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Did The Rockets Miss Their Chance?

gfoster (Geoff Foster, sports editor): After a lopsided and — let’s face it — largely uninteresting first round, the second round of the NBA playoffs is delivering on its promise. We have only one team that’s already punched its ticket (Milwaukee). Philadelphia and Portland were each able to force a Game 7 last night with clutch wins at home, but let’s start with the Golden State-Houston series, which resumes with Game 6 in Houston tonight. The extent of the Kevin Durant injury is not totally known, but we do know he is out for the remainder of this series. This possibly devastating news was likely a little bit easier to swallow for Golden State fans considering that many people (including myself) looked at that noncontact injury Wednesday and assumed he injured his Achilles.

Does this give Houston a legitimate shot to take this series? Or did they blow a crucial opportunity by not stealing Game 5 when KD went down?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Both.

If they lose the series, they’re going to kick themselves for what happened in Game 5. But that said, they still have a decent shot to pull the upset. The margin for error is so much less now without KD there. They have to play well enough on offense while hoping that either Steph Curry or Klay Thompson are simply ineffective for a game or two. Steph reached down deep and remembered who he was in that fourth quarter, but it’s not inconceivable to me that Houston takes advantage of this.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It absolutely gives them a shot. Golden State was basically the equivalent of half a star player better than the rest of the top tier (Houston, Milwaukee, Toronto). Take that player away, and they’re probably a half-step behind instead. Without KD, they’re underdogs in a neutral-court series against all of those teams. HOWEVER, the Warriors only need to win one of the two remaining games to close out against Houston, and one of those games is at home, so they’re still overall favorites (64 percent favorites, more precisely) to win the series.

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): The elephant in the room is how eerily similar to last year this is playing out. The Warriors were in the same spot Houston is, down 3-2, with the opponent suffering a key injury. (That time it was Chris Paul who was out, and Golden State stormed back, obviously.)

chris.herring: Right.

natesilver: At the same time, although Harden disappeared down the stretch run for Game 5 and that wasn’t great, I think Houston gets a little bit too much grief. Beating the KD-less Warriors is still a big feat — remember, they won 73 games without KD! — especially at Oracle Arena.

chris.herring: It’s just that Houston had erased a 20-point Warriors lead and taken the lead on the road, with KD out of the picture, and Steph struggling. If you win that game, you’re up 3-2 with a chance to close it at home. They can still do it, but now they have to come back instead of merely going in for the kill.

neil: We often talk about the seeming inevitability of Golden State winning these past few years. But if they win again, that fourth quarter will be looked back at as a turning point of sorts, I think. A place where they made their stand as the season could have begun slipping away. Curry even started to get things rolling in that fourth quarter, after a brutal series for the most part.

natesilver: I don’t know — the whole game felt like Golden State’s to lose. The first half in particular was wide-open and sloppy, which you’d think was the Warriors’ jam more than Houston’s.

chris.herring: Just a couple of really clear things that killed the Rockets. Paul has never shot that poorly in a playoff game. Kevon Looney basically became PJ Tucker for a night, with all the offensive rebounds. The bizarre, fluke play at the end of the game.

natesilver: Sometimes I wonder if these analytics-heavy teams don’t emphasize offensive rebounding enough. Of course, they’ve spent way more time looking at the data than I have. But certain types of situations increase offensive rebound percentage more than others, and it can be a hidden source of value.

chris.herring: Maybe it was just GSW’s game to take unless the Rockets took it from the Warriors, which goes to Nate’s point about the game having been in Oakland.

I’m just really stuck on the “What if?” of that outcome. What if that was the last game at Oracle, potentially, and the Rockets could close this out tonight at home? The hype surrounding tonight would be insane.

I guess similar to last year, when Houston had a 3-2 lead but without Paul.

neil: It’s worth noting that with KD on the court in the series, the Warriors are +8.8 per 100 possessions; without him, they’re -6.2. So this injury really does add a huge late wrinkle to what was already a mega-interesting series.

chris.herring: I know the Warriors have won championships without KD and have even played stretches without him since he joined the team. But I do think it’s interesting that they’d gotten so used to relying on him this postseason.

