One Stat Explaining Every Series
Fun with numbers!
Editor’s note: This is a rare Thursday article since I’ll be traveling tomorrow.
The first round is winding down, and there’s really only one matchup truly up in the air (Memphis-Minnesota). Here are some key stats that explain what happened in each series.
Miami - Atlanta (Miami wins 4-1)
Trae Young shot 31.9% on 13.8 field goal attempts per game, including 18.4% from three. He only averaged 15.4 points and six assists. Those are almost half of his regular-season averages of 28 points and ten assists on 46/38 percent shooting splits.
It’s hard to win when your best player is turned into a quivering pile of turnovers and ectoplasm.
Trae Young is a superb passer and excellent shooter who, as noted by many others, doesn’t do much off the ball. With the Heat’s hellacious on-ball defense, he would have been much better off running around screens and scampering about like Steph Curry, looking for catch-and-shoot opportunities. If the Hawks want to take it to the next level, they’ll need to weaponize the off-ball gravity Trae should have by pairing him with another creator (and motivate Trae to do the hard work of running hard without the ball, something Steph doesn’t get enough credit for).
For Miami, this was a warm-up series that unfortunately resulted in a hamstring injury to Lowry and knee soreness for Butler. Hopefully, having a long break until the next series will give everyone time to heal.
Boston - Brooklyn (Boston wins 4-0)
18 is the cumulative point differential of the Celtics’ four victories over the Nets. While the Internet dunks on Brooklyn, it’s worth noting that the largest margin of victory was seven points. It was the closest sweep ever, statistically.
Despite the media narrative suggesting that the Boston defense was crushing Brooklyn, the Nets actually performed very well as a team offensively. They had the second-best effective field goal percentage1 of any playoff team… but still got swept!
The numbers get crazier the more you look at them. The Nets, despite Durant and Irving’s high-profile struggles, shot better from the field (50% to 49%) and from deep (42% to 35%) than the Celtics. They had ten more blocks. Despite shooting a lower percentage from the charity stripe, they made one more free throw than Boston. Heck, Brooklyn even outscored the C’s by nine points in fourth quarters.
The only place where the Nets lost decisively was on the boards. Boston outrebounded Brooklyn 158 to 136 across the quartet of contests, and that was a big reason why Boston got up 25 more shot attempts.
This series was so much closer than it felt while watching it. A few thousand years from now, alien basketball scholars will pore over these box scores and scratch their oblong heads in confusion, wondering if there was a typo somewhere. Now, the Nets enter an uncertain off-season while the Celtics dream of championship glory.
Milwaukee - Chicago (Milwaukee wins 4-1)
Chicago ranked 16th out of 16 playoff teams in effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding rate, and free throw rate. That is apocalyptically bad. Turns out it’s hard to win games when you’re literally the worst at making shots, rebounding your own misses, and drawing fouls. That’s pretty much all the ways you can score points!
Chicago shot reasonably well from midrange but couldn’t buy a bucket from behind the line or at the rim. Outside of Game 2, a finesse-oriented Bulls offense could never solve Milwaukee’s length and physicality.
Injuries to crucial players have hampered the Bulls’ offense, including Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and Zach LaVine. The Bucks were so confident in their chances against Chicago that they willingly gave up home-court advantage in Round 2 to the Celtics to ensure an easy Round 1 against Chicago, a bold tradeoff rarely seen from a defending champion.
Chi-town put up a fight in Game 1 and even stole Game 2, but Games 3-5 were laughers, with an average Milwaukee margin of victory of 23.3 points. Of course, it came at a cost - Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s best perimeter scorer, suffered an MCL injury and will miss all of Round 2 against Boston.
It was a disappointing end to a promising season for the Bulls, but they can reasonably hope that greater health next season will lead to more playoff success.
Philadelphia - Toronto (Philly leads 3-2)
23 is the discrepancy in turnovers between Philadelphia (a decidedly not-nice 69) and Toronto (46).
Interestingly, Philly isn’t turning it over much more than they did in the regular season; the Raptors are just taking much better care of the ball. The Raptors averaged 12.3 turnovers per game, while the Sixers averaged 12.7. However, for this series, Toronto is averaging just 9.2 turnovers per game compared to Philly’s 13.8 (Toronto led the league in forcing turnovers in the regular season, so it’s not surprising to see Philly’s number climb).
Toronto’s lack of turnovers is even more surprising when you consider that point guard Fred VanVleet has been hobbled by injuries all series before missing Game 5. Regardless, VanVleet has only committed four turnovers in four games. Pascal Siakam and rookie Scottie Barnes (when available) have also done a great job of limiting mistakes while taking on more playmaking duties.
Philadelphia’s master of deflections, Matisse Thybulle, can’t play in Toronto due to not being fully vaccinated. Even when he is available, coach Doc Rivers has only played him scant minutes while Rivers searches for more shooting around Embiid.
This is a trade-off the Sixers can live with. They are shooting and rebounding better than Toronto, and their defense has been decent outside of the lack of turnovers. But doubt is creeping into the minds of fans. Fixing this discrepancy by forcing more Raptors turnovers or limiting their own would go a long way towards helping the 76ers finally seal the deal.
Phoenix - New Orleans (Phoenix leads 3-2)
The Pelicans have hung around this series thanks to one thing:
Devin Booker’s injury their massive offensive rebounding advantage.
