After months of anguished waiting, the NBA Playoffs are finally here.
As promised, we’ve compiled nutshell previews for all eight first-round matchups that begin this weekend. To help paint the picture for each pairing, we’ll look at offensive and defensive efficiency (points scored and allowed adjusted for tempo), as well as pace rankings so you know who plays fast and who plays slow.
We’ll run through the games in schedule order, breaking them up into four natural TV viewing sessions. That will make it easy for you to review through the weekend.
First, we’ve posted our estimated Power Ratings for all 16 teams based on how the market priced the openers. If you were one of the early citizens of VSiN City, you’ll remember we provided these for Dance teams during March Madness. Assume home court advantage of 3 points in the NBA (though it will often be more in series where long plane flights are involved).
East: Cleveland 84, Boston 83, Toronto 83, Washington 81, Atlanta 79, Milwaukee 79, Indiana 79. Chicago 79. (Cleveland is 5 points better than Indiana on a neutral court in this scale, therefore -8 at home.)
West: Golden State 91, San Antonio 87, Houston 86, LA Clippers 85, Utah 83, Oklahoma City 81, Memphis 81, Portland 80.
A lot to get to, so let’s jump right in…
NBA playoffs tip off Saturday afternoon with Eastern Conference twinbill
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors seem to be on a collision course for a second-round meeting. That’s become a much anticipated battle because Toronto looks to be peaking at the right time, while Cleveland’s ability to flick a switch on defense for a whole series is very much in question. Both have work to do first…
#7 Indiana at #2 Cleveland (Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on ABC)
- Opening Series Price: Cleveland -1250, Indiana plus 850
- Game One Line: Cleveland -8, total of 213
- Offensive Efficiency Ranking: Indiana #15, Cleveland #3
- Defensive Efficiency Ranking: Indiana #15, Cleveland #22
- Pace Ranking: Indiana #18, Cleveland #16
When Cleveland is at its best in the playoffs, it plays a slow halfcourt game that allows LeBron James to attack the basket out of sets. The Cavs also try to pace themselves so they can play good enough defense to advance. We would expect Cleveland to play slower and more focused here than it did during the regular season. You can see above that defense is a big concern. That poor ranking was even worse over the past few months. Indiana is about as average as it gets, which is why it’s hard seeing any shocking upset happening this early unless the Cavs really have turned into a pumpkin. The market is pricing this series as if it’s automatic that Cleveland’s going to flick that switch and go into playoff mode from the get-go. Is it?
#6 Milwaukee at #3 Toronto (Saturday at 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN)
- Opening Series Price: Toronto -380, Milwaukee plus 320
- Game One Line: Toronto -7, total of 201.5
- Offensive Efficiency Ranking: Milwaukee #13, Toronto #6
- Defensive Efficiency Ranking: Milwaukee #17, Toronto #8
- Pace Ranking: Milwaukee #26, Toronto #22
Neither the Bucks nor the Raptors are seen as old teams, which helps hide the fact that both play at slow places. Playoff basketball usually slows things down anyway. So, look for halfcourt games the whole way through that are likely to feature Toronto’s superiority on both sides of the floor. Note that Toronto has the best stat composite in the East if you appreciate balance and quality defense.
The West begins Saturday night with the Spurs and Clippers favored
Though many observers believe the West is a foregone conclusion…with powerhouse Golden State likely to impose its will for the next few months…both the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers have a chance to make the Western brackets interesting. Can they get past feisty, defensive minded series underdogs out of the gate?
#7 Memphis at #2 San Antonio (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN)
- Opening Series Price: San Antonio -900, Memphis plus 600
- Game One Line: San Antonio -9.5, total of 192.5
- Offensive Efficiency Ranking: Memphis #18, San Antonio #7
- Defensive Efficiency Ranking: Memphis #6, San Antonio #1
- Pace Ranking: Memphis #28, San Antonio #27
This series is going to feel like it’s being played in mud, as it features two of the four slowest teams in the NBA. It also features two of the six best defenses! Be ready for some old-school wrestling. That could be bad news for the favorite, because Memphis is at its best in this kind of confrontation. And, the Spurs know that already! Ultimately, the difference-maker should be San Antonio’s advantages in offensive weaponry.
