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The Warriors And Raptors Are Finals Favorites. But Should They Be?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): The NBA is now two games in to every second-round series, and each matchup is currently tied at 1-1 … except Warriors-Rockets, which was the series most people had circled as the most competitive (and compelling) of Round 2.

So what better place to start our chat than that matchup, which the Warriors lead 2-0 heading back to Houston for Game 3 on Saturday. The Rockets have done a lot of Rockets-like things in the first two games: They’re making almost 16 threes and 22 free throws per game. Yet they were unable to steal away home court in the series late in either Game 1 or Game 2. Do the Rockets still have a realistic chance at knocking off Golden State, or were we all just foolishly trying to convince ourselves that we might see a different outcome this year?

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I think it goes without saying that 2-0 against a team of that caliber is a tough place to be. We talked about it before, but the fact that Houston is Houston might have been enough to get the Warriors playing their hardest and most focused early on.

Draymond Green has been a beast, in particular.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I mean, they lost two games by 4 points and 6 points. And they have some excuses: the officiating in Game 1, and they were without James Harden for parts of the first half in Game 2, and then he was not entirely himself.

I don’t think Game 2 felt quite as close as the final score, but Game 1 was pretty even.

I guess all I’m saying is that we have had nine high-stakes playoff games between these two teams, and it feels like the Warriors are the better team, but hardly a dominant team.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I feel like what’s going to happen at the end of all this, if the Warriors do end up winning it all (which is very likely — our predictions still give them a 49 percent chance), fans and basketball critics alike are going to come out and say, “See? Why even watch basketball? We all knew the Warriors were gonna win.” And they will all forget how unlikely it did seem at times. It is far from a sure thing still.

neil: And that was definitely the case last year as well. The Warriors were far from assured winners, even though in the end they won, as expected.

chris.herring: I think the challenge is that so much of what Houston does is tied to Harden, who hasn’t played poorly at all, despite the eye issue in Game 2.

I thought it was really noteworthy that, after he got none of those calls in Game 1, he simply didn’t kick his legs out in Game 2.

But the real story is that Golden State is forcing him into more floaters, a bit higher up, than he normally likes to take his shots.

tchow: I’m gonna be honest. I only watched the first quarter of Game 2 and maybe five minutes of the second quarter because the game started at 10:30 p.m.!! I have a 1-year-old. I can’t do this sh*t anymore.

natesilver: The competition from the East should be a lot stiffer this year. But, again, we’re getting a liiiiiittttle ahead of ourselves. Our algorithm says the Warriors have a 77 percent chance of reaching the NBA Finals, which is high but also sort of in the Hillary Clinton zone of not a done deal. I do think Kevin Durant flipping the switch into looking like an MVP++ player is a big deal, though.

chris.herring: I am kind of shocked Steph Curry continues to have the foul issues this far into the playoffs. It’s been bad for a hot minute now.

But you’re right, Nate: It’s given Durant a chance to showcase what he’s capable of. (Honestly, my favorite versions of the Warriors are when KD gets to play without Steph and when Steph plays without KD — those guys are unbelievable scorers, but we rarely get to see them at their best because they play so many of their minutes together.)

neil: Well, I want to talk officiating in general. As you guys alluded to, it’s been a huge theme in the series so far, whether over Draymond Green’s arguable contact with James Harden at the end of Game 1, the Rockets’ “audit” of missed calls in last year’s Western Conference finals, or Green’s comments that the officiating talk itself was embarrassing for the NBA. Does Houston have a case? Or is that just a natural consequence of how the Rockets play? Is there something inherently limiting about relying on drawing fouls in the playoffs, when it’s tougher to get a whistle?

natesilver: A “natural consequence” doesn’t seem like quite the right phrase because I’d imagine that a lot of this is fairly deliberate — exploring the boundaries of the rules, especially in terms of Harden’s shooting form.

chris.herring: Like I was saying a minute ago, I thought it was pretty interesting that Houston fell to the ground so much in Game 1 but, from what I remember, essentially didn’t do that at all in Game 2. I’d have to go back and watch the close-outs, but to me that signals that the Rockets might have known they were waging a losing battle.

natesilver: I do think, if the game is called by the book, they got screwed out of a couple of three-shot shooting fouls in Game 1.

chris.herring: Oh, absolutely.