He’d led them in scoring for eight straight games.

neil: He also completely changes HOW they play. They run so many more isolations with KD.

chris.herring: Even for Steph and Klay, going from that to having to do it all themselves again is a shift.

gfoster: Obviously, Curry and Thompson will need to step up on the offensive side to make up for that lost production — and both have been pretty so-so if not bad. But without DeMarcus Cousins and with a thin bench, I wonder how this affects them defensively. How do you think both teams adjust?

chris.herring: I would assume the Warriors are going to start Looney without Durant there.

You don’t have a ton of options, really.

But the Rockets can shade their defense a lot differently without Durant in the mix.

natesilver: I guess the one thing about Golden State is that with both KD and Steph out there — and Klay! — there are probably some diminishing returns in terms of being able to get good looks. Meaning, KD won’t hurt quite as much as if they didn’t have another super-high-usage player (Curry) and another super-efficient player (Thompson). Maybe there’s less margin of error against Houston’s defense, though.

neil: If the Warriors’ lack of depth was ever going to finally catch up to them, it’s now.

natesilver: Yeah, what I really worry about for GSW is the bench units. Curry still doesn’t look exactly right, and if you’re playing him 42 minutes, or whatever, that probably isn’t great.

But also not great if you’re playing him 38 minutes and have 10 minutes of a pretty terrible lineup.

gfoster: Likewise, Draymond Green gets into foul trouble again, and it’s even more complicated.

chris.herring: It’s pretty wild to consider how inevitably we talk of the Warriors winning it all again when an injury like this — one that keeps him out the remainder of the series, but not for the entire playoffs — is so consequential.

neil: The flip side, though, is how they still have a good chance to win without a top-five player. Any other team loses a player of KD’s stature and it’s sorta over.

natesilver: For the past several seasons, our model has usually had Golden State at about 50 percent to win the championship when the playoffs begin. Sometimes a little higher, sometimes a little lower. Either way, though, that’s a long way from 100 percent.

chris.herring: I’m interested to see how Paul responds tonight. And to see whether Tucker is a pest again the way he was in Game 4.

He’s not a big-time offensive player, but Tucker not having to guard KD all game long could open things up for him, too.

neil: Tucker, Paul and (weirdly) Austin Rivers seem to be the bellwethers for Houston. When they play well, the Rockets have won. Harden, on the other hand, has been pretty even in production between wins and losses this series.

natesilver: Which is usually how it works, Neil. 😉 But I agree. This is one of those series where I think basically every game was the deserved outcome, notwithstanding some of the foul controversies in Game 1.

neil: Well, my point is that it hasn’t exactly been Harden abnormally taking over games to will Houston to their wins. (To the extent that 35 points per game is just normal for him, haha.)

natesilver: I agree, it’s been the entire game plan working. And I don’t think the game plan really worked in Game 5.

gfoster: The Trail Blazers and Nuggets will play Game 7 in Denver. Game 7s in the NBA playoffs strongly favor the home team: Nearly 80 percent of them have gone to the home side. How are Portland’s chances of being in that 20 percent group?

neil: You would think that number would be even higher in Denver’s favor because the Nuggets have such a strong home-court advantage.

natesilver: We actually have Denver at “only” 76 percent, so a bit lower than the historical norm, and we account for the fact that teams at altitude have a bigger home court-advantage. But the home team in Game 7 is by definition the higher seed, and the thing about the Nuggets is that they aren’t as strong as a typical highly seeded team.

chris.herring: The Blazers’ chances are wonderful if they can get one more game of bench production like the one they just got in Game 6.

neil: Rodney Hood! He knows a new contract is coming. Averaging 16.2 PPG in this series.

It was also big for Dame Lillard to get hot from three again like he was against OKC.

chris.herring: This tweet blew me the hell away:

neil: LOL

chris.herring: Not just Hood, either. Zach Collins played his butt off, too, in Game 6 and stepped up in a way I didn’t expect.

All this while the Nuggets’ bench did almost nothing on the night.

