The first round of the playoffs is back and up to its old tricks. With each series through game two, we will turn to the past to offer a historical context for what we've seen so far. Since the NBA moved to seven-game series for the first round in 2003, there have been 112 total first round matchups. Home court advantage has been maintained through the first two games only 64 times, but those teams have gone on to win 60 of those series. The four remaining teams to blow the series were all in the four-five seed pairing, including last season's injury-laden Clippers squad. Perhaps lady luck is shining upon Los Angeles for once with Rudy Gobert's status in question, but keep in mind that teams with home-court advantage in the four-five matchup have lost the series 53.6% of the time.
Now down 1-2 after Thursday night's shellacking, the Raptors need a source of hope to save them from an embarrassing first round exit. They will not find that hope in the history books. While the three-seed has won 22 of the 28 series played, higher-seeds with a negative point-differential through two games are just 2-10. Toronto was -8 through game two, the worst for a three-seed since, not surprisingly, the 2014 Toronto Raptors who lost to Brooklyn in seven games.
Unfortunately for Boston fans, things are looking far bleaker for the Celtics. Boston became the first number-one-seed to lose both games one and two. In fact, they are only the sixth team ever to lose both of the first two games of a series at home in the first round. Through those two games, they have the lowest point-differential of any top-three-seed ever at -18. To make matters worse, coming into the series, the difference between the Celtics and the Bulls in terms of margin of victory was the second-lowest for any one-eight matchup, more similar to the average three-six matchup – it's not as if they've got some built-in advantage to fall back upon. If Celts fans are looking for precedent for a comeback, they can harken back to the 2005 Dallas Mavericks. As the only team to drop games one and two at home in the first round and still win the series, the Mavericks actually had a smaller advantage in scoring margin than the current Celtics (so you're saying there's a chance). However, Boston should be more worried about becoming the second team to achieve a darker feat. There have been 23 sweeps in the first round since 2003, but only one time has the team with home-court been on the receiving end – in 2015 when, ironically, the fourth-seeded Raptors lost four in a row to the Wizards.
Like the Regular Version, Just Slower
One of the more fascinating elements of the NBA is the idea of “playoff basketball,” which is to say the game changes in the playoffs. The games are more intense, more physical, and simply better, in theory. Some argue that the regular season doesn't even matter and the playoffs is the only place to find real NBA basketball. All the talk about resting players, the Cavaliers stinking up the joint, Boston being a pseudo-contender, etc. stems from this concept of “playoff basketball.” Interestingly enough, if we compare what winning in the playoffs looks like to what winning in the regular season looks like for those same teams, it appears awfully similar. Granted, we're only through 19 games in the playoffs, but the near replication of the regular season performance cuts a more familiar angle into “playoff basketball.”
Could there be any other choice? The man responsible for the lone buzzer beater of the playoffs must be recognized. With the starting unit for the Jazz hemorrhaging points to this point in the series, who knows how much longer he will qualify for this honor. Joe Johnson leads all reserves in scoring at 17 points per game, bolstered by his 21-point outburst in game one. Against the Clippers bench or when playing alongside Gordon Hayward, Johnson and his wise scoring skills are a nightmare matchup in this series. Johnson is also a well-built individual and possesses the strength to hang with Blake Griffin on the interior when needed, an important boost for the suddenly short-handed Jazz frontcourt. All the nice things I just said about him were ultimately unnecessary though. He won 6th Man of the Week when he made this shot.
Friday Night Heat: Three Burning Questions
Can the Celtics keep Rajon Rondo off the offensive glass?
The conventional wisdom on this series has been spot on so far, but not in a conventional manner. Turns out, Boston still stinks at rebounding, but the secret weapon on the glass for Chicago so far has been Rajon Rondo who has seven (!) offensive rebounds in two games. For a large portion of the season, do you know who Boston's leading rebounder was? It was Avery Bradley. He averaged 6.1 rebounds a night during the regular season. He has five total rebounds in the series. If they're not going to keep Robin Lopez in check, which there's no indication that will happen, they at least need their wings to keep the scrappers like Rondo off the glass.
Will the Thunder stick with their strategy for defending James Harden?
In the regular season, the Rockets averaged 40 three-point attempts and 31 attempts inside the restricted area per game. They are down to 31 attempts from three and up to 37 attempts inside the restricted area in the playoffs so far. In four games versus the Thunder in the regular season, James Harden shot 34 free throws. He's already shot 31 free throws through two games. He's also gone from 5.2 attempts inside the restricted area to 10.0 attempts in the playoffs. What gives? In the first two games, the Thunder chose the poison of Harden the scorer and free throw shooter as opposed to Harden the distributor by staying home on shooters in pick and roll and attempting to coral Harden with single coverage. How/if the Rockets adjust to this strategy or if the Thunder preemptively switch their strategy up is a big question mark for game three.
Whose starting lineup will stabilize first in Utah?
The starting lineups have struggled together for both the Clippers and Jazz so far. Last week in the series preview, we noted how dominant the Clippers starters were in the regular season. They have a negative point differential together so far in the playoffs. While I don't anticipate any changes to this lineup to start the game, its recurrence throughout is a different story. However, without Austin Rivers, the Clippers shoddy wing depth prevents too much lineup manipulation. On the other side, the Jazz are once again forced to play unintended starting lineups due to injury. The starting unit they've sent out there with Favors in for Gobert has gotten rolled hard by the Clips. It is no longer tenable for Boris Diaw and Joe Ingles to share the floor in extended minutes, given how starved Utah is for scoring. I would expect a change in the starting lineup and possibly an Alec Burks or Trey Lyles appearance tonight to try and juice their offense in a critical game three.