across a full season. In all minutes without Westbrook, though, the Rockets are nearly three full points better: 115.25 per 100 in 1,427 non-RW minutes, or the second-best offense in basketball behind Dallas. If you limit this exclusively to games Westbrook played in, which eliminates 15 games from our sample, the Rockets scored 120.77 points per 100 possessions – easily the best rate in basketball. Lastly, there is this:

  • Rockets offense, both Harden and Westbrook on: 112.17 points per 100 possessions (#11 offense), 1,434 minutes
  • Harden on, Westbrook off: 119.79 per 100 (#1 offense), 1,082 minutes
  • Westbrook on, Harden off: 112.72 per 100 (#7 offense), 615 minutes
  • Neither on: 104.9 per 100 (#30 offense), 393 minutes

This is not a “gotcha!” thing or even anti-Russell Westbrook content; I think RW is one of the more uniquely fascinating basketball players of my lifetime. But if the Rockets are going to do this without Westbrook on the court, it’s at least something to consider.

Anyway, the game itself didn’t end up being about Russell Westbrook. It was about James Harden’s continued greatness, about this weird Rockets supporting cast, and about what happens when Houston finally does the little things right.

Harden, as usual, was marvelous: 37 points on 22 shots, 6-for-13 from three, and buckets from all over the court.

He is simply such a purely great scorer that even defenses as tough as OKC’s have a heck of a time slowing him down at all. Harden was in total control from start to finish in what I’d call one of his more unique box score lines: 11 rebounds and just three assists. However, he still had another great passing show where he was responsible for three secondary assists, or what we’d more commonly call the hockey assist. He continues to be so, so good at picking up points no matter where he is:

Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees both in life and in sports. I feel like we’ve somehow come around to underrating James Harden’s greatness. He’s a top-three regular season basketball player that remains top-five in the playoffs, a yearly MVP candidate that never wavers. Understandably, his game isn’t for everyone, and there’s plenty of times where I get exhausted watching him isolate for 22 seconds of the shot clock. But it can’t erase that a good chunk of those possessions somehow end in threes that Harden makes look a lot easier than they are.

This game’s spotlight was shared by a few members of the Rockets supporting cast. This weird bunch of players fits together only because they were forced to. Houston’s full-on insistence on small ball has made them the worst rebounding team in the league, and even in a blowout, they still surrendered several offensive rebounds to the Thunder:

But does it really matter when you finally make the uncontested threes fans have been asking them to make for the entire season?

The non-Harden Rockets, from a box score perspective, made 14 of their 39 three-point attempts (35.9%). Admittedly, that number doesn’t look all that impressive, but think about it this way: they made enough threes to force OKC to consistently cover them, which opened up the rest of the court for easy buckets like this one.

Thanks to the efforts of guys like P.J. Tucker (3-for-8), Ben McLemore (4-for-7), and Jeff Green (3-for-7), the Rockets finally started punishing their opponents somewhat for leaving them so open from three. Because of that, it opened up drives to the rim that OKC wasn’t able to stop consistently. The Rockets went 17-for-22 at the rim, one of their most efficient efforts of the season and tied for their fourth-best output against a playoff team. It wasn’t all Harden, either: Jeff Green went 3-for-3, Eric Gordon 4-for-7, Danuel House 3-for-4. When the Rockets have nights like this, you finally understand why so many (AKA, the guy writing this post) believed they could get the 1 seed in the West last summer.

For Oklahoma City, this is obviously a very disappointing result. Thunder fans had every right to anticipate a victory, especially with no Westbrook and especially with how frustrating the Rockets viewing experience can be. They knew they’d have a defined edge on the boards, and across the full season, it was the Thunder who possessed the better offensive turnover rate. Theoretically, you could survive a less-than-ideal shooting day if you won those two things.

As mentioned earlier, the Thunder won the boards, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Chris Paul, in particular, had a couple of really uncharacteristic turnovers that seemed to sum up the whole night:

To add to that, the league’s best mid-range shooting offense suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket from their favorite spot. Oklahoma City shot 7-for-21 from mid-range, including a horrific 3-for-13 output on shorter mid-range twos (5-14 feet, roughly). This was driven largely by Houston’s defense, who made a bunch of these mid-range misses very tough:

And generally made it hard for OKC to convert the type of shots they loved converting over the course of the last ten months:

Obviously, if the Thunder are going to have this poor of a night from their most-beneficial spot on the court, this series is going to be a lot shorter than most expected. FiveThirtyEight gives Houston roughly a 34% chance of sweeping OKC; while I think that’s pretty aggressive (personally, I’d have that more in the 20% range), it should be alarming to anyone hoping the Thunder wins this series, especially when Westbrook is out. If they can’t hit these shots now, I don’t think it’s going to be easier at all when RW returns to the court. Better wake up before it’s too late.

