The Numbers Behind Finals Contenders

The NBA is a league where good teams thrive with consistency, but quantifying consistency is difficult because over the course of a game teams go on runs and scoreless streaks. When are the best teams picking their spots to pull away? When do great defenses start clamping down? Breaking teams down by quarter will help our insight into this and help us predict the upcoming playoff picture.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have been extremely volatile this year. They have won in bunches and lost in bunches. They have had 5 separate losing streaks of 3+ games this year. They also have had 6 winning streaks of 3+ games this season. They have beaten Golden State twice, Houston twice and have losses to Phoenix, New York, Orlando, Brooklyn, Dallas and the Lakers. So what is wrong with them? Why is it so hard for them to keep success consistent?

OKC ranks 7th in first quarter scoring with 27.9. They also rank 7th in first quarter scoring defense, allowing only 25.6. Both great numbers, it’s always important to start strong, and as you will notice, many of the best teams in the league having great first quarter scoring and defense. In the second quarter OKC drops to 14th with 26.8 points per second quarter, they are not the bottom of the league but the drop is concerning. They’re allowing 26.2 in the second quarter good for 9th in the rankings. The third quarter has the biggest drop off for them, ranking 22nd in scoring and 23rd in points against. This is when teams catch up, and where many teams put away their opponents. Oklahoma City is coming out cold and their opposition is coming out hot and their fourth quarter scoring, ranking 13th, coupled with their defense 6th, is often not enough to overcome the deficit.

Unfortunately this reflects on Russell Westbrook, who is often on the floor for much of the third and fourth quarter and has the second highest usage rate in the league, 34.2% (which measures the percentage of plays he is involved in during the course of the game) paired with his field goal percentage, 45.2 and his three point field goal percentage, 29.7 make it unlikely for them to mount substantial comebacks against opponents. Don’t get me wrong Russell Westbrook is a terrific scorer, passer and rebounder, but ironically last years stats were very similar by quarter with far less talent around him and really point to the fact that although he is a great talent, he needs to share the basketball more, especially at the beginning of possessions, and learn how to move without the ball. The fact that Paul George has a usage rate almost 10% below Westbrook and his FG% and 3PT FG% is way higher than Westbrook’s should indicate a problem. If these two learn to share the rock better, and let George and other players take more shots and run more plays this team has a chance at being a true contender.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers have had a stigma in the past of not performing well in the regular season. This season their first quarter scoring ranks 5th. Very good for a team that essentially has one player, Lebron, who is the best offensive player in the NBA, putting his team on his back every night. They rank 2nd in second quarter scoring and 9th in 3rd quarter scoring. So what is the problem? Why is a team so potent offensively not dominating the league like they should?

The Cavs defense has been atrocious this year as everyone knows it. Really, really, really bad. They rank 26th in first quarter points against and 29th in second quarter points against. In fact in every quarter excluding the fourth the Cavs rank 25th or worst on defense. Compare these numbers to last years ranking of 15th first quarter points against and 20th in second quarter points against and it starts to reveal the problems. The Cavs were never a great defensive team and that’s not in their DNA, if they keep it close Lebron can take over in the fourth quarter. The problem is, especially in the beginning of the season they were not keeping it close.

