The Biggest Surprises From The First Week Of The NBA Playoffs

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): We’ve had almost one full week of games in the NBA playoffs, and trends are emerging. Golden State took a 31-point third-quarter lead over the Clippers on Thursday night … and didn’t lose! So after a few early surprises, things seem to be getting back to what we expected.

One series not playing out according to seeding is San Antonio-Denver. The No. 7 Spurs beat the No. 2 Nuggets 118-108 on Thursday to take a 2-1 lead in the series. This comes as a surprise to the FiveThirtyEight NBA Predictions model, which had Denver as an 88 percent favorite to move on. The Nuggets are still favored, but just 60-40. Are you guys surprised by how this series is going?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior staff writer): Not all that much, no. I think I picked Denver out of respect for the season it had. But this was the one team basically everybody had questions about coming in.

I had the series going seven games, with Denver winning. It could easily be 3-0 Spurs right now.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I am surprised, but I don’t think we really should be. It’s the Spurs being the Spurs again.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Our model doesn’t like San Antonio very much, so given their regular-season performance and home-court advantage — and Denver has a big home-court advantage — the Nuggets were pretty clear favorites. But it didn’t really like the Nuggets all that much either. They aren’t a great playoff team because their depth doesn’t really help them in the playoffs, the topline talent is not all that good, and they don’t have much playoff experience.

So I’m surprised that we had them as high as 88 percent, frankly! But not surprised that the Spurs are ahead in the series.

chris.herring: On Denver’s home-court advantage: The Nuggets haven’t beaten the Spurs in San Antonio in 14 tries now.

tchow: I am surprised because at one point in the season, our model gave the Spurs just a 4 percent chance of even making the postseason. We had a story a while back that talked about how they started turning it around (better defense, better bench production), but they were still underdogs going into this series, in my opinion.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, I had sort of counted the Spurs out a long time ago.

Let that be a lesson to me: Never count out Pop.

The experience factor really seems to be hurting the Nuggets so far. (And our model took 3 points away from them for their lack of playoff experience.)

chris.herring: Nuggets coach Mike Malone has talked about the experience factor a pretty decent amount in the past week

His young starting point guard, Jamal Murray, began Game 2 going 0-for-8. Malone was asked if he gave thought to pulling him because of Murray’s performance. He said no, in part because he needed to show his young players that he believed in them, and that he’s with them, win or lose. Murray responded by hitting 8-of-9 in the final quarter to bring the Nuggets all the way back for a dramatic win.

The win probably saved their season for the time being. But it speaks to the volatility of having such a young/young-minded club.

tchow: Murray wasn’t much better in Game 3 — just 6 points and two assists. I’m not trying to pin Denver’s failing’s this postseason all on Murray, though. All the Nuggets starters were pretty terrible in Game 3.

chris.herring: It’s a pretty big contrast between the teams.

While we’re talking about the growing pains for a young team, it’s worth pointing out that the Spurs are being led in part by youngster Derrick White, whose defense is his calling card. I think this is his first real exposure to a national audience, but he’s been playing really well for months.

tchow: White’s Game 3 performance was kind of a reminder for a lot of people who don’t watch the Spurs that he existed.

sara.ziegler: LOL

chris.herring: White’s experience has been different because of all the injuries they’ve had. But White and Dejounte Murray are going to be an annoyingly good backcourt once the team is healthy again next season. AND there’s Bryn Forbes, too.

natesilver: The whole Nuggets backcourt feels like it’s way short of championship caliber. It needs an anchor. There are lots of useful pieces you could rotate around that anchor, like Murray and Gary Harris, but without that anchor, it doesn’t quite come together.

chris.herring: It’s tough: They have a fantastic, sure-handed backup in Monte Morris, who led the NBA in assist/turnover ratio.

sara.ziegler: MORE MONTE MORRIS

Cyclones, represent!

chris.herring: He may not win a game for you. But he’s extremely unlikely to ever lose one for you, which you could argue Murray either occasionally does, or comes close to doing. Again: These are the growing pains for a young team sometimes.

sara.ziegler: On to another team that has seemed shaky at times this postseason: the Philadelphia 76ers. But they seem to have recovered from their upset in Game 1 — they’ve beaten the Nets convincingly twice in a row now. What looked different for them in Games 2 and 3?

tchow: Ben. Simmons.

natesilver: Sen. Bimmons.