Restart Reviews: Mavericks/Clippers, Game 1

August 18, 2020: Los Angeles Clippers 118, Dallas Mavericks 110; Clippers lead, 1-0

If you only watched the first four minutes of this game, you would be in no way surprised by the score you see above. The Clippers came roaring out of the gate en route to an 18-2 lead, frustrating Luka Doncic into several turnovers and making him look extremely overwhelmed:

If you only watched the next 20 or so minutes of this game, you would be somewhat shocked by the above outcome. The Mavericks responded to that atrocious start (and a brief Luka injury scare) by going on a 48-18 run of their run, leading by as many as 14, and taking over the pace of the game for a long stretch of time. At half, the Mavs led 69-66, and Luka was driving the offense in a manner that appropriately freaked out any Clippers fan watching:

Halftime came, and this vaunted Clipper defense was allowing 1.278 PPP to a plucky, super-fun Mavericks offense. Luka and Kristaps Porzingis had 33 of Dallas’s 69 points, the team made 12 threes in the first half, and everything was running on all cylinders. The second half started slowly, with neither team doing much, until…well, this:

The idea of this earning a technical for either side in a non-bubble context would be fairly laughable; it was simply a few shoves, with neither side being that much more aggressive than the other, and the run of play up to this point was fairly well-controlled. A fight was not threatening to break out. And yet: the officials gave Porzingis his second technical of the game, the first coming after arguing what was a genuinely embarrassing missed call by a referee.

I’ll rant on this once, and then I’ll leave it be until a more outrageous case comes along: the NBA needs to get their officiating in line instantly. It wouldn’t matter if Porzingis were a top-four player in this game or if he was the 12th man on the bench for Dallas; it’s insane that he got a technical for either offense. Because there are no fans to mask the noise, and because officials appear to be profoundly thin-skinned in the bubble, Porzingis was kicked out, and Dallas was outscored by 13 points the rest of the way. Now, KP was not exactly firing on all cylinders in this one; he did get 14 points on nine shots, but the Clippers were also exploiting him fairly often on defense. That being said, everyone can agree that a Mavericks team with Porzingis is clearly better than one without. I don’t know that the outcome here would be different, but I don’t think the Clippers would’ve controlled the second half – especially the third quarter – nearly as easily. Good on Dallas for almost surviving. (Side note: the foul disparity did favor the Mavericks, FWIW.)

Moving on. Let’s talk about Luka:

The kid scored 42 points on 28 shot equivalents, grabbed seven rebounds, and dished out nine assists. When he was in the game, the Clippers couldn’t slow him down much at all. Luka went 6-for-8 from the rim and 5-for-7 on his beloved short mid-range looks; any real stop of Luka routinely ended in a foul call and a trip to the free throw line.

To the extent that he has a shooting weakness of any kind, it’s probably still his threes, where he’s a career 32% shooter and went 2-for-6 in this game. But I want to make a suggestion: what if his percentage is low precisely because he draws all of the attention when Dallas is on offense? The number of wide-open Luka threes is very minimal when spread out over a full season, and the only other guard you can safely say takes more difficult shots is James Harden. So, hear me out: Luka’s three-point percentage is only concerning if you leave out the context of the type of shots he largely takes.

What a dude. Unfortunately for Luka, he alone couldn’t win this for Dallas. Remember the 12 threes stat listed above? Well, Dallas blew every three they had available in the first half, as they went 3-for-22 from deep in the second. This is both an encouraging loss and a very painful one for Dallas. They forced the Clippers into a lot of mid-range twos, protected the rim reasonably well, and got a lot of wide-open looks from downtown.

And yet: they still lost, because the Clippers hit all those mid-range shots and demolished the Mavericks on the boards. Also, Luka’s 11 turnovers (worth noting that five of them came in that rough first quarter) certainly didn’t help things. Dallas’s worst enemy on offense in this one was themselves, but the Clippers displayed a level of defensive effort they didn’t put out all that often in the regular season. It’s going to be a tough series for Dallas to squeak out wins, even with home court advantage effectively nuked.

The Clippers got out of this potentially hairy situation the way pretty much everyone imagined they would: aggressive defense that forced buckets of turnovers, a great game on the offensive boards, and the fact Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are on the same team. Even when you give up all those threes in the first half, only trailing by three shows that you’re working hard in other areas of the game. That’s why we’re opening with a special shoutout to Marcus Morris:

Morris had one of his most useful offensive games yet for the Clippers: 19 points on 13 shots, including several that kept the Clippers offense running in the first half when they desperately needed it. However, his impact was most felt on the defensive end in this one. Morris’s work within LAC’s system created four turnovers, and it was the most active he’s looked on this end of the court since he was a Piston.

