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We Just Saw The Most Lopsided Playoff Openers In Modern NBA History

The NBA playoffs are all about tough, grueling battles between evenly matched teams.

Well, the late rounds of the NBA playoffs are, at least. The opening round doesn’t usually offer much in the way of drama, and this year was shaping up to offer a particularly lopsided set of first-round matchups — particularly in the Western Conference:

Sure enough, the weekend rolled around and six of the eight Game 1s finished with double-digit scoring margins, with five decided by 20 or more points and three of those decided by 30 or more. The average point differential of this season’s opening playoff games was 20.5, the highest of any season since the NBA expanded to its current playoff format in 1984.

SEASON AVERAGE MARGIN OF VICTORY SEASON AVERAGE MARGIN OF VICTORY
1 2016 20.5 18 2012 11.3
2 1995 19.6 19 2008 10.9
3 1986 16.5 20 2006 10.9
4 1997 16.4 21 2015 10.6
5 1999 16.3 22 1994 10.4
6 2013 16.0 23 1988 10.0
7 2009 15.6 24 2002 9.8
8 1991 15.0 25 2010 9.1
9 1985 14.9 26 2001 8.8
10 2004 14.8 27 2007 8.5
11 1996 14.8 28 2003 8.1
12 1992 14.5 29 1984 7.8
13 1987 14.5 30 2014 7.5
14 1998 12.9 31 1989 7.5
15 2005 12.8 32 2000 6.6
16 1993 12.0 33 2011 6.1
17 1990 11.8
The NBA playoffs with the most lopsided opening games

Includes opening-round Game 1s starting in 1984

SOURCE: BASKETBALL-REFERENCE.COM

Again, though, this wasn’t entirely unexpected. Our Elo power ratings (which estimate each team’s strength at any given moment) called for last weekend’s Game 1s to end with an average margin of 8.1 points per game — which would rank fifth-highest since 1984 — before the ball was ever tipped off.

AVERAGE MARGIN OF VICTORY AVERAGE MARGIN OF VICTORY
YEAR ACTUAL EXPECTED DIFFERENCE YEAR ACTUAL EXPECTED DIFFERENCE
1995 19.6 7.0 +12.6 1994 10.4 5.7 +4.7
2016 20.5 8.1 +12.4 2008 10.9 6.3 +4.6
1999 16.3 6.7 +9.6 2015 10.6 6.4 +4.2
2013 16.0 7.7 +8.3 1990 11.8 7.6 +4.1
1997 16.4 8.2 +8.2 2010 9.1 5.3 +3.8
1991 15.0 6.9 +8.1 1993 12.0 8.4 +3.6
2009 15.6 7.6 +8.1 2001 8.8 5.2 +3.5
1986 16.5 8.6 +7.9 2002 9.8 6.8 +3.0
2005 12.8 5.1 +7.7 1988 10.0 7.3 +2.7
1985 14.9 7.4 +7.5 2003 8.1 5.7 +2.4
1987 14.5 7.3 +7.2 2014 7.5 5.5 +2.0
2004 14.8 7.6 +7.2 1984 7.8 5.9 +1.8
1996 14.8 8.1 +6.7 2007 8.5 7.4 +1.1
1992 14.5 7.8 +6.7 2000 6.6 6.4 0.3
2012 11.3 5.9 +5.4 1989 7.5 7.6 -0.1
2006 10.9 5.7 +5.2 2011 6.1 8.2 -2.0
1998 12.9 8.1 +4.8
Most lopsided NBA playoff openers, relative to expectations

Source: BAsketball-reference.com

If we adjust for this, 2016’s blowouts look a little less impressive. In the opening games of the 1995 playoffs, for instance, the victors won by an average of 19.6 against an expected margin of only 7.0 points per game, for a difference of 12.6 PPG — a more lopsided set of Game 1s, relative to expectations, than this year’s, though just barely.

But even if this weekend wasn’t No. 1 relative to expectations, its games signaled that we could be in for some pretty unbalanced playoff basketball in the early going. As ugly as things could get, however, keep this in mind: If the favorites prevail, especially in the West, the reward for an unexciting first round could be one of the most competitive, talent-rich second rounds in NBA history.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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