Playing without injured star Kevin Durant and working with what appeared to be a rapidly thinning bench, you might have figured the Golden State Warriors would be in deep trouble if they saw a half in which Stephen Curry went scoreless on 0-of-5 shooting. After all, while the Warriors entered Game 6 having compiled a 29-4 record in games when Durant sat and Curry played, those games involved Curry averaging 27.8 points.
But instead of finding themselves in trouble on Friday, the Warriors found themselves headed to the locker room at halftime tied with the Houston Rockets. They earned that halftime deadlock behind both a 3-point explosion from Klay Thompson and timely contributions from several of the same players who had seen their performances maligned earlier in the series. Then, Steph poured in 33 second-half points — including a career-high 23 in the fourth quarter — to send the Rockets home and the Warriors back to the Western Conference finals for the fifth consecutive season.
Thompson knocked down five threes during that first half, pouring in 21 of the Warriors’ 57 points. He scored only six points after the break, but the early burst was key in allowing his team to survive Curry’s frigid shooting. Not that this was anything out of the ordinary for Thompson — he has become something of a Game 6 specialist over the past several years, knocking down in excess of 52 percent of his 3-point tries in the Warriors’ seven Game 6s during the Steve Kerr era. This victory also pushed the Warriors’ record during that time to an incredible 95-9 (and 18-3 in the playoffs) in games when Thompson makes five or more shots from beyond the arc.
Thompson was not alone in buoying the Warriors while Curry struggled. Golden State’s bench players had been absolutely dreadful during this series, but in the first half of Game 6, Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney, Quinn Cook, Jordan Bell, Jonas Jerebko, Andrew Bogut and Alfonzo McKinnie actually came to play. That group of seven players combined for 20 points prior to halftime — more than they had collectively scored during any of the previous five games in this series.
The Warriors also got incredibly valuable contributions from Andre Iguodala, who should somehow find a way to include the tape of this game on his application to the Basketball Hall of Fame, if such a thing is possible. Iguodala not only finished with 17 points, but he also knocked down five threes for the first time in six years. His most valuable contributions, though, came on defense, where he hounded James Harden into an 11-for-25 shooting line and came away with a steal on four of Harden’s five live-ball turnovers, including one that essentially sealed the game late in the fourth quarter. Iguodala was Golden State’s preferred defender on Harden throughout the series,1 and Game 6 was an object lesson in why.
Of course, all of those players’ contributions were merely the preamble to Chef Curry getting cooking in the second half. After going scoreless during the first half for the first time in 102 career playoff games, Steph had the most explosive second half of not just his own playoff career but of any player who had gone scoreless before halftime in the past 20 postseasons. Seemingly out of rhythm for most of the night, Curry didn’t really get going until he knocked down one of his classic relocation threes late in the third period. His next shot rimmed out, and a three-quarter-court heave at the end of the quarter came up just short, but he spent most of the rest of the game looking like the Stephen Curry we’ve come to know once he knocked down that corner three.
That Stephen Curry is a killer, and he absolutely killed the Rockets in the fourth quarter, racking up 23 points while shooting 6 of 8 from the field, 3 of 5 from three and 8 of 8 from the line.
Mostly, he shredded the Rockets out of the pick and roll. The Warriors had run a Curry-Draymond Green pick and roll 58 times during the first five games of the series, per Second Spectrum tracking data, for an average of 11.6 per game. They ran that action 10 times during the fourth quarter of Game 6 alone, and those plays resulted in 20 Warriors points, 15 of them from Curry himself. Driving layups, scoop floaters, step-back threes, hitting Green on the short roll so that he could make a 4-on-3 play coming downhill — Curry showed off the entire ball-screen repertoire down the stretch, and the Rockets simply had no answers for him.