chris.herring: Yeah, that sounds about right. Whether it was Jared Dudley that got in his head, or just him recognizing that he had to be more aggressive, Simmons has been a completely different player since Game 1.

tchow: Simmons had a -21 plus/minus in Game 1. Game 2 he was +23, and then +11 in Game 3 with a 31 point performance on 85 percent shooting.

chris.herring: I hate to say this, because maybe it’s premature, but I was beginning to think that the Nets could steal this series if things broke right for them.

tchow: I think a lot of people thought that, Chris. The Nets are legit and play really hard.

chris.herring: The Nets stole home-court advantage in Game 1. Were basically even at halftime of Game 2. And then get a gift rolled out on a platter for them, with Joel Embiid sitting out of a Game 3 played in their home arena, in front of a fan base that hasn’t hosted a playoff game in four years.

Thursday was their chance. And I think with the loss now, that might be about it.

natesilver: I’m in the Ben-Simmons-is-underrated camp. Yeah, he doesn’t really have a jumpshot. But he does pretty much everything else well. And there have been a lot of players throughout NBA history who have survived or even thrived without jump shots — Giannis Antetokounmpo basically does that now. The advanced stats like Simmons.

tchow: I think it’s very different for a player like Giannis to not have a jump shot than Simmons.

chris.herring: While we’re on the issue of Simmons, I think we learned that Embiid not being there might have been a help for him

For all the wonderful things Embiid does, he plays at a plodding pace.

Someone like Simmons thrives in an up-tempo environment because of his inability to shoot.

tchow: Sara, I found the hot take for next week’s Hot Takedown episode: FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring says Sixers are better without Joel Embiid.

sara.ziegler: LOLOLOL

Yes!

chris.herring: They might be in this series! Well, probably not: Greg Monroe was rough.

If they had more depth, they might be.

natesilver: That’s the thing about Philly. Look how bad their bench is:

Everyone’s like, “Why are these four stars such awkward fits together” — and I’ll admit that they’re a little awkward, but with a half-decent bench, it’s an entirely different team.

chris.herring: I don’t think it’s a terrible bench. And the truth is, you can stagger when you have that many stars.

But the spots in which it’s terrible … yeah.

tchow: Sixers’ bench: Who? Who? Who? The big guy. Who? and Who?

sara.ziegler: 🤣

chris.herring: That’s their issue, I think. I’m not sure Boban Marjanovic would work against every team. But he’s their backup big.

natesilver: I saw Boban at the United Airlines lounge at Newark Airport one time. He was very big and tall and sitting in a giant lounge chair and still looked very big and tall.

chris.herring: I tweeted last night that I’m pretty sure he dunked last night with one foot still on the ground.

Anyway: I want to talk more about how disappointed I am in Brooklyn

tchow: Are you just disappointed in their central A/C system at Barclays, Chris?

chris.herring: Well, that too.

sara.ziegler: Are you disappointed that their slogan is “We go hard,” and then they didn’t?

chris.herring: They did go hard!

It’s not a question of effort with them. It never is. But I think what Nate alluded to is exactly the issue here. The Sixers’ bench isn’t great/may be bad. And the Nets’ second-best player is their bench.

natesilver: Yeah, Brooklyn’s not totally unlike Denver. Excellent depth, no playoff experience, frontline talent is meh.

tchow: Nate, they’re both small-market teams. I get it. (Queens represent!)

sara.ziegler: OMG

Tony trying to start a borough war here.

chris.herring: You generally see Brooklyn go on these massive runs in the second quarter of these games. But then after halftime, the game gets broken open, and Kenny Atkinson — who I really, really like — waits too long to call a timeout!

The Sixers went on a 21-2 (!!!!) run in Game 2 before Atkinson called for timeout. It took a 1-point deficit and expanded it to a 20-point lead for the Sixers. And then the game was over.

tchow: Maybe Atkinson is from the Phil Jackson school of letting the players figure it out on their own.

natesilver: What was the atmosphere like at Barclay’s, Chris? I think it’s one of the coolest venues in sports from an architectural/amenities standpoint, but every time I’ve gone, the fans are sort of half-hearted.

chris.herring: Last night was amazing to start the game. But I think they were sort of stunned to see the team run out of steam.

And as Tony said: I was freezing.

sara.ziegler: Well, it is a hockey rink, too.

chris.herring: So maybe the have to have the ice ready? But good lord.

