By my vantage point on history there are five* teams that can realistically win the NBA title this year.
Of course there is the Warriors with their record-setting 73-win regular season and paradigm-transforming guard, Steph Curry.
The ones that “no one” talks about are the Thunder and the Clippers. Both of those teams won over fifty games and have elite bigs (you can even potentially slot Kevin Durant himself as a big; he is listed as two inches taller than, say, Golden State’s All-Star PF). Plus, the quiet, consistently excellent and dangerous Spurs.
Four of five.
These elite teams all won their opening 2016 playoff games, by:
- Warriors 26
- Spurs 32
- Thunder 38
- Clippers 20
All blowouts. Steph Curry played only twenty minutes in his pacesetting Saturday outing.
The fifth team that has a conceivable chance of winning the NBA title (and the only Eastern Conference team with that distinction) is the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs barely won their one-eight opener. The weird thing is the Cavs didn’t play badly at all.
Pistons 101 Cavaliers 106
ESPN Headline: Cavs rely on team effort to survive Game 1 test
On the season the Cavs shot the ball 6,888 times and scored 8,555 points, for 1.24 points per shot.
Yesterday they scored 106 on 88 shots 1.20 points per shot… Lower, but not catastrophically lower than their usual offense (per shot).
For reference our currently-worst blown out team, the Dallas Mavericks, scored 70 on 84 (.83 points per shot) versus a regular season 8,388 on 6,900 (1.21 points per shot).
Further, the Cavs out-rebounded the Pistons 40-37, and turned the ball over an astonishing four times only (versus Detroit’s 10). All this resulted in the Cavs taking fifteen more shots than the Pistons.
Together these are signals that the Cavs should have won handily… So why so close?
Somehow, some way, the Pistons scored 101 on 73 shots (1.38 points per shot); 1.38 exceeds Golden State’s regular season mark of 1.31 points per shot. So all the Pistons have to do is score better than the best team of all time… and they can make it look close?
There is some comfort for Cavs fans here. It’s unlikely Detroit, a team that scored under 1.18 points per shot in the regular season, can make LeBron and company sweat like this with their shooting again. Andre Drummond is a legit All-Star and maybe the third-best player in the series… But he hurts you more by getting possessions not finishing them.
This may be small consolation. The Pistons made Game One so close by shooting a blistering 51.7% from three. If the Cavs don’t shore up wing defense between now and the Finals Golden State, the actual monster under the bed, will be merciless.
As a Cavs fan the one thing I was super happy about this game was how well Kyrie Irving played. You get a feeling that we never saw how good the 2016 Cavs really could be via the regular season. They were never going to catch even San Antonio (plus home court in the East was a sure thing for so long), so they never had their collective foot on the accelerator the way the Warriors did. Ideally that will prove wise for them.
Given Detroit’s shooting, it’s weird how the box score ultimately shook out. The top three performers were all Cavaliers, with respective rebounding machines Thompson and Drummond at the wrong end of the Top 8; Stanley Johnson, though, smooshed the Cavs in only sixteen minutes; 3-4, 3-3 on threes; eight Eight EIGHT rebounds (i.e. two more than Tristan Thompson in thirty minutes) with zero TOs. Post-game Stan Van Gundy rightly questioned himself for not using Johnson down the stretch.
Hornets 91 Heat 123
ESPN Headline: Deng leads Heat to Game 1 rout of Hornets
Before the first elimination tipoff I would have picked Hornets-Heat as the most likely upset scenario in the playoffs. After all, the teams are evenly matched in terms of record and the Hornets actually hold the superior regular season point differential.
The counterargument is that the Hornets lack notable superstar talent.
The Heat are dripping with ex-superstars (and one actual present-day superstar): Joe Johnson, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Amar’e Stoudemire are all past or present max contract All-Stars. Goran Dragic was All-NBA Third Team only two years ago, and Luol Deng** is a multi-time All-Star.
Also the Heat cultivated Hassan Whiteside, who is by far the best player on either team in this series (not to mention the best real Center in the East). Per minute, Whiteside is in fact twice as good as any player in a Hornets uniform.
Game One of this series was a showcase of all that Miami talent. Both Whiteside and Deng equaled Serge Ibaka’s production from Saturday. When one team has two different players producing at 2x the rate of your best performer you need a massive level of negative production to keep up; Gerald Green was the only Heat player to oblige (though he was worse than any Hornet). Instead, a rout.
This game featured perhaps the most lopsided Top 8 of any box score I’ve ever studied. There was one Hornet in the Top 8; the other seven (including super standouts Deng and Whiteside) were all Miami.
Grizzlies 74 Spurs 106
ESPN Headline: Spurs dominate Grizzlies to take a 1-0 lead
This was about the Spurs-iest win you can pencil out. The entire team produces in the positive range, with non-gaudy-but-still-great production from Leonard, Duncan, and Patty Mills. The Spurs “win” every quarter (if some by only two or three points). San Antonio are kings of the “death by a thousand cuts” strategy, with basically everyone on their roster capable of All-Star production on a limited minute basis. Thirteen different San Antonio players rebounded; twelve scored. Not one Spur cracked 30 minutes; I mean, why would they?
Almost nothing to say here (which is about how Popp would like it, I imagine).
Trail Blazers 95 Clippers 115
ESPN Headline: Clippers post 3 double-doubles in rout of Blazers
I was pretty sure that we hadn’t seen Blake’s real stuff in the regular season. I would not be surprised whatsoever if he just went beast mode all playoffs. Look at this game… Chris Paul has 28-on-19 (insane for a guard), 6 rebounds (awfully great for a point guard)… Oh and double-doubles with 11 assists; only two turnovers. Chris only had the second-best game on his team!
Anyone sleeping on the Clippers as title contenders in the wake of the Warriors (and Spurs) hype in the West isn’t paying attention. Chris Paul isn’t Steph Curry, but he is unbelievably elite, still. DeAndre Jordan is flat-out the best Center in the NBA. The only comparable player is Hassan Whiteside (who rebounds for a non-contender in another conference). The Clippers have plenty of serviceable guys in their rotation… And badly behaved Blake has been saving his real stuff for the Playoffs, clearly. Don’t forget this team was kicking dirt on the Spurs’ collective coffins at the end of the first round last year.
I’m not sure how you even defend this team. This is the best*** “big three” I think we’ve ever seen. Blake was 19 on 10 shots; do you know how many points you get if you just make ten shots? 20. DJ was 18 on 7 shots… And he’s a historically poor FT shooter!
The second-round matchups in the West are all going to be must-see IMO.
Sunday’s Best: (tie) Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside of the Heat
Sunday’s Worst: (tie) Zach Randolph and Matt Barnes of the Grizzlies (though Jeff Green of the Clippers came awfully close in a winning effort with three points on four shots but four PFs in only 16 minutes)
The Top 8 is produced via Simple Models of Player Performance + Box Score data from ESPN.com
* Okay, six if you count the Raptors, but I don’t
** If you ever have a question of how valuable LeBron James is relative to any other player remember he took a 33-win Cavs team straight to the Finals while his old team went from the Finals to missing the playoffs while adding a standing NBA Third Team player and Hassan Whiteside, as well as an All-Star (in fact Cleveland’s SF) at his vacated position.
*** All three of Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker are in my Top 10 favorite players of all time, BTW.