Very few teams have had answers for Curry over the years, though the Rockets did hound him into some of his very worst playoff basketball ever during this series. Steph struggled in Games 1 and 2, but the Warriors still came out on top thanks largely to the brilliance of Durant and the under-heralded contributions of Green and Iguodala. Houston rebounded to tie the series by winning the next two games at home while Curry continued misfiring, but in both Game 5 and Game 6, the Rockets squandered opportunities to take advantage of his continued struggles until it was too late, and he managed to get going again. And when Curry gets going like that, the Warriors are near impossible to beat.
In each of the past two seasons, the Houston Rockets have shattered previously held records for 3-pointers made and attempted. They took the three to previously unseen heights by connecting on 1,256 of 3,470 attempts during the 2017-18 season, then surpassed both of those marks by making 1,323 of 3,721 of their shots from beyond the arc this year.
Given that they’ve attempted so many more threes than any other team, it should come as no surprise that the Rockets have also had more single-game 3-point explosions than any other team. The Rockets have made at least 15 treys an incredible 113 times in the past two seasons,1 including Tuesday night against the Warriors, when they made 17. The next-closest team is the Brooklyn Nets, who have nailed 15-plus triples just 51 times in the last two years.
Connecting on at least 15 shots from beyond the arc guarantees you at least 45 points, so it’s not surprising that the Rockets’ record when hitting all those treys was incredibly good heading into last night’s game. The Rockets were 89-23 in such games prior to their Game 2 loss — good for a 0.795 winning percentage, or the equivalent of a 65-win season.
So then how does a team to manage to lose when hitting 17 3-pointers? The quick and easy answer: by turning the ball over 18 times.
The Rockets gave the ball away on each of their first three possessions of the game, six of their first 10, and a total of nine times in the first quarter alone. With those blunders, they dug themselves a 14-point hole less than eight minutes into the game. Houston cleaned things up a bit during the final three periods, but the early struggles gave the Rockets a turnover rate north of 16 percent — far worse than their seasonlong average of about 12 percent, which ranked ninth in the NBA.
Usually, the Rockets are able to overcome error-filled performances like this one.2 Before dropping Game 2 to the Warriors, James Harden and company were 19-12 over the past two seasons in games in which their turnover rate was at least 15 percent. Turning the ball over 15-plus percent of the time against the Warriors, though, is a different story altogether. Golden State is practically unbeatable when its opponent coughs up as many possessions as the Rockets did in Game 2.
Since acquiring Kevin Durant before the 2016-17 season, the Warriors had racked up a 41-6 record3 when forcing a turnover on at least 15 percent of their opponent’s possessions. After Tuesday’s win, they’re now 3-0 when forcing the Rockets into that many errors — with the prior two victories coming in Game 3 and Game 6 of last year’s Western Conference finals.
The Rockets compounded their turnover problems by allowing a ton of offensive rebounds. With Draymond Green (five) and Andre Iguodala (four) leading the way, Golden State snared the board off one of its own misses 18 times during Game 2. That 36.7 percent offensive rebound rate made this both the Warriors’ fifth-best offensive rebounding game of the Durant era and Houston’s sixth-worst defensive rebounding game this season.
In the NBA, if you have enough talent and that talent is harnessed in the right way, you can overcome all kinds of deficits. You can shoot your way to victory even when you’re irresponsible with the ball and even when you let your opponent run wild on the offensive glass. Sometimes you can even overcome the odds and win when you do both of those things. Just, not against the Warriors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
I promise it's no warmer than 8 degrees in Barclays Center right now. Cold as hell in here.
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!)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
natesilver: I mean, part of that might be that Steph was being deferential in an effort to get Cousins feeling like himself again.
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.
We could talk all day long about the everlasting debate over competitive balance in the NBA, but perhaps the biggest challenge the Golden State Warriors pose for many die-hard NBA fans is the issue of sleep.
Because they play on the West Coast, the two-time defending champions are often playing late at night, leaving East Coasters and even Midwesterners with a choice of whether to stay up and watch the action or to get some shut eye before work the next morning. Some play it by ear and call it a night only if and when Golden State builds a commanding, early second-half lead.