My phone turned off at one point because of how cold it was.

sara.ziegler: Wow

That’s cold.

chris.herring: The atmosphere was really great. It’s good to have the playoffs in Brooklyn again. And hopefully Manhattan at some point in the next couple years. (side-eyes Knicks)

natesilver: Knicks fans should be rooting against Boston and against Golden State, right?

chris.herring: I’ve heard the same stuff everyone else has about Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving coming to the Knicks. As much as I hear it, I just have to see it to believe that it’ll actually happen.

natesilver: I think KD could leave either after a championship or a flameout. But Kyrie — yeah, he’s already flip-flopped enough that I think Knicks fans want the Celtics out by Round 2.

chris.herring: I think I’m just too conditioned to believe that nothing overwhelmingly good can happen for/with the Knicks unless there’s an enormous downside that comes with it.

sara.ziegler: LOL

natesilver: My current scenario is that they get Kyrie and also draft Ja Morant and somehow that turns into a disaster.

sara.ziegler: Speaking of Kyrie, the Celtics are making quick work of the Pacers. Indiana doesn’t seem to have quite enough offense so far to hang with Boston.

chris.herring: 😔

tchow: I’m actually interesting to read Chris’s thoughts on this series. I remember A LOT of people were down on Boston going into the playoffs.

chris.herring: Yeah. I had some hope that this could be an interesting series.

But I also was tasked with writing an Indiana-based primer for the ESPN side ahead of this series. When I got to the “Why Indiana can win section,” I sat and stared at my screen for like an hour.

So this actually doesn’t surprise me all that much.

They simply don’t have enough offense. Or ingenuity.

natesilver: I haven’t watched much of that series; pretty much my only recollection was seeing a score that was like 76-59 in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and thinking I needed to update my contact lens prescription, but nope, that was the actual score.

chris.herring: They basically hand the ball off to Bojan Bogdanovic and say, “Do something.” Kind of like a kid who does a magic trick, but is still holding the quarter in his hand, in plain sight, for everyone to see.

tchow: Has Boston done anything to change people’s minds about their chances though?

chris.herring: No. They’re merely beating a flawed, weakened team, IMO.

tchow: That’s what I figured about Boston. The real test, if they do end up beating the Pacers, will probably come against Milwaukee.

chris.herring: In fairness to Nate McMillan and the Pacers, this was always going to be an uphill battle, because they’re playing without Victor Oladipo. It was a great accomplishment to go 21-21 this season without their star player after going 0-7 without him last season.

sara.ziegler: Yeah, they don’t really have anything to feel embarrassed about.

chris.herring: I really like Indiana, and have a soft spot for Little-Engine-That-Could sort of teams. But they need some reinvention.

They could use more firepower. But they need better schemes.

natesilver: I feel like the whole first round could use more firepower. Between inexperienced teams, teams with injury problems, teams without any star talent … it feels a little bit like spring training or something.

tchow: I agree, but it has been more interesting than I imagined.

chris.herring: A little.

sara.ziegler: Let’s talk about the other interesting series in the East: No. 2 Toronto has had its hands full with No. 7 Orlando. The Magic took the first game, but the Raptors stormed back in Game 2. The teams will face off Friday night in Orlando. Do we think the Magic have a realistic shot in this series?

natesilver: Mayyyyyybe?

chris.herring: It depends on what you define as “a shot.” I think they can get another game, potentially. I don’t think they will win the series. The Raptors responded in Game 2 the way you hoped a top-flight team would.

sara.ziegler: But the Magic are underrated, Chris!

I heard you say so.

chris.herring: Oh, they are. And not enough people know that.

But I don’t think that I ever conflated them being underrated with the notion that they should somehow beat the Raptors in a series.

tchow: Kyle Lowry responded in Game 2 the way you hoped. Chris wrote about Lowry’s Game 1 woes before, but he responded in a big way.

natesilver: Orlando is a weird-ass team, and they played very well in the second half of the season.

If you’re looking for an upset pick, I’d rather pick a weird team than a normal one.

chris.herring: If they had played competitively in Game 2, sure.

Or had a matchup they could readily exploit.

sara.ziegler: The Raptors had a 98 percent chance to win this series before the playoffs start, and now they’re all the way down to 93 percent. So things are still looking pretty good for them.

In the last series in the East, the Bucks had a little trouble with Detroit before pulling away in Game 2. But the most interesting thing to me about that game was Blake Griffin picking up his second technical foul of the series.