If Morris plays this hard defensively every night, he adds value even when he’s not shooting well, and it gives the Clippers a much more meaningful piece to use throughout the playoffs. I think we’ve all been patiently waiting for them to go full-effort for a while, and when they needed it tonight, guys like Morris showed that effort.

Of course, none of you were surprised when Kawhi Leonard went hard on the defensive end, especially in the second half.

Kawhi’s second half carried the Clippers to the finish line: 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and a pair of steals. Paul George was good in this one, too (28 points), but Kawhi remains the driver of the offense, the defense, and the franchise. It was Kawhi who couldn’t miss from mid-range in this one:

And it was Kawhi who had the ball in his hands late in this game, determining the Clippers’ fate. They’ll be comfortable with that the rest of the way, and they have to be comfortable knowing that the gravity Kawhi draws in one-on-one play can spring open any number of open shooters.

Lastly, the X-factor for these Clippers remains Ivica Zubac. It feels rote to continue harping on this point, but somehow, he remains a remarkably effective player that knows how to do like three things and does those three things incredibly well. Zubac picked up five offensive rebounds in this one and was a terror on the boards that Dallas couldn’t handle:

Likewise, it was Zubac who blocked a pair of Dallas shots (two of the Clippers’ three blocks in the game) and scored ten points in his 22 minutes. Offensively, he still ain’t much beyond a roll-and-cut big man, but he performs this role so effectively that it essentially eliminates other concerns about his game. Can Zubac shoot a three? Of course not. But he knows where to be offensively at all times, and he knows that he has a role to play. That alone provides real, useful long-term value, and his ability to consistently affect shots at the rim on the other end is going to get him a Timofey Mozgov contract.

A bandwagoner’s guide to the 2020 NBA Playoffs

It’s August 17, the NBA Playoffs are starting today, and…oh no. Your name is Will Warren, and you have spent the last fifteen years of your life alternating between pretending to like the Memphis Grizzlies and the Detroit Pistons, neither of whom are in the NBA Playoffs. You have certain players you really love, just like anyone, but you don’t have a team. Chances are that the person writing this is not the only one alive with this quandary!

If you, too, are in need of a team to love over the next two months, I’ve worked on a guide that should help answer your questions. Everyone likes something different. A lot of fans will naturally gravitate towards teams that are likely to go very far or are high-end title contenders, but others may want a briefer fling. Perhaps there’s a lower seed that’s really caught your eye. That’s fine, too, and if you’re like me, you might as well add another disappointing, short playoff run to your fandom’s long list of disappointing, short playoff runs.

Below, I’ve broken the 16-team playoff field into four tiers. We’ll start at the bottom with the least-interesting teams and work our way to the top. These rankings are mostly objective, but I did try and allow a little bit of my personal views on each team to shine through. The groups are as follows, again from worst to best:

  • The Magic and the Nets
  • Short Relationships (teams not favored in the first round with <10% odds to make a Conference Final, per 538)
  • The Swing Tier (teams with either a >10% shot at making a Conference Final, per 538, or teams favored in the first round)
  • The True Bandwagoner (title contenders)

This post is not meant to be taken too seriously; obviously, you get to make your own calls. Content time!

The Magic and the Nets

2. Orlando Magic

1. Brooklyn Nets

At the end of this post, I’ve ranked the teams 1-through-16 in terms of bandwagon friendliness. No matter how I ran my own sets of numbers, these two teams always ranked at the bottom. Orlando’s brief spurt of competency in their first two bubble games quickly turned into a six-game horror show with a myriad of errors. Their most likable and best young player is out for the season, and the other most likable young player is more of a nice story than an actual fun player to watch. Unless you like defense, there’s just not much to get behind here; the best-case scenario is them maybe stealing a game or two off of Milwaukee and getting viewers to freak out for a week.

The Brooklyn Nets, however, do offer more. In every game in the bubble since they got blown out by Orlando in the opener, they’ve played hard for all 48 minutes and very nearly ended Portland’s season before they could make the playoffs. Objectively, they have the worst roster of any team in the playoffs. It contains about 2.5 decent offensive players, no great defenders, and an interim head coach. And yet: they’ve been oddly watchable. They do rank at the bottom here, but they’re certainly more fun to watch than Orlando.