This was basically the scenario on Monday night: The Warriors went up by 31, 94-63, at home on the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Clippers, the biggest first-round underdogs in 30 years, midway through the third quarter.1 Yet those who cut off their TV at that point, or before, missed out on the biggest comeback — or collapse, depending on how you view it — in NBA playoff history.
The Clippers poured in 85 second-half points en route to an improbable 135-131 win, knotting the best-of-seven at one game apiece as the series heads to Los Angeles later this week.
There’s no need to concoct an over-complicated explanation for the comeback. While there wasn’t an immediate effect, Stephen Curry’s fourth foul prompted coach Steve Kerr to sit the scorching sharpshooter (who had 22 points and was 6-of-9 from the field) for an eight-and-a-half-minute stretch during the third quarter, until there were 13 seconds left in the period. By that point, the Warriors’ lead (still 17 points) had already been cut by almost half. And Curry’s magic had largely faded once he was subbed back in: Upon returning, he shot just 2-of-9 the rest of the way.
Fellow star Kevin Durant was efficient as a scorer but turned the ball over four separate times during that third quarter alone. He would finish with a team-high nine giveaways, and the club — whose problematic turnovers we’ve detailed here before — had 22 turnovers on the night. (It marked the second game in a row that Golden State has had more than 20.) Durant again got frustrated with Clippers irritant Patrick Beverley, who stands about 10 inchesshorter, never stops giving everything he has and seems to effectively get into the All-Star’s head.
Lastly, the Warrior defense allowed Lou Williams, the Clippers’ top scorer, to get rolling and simply couldn’t find a way to stop him late. From the point that L.A.’s deficit peaked at 31 points, Williams, the likely Sixth Man of the Year, shot 11-of-17 for 26 points while also dishing out seven assists over the final 19 minutes of the game. He even grabbed a pair of his own misses and put them each back for valuable buckets.2
“We stopped playing, and got kind of disconnected, in that mid-third quarter,” Kerr told reporters of the turnaround. “We lost our defensive edge.”
It’s been tempting not to even bother writing about the key factors in this series, largely because of how enormous an underdog the Clippers are. But one thing the Warriors would have wanted to avoid going in was this: Don’t allow Los Angeles to stay in the game late. The win marked the third time this season alone that the Clippers had come back from 25 or more down on the road to win,3 and they were the NBA’s most efficient team in late-game, clutch scenarios during the regular season. With the score separated by 5 points or fewer in the final five minutes of play, L.A. outscored opponents by a league-high 17.7 points per 100 possessions.
The clutch shooting of Williams will stand out, but he was far from alone. The Clippers shot 8-of-14 from deep as a team in the second half. Montrezl Harrell, Williams’s high-flying pick-and-roll partner, shot 5-of-5 for 17 points after L.A. fell behind by 31. Beverley made a key play, picking Curry’s pocket as he brought the ball up the court early in the fourth, as if to say that the Clippers weren’t simply going to lie down, despite the Warriors still holding a double-digit lead.
And in what’s marked a sea change under coach Doc Rivers, a couple of the team’s youngsters — a contingent that just a few years ago never would have gotten an opportunity to show what they can do — pulled off arguably the biggest play of the game. Williams got a screen at the top of the key from rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who then short-rolled before hitting fellow rookie Landry Shamet on the wing for the go-ahead triple.
Still, the stunning comeback likely doesn’t figure to change all that much concerning this series, given the massive gap in talent. Yes, the Warriors lost center DeMarcus Cousins to what may be another significant injury, something that could throw them out of rhythm now that the playoffs are underway. Their chances of winning the NBA title — while still better than anyone else’s — are down significantly as a result.4 But the reality is that the Warriors still have a number of other All-Stars to lean on, while the Clippers have none.