That’s kind of been the story of the entire series, really.

natesilver: If Zach Collins and Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood are having breakout games … maybe that just means that Denver isn’t very good?

chris.herring: The Nuggets haven’t been able to take Nikola Jokic off the court at all.

gfoster: I wonder how much fatigue will begin to play a factor, which we have obviously seen in these long series. Dame looks a little gassed no?

natesilver: Jokic has also looked gassed at times, except that’s how he always looks so it’s hard to read too much into it.

chris.herring: Dame hit some ridiculous shots yesterday — both of the “he’s in a different area code” sort of way, and one where he was falling over and just threw something up and got it go down anyway.

natesilver: Did we discuss the four-overtime game? I thought some of the player usage decisions were pretty ridiculous, in terms of teams not incorporating their benches more.

neil: Yeah, there were some wild minute totals being recorded in that game. Jokic played 65 minutes!

natesilver: Most ever in a playoff game.

chris.herring: Yeah. Mike Malone said he needs to trust his bench a bit more.

gfoster: C.J. McCollum played 60. Dame played a relatively breezy 58.

chris.herring: It’s been tough. Denver’s backup point guard, Monte Morris, who in my opinion was one of the two or three most consistent bench players in the league, has scored 4, 3, 0, 2, 6 and 0 in this series.

And trusting a bench that is consistently giving you negative returns whenever Jokic takes a breather … there isn’t time to watch negative returns roll in!

It’s the playoffs. Every minute is huge.

natesilver: Random aside, but it does seem like teams that are dependent on a PG or a C can have more problems with their depth than a look at their roster might imply. If your star is a SG or SF or maybe a PF, you can slide guys around a lot more and give the team different looks. It’s hard to replace a guy like Jokic, though, in way that’s fluid with your overall gameplan.

neil: Yeah, there’s a lot more benefit to versatility in the middle of basketball’s “defensive spectrum” (or whatever we’re calling it).

chris.herring: 100 percent, Nate.

neil: Both ends call for more specific skills that aren’t as easily replicated when your star needs a breather.

natesilver: This is also sort of an interesting problem with on/off statistics. If certain types of players make roster construction harder, and lead to worse lineups when they’re off the floor, a lot of the +/- stats will mistakenly give them credit for that.

chris.herring: There was that game to start the playoffs that Denver lost, where Jokic took only nine shots. I was close to writing an entire story about that notion.

They’ve done a much better job making sure he’s constantly involved in everything since then. They just have a limited bench.

I still wouldn’t like their chances in the next round. But if KD takes a while to come back, at least they’d be playing another thin team in GSW, assuming the Warriors find a way to get one of the next two.

gfoster: Moving to the East, Philly staved off elimination and will go back to Canada for Game 7 — and they didn’t get booed (that much) by their home fans, so that’s big. Obviously, this was a big game for Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, but Joel Embiid posting a +40 in 36 minutes while only scoring 17 is absurd.

neil: Philly’s Big 3 were amazing in Game 6. They finally got it all together at once.

chris.herring: I thought Simmons was the story of the night.

natesilver: While Embiid’s +40 stood out in Game 6, I noticed that Simmons has had a positive rating in every Philly win so far in the playoffs and a negative one in every Philly loss.

chris.herring: Exactly

natesilver:

chris.herring: Simmons had 21 points in Game 6, but had only managed 33 TOTAL in Games 2-5.

natesilver: I guess that isn’t hugely surprising, but still — Simmons is one of the ultimate “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” players.

neil: And one narrative of these playoffs has been about whether Simmons truly fits into Philly’s group, especially long-term. He’s been under a LOT of scrutiny and criticism.

chris.herring: I think it’s somewhat unlikely that he has a repeat performance in Game 7 on the road. But even if they can get 15 or so from him on halfway efficient shooting, it’s massive.