Short Relationships

5. Utah Jazz

4. Indiana Pacers

3. Portland Trail Blazers

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

1. Dallas Mavericks

We’ll cover the first two teams here in one paragraph. Both have suffered serious injuries to two of their best players; 20 PPG scorer Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the Jazz, and All-Star Domantas Sabonis is out for the Pacers. That puts a severe cap on how enjoyable they’ve been to watch offensively in the bubble. The Pacers won out simply because of TJ Warren, who was so good in the bubble that he single-handedly won a couple of games for Indiana…but they still weren’t really fun to watch. In late-game situations, both teams go to dribble-heavy guards that favor long mid-range jumpers, and I’m sorry, but even when they hit them it isn’t all that entertaining to watch. It reminds me of 2004-era basketball in a bad way.

Portland also relies on a dribble-heavy guard, but that guard was probably the best player in the seeding games. Damian Lillard has been all sorts of amazing offensively, scoring 154 points in the final three games of Portland’s regular season to drag his team into the playoffs. I think only ranking them third here is going to give readers a bit of concern as to if I actually like entertaining basketball. I do, and I think Portland provides it in spades…especially on defense. Portland provided us with the best offense and the worst defense of the bubble; every single game of theirs was a nail-biter that ended up with a final score of, like, 126-122. That’s why I think they’d be an incredibly frustrating bandwagon choice. Sure, you get Dame, but you also get Portland’s atrocious defense that provides Dame a reason to have to go for 50+ every single night. A great team to watch as a neutral viewer; a pretty awful team to watch if you’re a fan.

Oklahoma City was a fun overachiever this season, a nice redemption story for Chris Paul, and a franchise with a few young, fun players. In particular, you get the benefit of watching Paul (and SGA, and Adams, and Gallo, etc.) take on his old team, the Houston Rockets. That series has several fun storylines that you can get behind. The issue with Oklahoma City: they have the misfortune of running into the Lakers in the second round if they get past Houston. It’s likely that they don’t have the roster power to seriously challenge Los Angeles.

Dallas, meanwhile, is the Chaos Agent of these playoffs. Consider them Portland on hyperspeed: one of the ten best players in basketball, who happens to be 21 years old, scores tons of points every game. His sidekick is a 24-year-old 7’3″ guy that is a fantastic shooter from three and scored nearly 30 points per game in the bubble. They have all sorts of intriguing, weird role players that only make sense on a roster coached by Rick Carlisle. They also happen to have the second-worst defense in the bubble and alternate between going on 14-2 runs and giving up 14-2 runs. Dallas beats out Portland for two reasons: they have a better team offense and a better chance at stealing a couple of games off of their first-round title contending opponent.

The Swing Tier

4. Philadelphia 76ers

3. Miami Heat

2. Houston Rockets

1. Denver Nuggets

These are all teams that, if a few things go right, could make a surprise appearance in their conference final. Also, any of these four could easily be gone in the first round. A great tier for people who deal with stressful events successfully and calmly!

The Philadelphia 76ers, considering preseason expectations, may be the single most frustrating and disappointing watch of this entire field. In the offseason, Philadelphia heavily retooled their roster in free agency and came out of it with a team pretty much everyone agreed to be a serious Finals contender. They looked like the second-best team in the East behind Milwaukee, and given the general distrust in the playoffs of Milwaukee, it was easy to envision a scenario where Philadelphia had its best season in 20 years. Instead, what fans got was a clogged-toilet offense, a bunch of pissed-off players, and a coach everyone wants fired. I strongly advise you stay off of this bandwagon unless you enjoy being angry.

On the other hand, Miami pretty much achieved to the level most expected: a 4/5 seed bid and a good showing by new star Jimmy Butler. However, they contain one of the most fun offenses you can watch in basketball. Erik Spoelstra has designed a ton of hand-offs and off-ball screens for sudden shooting stars like Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kelly Olynyk, etc. In particular, Robinson has gone from being a Division III basketball player six years ago to being one of the best shooters in the entire league. It’s a pretty easy team to get behind.

It feels strange to rank Houston above Miami. Inarguably, the Heat have the more fun offense, weren’t slightly disappointing, and have better uniforms. (Houston’s 1990s uniforms they’ve brought back out are fantastic, but I really don’t think anything is beating Miami Vice, ever.) BUT. I still think James Harden is one of the most uniquely talented offensive superstars the league has ever had. I think Houston’s experiment with the Pocket Rockets – AKA, the lineup where P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington, two small forwards, are the frontcourt – is wild and bizarre and really fun. I also simply think Houston’s got a more talented roster with a higher ceiling. No team in the entire league gets more wide open threes than Houston does; if they ever have a night where they hit a high amount of them, any game is winnable.

