Enter into any conversation about the NBA postseason and you are sure to hear many cliches. As you sift through platitudes like “It’s a make-or-miss league” or “Team X wants it more,” one has some truth to it: “The game slows down in the playoffs.”
This popular phrase is used often in analyzing playoff basketball, but unfortunately it is true. This postseason has been quite grueling when it comes to pace of play. In the regular season, the average pace for an NBA team was 99.75 possessions per game, but in the postseason the average is 97.02. Only two first-round series have averaged over 100 possessions, and if you remove those from the equation, we are talking about 95.45 possessions per game. Only five teams in the postseason — including Miami, which was eliminated last weekend — finished in the top 15 in pace this season, so it is not shocking to see the average drop. However, this is very slow considering that the slowest team in the league, New York, averaged 96.32 possessions per game. These playoff games are being played at a pace equal to the slowest team in the league! Surely these games must be some of the lowest-scoring we have seen, right?
According to colleague Dave Tuley, the postseason has trended in the other direction, with Overs holding an 18-16-1 (52.9%) edge through Tuesday’s contests. If you remove the slog that is the series between the Suns and the Lakers, the record for Overs is 17-12-1 (58.6%). What gives? We have games being played at the pace of the 1996-97 league leader Philadelphia 76ers, who averaged a whopping 97.05 possessions per game, but Overs are hitting at a higher rate (50.4%) than in the regular season. Simply put, the teams in the postseason are just much more efficient on offense right now.
In the regular season the average offensive rating was 112.9 in non-garbage-time minutes, according to Cleaning The Glass. However, in the postseason the average is up by 1.5 points to 114.4 per 100 possessions. The average frequency of half-court possessions has jumped from 80.6% to 81.1% in the playoffs, but offensive efficiency in those possessions has jumped to 98.4 points per 100 plays from 96.9 in the regular season. The only real change in shooting that sticks out is the success teams are having at the rim. In the regular season the average shooting percentage within 4 feet was 64.1%, but so far teams are shooting 65.9% in that area in the playoffs. All these numbers are from a small, 32-game sample, though. We now have to figure out whether these numbers are sustainable.
This might come as a shock to some who consistently throw shade at the defense played in the NBA, but nine of the top 10 teams in defensive efficiency are in the postseason and 11 finished in the top half of the league. Overall offensive efficiency, half-court efficiency and rim shooting are up for these teams, yet over half of these teams finished 10th or higher in defensive efficiency. How can that be? It can be because offense rules the day, especially early in the playoffs when the matchups tend to be a bit more lopsided.
Every team that finished in the top 10 of non-garbage-time offensive efficiency is in the postseason, and three — the Celtics, Clippers and Nuggets — are facing defenses that finished the regular season 21st or lower in efficiency in the Nets, Mavericks and Trail Blazers. Three of the first-round series pit top-10 offenses against one another, and two series feature one team with a large statistical advantage over the other. Memphis’ 19th-ranked perimeter defense, which allowed 37.4% to opposing 3-point shooters, has to contain Utah’s third-ranked shooting offense. Milwaukee’s third-best rim offense (67.8%) shot 68.0% against Miami’s 19th-ranked rim defense. When you break it down to this level it makes sense that scoring and efficiency might be up in the first round, but as these matchups get tighter we can expect the scoring and efficiency to decline with it.
Should all the favored teams win their current series, we would have five teams that finished inside the top 10 of defensive efficiency among the final eight, and two would face each other in the second round in the Jazz and Clippers. Only two of those teams, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, finished in the top half of the league in pace, which means the pace is unlikely to quicken, something that is also more conducive to lower-scoring affairs.