In Game 1 of Utah’s first-round series against the Denver Nuggets, Donovan Mitchell could not be stopped. The third-year Jazz star rained down 57 points, the third-most in NBA playoff history behind only Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor. Mitchell made 19 of his 33 shots from the field and six of 15 from behind the 3-point arc, and he paraded himself to the free-throw line 13 times, connecting on all 13 tries.
Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, Jamal Murray, Monte Morris … whomever the Nuggets put in front of him, it didn’t matter. They were sitting ducks, and Mitchell roasted them all. When he wasn’t busy cooking, Mitchell found time to grab nine rebounds and dish out seven assists. It was a truly spectacular performance — and yet, the Jazz lost the game in overtime, unable to withstand Murray’s own crunch-time explosion.
Later that night, in Game 1 of the Dallas Mavericks’ series against the Los Angeles Clippers, Luka DonÄiÄ could not be stopped. DonÄiÄ poured in 42 points, connecting on 13 of his 21 shots from the field and 14 of 15 from the charity stripe. When he wasn’t putting the ball in the bucket himself, DonÄiÄ found time to snag seven rebounds, dish out nine dimes and snag three steals. Even his 11 turnovers couldn’t overshadow what was, again, a truly spectacular performance. And yet, the Mavericks lost the game by 8.
A few days later, Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon went for 34 points, seven rebounds, 14 assists and two steals while shooting 11 of 17 from the field and four of seven from deep, only to see his team lose by 9 to the Miami Heat. Over the weekend, Murray and Mitchell switched roles. This time, it was Murray dropping a 50-spot, grabbing 11 rebounds and setting his teammates up for seven baskets, only to see his team lose the game by 2. That very same night, the Clippers’ Lou Williams came off the bench to sear the nets for 36 points on 13 of 20 from the field, two of four from three and eight of nine from the line, to go along with four rebounds and five assists, only to see his work foiled by DonÄiÄ, who capped his own stunning performance with a preposterous buzzer-beating three in overtime.
Five spectacular games from five players, all with the same result for their team: L. To say that those losses defied long odds would be a dramatic understatement. Each of those performances registered as at least a 30 in Basketball-Reference.com’s Game Score. (Game Score is exactly what it sounds like: an attempt to capture single-game performance in one number.)
From 1980 through 2019, NBA teams with a player tallying a Game Score of at least 30 in a playoff game went 468-159, a 0.746 winning percentage. This year, such teams are just 9-5, for a 0.643 winning percentage. Only thrice in the previous 40 years did teams register a worse winning percentage in these games: 1988, when they went 16-9; 2009, when they went 16-10; and 2013, when they went just 4-3.1
If any of that sounds like merely the result of a small sample or a small difference between the rate at which teams have won, consider this: NBA teams with a 30-Game Score player would need to win all of the next six games to match or exceed the historical winning percentage in those types of playoff games.
These games are also happening more often. There have already been 14 instances this postseason of a player recording a Game Score of 30 or better, against an average over the previous 40 seasons of just 15.7. In the 16-team playoff era, the average was 16.8 per postseason, and that has been consistent even since the league lengthened first-round series from five games to seven. So far, we’re seeing a 30-plus Game Score performance more than twice as frequently in 2020 as we did from 2004 through 2019.
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Not once in the previous 40 years did these games happen more frequently. The only year that came close was 2017, when there were 32 in a 79-game postseason, or one every 2.47 contests. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1990 to find a year in which you saw a 30-plus Game Score performance more than once every third game.postseason averaged 98.1 possessions per game, and there were only 25 instances of a 30-plus Game Score during the 82-game postseason, or one every 3.28 games. The year before that, the average was one every 4.32 games. So, it’s not just pace.
Some of it has to be attributed to the ridiculous offensive environment we have seen in the bubble. This season’s Mavericks had the most efficient offense in NBA history, and five of the 16 playoff teams are scoring more efficiently in the postseason than the Mavs did during the year.
That environment also gets at an unsurprising commonality in the five games in which a player had a Game Score of 30 or better and his team still lost: In each of those games, the player’s team had a defensive rating of 114 or worse. In four out of five, it was 120 or worse. Their teams getting lit up on defense meant Mitchell, DonÄiÄ, Brogdon, Murray and Williams had to try to take over the game on the other end of the floor, which in turn raised their Game Score even higher.
They were also each helped by one of the other trends that has revealed itself in the bubble: extraordinary shooting on contested jumpers. During the five games in question, each of the players exceeded their expected effective field-goal percentage on contested jump shots by at least 6.43 percentage points, according to Second Spectrum, and three of them exceeded it by 30 percentage points or more. (The same trend held for Mitchell, DonÄiÄ and Williams on their teammates’ contested jumpers taken after passes thrown by those players.)
It’s further notable that 10 of the 14 instances of these games have come against defenses ranked outside the top 10 in efficiency, and that it’s likely that at least two and as many as three or four of those teams (depending on the result of the Clippers-Mavericks and Thunder-Rockets series) will be eliminated by the end of this week.3 With better defenses advancing to the later rounds and the poorer defenses leaving the bubble, perhaps we’ll see a reduction in the frequency of these monster games. If the way this first round has gone is any indication, though, we’re likely to see at least a few more — whether in wins or losses.
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