So why can’t the best player in the world will his team to victories at a consistent rate? Well losing Kyrie Irving hurts, but Kyrie’s contributions were mostly on offense. Granted his defensive strengths were exponentially better than what Isaiah Thomas was contributing until he was traded, but one player is not the problem or solution in most cases. Kevin Love had missed a ton of games this year, and his offensive output helped the Cavs stay in games. He is not a great defender, but serviceable nonetheless. In the 19 games he missed with a hand injury Cleveland went 10-9, not good at all, combine that with their trade deadline overhaul and it starts to make sense. In Cleveland’s last three games they are 15th in first quarter defense, which is a major improvement. This team is poised for a deep run, but can their defense withstand some of the most potent offenses in the league? Will insufficient defensive efforts inevitably lead to their demise in the playoffs? It’s probable, but the truth is the East is not the Goliath of talent it was led on to be earlier on in the year, realistically there are 3 teams on paper, good enough to beat the Cavs, so they might get out of the East by default. I see no way of them winning the finals though.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets have been lighting up this league like they are playing JV squads all year. In the blink of an eye it seems that they go from up 5 to up 20. This can be attributed to their obsession with three pointers and improved defense this year. They rank 1st in first quarter points with 30.1 and 8th in points against with 25.6. If we compare that to their third quarter points per game, 28.3 good for 2nd and their opponents points at 25.8 for 11th, it really shows why this team is leaps and bounds better than everyone else, consistency. That’s why Houston is better than the Thunder, they are rarely cold, and they put up great defensive efforts for four quarters every night.

There is an eerie resemblance of this team to the Golden State team of two years ago. They put teams away before the fourth quarter and that’s why I won’t even bother showing you those stats because during garbage time any team can look good, hence why the Clippers, Hawks, Bulls, Nets and Suns all rank in the top 10 in fourth quarter scoring.

The Rockets improvements have been amazing from last year, they moved up 15 spots in first quarter defense and 8 spots in third quarter defense. Clint Capela is a big reason for this jump, he is averaging almost 3 rebounds more per game and .7 more blocks a game, staggering numbers for a player that seemed like a serviceable rotation player his first three years in the NBA. Chris Paul has also been a huge help to James Harden with his scoring, passing and defensive prowess. He is not the flashiest defender but he can hang with most point guards in the league. His awareness helps him avoid pick and rolls and he rarely leaves his man open on the perimeter. His defensive rating which calculates his defensive impact on a game is 1.38 which is top 8 among point guards.

The truth is this team is for real, they have a dartboard with Steph Curry’s head on it that they chuck darts at before games(probably). They are obsessed with beating the Warriors and if they catch Golden State with an injury or off their A game, they will win the finals. I don’t see any way James Harden and Chris Paul both come up limp for this years playoffs, maybe OKC, San Antonio or Minnesota could beat them but there are a lot of big ifs in that statement. If Kawhi comes back and is as dominant as he was last year. If Westbrook can learn how to share. If Jimmy Butler comes back and Andrew Wiggins is more than an overpaid rotation guy, then maybe these teams have a shot, but not likely.

Golden State Warriors

The defending champs are seemingly suffering from a Super Bowl hangover of sorts. They score in bunches and have the ability to put up great defensive efforts. So why are they trailing the Rockets in the standings this year? A big reason they are underperforming is injuries. Steph Curry has played in 51 games, Kevin Durant will probably end up with 67 or 68 when all is said and done, Klay will end up with 73 and Draymond will be at 70. That means combined these stars have missed 67 games. These injuries may be embellished a bit by the coaching staff to help with rest but the fact remains this team has not dominated like we have grown accustomed to.

Let’s start with their by quarter stats. Their first quarter points per game are 29.2 and rank 2nd in the NBA. Their second quarter scoring drops off a bit at 28.1 but still good for 8th in the NBA, and finally their third quarter points are 30.4 for 1st in the league. This shows good consistent offensive output, so why do they not have 70 wins again and what is the chink in their armor? Defense, more specifically first quarter defense. They are ranked last in opponent points per game in the first quarter with an abysmal 28.9. Astounding that something that was for a long time a strength of this team is now their Achilles heel. Some of that can be attributed to injuries, some of that can be attributed to the fact that Steph, Klay and Draymond have all played around 100 games 3 years in a row, but the truth is that they may just be complacent or bored.

