CLEVELAND – It used to be you needed to watch only the last five minutes of an NBA playoff game. Now it’s the first five.
For reasons no one can quite figure out, the NBA playoffs have gone from tense one-possession games and dramatic buzzer-beaters to a series of back-and-forth blowouts that are good for nothing but making sure America is getting a good night’s sleep because it doesn’t have to stay up to watch the fourth quarter.
“I think back to last year’s run, every game was close,” Golden State’s Harrison Barnes said. “I think the first two games [of the NBA Finals] were in overtime. Everything was coming down to the wire. This year, it’s just been the complete opposite.”
“It has been happening a lot,” agreed Cleveland’s J.R. Smith.
Golden State leads Cleveland 2-1 in the Finals, and the three games have been decided by an average of 26 points. The non-competitve results are equal opportunity. The Warriors won Game 2 by 33, then lost Game 3 by 30, a 63-point swing.
The Finals are just a couple games old and in the past we’ve seen uneven play turn into a tight series (2005 San Antonio vs. Detroit comes to mind). However, this has been representative of the entire playoffs. While there has been drama, most notably Golden State’s comeback from down 3-1 to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, the games haven’t produced many memorable moments.
There was not a single one-possession game – or any game decided by less than six points – in either the Eastern or Western Conference finals. Coupled with none so far in the Finals and that’s nearly a month of playoff hoops.
The Cavs’ nine games in the East finals and NBA Finals have been decided by an average of 23.7 points and featured five games with a margin of 26 or more. Some were great victories; some were humiliating defeats. You have to go back to a close-out game to sweep Atlanta in the second round to find a classic finish – Cavs by one after a Hawks missed jumper with three seconds left.
Golden State isn’t much better, as five of its last nine games have been decided by 24 or more. A one-point loss to Houston in the opening round seems like eons ago. The Warriors responded with victories of 27 and 33 points.
In 2015, Cleveland’s 20 playoff games were decided by an average of 10 points and featured just one game with a margin of more than 21. This year the average is 19 and there have been six games with margins of 26 or more. Last year Golden State was also involved in just one playoff game with a margin of more than 21. This year they have played eight games decided by 24 or more.
So the numbers are there. The playoffs have been boring thus far. Does anyone have any idea why?
“I don’t know, I don’t,” Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert said before joking, “We just better be on the better side of those lopsided wins.”
Asking the Cavs and Warriors here Thursday as they prepared for Friday’s critical Game 4 produced similar responses. It’s likely just a statistical aberration. That doesn’t make it any more fun for fans in the present.
Some say home-court advantage is a big deal – “You don’t really see teams blowing teams out on the road, you see it at home when they can get their crowds behind them,” Golden State’s Shaun Livingston said. True, except home crowds were loud last year.
Smith said it’s about pride. When a team gets crushed, the players don’t grow disheartened, they instead get angry and try to return the favor. “When you lose by 30, you come out and play extremely well,” Smith said. “Not just enough to win, but enough to make a statement.”
It’s true in this regard, there appears to be no lingering effects of a beat-down. Oklahoma City lost to San Antonio by 32 in the opener of their series and then came back and won four of five, clearly displaying it was the better team. In the next round, Golden State lost consecutive games to Oklahoma City by 28 and 24, putting its back against the wall, and promptly won three consecutive by seven points or more to take the series.
Some mentioned the propensity of the 3-point shot making runs bigger – although that would also allow for teams to come back from big deficits. Smith, among others, believes it starts not with scoring but with getting stops that lead to transition offense.
“Each team that has had a lopsided victory was extremely physical on the defensive end,” Smith said.
Then again, the modern player is so explosive offensively, and the offenses so free flowing, scoring is on steroids.
“I think that the amount of runs that happen through the course of the game have become a lot bigger than usual,” Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving said. “It could be rather than an 8-0 run and someone calling timeout, it can go from eight to 17 … and that could be the game right there.”
Sort of like Wednesday night, when Cleveland opened with a 9-0 spurt but soon pushed it to 20, which sucks the life out of an opponent.
“By that time, it was too late,” Steph Curry said. “You're down 33-14 on the road in the Finals, you're not going to win many games.”
Maybe the answer can be found in a fourth-quarter Warriors team huddle Wednesday, down 20-plus points en route to a 30-point loss. Curry spoke first and tried to take the long view … this was just one game and if it didn’t work out, they were still up 2-1.
“We're still in a good position,” Curry said he said.
Only Draymond Green jumped in and jumped on Steph, demanding maximum effort on the task still at hand, a game not yet lost.
“He chimed in, and obviously wanted to make sure our focus was on winning this game and giving it all we had and fighting,” Curry said.
Maybe Curry is new school, cerebral, contemplative … and not wrong. If you’re going to lose, why not lose by a ton? As such, players have been accepting blowouts. And maybe Green is old school, where every minute matters no matter the scoreboard … but there are fewer and fewer guys with that mindset.
Or maybe it’s not pop psychology it’s just a weird run of uneven games that the law of averages says will morph into some close thrillers.
Either way, these are some unusual NBA playoffs, where the end is often in the beginning.
“The first six minutes of the game [Friday] is going to be important for us,” Curry said.
Better tune in early.