We know what he is for now.

natesilver: I was sorta-kinda persuaded by the argument that his natural position is as a stretch center.

chris.herring: But I think that’s part of what works against him in these playoffs: If you keep him and Philly out of transition, he’s going to struggle to score, and he’s going to clog the paint in that dunker’s spot

I really loved that story, too, Nate — and was going to find a reason to post it in here.

neil: “A bigger and more athletic version of Draymond Green with more scoring ability”

chris.herring: And in a way, that’s what he did yesterday.

natesilver: I think he’s become a bit underrated at this point. Like, even if you concede the argument that he and Embiid are a bad fit together, if I’m one of the 29 other GMs, I’d be looking for a way to buy low on Simmons.

chris.herring: He scored off a couple putbacks. And he scored on fastbreaks. Your challenge is that you can game-plan him during the playoffs as an opposing defense.

The fact that he isn’t a jump-shooting threat whatsoever — like, we KNOW he’s not going to shoot — makes him different in that sense than a Draymond, or a Giannis Antetokounmpo. It puts more pressure on the other guys to find ways to score while playing defenses that take advantage of that.

But he’s still really, really good.

natesilver: If Simmons shot a Giannis number of threes, could he shoot at Giannis’s percentage? It’s not that high a bar to clear.

chris.herring: Nah, I’ve watched him warm up several times before. Whereas most NBA players, at any position, can knock down a handful of threes without much trouble, it doesn’t come natural for Simmons at all.

natesilver: Haha

chris.herring: You’re more likely to see him miss five or six triples in a row than you are to see him hit three or four out of 10 when he’s warming up wide-open.

natesilver: Do you buy the theory that he’s shooting with the wrong hand?

chris.herring: I think it’s a real possibility, yes. When you watch him shoot with his right hand, it looks more natural than with his left.

And I said it on Twitter recently: I think Giannis will be a league-average shooter from three next year.

neil: Is perimeter shooting a skill that a player can learn to at least be competent at with enough work? I guess Giannis is a weird comparison point because his best 3-point percentage in a season was still the 34.7 percent he hit as a 19-year-old rookie.

natesilver: Historically, lots and lots of players have learned to shoot the three, especially recently.

neil: Yeah, especially big men, I suppose.

chris.herring: I legitimately can’t believe Jason Kidd is still in consideration for jobs when he convinced Giannis (and Jabari Parker) not to shoot threes anymore

natesilver: But with Simmons, his free-throw percentage is pretty bad, and he’s bad on long twos, so that does suggest there might be something structurally wrong with his shot.

chris.herring: Anyway, I think the Raptors should be fine at home. The series has showcased a number of swings in either direction. If they keep Simmons out of transition, Kyle Lowry doesn’t lay an offensive egg at home, and Kawhi Leonard is himself, I think they’ll be OK

gfoster: Kristaps Porzingis aside, was there a bigger trade deadline move than Toronto getting Marc Gasol? I suppose we could point back to Rodney Hood.

chris.herring: Gasol was tailor-made for this series, and the matchup with Embiid. He’s not nearly as talented, but he can hold his own with a player who otherwise would have had a chance to break this series open.

(Although it’s fair to point out that Embiid has also had, like, three different illnesses this series, somehow.)

natesilver: It’s a pretty high-leverage Game 7 in that whichever team loses isn’t going to feel at all good about its season. Not like, say, Portland, which to be honest can be pretty happy even if they get blown out in Denver.

chris.herring: That’s certainly true.

neil: And this is the point where both teams’ seasons ended last year, too. So they couldn’t even point to a second-round berth as progress.

gfoster: Does Brett Brown keep his job if Philadelphia loses?

natesilver: I don’t think so.

chris.herring: I’d like to think he *should* be safe with a loss, since the series made it seven games. But the owner has been pretty clear in saying that he wanted to see progress with how all-in the Sixers just went. And losing in the second round again, technically, wouldn’t be progress.

natesilver: I know Philly has a bunch of weird fits, but Occam’s razor is that a team with Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Tobias Harris and JJ Redick ought to be VERY good, even with no bench.

chris.herring: We talked about it before, but I don’t know if I could blame Brown for not getting more out of a group that hasn’t spent that much time together. Especially with Embiid being less than healthy this series. But I’m also not the one making multimillion-dollar decisions in these trades, hirings and firings.

neil: Yeah, even though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they went in a new direction, it would feel a little unfair given the fit and the lack of cohesion.

natesilver: I do sort of wonder if they trade Simmons if they lose.

gfoster: Does Butler return if they lose?

chris.herring: The city of Philadelphia will riot if they don’t bring Butler back.

neil: 🔔

chris.herring: He’s been fantastic at times, and it’s clear how much he cares about winning. I think the better question is whether they’ll bring Harris back — and if so, at what money.