At least two or three, which, in a game that close … I’d be upset, too. You have to call the fouls the same way you would have during the regular season. I didn’t even think some of those were debatable in the first half.

The crazy thing: In watching Game 2, it makes me wonder whether the Rockets are better off just trying to stand up straight as opposed to drawing fouls.

It might have merely been a Game 2 improvement, with no reason for it, but they were great from the perimeter, and it happened on a night where they weren’t flailing or kicking their legs out, which I imagine changes the shot’s rhythm some.

natesilver: Part of it is that awarding three free throws is such a high-stakes decision. It’s not quite like awarding a penalty in soccer, but you know what I mean.

If all shooting fouls were two free throws instead, save maybe for the last two minutes when a team might try to maul a guy to prevent him from taking a 3-point shot, that might help.

Or if referees were allowed to call nonshooting fouls in the event of incidental contact. Sort of the difference in a roughing the kicker penalty vs. running into the kicker.

chris.herring: I’ve never seen something be such an enormous story for one game, then just not be a factor at all in the following one

I’m sure the league loves that it died down during Game 2. But it almost felt like the Rockets realized they weren’t going to get anywhere with that hope that they’d get more calls.

neil: And yet, most of the fan reaction I was reading online was that the Rockets basically need to be quiet. That Harden has cried wolf too many times, etc. And remember, these are people siding with the Warriors, a team that has become hated over the years as it’s won so much. That kind of speaks volumes about the distaste for Houston’s foul-drawing strategy.

natesilver: Yeah, I thought the “Rockets-are-sore-losers” narrative, while understandable, maybe made people less objective in evaluating the situation.

chris.herring: I felt like I was seeing a lot of that the last few days, too.

tchow: Yeah, Nate, on the latest Hot Takedown podcast, we had Kirk Goldsberry on as a guest, and he made the point that from an economical standpoint, drawing three free throws percentage-wise is worth more than a wide-open Steph or KD 3-pointer. In that sense, it would make sense to try to draw those so often.

chris.herring: But here’s my thing:

If the Rockets pour over the missed-calls report and find that the refs missed a bunch of those last year — which suggests it’s either not easy to catch, or that refs don’t like to call it — why make it such a big part of the strategy as you start another series with Golden State now?

tchow: To prove themselves right?

chris.herring: Idk. Part of me feels like the basketball world is too worked up about this series, when in reality, it’s the only one that’s not tied up at 1-1.

It’s been a good second round so far.

natesilver: I dunno, one thing about basketball is that there’s not usually a lot of luck.

In a seven-game series, the better team wins a large majority of the time.

But I wonder if Daryl Morey feels a little tilted (in the poker sense of that term) how his series have gone against the Warriors.

They’ve had some bad luck with injuries, some bad luck on 3-point field-goal percentage — and whether you want to call it “luck” or something else, some frustrating games with the officials.

And it’s also, like, if the league designs a bad set of rules and incentives, you shouldn’t get blamed for taking advantage of those incentives.

There should be better incentives instead. The rules should be changed.

chris.herring: That’s been the story of James Harden’s career: Fantastic player who’s always been fantastic at taking advantage of what’s there, whether fans like it or not.

I really love watching that dude ball. It’s not his fault the loopholes are there.

neil: As Kirk writes in his book, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

Either way, right now we give the Warriors an 84 percent chance of moving on to the conference finals.

tchow: The good news is that Game 3 is at 8:30 p.m.!

neil: On behalf of all of us East Coasters, thank goodness.

In the other series out West, the Trail Blazers evened things up with the Nuggets with a 97-90 win Wednesday night. Portland stole-home court advantage, but our model still gives Denver a 61 percent chance of advancing. Are the numbers still too low on the Blazers?

chris.herring: Probably. I have no idea, honestly.

The Nuggets might be the most inconsistent team left in the playoffs. Last night was extremely rough for them — one of their worst shooting nights of the season. Their offensive rebounding was unreal, and so it left them with an outside chance to win late.

I feel like they may have the better team, but their inconsistency scares me a bit. The 61 percent probability sounds about right to me for now.

Quietly feel like the Moe Harkless ankle injury could be a tough one for the Blazers depending on how hurt he actually is going forward.