This team was killing everyone in their path just last year and with an extra season to help KD assimilate better it seems like they would only dominate more. And yet this team looks bored, KD looks like he wants to go home and play Xbox, yell at blog boys and troll twitter so maybe that’s why he has 14 technical fouls this year. The fact is though that this team still dominates from second quarter on and that’s why they are still great, if they can step up their defensive effort earlier on in games and keep that consistency throughout as they have done in years passed, no one and I mean no one will beat them. The biggest question mark has to be Curry who will have missed over a third of the season. If he can come in, in the playoffs and be his normal high energy self, no one will stop them, because when he is at his best, they are at their best.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics have been amazing to watch this year. Without Hayward for all but 2 minutes. Without Kyrie for 22 games and yet they still sit in second place in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics have great young talent in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, and one of the most efficient big men in the game in Al Horford, but how are they consistently winning big games against seemingly superior talent? Defense is the key, they rank second in first quarter points allowed with 24.7. 2nd in second quarter points allowed with 25.1 and first again in 3rd quarter points allowed. Their defense is truly suffocating, shout out Brad Stevens, you are a genius. They are not the best offensive team, a result of how injury stricken they are, but they aren’t terrible. They rank 22nd in first quarter points per game with 26.3. Where this team kind of falls off is in the second quarter where they rank 28th in offense with 24.5 points per game, but they rebound in the third quarter to score 26.3 points per game which puts them in 17th in the NBA.

This team is young, it’s hard for young players to consistently make shots night in and night out, especially without a veteran star to take some of the heat off, and that’s not Al Horford. Without Kyrie this team has learned how to win, which is a big step in the right direction, but this team needs Kyrie and Hayward to really put something special together. I would say they are a big piece away from being a true contender. With Kyrie this team could make the Eastern Conference Finals and if miraculously Hayward comes back and is himself they could win a series against Cleveland or Toronto, but truthfully they stand no shot at unseating the Warriors or upsetting the Rockets. Those teams have too much firepower and can keep up with Boston defensively.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors have been good all year, they rank third in the NBA with a record of 56-22. They always seem to hit stride too early and get bounced out of the playoffs prematurely. They have wins against the Rockets and Warriors and have for long stretches seemed like an unstoppable force. Ranking top 6 in all four quarters scoring which seems like the reason they have been doing so well, but the truth is it’s their defense. Earlier on in the year their defense seemed to suffocate opponents, and the scoreboard reflected that. It’s good to let the sample size grow though because let’s be honest, the first 60 games are going to be less intense, less important and less indicative of how good a team is than the last 22.

The Raptors defense, which was once ranked top 5 has stumbled a bit and the biggest glaring weakness they seem to have is their 3rd quarter defense, ranking 20th in the NBA with 26.8 points allowed per game. They rebound back with an astounding 24.2 points per game allowed in the fourth quarter, so in close games they do clamp down in clutch time but good teams like the Raptors usually have a bunch of blowout wins, so these stats might be tainted a bit, but don’t get me wrong it is impressive.

The fourth quarter stats could be indicative of them using more of defense oriented players in crunch time or when they have a lead to sustain the lead because going from 20th to 1st just doesn’t add up. Though it is why teams do not fear the Raptors. Why Lebron has eaten their lunch every year around playoff time, and why not many are picking them to make the finals. If the Raptors can bounce back after going .500 in the last 10 games and revert back to their defensive strengths this team could definitely make the finals. Of all the teams in the East, they probably have the best shot of beating Golden State or Houston because of their talent on both ends. They need to buckle down and make sure to come out swinging after halftime or else Cleveland, Boston, Philly, Miami, Indiana or Washington could catch them sleeping and knock them out first round because this team has a track record of playing down to their competition.

Philadelphia 76ers

This team is my dark horse to make the finals. They have elevated their game to another level since the all star break and could conceivably unseat Lebron as Eastern Conference God. They play fast and physical and their defense has been surprisingly good this season.

The Sixers first quarter scoring is sensational, they rank 3rd with 29.1 points per game. In the second quarter they fall off a bit to 12th with 27.1 and in the third quarter they rank 6th with 27.2 a game. Their fourth quarter scoring has been lacking but the last 35 games they have been on a year and have had huge point differentials heading into the 4th so it makes sense for the fall off. The Sixers defense has been underrated all season, in the first quarter they rank 9th in points allowed with 25.8 the second quarter they are 17th with 27 points allowed and in the third quarter they jump up all the way to 6th with 25.5 allowed. In the fourth quarter they do drop off to 24th but again the result of blowouts, and garbage time doesn’t really mean much.