It may end up being nothing more than a single, historic comeback in what amounts to a five-game series victory for Golden State. But even if that’s all, the outcome may have been enough to prompt some sleepy fans to catch the final quarter the next time they’re weighing whether to get that extra half-hour of rest.
On the other hand, the Lakers surrendering a 15-2 run — and the lead — over the final three minutes of play may have put the team’s back against the wall in an entirely new way.
With the defeat, LeBron James and the Lakers find themselves staring at just a 14 percent playoff probability in FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projection model, the lowest mark they’ve had all season, and a damning scenario given that there are only 20 games left in the campaign. That 14 percent figure is an enormous drop-off from even a week ago, when the club held 25 percent odds to get in. (Three weeks ago, the Lakers’ number was 41 percent.)
But a number of realities are setting in now. The Lakers are 4 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the seventh seed and 3.5 games back of the San Antonio Spurs, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker (meaning their lead is more like 4 games, since the Lakers would miss out on the postseason if they were to finish with the same record as San Antonio). Perhaps the most disheartening thing, aside from having a lot of ground to make up, is the fact that the other teams vying for the last two spots have much easier remaining schedules.
By contrast, the indestructible Spurs need to go only 10-9 to finish with 44 wins. They have an easier-than-average slate the rest of the way, with 11 of their last 19 games in San Antonio. The Clippers have it even better, needing a 9-9 finish to get to 44 victories, with 12 of their last 18 contests at home. (The young, fun Sacramento Kings are positioned in about the same spot as the Lakers in the standings, needing a 13-7 finish to reach 44 wins. But their remaining schedule is the third-easiest in the NBA, giving them some hope in an uphill battle.)
James has faced late-season pressure to lift his team out of the doldrums each of the past few seasons. But this scenario with the Lakers stands apart, both because of how much time he missed with injury (one that now looks as if it will cost the team a playoff spot), and because of how the young supporting cast struggled to hold the rope during his absence, going 6-11. It’s one thing to coast into the postseason, the way James’s Miami and Cleveland clubs often did. But James himself hasn’t missed the playoffs in 14 years, not since the 2004-05 season.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that the Lakers finally look engaged. They held Antetokounmpo to just 16 points, one of his lowest-scoring outputs in a dominant season. Youngster Brandon Ingram has showcased his scoring ability lately and was unstoppable Friday, finishing with 31 points.
LeBron James has been so good for so long that it’s easy to forget just how astounding some of his accomplishments are. For example, he currently owns one of the greatest ongoing streaks in sports: His team has made the NBA Finals in eight straight seasons, starting in 2011. That’s mind-blowing in a league where a single finals appearance can be the highlight of a player’s entire career — and he’s done it for two different franchises.
Of course, everyone knew it would be hard for James to keep that streak going this season after moving from the Cleveland Cavaliers — and the relative ease of the Eastern Conference — to the Los Angeles Lakers and the scary West. The thing that has taken NBA observers by surprise is the reason why the finals streak might not happen: James’s Lakers are in real danger of not making the playoffs at all.
The last LeBron-led team to miss the postseason entirely was the 2004-05 Cavs, in James’s second NBA season. They went 42-40 — which has traditionally been good enough to make the playoffs in the East — but lost out on a tiebreaker with the New Jersey Nets (who beat Cleveland 3-1 in the season series). Talent-wise, that team was a far cry from even later versions of the Cavs that would be prematurely bounced out of the playoffs: Journeyman guard Jeff McInnis was second on the team in minutes behind LeBron, and low-scoring swingman Ira Newble was also a full-time starter. (The next scoring options behind James were Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden.) James himself had not yet fully ascended to GOAT levels of performance, either, posting what would eventually be the fifth-worst Box Plus/Minus and fourth-worst win shares per 48 minutes of his career to date.