Butler is fascinating because of the mileage he has on his body. But the fans will legitimately be furious if they don’t bring him back.

neil: I’m always shocked at how young Butler is. He feels like he’s been around forever.

natesilver: Who they would trade Simmons for is a tricky question, because his salary is still pretty low next year. On Twitter the other day, I suggested that an interesting trade might be Simmons straight up for the No. 2 or 3 overall pick, and everyone semed to hate that.

chris.herring: A Simmons trade could immediately improve the playoff outlook of the team, but he’s also so young to where it’s very easy to see how and where he could improve. But it’s part of the reason why I’d at least like to see him experimenting with a jumper during games. You really can’t go entire postseasons without so much as even attempting a shot outside the paint. And playing center on a team with Embiid won’t work long-term.

natesilver: Because he’s only making like $8 million next year, though, it’s hard to trade him for a veteran talent without having to package him with someone else and messing up your books. So if you could trade him for a young point guard, and actually use Butler as your primary ball handler in a lot of lineups, that might be interesting.

chris.herring: It’s easy to say in hindsight, but having Landry Shamet still would have been massive for this team. You also have the question of what to do with a player like Redick — one of your few floor-spacers — once his deal ends this summer.

gfoster: Speaking of next season’s plans, I wanted to touch on Boston quickly, who was knocked out this week by Milwaukee (who we haven’t even mentioned). What is going to happen with that team? Does Kyrie Irving stay?

neil: What a miserable end to the series (and probably his Celtics career) for Kyrie.

chris.herring: I just want to reiterate here: I think Milwaukee can, and probably will, win the whole thing this year.

The Bucks haven’t gotten quite enough credit for taking care of business. We wrote the piece about the Celtics having shut down Giannis in Game 1 — and then didn’t mention them again. The Bucks have been impressive as hell.

neil: If the Rockets hold court at home in Game 6, the Bucks will be the only team to advance in less than seven games. (And they did it in five.) Although idk how much that says about the Celtics.

chris.herring: But Kyrie … who knows with this guy?

natesilver: Good news, New York: Kyrie Irving is now officially enough of a headcase to play for the Knicks!

neil: LOL, Nate.

chris.herring: I don’t think you can go as far as to say that Kyrie burned bridges with the Celtics. But there were so many odd moments where he seemed to be talking about his teammates and what all they needed to do when it wasn’t clear that Kyrie had the stature to say those things.

What I mean by that: If you aren’t all the way in, and you waffle on the idea of being somewhere long-term, it looks weird if you readily critique your younger teammates, who probably feel just as invested, if not more invested, as you are. So it was interesting to see Terry Rozier say that he felt he dealt with BS all season. It was interesting to see Jaylen Brown’s many faces on the bench as their season was winding down.

natesilver: It’s still hard to see him coming back. I mean, he hasn’t been that subtle about conveying his intentions. Which doesn’t mean he couldn’t change his mind later.

chris.herring: It was interesting to hear Al Horford admit that the Bucks reminded him of his 60-win Hawks team, but with a legitimate superstar. And it was interesting to watch Kyrie have a horrible shooting series in which he said he should just take more shots to shoot himself out of the slump.

