Heading into Game 5 of tonight’s Western Conference Finals between the Warriors and Mavericks, there have been 35 second- and third-round games in the 2022 NBA Playoffs. Those 35 games featured a big total of 29 minutes played in “clutch” situations (when the score is within five points with five minutes or less remaining in regulation or overtime), spread over 10 games. That is, the outcome of 25 of the 35 highest stakes games of the season has never been in doubt.
The complete lack of endgame drama was noted:
Margin of victory, last 17 playoff games:
The average margin of victory was 19.8 points. There was a total of 7 minutes of clutch time.
— Justin Phan (@jphanned) May 24, 2022
Strictly in terms of blowout frequency, this postseason is on track to be the least competitive since 2004. Through Tuesday, nearly 29% of all playoff games have been decided by a margin of 20 or more. , ahead of 2016 (27.9%) and 2017. (26.9%):
To some extent, this apparent increase over the past few years is a reflection of games with higher possession counts. According to Basketball-Reference, the 2004 Playoffs were played at an 88.4 possession-to-48 pace. So far, the 2022 edition is at 95.6 — nearly two possessions per quarter faster.
Instead of the gross score margin, it may be more useful to compare the proportion of matches in which a team earned a net rating of +20 or higher. By this measure, this playoff has seen an above-average, but not unprecedented, frequency of big wins:
Of course, knowing it’s not the worst it’s ever been is cold comfort for the lack of drama in the fourth quarter. But it’s worth noting that the increased pace, combined with a huge increase in three-point attempts, results in significantly more double-digit swings in a game.
Before entering Why blowouts have been more frequent this year, it’s worth remembering that the playoffs historically see After final scores lopsided than the regular season. Since 2003-04, 14.9% of regular season games have ended with margins over 20 points, compared to 17.6% of playoff games. Perhaps counterintuitively, the prevalence of rashes actually increase in later rounds despite the generally less competitive 1-8 and 2-7 matchups, with 18.7% of second- and third-round matches being blowouts compared to 16.9% of first-round matches. Why this happens is a fascinating question that is too complicated to fully answer here, but several plausible and not mutually exclusive theories exist:
- Because there are fewer reasons to save players for “tomorrow” and because the implications of giving away an extra game are potentially disastrous, star players are playing more minutes and deeper into games already largely decided.
- Likewise, the added importance of each game means teams are less likely to back down, especially in defence. In my opinion, “preventing” the offense from teams with moderately sized leads is, if at all, a bigger issue in the playoffs than in the regular season. The result is the elimination, or at least the reduction, of what is known as the “elastic effect”, a phenomenon whereby the team lagging behind by a moderately large amount tends to outperform the team behind. head. It doesn’t happen to nearly the same extent in the playoffs.
- Teams and players are far more ruthless by exploiting match advantages and tackling individual weaknesses. Think Game 2 of the Suns–Mavericks series, in which Phoenix seemingly executed every second-half action directly at Luka Doncic. The Mavericks were able to plug that defensive leak between games, but those adjustments are much harder to execute on the fly in a game than after a day or three of studying, practicing and preparing. A strategic or confrontational quirk that causes a blowout-inducing advantage in one game can be eliminated or even reversed by the next game.
- The intensity of home crowds increases during the playoffs, causing greater fluctuations from game to game depending on location, even in a series with two evenly matched teams. The average blowout rate in the 2020 bubble playoffs, which had no home field advantage due to the COVID-19 precaution, at least provides some support for this notion.
Still, even in the context of expecting more blowouts due to pace, 3-point shooting, and all of the above factors, this playoff has been a lot. So what gives?
First and foremost, a healthy dose of our old friend: shot variance. As you may have heard, the NBA is “a do-or-miss league.” With just over 37% of non-garbage shots coming from beyond the arc of this playoff (per Cleaning the Glass), the wobbles on the make-or-miss scoreboard are huge and not only grow.
To use a quick and crude definition of “three-point swinginess”, consider the proportion of plays by which a team scored at least 10 points more or less than they would have with an average rate of 36% of the league from 3. the same number of attempts. On this basis, the prevalence of large deviations from the norm generally increased over time, as did the volume of 3-point attempts. On top of that, it’s particularly interesting to see that teams were more likely to post very good or very bad shooting nights in the 2022 playoffs than in the 2021-22 regular season:
Only the 2015 playoffs saw a bigger increase in what I’ll aptly call ‘shooting chance games’.
The impact is quite clear to see. Based on Cleaning the Glass data provided exclusively to Athleticism (thanks to Ben Falk for this), five of the eight worst single-game half-court offensive performances in the playoffs have seen culprits trail by at least 25 points before garbage time. Two was Game 1 of the Milwaukee-Chicago first-round series, when Chicago’s 0.73 points by half-court luck erased Milwaukee’s 0.70, while the worst was putrid efficiency of 0, 58 on Miami half court last night. Although the final margin was only 13, the game ended as a contest early in the fourth quarter.
In total, the seven teams responsible for those gruesome single-game outings went a combined 53 out of 250 (22.3%) from 3 in minutes of non-garbage time.
On the other hand, the teams with the eight most efficient half-court offensive performances in a single game were all ahead by at least 19 points when the benches were emptied. In fact, each of the top seven was ahead of at least 29 points when the plug was disconnected. Their dominance came largely thanks to a combined total of 130 from 262 (49.6%!) from deep.
These extreme shooters, both positive and negative, account for 12 of the 22 blowouts over 20 points. (Mavs-Suns Game 7 saw Phoenix have the third-worst half-court offensive game at the same time as Dallas had the most effective half-court offensive performance of this playoff to date). Meanwhile, the wilder shooting variance pictured above adds another 13 instances of a team’s average significantly over or underperforming.
So while it’s a bit of a reductive to say that non-competitive play resulted from high shooting variance, it’s the most important factor explaining all of these blowouts.
Perhaps the frequency of wild swings in 3-point production is another novel aspect of this weird season. This may be the start of a new trend, which may have started last year. Time will tell, as we need more than one sample to figure out which one. Though for the indelible moments provided by the endgame drama, we can only hope this is the first.
(Photo by Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)