With the first round of the NBA playoffs nearing its halfway point, much has played out according to pre-playoff expectations, and that’s been good news for the better-seeded team in each series. Six of eight matchups have had double-digit average per-game victory margins; hell, the San Antonio Spurs have thumped the Memphis Grizzlies by an average of 29 points per game. It’s a massacre out there.
But not everything has followed that pattern. Using our Elo ratings (which measure a team’s strength at a given moment), we found the teams that have exceeded their regular-season expectations the most since the playoffs tipped off last weekend. And even given the lack of first-round surprises so far, some teams have managed to raise eyebrows with their play, as we highlight in the video below:
FiveThirtyEight: The Miami Heat are surprising everybody
Chief among those teams: the Miami Heat, who are, um, torching [One of you owes me 20 push-ups. — Ed.] the Charlotte Hornets in their series thus far. Although our model expected Miami to win by 3.9 points per game, the Heat have prevailed by an average margin of 22 a game. With guys like Hassan Whiteside and Justise Winslow in the mix, you might think the Heat’s defense — stingy during the regular season — is behind this run. But no, it’s an unstoppable offense that’s driving the Heat’s blowouts.
That Heat attack is averaging 1.24 points per play, according to Synergy Sports Technology; that’s the best of any team in the playoffs. According to data from the NBA’s player-tracking SportVU tech, Miami’s pick-and-roll performance has jumped from 91.1 points per 100 chances created by those plays during the regular season to 121.8 per 100 chances in the playoffs. Luol Deng is hitting 55 percent of his 3-pointers; Whiteside is shooting 88 percent around the rim; and Dwyane Wade is scoring 22 points per game with an assortment of crafty, old-man moves.Josh Richardson is perhaps most emblematic of the Heat getting, well, hot [Forty. — Ed.]. The rookie averaged only 21 minutes over 52 games this regular season, but he’s second on the Heat in minutes during the playoffs and, according to Synergy, is tied for the league lead in spot-up attempts — and leads outright in makes.
As a team, the Heat are shooting out of their minds. So on to the natural question: Can this last? According to SportVU data that estimates shot difficulty using variables such as location, shot distance and the defender’s proximity, the Heat are taking extremely difficult shots — their playoff shot selection is of a similar difficulty to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ during the regular season, which was third-worst in the league. The difference is, their effective field goal percentage on those shots is 14.2 percentage points higher than you’d expect, given the types of shots they’re taking. (For reference, no team finished the regular season more than 4.1 percentage points better than expectation.)
But although the Heat will probably cool off [I’ll just let you know when you can stop. — Ed.] before their series against Charlotte is over, our predictions now list them as 82 percent favorites to advance into the second round. If Miami gets there, a matchup against Toronto — which has underperformed its own expectations in the first round — seems likely, so we might even get to witness a fun experiment in whether “momentum” can carry over from one round to the next.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 NBA Playoff Predictions.