#5 Utah at #4 LA Clippers (Saturday at 10:30 p.m. on ESPN)
- Opening Series Price: LA Clippers -210, Utah plus 180
- Game One Line: LA Clippers -5.5, total of 200
- Offensive Efficiency Ranking: Utah #12, LA Clippers #4
- Defensive Efficiency Ranking: Utah #3, LA Clippers #13
- Pace Ranking: Utah #30, LA Clippers #17
The Clippers haven’t been playing fast this year (league average), but their style will seem very fast compared to Utah. Obviously, the Jazz will try to slow things down to give themselves a fighting chance. The Clippers will work to get some cheap baskets in transition because it’s so hard to score against Utah out of set offenses. Important to note that Utah’s offense is better than you were probably thinking, slightly above average once you adjust for possession count. If you believe that defense “matters most” in a tight playoff series, that would point to the dog. Can Chris Paul stay close to 100% health through a physical series? That’s probably the single most important question for bettors to answer.
Sunday holiday feast features Eastern appetizer, then Golden State for the main course
Will Sunday’s early matchup featuring Atlanta and Washington feature any hidden Easter eggs for future playoff blockbusters? The winner should at least have a chance to compete with Boston in the next round. Golden State wants to make sure Portland doesn’t get any ideas about competing.
#5 Atlanta at #4 Washington (Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on TNT)
- Opening Series Price: Washington -210, Atlanta plus 180
- Game One Line: Washington -4.5, total of 211
- Offensive Efficiency Ranking: Atlanta #27, Washington #9
- Defensive Efficiency Ranking: Atlanta #4, Washington #20
- Pace Ranking: Atlanta #10, Washington #11
Everyone will be focused on John Wall because he’s the star of this movie. But, Atlanta’s #4 rated defense has a chance to at least contain him enough for the Hawks to score a series upset. Washington’s in the same boat as Cleveland in terms of hoping its vulnerable defense doesn’t break down over a best-of-seven series. Atlanta’s woeful offense will have to improve if the team is going to matter this month (or next).
#8 Portland at #1 Golden State (Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC)
- Opening Series Price: Golden State -7500, Portland plus 3500
- Game One Line: Golden State -13.5, total of 223
- Offensive Efficiency Ranking: Portland #11, Golden State #1
- Defensive Efficiency Ranking: Portland #21, Golden State #2
- Pace Ranking: Portland #13, Golden State #4
There was a perception in some circles that Portland was a run-and-gun team this season. But, their pace was just fractionally above league average. The reputation may have been aided by playing nine overtime games, which inflated raw point totals. Also, when you have a great point guard and a disappointing defense…people just assume you’re playing at a fast pace. Golden State has mastered a fast-paced attack…and is much better on defense than many assume because casual viewers don’t adjust raw points allowed for the number of possessions. Golden State does have an amazing offense, but the Warriors are also a “defense wins championships” team. Might be fun to watch for awhile…but hard to see Portland truly being a threat.
Superstars spotlighted in Sunday night showcase
Some of the biggest stars in basketball have been saved for the final act of the opening weekend. Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler of Chicago will visit Isaiah Thomas and Boston as a warm-up. Then, it’s a battle of the top MVP candidates when Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City visits James Harden of Houston.
#8 Chicago at #1 Boston (Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET on TNT)
- Opening Series Price: Boston -525, Chicago plus 415
- Game One Line: Boston -7.5, total of 206.5
- Offensive Efficiency Ranking: Chicago #20, Boston #8
- Defensive Efficiency Ranking: Chicago #6, Boston #12
- Pace Ranking: Chicago #20, Boston #12
Boston seems particularly vulnerable for a #1 seed because they’re not really great at anything. The defense is better than average, but not scary. The offense has a superstar but a mediocre supporting cast. Having a great coach and a great attitude can help a franchise post an impressive regular-season record that overstates a team’s true championship potential. The Celtics are no longer sprinting against opponents who are coasting. They aren’t the only team capable of tactical creativity now that the field has been narrowed. Chicago has a chance to make this interesting if they can figure out a way to blend Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler into Batman and Robin instead of two guys who want to be Batman.
