Good games, weird data

Can the Trail Blazers end the Golden State Warriors dynasty?

Consider the tale of the Monkey’s Paw, a cursed series of wishes that bring the hapless wisher everything they wanted, but nothing that they needed. I feel like that protagonist this spring, wishing for an amazing NBA playoffs. To get those games, Game of Thrones had free up our Sundays by destroying eight years of greatness. 

Yet, I’m getting more and more okay with HBO’s failure if it continues to produce these unbelievable series. In the West, Portland upset the Nuggets in Denver. Their playoff run inspired this wonderful Ian Karmel piece. They’ll face Golden State, who overcame a brutal injury to Kevin Durant to continue their annual tradition of embarrassing the Rockets in the postseason. 

Even with these injuries, the Warriors enter the series as the favorite, trying to make a fifth straight NBA Finals. Portland will hope to extend this magical season and knock off the juggernaut. Let’s see if we can find some fun numbers and things to watch as the matchup tips off tonight.

Can Dame and CJ win the battle of the backcourts?

Shouts to Jennifer, who’s inspired CJ McCollum to postseason greatness this year. McCollum dropped a gem on the Nuggets in game seven, icing the game on a beautiful step-back for his 36th and 37th point. Dame himself sent the Thunder home last round with what we thought would be the best buzzer beater. This lasted until Kawhi decided to kill the 76ers and the ghost of Vince Carter with an improbable, bouncing beauty.

They’ll now face off against the Splash Brothers, recently emboldened by the second half destruction of poor Houston. This matchup fascinates me. If the Blazers want to have any meaningful chance, they’ll have to improve their poor regular season performances. First, let’s look at their scoring differences for the star backcourt when matched up against Curry and Thompson. 

Point differential here represents the change in their average output per 100 possessions. Points per 100 helpfully adjusts for pace to get a realistic look at defensive impact. Portland split the season series 2-2 with the Warriors.

Even in victories, both guys struggled to hit their season averages. Lillard did hit the game winner in their December 27th matchup. Yet, he struggled with a 7 for 20 performance while McCollum went 7 for 22.

This inefficiency plagued both players against the Golden State backcourt, but you do see some glimmers of hope.

Lillard’s jump in efficiency and scoring when matched up against Curry might be an avenue for success for Portland. CJ didn’t find a preferential outcome, however, dropping his scoring and shooting percentage against both Curry and Thompson.

The Warriors mitigated the risk of the Dame/Curry matchup by mixing Klay and Andre Iguodala in coverage against Dame. Iguodala ended up covering Lillard on more possessions per game than Curry. I’m eager to see if this holds up in the playoffs, as the chess match of coverage for the dangerous Blazer backcourt will heavily impact this series.

The surprising fulcrum players for each squad

For each playoff preview, I’ve found the fulcrum players,. These players show a higher disparity in their game score between wins and losses.. Steph Curry and Damian Lillard will get all the headlines, but who on each team comes up big in the wins and shrinks in the losses?

For this series, I wanted to focus on one player for each team that will player a major role. Portland’s own Curry, Seth, has one of the more pronounced splits in his good and bad games. When Seth outperforms his average game score, the Blazers went 27-3; when he was off, they slipped to a pedestrian 21-19. Curry had an uneven series against Denver, mixing in one 16 point barrage with a scoreless game 7. This screams more outlier than predictor.

However, with the Portland backcourt struggling, Curry might be a useful cog off the bench.

Golden State’s fulcrum player should shock no one. Draymond Green, he of groin-kicking, eye-gouging, tech-getting, and overall trolling fame, powers so much of the Warriors’ success. In the regular season, the Warriors went 30-6 when Green did well, and 18-12 when he didn’t. He sets the emotional and physical tone for the team; I highly recommend reading this Marcus Thompson article about his preparation for the playoffs and staggering in-season weight loss. 

Klay Thompson only gets stronger as the series goes on

I know this is probably a meaningless non-sequitor, and you can yell sample size all you want, but after Klay went off on the Rockets in Game 6, the world flashed back to his destruction of the Thunder in 2016. In the post-game thread, this hilarious Reddit comment inspired me to check if Klay truly saves his best for the clinching games. Here’s a look at his average points scored and three pointers made per game during this Warriors title reign.

Moral of the story: Lose gracefully in four, or get your heart ripped out in six.

Prediction time

From Enes Kanter’s continued rebirth, to the battle of the Curry brothers, to the possibility for another catastrophic Draymond Green suspension, this matchup promises fascinating storylines and great basketball. I don’t mean to brag, but I’m currently 2-0 on playoff predictions (even getting the Toronto in 7), and accepting a 10% on all illicit gambling you might do with my strange data ideas.

Despite the 2-2 split in the regular season, the matchup data for the Portland backcourt freaks me out enough to move away from the upset. I think the Blazers will take at least one at home, but I just don’t think they have the firepower to hang with the Warriors for four wins. Portland can’t really feast down low, and I shudder to think of how poor Kanter will get flambeed in the pick and roll against Curry and Green. The Warriors also might get superhuman Kevin Durant back at some point in this series, which is the most unfair addition to a superteam since…they added him in the first place.

I think we’ll see one Lillard supernova, but the dynasty rolls on.

Warriors in 6.

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Jamie Larson