Blake Griffin, you’ll recall, has not actually played yet in this series.

tchow: Bucks in four. I think we can move on?

sara.ziegler: LOL

chris.herring: Yeah. That’s literally the only thing I find interesting about this series. That, and finding out how far away from the basket Giannis can dunk from.

tchow: The NBA tweet highlights of Giannis dunks have been the only saving grace of this series.

chris.herring: If and when the NBA move the first round back to a best-of-five, they’re going to use this series as evidence as why. (edited)

natesilver: I think there needs to be a mercy rule where you can concede your playoff series and get like three Lottery Balls or whatever.

sara.ziegler: OK, let’s move back to the West. The Trail Blazers are off to a great start, up 2-0 against the Thunder. Our model is surprised at this series — it had given the Thunder a 77-23 edge. Are you guys surprised?

chris.herring: Yes. I’m surprised. Maybe stupid, too.

natesilver: I mean, if Paul George isn’t himself, our model is gonna screw that series up.

tchow: He’s hurt!

chris.herring: I feel like a contrarian now, but I don’t even think he’s shoulder is the problem anymore. He shot the ball semi-decently last game.

Russ is shooting like he’s the one injured.

tchow: Our model can’t predict that Russell Westbrook will shoot 35 percent and 10 percent from 3-point range in this series.

chris.herring: EXACTLY

What I will say is that I don’t have a lot of faith in OKC if it’s simply relying on the notion that its shooting will improve.

They are shooting 16 PERCENT from three in this series.

Which, while God awful, is only a slight regression for them!

natesilver: That whole quadrant of the bracket — OKC, Portland, San Antonio, Denver — seems incredibly weak to me.

chris.herring: If OKC had a team full of sharpshooters, I could understand having more confidence.

But Russ still defends Damian Lillard as if he’s surprised that Dame can/will pull up from 35 feet.

The guy needs to be treated as if he’s Steph at this point

tchow: I don’t want to take anything away from Portland. Yes, they lost Jusuf Nurkic, but CJ and Dame have been awesome this series.

chris.herring: I came in thinking that this might be a sweep or a 4-1 series in favor of OKC. Simply thought that not having Nurkic would hurt against someone like Steven Adams. I thought CJ McCollum would struggle to find a rhythm (he’s coming off an injury and wasn’t good vs. OKC during the season). We watched Dame log 35 a night against the Thunder during the season and still get swept 4-0 during the regular season.

tchow: CJ has been 🔥

chris.herring: I didn’t think they had a great chance in this series. They had lost 10 playoff games in a row. With the exception of perimeter shooting, I thought just about everything else would be in OKC’s favor. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

tchow: If Dame wasn’t in Portland, would he still be this underrated? It feels like this is a storyline every season.

sara.ziegler: That’s a good question.

How many people regularly see him play?

tchow: Basketball nerds: “Look at Damian Lillard!”

Basketball fans: “Who this?”

chris.herring: I guess we have to define underrated.

natesilver: He was All-NBA First Team last season, no?

But, yeah, Portland has to be one of the least-watched teams in the league, or at least by people not in the Pacific Time Zone.

chris.herring: Even if you know who he is, and how great he is, I think you could objectively look at this series — and what the Blazers have done the last two years in the playoffs (0-8) — and say OKC should have been favored.

tchow: For OKC to take Game 3, they need to ____________.

And don’t say something like “play better” (looks at Nate).

sara.ziegler: SHOOT BETTER

chris.herring: … shoot better than my 4-year-old nephew does from outside of 23 feet.

natesilver: I’d say they need to play better basketball.

sara.ziegler: In the other non-Warriors series out West, the Rockets are handling the Jazz easily so far, setting up a showdown with Golden State in the second round. This has played out about as expected, right?

chris.herring: I had higher hopes for Jazz-Rockets. Am impressed with how dominant Houston has looked, but thought Utah would play better than this. Their defensive scheme has looked downright nonsensical to me

tchow: If Chris has a soft spot for Indiana, I think I have a soft spot for Utah. I love this team and wanted more out of them this series.

sara.ziegler: Utah is a very likable team.

natesilver: I didn’t expect Houston to dismantle Utah quite so thoroughly.

In fact, I think that’s the story of the first round so far. It’s a highly consequential story because the Rockets are absolutely good enough to give the Warriors a series.

chris.herring: The disappointment I feel with Utah is equivalent to how excited I am for the second round, with Warriors-Rockets.