On paper, this season’s Lakers should not be drawing comparisons to Jeff McInnis and Ira Newble. Although L.A.’s supporting cast didn’t have the same immediate appeal as players in other potential free-agent destinations for James, it was assumed that the young quartet of Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball would build on their promising 2018 performances — particularly by playing alongside James — and mix with the Lakers’ strange mishmash of veterans to make a functional team. But that hasn’t consistently happened during James’s debut campaign in purple and gold.
It’s been a tough season for the young Lakers
Performance metrics for four Los Angeles Lakers prospects, 2018 vs. 2019
Across a variety of metrics, LeBron’s young sidekicks have mostly declined in performance this season, despite benefiting from an extra year of development and getting to play next to one of the greatest offensive creators in NBA history. Only Kuzma can credibly say he has shown any amount of improvement, increasing his usage rate and true shooting percentage while reducing his turnover rate. The rest — particularly Ingram, whose advanced stats have slid into an abyss — have stalled out or worse, and none has even amounted to a league-average player, according to the consensus of metrics.
Making matters worse, it could be argued that those four cost Los Angeles a shot at trading for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis at the deadline (assuming that former Pelicans GM Dell Demps ever actually intended to deal Davis). If even a few of the Lakers’ youngsters had played well this season, showing the requisite star potential to be included in a trade package for Davis, it’s possible that L.A. would have been penciling a LeBron-AD duo into its lineup for a playoff push this year. Instead, it’s left waiting for Hart and Ball to return from injury and hoping the kids can play better down the stretch.
The veterans haven’t exactly helped much, either. JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler are an efficient pairing of defensive bigs, and both are above average in win shares per 48 — the most charitable stat for each — while shooting guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the recently acquired Reggie Bullock are at least in the vicinity of average in the metric. (As is new power forward Mike Muscala.) But Rajon Rondo has shot the ball poorly this season, and Lance Stephenson hasn’t been an effective player in years. All told, James’s supporting cast hasn’t been appreciably better than the one he fled in Cleveland after last season.1
And it bears mentioning that James himself has not been as statistically dominant as in his last few seasons as a Cavalier. His usage rate, true shooting percentage, assist rate, rebound rate, steal rate, block rate and defensive BPM are all down from last year. He’s shooting worse on twos, threes and free throws. And most concerning, the 34-year-old missed 18 games between Christmas and early February with a groin injury, and he’s played only 49.5 percent of the Lakers’ available minutes this season — by far the lowest mark of his career.
James did tell reporters over All-Star weekend that he “feels great,” though, and that he’s ready to lead a playoff push for Los Angeles.
“[I’m] looking forward to seeing what we can do to get back in this playoff race,” James said. “That’s the only thing that’s going to happen in my mental space for these next two months, pretty much on how I can get this team playing the type of level of basketball we were playing before my injury.”
The Lakers will need to summon all of James’s focus and talent to storm back into the playoff picture. It’s more than possible, particularly if James is indeed healthy. But our projections are still low for a LeBron team even after accounting for James’s return to the lineup — and the fact that the Clippers were sellers at the trade deadline. (That’s why we give L.A. a 26 percent chance, while simpler forecasts such as the one at Basketball-Reference.com peg its odds at about 5 percent.) And even if the Lakers do make the playoffs, they would probably end up being heavy underdogs against the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
The Lakers’ long-term future should be brighter: The team will have plenty of cap space to use on free agents surrounding James and plenty of superstar options to choose from (in addition to the ongoing potential of a Davis trade). For now, though, James’s finals streak has a real chance of ending far earlier than anybody expected: April 10, the final day of the 2018-19 NBA regular season.
How this works: These forecasts are based on 50,000 simulations of the rest of the season. Elo ratings — which power the pure Elo forecast — are a measure of team strength based on head-to-head results, margin of victory and quality of opponent. Our CARMELO forecast doesn’t account for wins and losses; it is based entirely on our CARMELO player projections, which estimate each player’s future performance based on the trajectory of similar NBA players. Read more »