The big-beaked birds have dysoned up 37.6% of their own misses, miles above Memphis’ league-leading 32.7% offensive rebounding rate in the regular season. Jonas Valanciunas (31) and Larry Nance Jr. (13) have more offensive rebounds than the entire Phoenix team combined (40). Heck, minuscule guard C.J. McCollum somehow has ten!
Offensive rebounding often comes with a tradeoff: attack the glass, and you can leave yourself vulnerable in transition if you fail to secure the rebound. But New Orleans has done an excellent job hustling back - none of the Brooklyn Nets-style lollygagging while the other team scores an easy hoop. They’re middle of the pack in transition defense frequency and effectiveness, a more than acceptable compromise. That shows great coaching from Willie Green and his staff and strong effort from the players.
Phoenix seems likely to close the series out tonight, but if the Pelicans can survive and advance, it will almost certainly be thanks to their second-chance opportunities.
Memphis - Minnesota (Memphis leads 3-2)
62.4 is the average number of combined free throws these two teams are shooting per game. Jazz-Mavericks is second with 52.2 free throws per game, more than ten fewer! For as exhilarating as this series has been, with massive blown leads, insane highlights, and fascinating tactical battles, it’s been borderline unwatchable at times.
Both these teams have had absurd foul trouble situations all series. Game 2 saw the two squads combine for 33 free throws in the first quarter. Game 4 saw four of Memphis’ starters end the first quarter with at least two fouls. All-Defensive Team candidate Jaren Jackson Jr. is making that acclaim look silly — he has an absolutely breathtaking 26 fouls in five games. It’s only possible to accumulate 30 fouls (since a player is ejected after six infractions)! Where is the self-awareness to stop committing stupid fouls?
Many rotation players on both sides have battled foul trouble, most notably Karl Anthony-Towns. He continually commits heinous offenses and then stares bug-eyed, arms out in disbelieving supplication, aghast that the ref could make a very obvious call.
That’s the thing - I can’t even really blame the refs here. These teams are playing very physically and frankly not very smartly. The majority of the fouls are evident even to fans in the nosebleeds.
I don’t want to discourage you from watching this game tomorrow night — almost every game in the series has been unbelievably fun. But please, Wolves and Grizzlies, I’m begging you. Just let three plays go by without fouling!
Ugh, I need a palate cleanser. Let’s watch Ja Morant with one of the most incredible dunks in NBA playoff history:
Golden State - Denver (Golden State wins 4-1)
That’s how many Warriors shot over 40% from three against the Nuggets’ lackluster perimeter defense (and it excludes a sixth, Juan Toscano-Anderson, who made his only three-ball attempt). Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole all shot lights-out from three on huge volume, while Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton combined to shoot 13-21 across the five-game series.
No team has a prayer when the Warriors’ stars AND ancillary players are shooting that well. The Nuggets didn’t have the offensive personnel to punish the Warriors’ small lineups with Poole, Thompson, and Curry playing together. Memphis or Minnesota aren’t likely to put up a huge challenge, either.
In boxing, they say styles make fights. A Warriors-Celtics Finals would be beautiful, as the Celtics could roll out five switchy, strong defenders vs. the Warriors’ offensive juggernaut. But Golden State still has to get past Memphis/Minnesota and then likely a Phoenix team that still might be favored in a 7-game series despite Devin Booker’s injury.
If the W’s keep shooting like this, though, no one can stop them.
Dallas - Utah (Dallas leads 3-2)
Dallas is up 3-2 thanks in large part to their incredible transition defense (not something I ever thought I’d say about a Luka Doncic-led team). The Mavericks have only allowed 7.6 points off turnovers, the only team in the playoffs giving up fewer than ten points. It’s not just because Dallas is only averaging a paltry eight turnovers per game, either (although that does help!).
Transition opportunities and fast breaks are highly valued in the NBA because they lead to better scoring chances; a transition play should average more points than a regular half-court offense. Think about how many times you’ve seen someone get a steal to ignite a two-on-one situation that leads to an open dunk or free throws, and you get the idea.
But Dallas isn’t just limiting their turnovers. They’re only allowing 0.85 points per transition play, an astonishingly low number. The best transition defense in the regular season by this metric was Milwaukee, who gave up 1.17 points per transition play. They’re hustling back, contesting shots, and generally harassing Utah’s slower players (who have looked pitiful finishing the fast break).
With Dallas doing a superb job of running the Salt Lake crew off the three-point line (the Jazz are shooting just 28% from three on a low 29 long-ball attempts per game), Utah needs those points. They can jumpstart an anemic offense, get the crowd on their feet, and bolster a struggling player’s confidence.
Tonight might be Utah’s swan song; they’ll need to manufacture some easy buckets to avoid elimination. Dallas’ half-court defense has been stifling, so Utah will need to be in attack mode faster and more often.
One more bonus stat, courtesy of David Locke. I’ve heard a lot of talk about how Utah center Rudy Gobert is a defensive liability, particularly against a player like Luka Doncic. I’ve said this many times, but big men will always get beat by faster guards in isolation, and it looks ugly in highlight reels. But that doesn’t mean that the big is a bad defender:
It doesn’t seem like it will matter, since Gobert and journeyman Danuel House are the only Utah players who decided to show up for these playoffs. But it’s worth keeping in mind the next time you hear someone say Gobert is the problem.
Effective field goal percentage adjusts for the fact that threes are worth more points than twos; if someone goes 1-for-1 from three, their eFG% is 150%.