That will seemingly be the Western Conference finals, just a round early.

natesilver: It would be quite something if the Rockets actually need fewer games to dispatch Utah than Golden State needs with the Clippers.

chris.herring: Seriously.

tchow: The Jazz just seem like a team that’s so close to figuring it out. Maybe not to a point where you think they can beat Golden State, but they’re so good in the regular season. I don’t know what happens to them in the playoffs.

chris.herring: Yeah, I sort of agree in theory, Tony.

But I think what I’ve learned is that I have to be leery of a team that relies on such a young player to be its leading scorer.

natesilver: Maybe you just need more isolation scoring in the playoffs? Or more scoring, period?

chris.herring: I remember a stat from last year: Donovan Mitchell was the first rookie to lead a playoff team in regular-season scoring since Carmelo Anthony.

I think there’s a reason we don’t see it happen much. And I think it’s even more problematic for a team built like that to have all sorts of horrible defensive breakdowns, because at that point, you know they have no shot at keeping up in a shootout against one of the best scorers in modern history.

If Quin Snyder rolls out the exact same defensive scheme that he did in Games 1 and 2, this series will end in a sweep.

natesilver: Is Mitchell … a little bit like Carmelo Anthony in that he’s taking too many shots? I mean, I guess he has to take a lot of shots with that lineup. But Utah really needs another player who can create his own shot.

tchow: What if you played a player like Royce O’Neale more? He’s +1.8 on defense (according to our model), and it looks like they do a bit better defensively with him on the floor.

chris.herring: He’s another example of what Nate is talking about, though: A guy that isn’t likely to create his own shot.

This is a team that will need to take a long, hard look at itself this summer despite how well it’s played during the second half of these last two seasons.

tchow: One obvious fix would be to get rid of Grayson Allen.

KIDDING!!!

natesilver: I also think Utah benefits from being a bit unorthodox. Rubio is an unorthodox point guard. They’re defense-first. They can play at a slow pace, although they picked up their pace a lot this year. They’re well-coached. So there’s an advantage from game-planning in the regular season. But Daryl Morey and the Rockets are going to study the hell out of the Jazz and know how to counter.

chris.herring: Some of these teams are built to play really, really well in the regular season. And there’s incredible value in that, for seeding purposes, etc.

But the inability to change your playing style when you’re forced to is often fatal this time of year.

sara.ziegler: Finally, Golden State seemed like Golden State in Game 3 of their series against the Clippers. So that panic appears to be over?

chris.herring: Hell, they seemed like Golden State in Game 2 to me!

It was just a massive collapse at the end of Game 2.

sara.ziegler: LOL

chris.herring: I actually pointed out yesterday that the game played out exactly the same way for a long while:

natesilver: Our model thought the DeMarcus Cousins injury was a pretty big deal. Although I think it overrated how effective Cousins had been this season.

sara.ziegler: All season, Cousins has been more about potential in our model.

But the Warriors didn’t need him early in the season, obviously.

tchow: I have nothing much to say about this series, but I do want to point readers to this interview KD gave before Game 3.

natesilver: It’s not that they’re going to lose to the Clippers, but I do just have to wonder about a team’s mentality when they can blow a 30-point lead.

chris.herring: NBC analyst Tom Haberstroh pointed out that Steph was only averaging 19.9 points per 36 minutes this season with Boogie on the court, and that he essentially morphed into Malcolm Brogdon.

Averaged 31.4 points per 36 minutes without DeMarcus on the floor.

sara.ziegler: Wow

natesilver: I mean, part of that might be that Steph was being deferential in an effort to get Cousins feeling like himself again.

chris.herring: EXACTLY

Which … there isn’t time to do that in the playoffs.

tchow: Definitely. I think Steph went through a similar dip when KD joined too.

chris.herring: The last thing you want is Steph playing nice when you need him to be Steph.

natesilver: It does just seem kind of impossible when you have to shut down Steph AND KD and Klay. Even if the rest of the team kind of sucks.

chris.herring: I tend to think this helps them for now, but the Rockets series was one of the overarching reasons they signed Cousins — to make it so Houston couldn’t switch as much as they did on them last year

natesilver: Yeah. So in some ways, we’re back to last year’s series, which was as even as it gets. The Rockets lately are playing as well as last year. And the Warriors without Cousins are basically last year’s team.

sara.ziegler: After this matchup, will we even want to finish out the playoffs??

natesilver: Well, the Western Conference finals are likely to be an anti-climax.

tchow: LOL. Yes! I for one am very interested to see who comes out of the East to play against Warriors/Rockets.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.