Three big things to watch in NBA playoffs

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As a guy who really enjoys using statistics in handicapping, I love best-of-seven series. The larger the sample size, the more likely it is that the numbers we see from a given database will play out. Sure, seven games is not the largest sample size, but it’s more than a one-off game in New York on Tuesday night after an overtime game in Philadelphia.

 

With 72 games in the books, there are a lot of numbers and statistical anomalies to pore through. But bettors should still be monitoring a number of things as we head into postseason play, and they revolve around three teams in the Eastern Conference.

 

The Bucks’ Bugaboo

 

There might not be a team with more pressure on it than the Milwaukee Bucks. The last two trips to the postseason for Giannis Antetokounmpo have ended progressively earlier. After an Eastern Conference final berth, they were ousted in embarrassing fashion by the Miami Heat. Now they face the team that eliminated them in Orlando — and with many of the same issues plaguing them. In three of the last four seasons, Milwaukee has finished 24th or lower in opponents’ 3-point shooting. The lone outlier was 2018-19, when the Bucks finished 18th by allowing 36.5% from deep. When Miami eliminated them, they shot 37.3% on 40.2 3-point attempts per game. Against Toronto the season before, they gave up 37.4% on 38.3 attempts per contest. Perimeter defense, along with the limitations of the Greek Freak’s game, has been the bane of Milwaukee’s existence in the playoffs, and it looks like that is not going anywhere. The Bucks finished this season 29th in opponents’ 3-point shooting, allowing opponents to hit an insane 39.8% of their attempts from deep. Miss me with the excuses of this defense “trying things out.” The way this team plays defense tends to allow opponents to exploit the perimeter, and we saw that again over 72 games this season. Why should we expect anything different in the postseason?

 

New York’s Insane Luck

 

Heading into the All-Star break, the New York Knicks were the luckiest team in the league. Despite giving up the fifth-most wide-open field-goal attempts in the league at the time, opponents were shooting just 37.7% on those looks. It was even more ridiculous when you realized the Knicks had allowed the third-most wide-open 3-pointers but ranked first in opponents’ shooting on those attempts at 33.7%! Surely, regression would come — but it did not. New York posted the third-best defensive rating in the second half, allowing just 107.4 points per 100 possessions on its way to a 22-13 record over those 35 games and the home-court edge in the first round. However, the Knicks’ luck continued to a certain extent. They gave up fewer wide-open looks (21.3% of attempts), but they still ranked third in opponents’ shooting (40.3%) on those attempts, and on wide-open 3-pointers, opponents shot a slightly better 36.2% in the second half. At the end of it all, Knicks opponents shot just 38.8% on wide-open looks this season, the second-best rate, but the team allowed the eighth-most wide-open attempts. Maybe this luck will continue through their postseason run, but the Knicks’ regular season has felt unreal and unsustainable, and it might just be.

 

Miami’s Offense Heating Up

 

Have the Miami Heat finally found their stride on offense? The Heat went into the All-Star break with the 25th-ranked offense (107.7), much of that due to the team shooting just 35.7% from beyond the arc. However, the second half showed us a much better version of Miami’s offense. The Heat averaged 114.2 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage-time minutes, and their shooting improved to 36.3% on 36.2 attempts per game. Even more eye-opening is how the Heat closed the season. Over the final 15 games, Miami went 12-4 SU and ATS with a 119.0 offensive rating. More importantly, throughout this run into the postseason, the Heat shot an impressive 39.5% on 36.3 attempts per contest. Last season, Miami finished eighth in non-garbage-time offensive efficiency (112.9) and second in 3-point shooting (38.6%). If this newfound surge on offense is real, the Eastern Conference might have a fourth team in contention.

 

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