In the NBA playoffs, No. 1 seeds have a special air of authority about them. Since the league expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, top-seeded teams have won their conference about 55 percent of the time; unlike in sports that feature heavy randomness, it’s a surprise when the best team doesn’t win out in the NBA.
But that doesn’t mean top seeds are invincible, as the Golden State Warriors found out Sunday night in Oklahoma when they lost 133-105. With the series tied 1-1, the Warriors were facing the most crucial game of their season — and the Oklahoma City Thunder absolutely shellacked them. Going back again to ’84, it tied for the 14th-worst defeat of a conference No. 1 seed in the playoffs:
|DATE||TEAM||OPPONENT||GAME||ROUND||MARGIN||ELO PROB.||WON SERIES|
|5/11/10||Cavaliers||vs.||Celtics||5||East Rd. 2||-32||<0.1|
|5/19/88||Lakers||@||Jazz||6||West Rd. 2||-28||1.2||✓|
|5/3/07||Mavericks||@||Warriors||6||West Rd. 1||-25||2.2|
Half of those 14 losses came in the NBA Finals, and six featured a No. 1 seed from one conference crushing its counterpart from the the other — not exactly comparable to Dubs-Thunder. So if you toss those out, Golden State’s loss is tied for the seventh-most-lopsided defeat by a No. 1 in the past 33 postseasons of conference play. (It’s also tied for ninth-worst among playoff losses by No. 1 overall seeds during that span.)
The Thunder are a high-quality basketball team, perhaps far better than they appeared to be at various points during the regular season. But the degree to which they dominated the Warriors in Game 3 was stunning. According to the pregame Elo ratings (our pet metric for estimating each team’s strength at a given moment), there was a mere 1.1 percent probability that OKC would run up a victory margin of 28 or more points Sunday.1 We’ve hardly ever seen this incarnation of the Warriors destroyed so thoroughly, and never in a game that meant so much.
Putting aside why it happened — yes, the Warriors had one of their worst (unluckiest?) shot-making nights of the season, but they also played some of their most porous defense of the year and looked out of sorts for long stretches of the game — Golden State’s Game 3 drubbing has left the team in trouble. Both opponents being equal, the team that wins at home in a 1-1 series goes on to win the series more than 69 percent of the time. And although we wouldn’t have considered the Warriors and Thunder to be equals before the West final tipped off, OKC has closed the gap considerably since then. (Plus, Draymond Green is at risk of being suspended for Game 4 after kicking Steven Adams in the crotch for the second time this series.) Now, our model considers the Thunder 64 percent favorites to make the NBA Finals.
Plenty of historical teams who suffered similarly huge routs bounced back and won the series anyway, so all is not lost in Oakland. But the Warriors will have to regroup after a Game 3 performance that put them in an exclusive, unenviable club of vulnerable No. 1 seeds.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.