This team has won 12 straight and with 4 games remaining look poised for a deep playoff run. They have beat their last 10 opponents by 10+ points, granted most of these are not playoff teams and with tankapalooza running rampant I’m sure a harder schedule would have seen different results but wow, this team is legit. With Joel Embiid our the last few games they are still playing out of their minds, which is the reason I don’t think they will come back to earth anytime soon. If they have the starting 5 in tact with Fultz, Ilyasova, Bellineli, Tj Mcconell and Amir Johnson all putting in quality minutes, especially during the second second quarter, this team can beat anyone in the east.

They could collapse as a result of young talent cracking under pressure but I doubt it. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are the obvious stars, but Saric is a legit scorer and pretty shifty for a guy who is 6’10. With Fultz back in the rotation it makes their second unit very interesting and problematic and their starting 5 tower over most teams. With Simmons at point guard, Reddick at the 2, Covington at 3, Saric at 4 and Embiid at 5 this team is versatile, big and hungry. They remind me of that Orlando Magic team that beat Lebron to make the finals, anchored by Dwight Howard.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are officially unable to repeat their amazing run of 18 straight 50 Win seasons. They have had an up and down year as a result of missing their star player Kawhi Leonard. Still this team has been impressive. They rank first in first quarter defense with 23.9, 5th in second quarter defense with 25.6, 4th in third quarter defense with 25.1 and 5th in fourth quarter defense with 24.9. Consistent defensive numbers usually translate well to the playoffs but in the first quarter they are 28th in scoring and the second quarter they are 25th. The third quarter they bump up 10 spots to 15th and in the fourth they are 11th. The Spurs are good at wearing teams down, they play stout defense for four quarters and dare teams to outscore them.

The problem is without Kawhi, the burden falls squarely on Lamarcus Aldridge’s shoulders and he can’t hit threes or sustain the 35+ points a game they need from him every night. Murray, Parker, Ginobili, Gay, Gasol And Mills all have the ability to have big games for them but they have been pretty inconsistent. If Kawhi returns in any capacity it will help propel this team from a middling playoff team to an instant contender up there with Houston and Golden State. They could definitely beat the any of the bottom 5 teams in the playoffs other then themselves but it won’t be easy and it won’t be certain. Hopefully Kawhi comes back and makes the Western Conference more interesting.

What All That Means

The quarter by quarter stats really show where a team’s weaknesses and strengths are. For example a team like Houston who plays great defense and offense for 3 quarters is obviously going to have the best record. It’s interesting looking at teams like the Spurs and Celtics where they have been without stars for long periods of time and instead of trying to outscore their opponents they simply or not so simply play great defense, and the results speak for themselves. Golden State is an interesting example as well because their first quarter defense compared to the other three quarters is so bad that it just seems like a lack of effort which is something you wouldn’t expect from a defending champion. What I conclude from all of these numbers are that the first 3 quarters defensive and offensive scoring paints a good picture of a team’s consistency. However, the fourth quarter has too many variables to rely solely on those numbers to explain a team’s strengths or weaknesses. The most important quarters are the third and the first, the third because that’s when teams tend to pull away and the first because digging yourself out of a hole after the first is always hard and you can’t predict what will happen later on. Points allowed is a great measurement for playoff teams when predicting how good a team actually is and how far they will go in the playoffs but at the same token factoring in injuries, trades and signings are also important, don’t rely on just the stats to tell you everything either, anyone who has watched OKC play this year more than once could come to the conclusion that Russ needs to pass more and PG needs to get the hell out of the corner and start getting involved, anyone can tell the Cavs have a shit defense by looking their box scores. So yes stats are good for solidifying arguments but you have to watch the games to see why.

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