The Denver Nuggets have Nikola Jokic, and if you can’t get behind that, you live a sad life.

The True Bandwagoner

5. Toronto Raptors

4. Boston Celtics

3. Los Angeles Lakers

2. Los Angeles Clippers

1. Milwaukee Bucks

This was tough to rank, because I think at minimum, the first four are really close together. (Toronto is somewhat distant due to a pretty uninspring offense, though there’s very little to dislike about them.) Any of them would be great picks for a viewer that’s looking for a good and long time as a temporary fan. This is where things got a little more subjective.

Starting off: the Raptors. Undeniably, a Toronto repeat without Kawhi Leonard is one of the funniest possible outcomes. To do it with one of the…three? best players in basketball no longer on your team would be a heroic achievement; to do so while defeating at least two of the Bucks/Clippers/Lakers would be something insane. That said, the actual product offers up a lot of duds. Toronto’s offense only ranked 15th in dunksandthrees.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. Pascal Siakam’s 22.9 PPG leads the team, but he’s had a lot of streaky runs this season, having several duds at different times. They offer the second-best defense in the league, but there’s not much here that actually gets you excited to watch them play. It’s more of a polite respect.

I struggled mightily with leaving Boston at 4. The Celtics have a lot to offer: a top-five offense, several fun young players, a budding star in Jayson Tatum, and the NBA’s most online fanbase. You can rejoice or commiserate with Weird Celtics Twitter through the playoff run and have a great time. It’s a very fun team….that suffered exclusively from the misfortune of not having LeBron James or Anthony Davis on their roster. If you want to go the roster route, Boston is the more fun, strange, enjoyable team. If you prefer stars, as many people do, you’re obviously rolling with the Lakers, who need no introduction.

A lot of people would have the Lakers first in a bandwagon ranking, and no one should fault them. As mentioned, they have LeBron Freaking James, Anthony Davis, great colors, all the titles, all the history. And yet: isn’t it at least a little bit more fun seeing a team make real history? I’m 26 years old; the Lakers have won five championships in my lifetime, and I remember every single one of them. The Clippers, meanwhile, have Kawhi Leonard (my favorite player in the league), Paul George (…not my favorite player in the league, but a great one), a stacked roster full of weirdos and wonderful personalities, and a history devoid of even a single conference finals appearance. On that alone, I had to go with the other LA team. They have the best offense of these five contenders, play an enjoyable brand of basketball, and have a serious chance to do something Clippers fans likely never imagined would happen in their lifetimes. That’s simply more compelling, and more root-worthy, than another Lakers title.

As I’ve mentioned, you could rank any of these three – and possibly four – as the #1 bandwagon of choice. But who was I to argue against the regular season’s best team with a soon-to-be two-time MVP on their roster? The Bucks don’t have the best offense in the league, but they have Giannis Antetokounmpo, the full-stop Best Player in the World that is unlike any other player in basketball history. They have Khris Middleton, formerly the most underrated player in basketball, now a widely-recognized top 15 guy. They have a wide array of reliable role players. They block a ton of shots. They play faster than any other team in basketball. To top it off, they haven’t won a championship in 49 years and have made it to the conference finals just twice since 1986. You can’t go wrong with any of these top four, but it’s really hard to pass on the Bucks.

The Actual 1-through-16 Ranking

I can’t promise that it’ll make sense to you, but it makes a good amount of sense to me, and I clicked the Publish button. If you’ve got different rankings, I legitimately want to see them!

  1. Milwaukee Bucks
  2. Los Angeles Clippers
  3. Denver Nuggets
  4. Los Angeles Lakers
  5. Boston Celtics
  6. Dallas Mavericks
  7. Houston Rockets
  8. Toronto Raptors
  9. Oklahoma City Thunder
  10. Miami Heat
  11. Portland Trailblazers
  12. Philadelphia 76ers
  13. Indiana Pacers
  14. Utah Jazz
  15. Brooklyn Nets
  16. Orlando Magic

Who are you choosing to root for in this year’s playoffs? Let me know on Twitter @statsbywill.

While I’m writing this post-script on Sunday night at 7:57 PM ET, here’s the games I’m covering each day this week. The posts will be up the morning after the game:

  • Monday: Dallas vs. Los Angeles Clippers, Game 1 (9 PM ET, ESPN)
  • Tuesday: Oklahoma City vs. Houston, Game 1 (6:30 PM ET, TNT)
  • WednesdayUtah vs. Denver, Game 2 (4 PM ET, TNT)
  • Thursday: Miami vs. Indiana, Game 2 (1 PM ET, ESPN)
  • Friday: Boston vs. Philadelphia, Game 3 (6:30 PM ET, TNT)