Swinging The Odds
Here’s how the underdogs can pull off a first-round upset.
MATCHUP: (1) THUNDER VS (8) ROCKETS
Swing Factor: Harden’s Revenge
Chance of Upset: 12%
In late November, the Rockets visited the Thunder in OKC. James Harden had only been a Rocket for about a month, and played a mediocre game—17 points on 3-16 shooting. The Thunder blew the Rockets out (120-98) and did the same thing a month later in Houston (124-94). But the teams’ third meeting gives me hope that this will be an incredible series (at least as far as 1-8 matchups go).
Houston again traveled to Oklahoma City on February 20. OKC led by 14 with 7 minutes left before Harden decided not to lose. He made countless plays late and finished with 46 points on 14-19 shooting, including 7-8 threes. That’s the Harden Revenge Factor.
Harden developed into the best scorer on the League’s best offense this year. (OK, second-best offense, but only by 0.1 points per game and “best” sounds so much better than “second-best.”) He had his Rockets, a team that was completely pieced together over the summer, in the Playoff picture for the entire season. He’s not a guy who I would want to piss off, but that’s exactly what the Thunder did. You know the story: Harden wanted a max contract, OKC wouldn’t give it to him so they sent him to Houston where he certainly proved he’s a max guy. We’ll see if the Thunder pissed off the wrong guy.
MATCHUP: (2) SPURS VS (7) LAKERS
Swing Factor: L.A.’s Dynamic Duo
Chance of Upset: 17%
Any coach who adjusts to his players should have figured out that Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard can fit together perfectly. Gasol is an incredibly gifted passer with a reliable jumper. Howard hangs under the basket for second-chance points and oops, as well as some isolation touches (probably a few too many).
But for the first six months of the season, they just weren’t co-existing—Ellis and Jennings style. In November, Howard was good but Gasol was reduced to a 12-point-per-game player. Pau’s next healthy month came in January, when each guy averaged around 13 per game—hardly maximizing the potential there. In February, Gasol scored 60 points in three games when Howard was injured before suffering an injury himself. He returned at the end of March, and was really healthy at the start of April, when they finally figured it out.
Eight April games saw Howard average 21 points, 10.5 boards and 2.5 blocks per game. Meanwhile, Pau posted 17.5, 12 boards and 6.6 dimes per night. How about that! It’s almost like they have a coach who doesn’t blindly install an offensive system regardless of who he’s coaching!
With the duo on a roll, the Lakers were 2.5-0 without Kobe Bryant.
The best sample we have of the series to come is last Sunday’s Lakers-Spurs contest in L.A. Granted the Spurs took their foot off the gas a long time ago, but their starters still played serious minutes. In that game, Howard and Gasol dominated the glass (33 boards between them), and 23 points from Steve Blake led to a Lakers win.
Tony Parker shot 1-10, and while that’s uncharacteristic of him, he hasn’t looked healthy since late-March. His sub-40 April field-goal percentage should be concerning for a guy who hit over 52 percent of his shots for the year.
Manu Ginobili doesn’t look like himself, either. He averaged 23 minutes in 60 games this year, and probably won’t be the threat we’re used to him being in the postseason. I’ve liked the Spurs’ Playoff chances all season, but I think the Lakers have a real opportunity to knock them off here.
Gregg Popovich tried to protect his guys from injury all season, but San Antonio is banged up at the wrong time anyway. Blake won’t score 23 again and Parker will make more than 10 percent of his shots, but Howard and Gasol are hitting their stride as the formidable duo they always could have been. Yellow L.A. has real hope for a 7-seed.
MATCHUP: (3) NUGGETS VS (6) WARRIORS
Swing Factor: Kenneth Faried’s Ankle
Chance of Upset: 35%
We all know about Denver’s ability to run up and down the floor and get quick buckets on fast breaks, but they’re not at all a one-dimensional team. They scored 58 points in the paint per game this season. That led the League…by a lot. Next-best (Detroit) scored 46.5. Some of that has to do with layups and dunks that finish off fast breaks and turnovers (Denver led the League in points off of turnovers, too). But the underlying reason for Denver’s success is their rebounding.
Denver ranked first in offensive rebounding and tenth in defensive boards this year. The strong work on the glass led to easy buckets (put backs and free throws after offensive rebounds, fast breaks after defensive boards). One more stat—Denver ranked third in the League in free-throws attempted. They trailed only OKC and the Lakers, two teams with individual guys who get to the line a ton. Nobody on Denver attempted more than 5 free throws per game. It’s a group effort, and an impressive one at that.
Anyway, everything above can be summarized by this: Kenneth Faried is really important to this team. The second-year man is at the heart of everything Denver does. He pulled down 6 defensive rebounds and 3.3 offensive rebounds per game while getting to the line a few times and shooting 55 percent from the field this year. He also averaged a block and a steal per game.
Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri recently said that Faried is doubtful for Game 1 and has a chance to play in Game 2 of their first-round matchup with Golden State. It seems like even if he plays, he won’t be at full strength. That’s a big problem for the Nuggets, who will now have to keep David Lee off the glass without their best rebounder for at least a game. They’re going to have a very tough time doing that, as Lee was fourth in the NBA in boards this season. If Golden State can control the glass, they love to get out and run-and-gun, too. They led the League in defensive boards and three-point shooting this year.
Denver will probably start Wilson Chandler at power forward without Faried, and they’re going to suffer because of it. If Faried misses both games in Denver, the Warriors have a great chance to steal home court advantage. From there, they’d have a leg-up in the series. The Ws were 28-13 in Golden State this year, while Denver went 19-22 on the road.
MATCHUP: (4) CLIPPERS VS (5) GRIZZLIES
Swing Factor: Crunch Time
Chance of Upset: 45%
This series displays why the NBA is so awesome. This year, the Clippers and Grizzlies each went 32-9 at home and 24-17 on the road, each finishing at 56-26. But the Clippers were ninth in the League in scoring; the Grizzlies were 27th. The Clippers hit the 10th-most threes; the Grizzlies hit the fewest in the NBA. Nobody allowed fewer points than Memphis, but the Clippers had the third-best scoring differential, behind only Oklahoma City and Miami. Memphis has two of the truly elite defenders in the League—Marc Gasol and Tony Allen—as well as a few other good defenders in Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tayshaun Prince; the Clippers play Lamar Odom 20 minutes per game. The lesson: There’s more than one way to win.
Last year, these two teams faced off in the first round and went to seven games. Three of those games were decided by one or two points, and another game went into OT. I expect another incredibly close series, so we’ll see a lot of “clutch” minutes.
“Clutch” situations are, for stats purposes anyway, usually counted when a game is in the final five minutes and the score is within five points. This season, the Grizz played 171 such minutes over 43 games. The other 39 games didn’t feature any “clutch” situations. The Clippers played 127 clutch minutes in 32 games. In those situations, Lob City scored 302 points and allowed 304 (not great). Meanwhile, Memphis scored 342 points and allowed 294 points in the clutch. So the Grizzlies played roughly 45 more minutes and allowed 10 fewer points than the Clippers did when it mattered most. The takeaway here: When the game gets close, the Grizzlies lock down.
A big factor for L.A. is that DeAndre Jordan gets yanked late in close games because of his awful free-throw shooting, and it hurts them defensively. He played in only 60 clutch minutes this season. The Clippers struggle to get stops late, and their offense doesn’t really thrive despite having a great closer in Chris Paul. If the Grizzlies can keep these games close, and there’s no reason to think that they can’t, they’ll have a strong chance to get revenge for last year’s first-round knockout.