Yeah. I think he’s gone. Knick fans had to be ecstatic at how that all played out.

natesilver: It’s also not clear how much Boston wants him back. Certainly the fans have turned on him. His teammates don’t love him. He doesn’t provide that much value relative to the max contract. I’m pretty bullish on Kyrie, but he’s not a huge bargain.

chris.herring: Aside from wanting to make up for whatever this season was, I don’t know why Kyrie would return to Boston at this point if he feels over the whole situation.

gfoster: I think Kyrie’s status in Boston is contingent on whether the Celtics pursue Anthony Davis, right? Wouldn’t he stay in that scenario?

chris.herring: I never understood why he committed to staying as the season was starting. But the fact that he did, if he doesn’t actually want to be there, doesn’t mean he should still follow through with it. I think they’ll likely pursue Davis regardless of Irving.

natesilver: Mayyybee not, Geoff? A lot of the other teams that Kyrie might go to could also put together a decent offer for AD.

chris.herring: The challenge there is if Irving is gone/leaving, you would have a pretty bare cupboard to entice Davis to stay. Because he’ll be a free agent pretty soon, too.

natesilver: By this point next week, we’ll know who has the No. 1 overall pick, too.

chris.herring: That was the risk the Celtics waged by trading for Irving in the first place. (They gave up a banged-up Isaiah Thomas, so it wasn’t a huge risk. But still.)

This risk would likely involve Jayson Tatum and other important pieces. You’d have to make sure Davis wanted to be there before pulling that trigger, I’d think.

natesilver: If push comes absolutely to shove, the Celtics still have Tatum and Brown on cheap deals, a ton of extra draft picks and a good coaching/scouting/analytics staff.

So that’s a fair bit of assets to fall back on. It might make you a little more risk-averse, even though Danny Ainge has a reputation as a gambler.

gfoster: So under the new lottery rules, the Knicks, Cavs and Suns each have a 14 percent chance at landing Zion Williamson. The Bulls are 12.5 percent, Atlanta 10 percent, Wizards 9 percent.

natesilver: Which is the most annoying scenario? That he ends up in Cleveland, maybe?

gfoster: Yes. Has to be.

neil: Yet ANOTHER Cavs No. 1 pick would be hilarious.

gfoster: It’s like when the Edmonton Oilers won the lottery in four out of six years. (hockey reference!!)

chris.herring: Maybe I’m too much of a purist? The idea of them winning a fourth lotto in such a tight window would be insane (and maybe depressing on some level, because it feels like incompetent ownership would be gifted with a star yet again). But I also think it would make the Cavs interesting. That said: If he goes to the Hawks, that would be kind of fascinating — perhaps the most interesting fit of the teams with a realistic chance.

neil: Trae Young + Zion, let’s GOOOOOO.

chris.herring: If he goes to the Knicks, the hype will be like something I’ve never seen in my lifetime. Especially with the KD/Kyrie rumors having been out there, too.

gfoster: I do like the idea of Ja Morant on the Knicks.

natesilver: Would you trade him for Anthony Davis, though?

chris.herring: Will give a lot of voice to the idea of the Knicks swapping the No. 1 pick for a Davis package or something

natesilver: WOULD YOU DO IT, CHRIS, IF YOU’RE THE KNICKS?!?

gfoster: All-caps questions need answers.

chris.herring: LOL.

neil: Yeah, I feel like the bottom part of this chat has just been Nate angling to get AD, KD and Kyrie on the Knicks.

chris.herring: If I had a really strong sense that I was going to get Durant and/or Kyrie, I would be fine with that. If it was just Davis, and no pieces around him, no. I don’t trust the Knicks enough to truly build it from the ground up, with a single star player in place.

Hopefully that makes sense and won’t get me stoned by the Knick fans who read this.

natesilver: I’m reading Knicks message boards where people are like “Mitchell Robinson is too good to trade for Anthony Davis.”

chris.herring: He’s not. But man, it would be great to hold on to him if you could.

Especially if you’re giving them Zion/the first pick. Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, you’d feel more comfortable giving away.

natesilver: Yeah, I think Zion for Davis is at least fair value for New Orleans, considering that he really just has one year left on the contract. So if the Knicks are giving up a bunch of other stuff too, I start to not like the trade.

gfoster: All right, the lottery is Tuesday, so next week we will have more developments to discuss in this weekly 2018-19 Playoffs/Wild Knicks Speculation chat. Enjoy the conclusion of the second round!

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Geoff Foster is the former sports editor of FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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