#6 Oklahoma City at #3 Houston (Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on TNT)
- Opening Series Price: Houston -360, Oklahoma City 300
- Game One Line: Houston -7.5, total of 228
- Offensive Efficiency Ranking: Oklahoma City #17, Houston #3
- Defensive Efficiency Ranking: Oklahoma City #10, Houston #17
- Pace Ranking: Oklahoma City #8, Houston #3
Russell Westbrook’s historic season has helped create some illusions about the Thunder. Many see them as having a lethal offense because he’s scoring a zillion points and dishing out a slew of assists. But, they actually rank as just league average on offense because he forces up too many bad shots and commits too many turnovers in traffic. It’s actually OKC’s defense that is their more effective side. They rank in the top 10 on a per-possession basis. OKC’s fast pace has helped keep that hidden. Houston probably plays better defense than you were thinking too. They grade out as league average once you adjust for their lightning pace.
This is going to be an amazing showdown featuring MVP caliber athletes trying to make their case in a playoff setting. Who has more help? Harden does on offense, but OKC’s sneaky good on defense. The market knows that Westbrook is usually a drag on his own team vs. superior playoff opposition…and has priced Houston accordingly.
Enjoy the games…and best of luck with your picks!
Capitals escape Leafs, Blackhawks bitten by Predators
The two market co-favorites for the 2017 Stanley Cup weren’t supposed to have this much trouble in their playoff debuts.
Washington (-260) 3, Toronto 2 (in overtime)
- Shots: Toronto 37, Washington 44
Toronto jumped ahead 2-0 in the first period, causing live futures markets to go haywire in terms of pricing the full seven-game series. Washington scored a power play goal in the first to halve their deficit, then tied it in the second period. So, for the third period and overtime, we had both going all out to WIN the game (rather than either team trying to sit on a lead). Washington expressed their anticipated superiority with a total shot advantage of 19-9 during that stretch…the final shot representing the game winner in extra time.
Nashville (plus 150) 1, Chicago 0
- Shots: Nashville 20, Chicago 29
Nashville scored in the first period, amidst a surprising 11-6 shot advantage in that opening stanza. What should have been a frantic come-from-behind effort for the favored hosts only totaled a 23-9 edge in shots the rest of the way. That’s still one-sided. But, Minnesota was 34-12 over the last two regulation periods in a similar boat Wednesday. A home favorite league power like Chicago should get more than 29 shots over 60 minutes in a playoff game they trail most of the way. Through the first seven series openers, Pittsburgh was the only home team to lead at the end of regulation. Even in a sport of parity, this was unexpected. And, nothing but Unders to this point (with one push).
Anaheim (-155) 3, Calgary 2
- Shots: Calgary 32, Anaheim 41
Anaheim only trailed for a few minutes, yet won shots on goal fairly decisively. Impressive performance for a team that got off to a slow playoff start last year and never recovered. Another game that couldn't get past the market Over/Under, as the first rotation finishes 0-6-2 to the Under. There were three power play goals in this one...so "even strength" scoring has been particularly difficult to this point in the postseason. Toronto and Washington made it to four even strength goals thanks to overtime. Most other games were at two or three, with Nashville/Chicago finishing 1-0.
Further comments on xFIP for baseball handicappers
The NBA playoff previews took up so much real estate in VSiN City today that we won’t have room to run baseball results. We will give you links for additional research on the topic of pitcher evaluation by way of xFIP. Gill Alexander did a great job of defining and explaining fielding independent pitching (FIP) Thursday on “A Numbers Game” during the final half hour. As Gill explained, the small “x” represents an effort to normalize a pitcher’s home run rate based on his fly ball rate. Fangraphs has more of a textbook style definition and explanation here.
You can review xFIP calculations for Major League starting pitcher performance over the full 2016 season with this link. You’ll see the xFIP category way over to the right. Fangraphs lists them in descending order though, so you’ll see the worst first when you sort. Click to page 2 and page 3 to work your way to the very best “fielding independent” starting pitchers last season.
As Gill explained, xFIP is ideal for “quantifying a pitcher’s true skill set.” Focusing on skill sets is a basic fundamental for sharp handicapping in all sports.
Have a great weekend! See you again Monday in VSiN City. If you have any suggestions for future topics, drop us an email.
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