I have it going seven games, and I won’t be surprised at all if and when it actually goes the distance.

natesilver: I’m going to reiterate that this part of the bracket feels like the NIT to me. Unless whoever emerges from GSW-HOU does so with an injury, I don’t expect the Western Conference finals to be super competitive.

neil: Yeah, conditional on making the conference finals, the Warriors have a 92 percent chance at the NBA Finals in our model; Houston has an 81 percent chance.

natesilver: I almost feel like, narrative-wise, Portland has become a little bit underrated just because they’re facing off against two other very flawed teams. That Portland team with Jusuf Nurkic is pretty interesting, but they have a pretty low ceiling IMO without him.

neil: I have been surprised at how well Enes Kanter continues to play. He’s averaging 21 points and eight rebounds in this series. (As someone who hated on him as an empty stat-padder early in his career…)

natesilver: The knock in him (I almost typed “the Knick on him”) has always been his defense, though.

What’s his +/- in the series?

neil: It’s minus-4. But the team as a whole is in the red anyway.

chris.herring: He’s useful for them, without a doubt

I think he actually might be even more useful in a playoff series, depending on the opponent.

Against OKC, for instance: Leaving him in the paint, without an easy way for Westbrook to get around him, was great for Portland. Westbrook wasn’t good or comfortable shooting his jumper in that series.

So it mitigated the concerns about Kanter’s pick-and-roll defense.

And in this series, you’re dealing with Jamal Murray, who’s a hot-and-cold shooter in the pick and roll, too.

Kanter’s offensive rebounding is massive a lot of the time.

natesilver: I guess mayyyyybe you could say that Kanter has never been in a position before to have teams take advantage of his skill set. OKC has never really been expert at maximizing its role players. And the Knicks, well, are the Knicks.

tchow: For what it’s worth, in Game 2, Nikola Jokic went 1 for 8 when guarded by Kanter.

chris.herring: I’m interested to see what happens as they shift to Portland.

neil: Your point about defense is well-taken, Nate. Portland’s key might be to continue to play so uncharacteristically well at that end.

Right now, they’re holding the Nuggets to 41.9 percent shooting from the field, including 31 percent from three.

chris.herring: I feel like I’m so in and then so out on Denver. They have had some really rough performances.

But the fact that they were still in it last night despite how poorly they shot was encouraging. Jokic has been playing out of his mind.

neil: OK, since this is the NIT series of the playoffs, let’s leave Denver and Portland and move over to the East.

tchow: In our playoff preview chat, I think we all agreed that the Eastern Conference playoff bracket looked a lot more interesting than the West, and I think that’s still pretty much true. I have no idea who will make it out of the East of the remaining four teams and could easily see both series going seven games.

neil: Yeah, things have not really gotten clearer since either series opened. Let’s talk first about the semifinal series between the Raptors and Sixers, which resumes tonight with Game 3. Philly gritted out the win Monday night to even up the series, despite Kawhi Leonard going off again for 35 points. What has stood out about each team so far that might swing the series going forward?

chris.herring: In the chat last week, we talked about the question of who Tobias Harris could realistically guard.

The answer in Game 1 was nobody, which was problematic, as the Raptors’ two best scorers did serious damage.

The difference in Game 2 was Philly’s adjustment to play Harris on Marc Gasol, and to have Joel Embiid and the other centers guard Pascal Siakam. It paid really, really nice dividends for them, and that’s the thing I’m really curious to watch in Game 3.

natesilver: I guess those defensive matchups sort of make sense but also the sort of thing that you could counteradjust to, especially with an extra day off to scout and strategize.

chris.herring: Exactly.

neil: That shows up in the stats, too: Harris was a game-low minus-23 in Game 1 but was plus-6 in Game 2.

chris.herring: In both series, I think, it’s going to be a question of whose adjustments are better.

Because each set of changes and adjustments have pretty clear counters.

tchow: Btw, I don’t know if Neil is doing this on purpose but we have NBATV on at the office right now, and Neil is moving the chat along at the same exact pace as Grant Hill and company are moving along their playoff coverage. They just wrapped up DEN-POR and moved on to PHI-TOR before cutting to commercial break. Uncanny.

neil: LOL, Tony. Definitely a coincidence… 😒

chris.herring: I did think the put-the-big-on-Siakam adjustment was smart, though.

When Siakam is in the middle of the floor, you can give him some space, because he shoots really terribly from the top of the key. By contrast, he’s solid from the corners. (And when he’s in the corner, you have the help of the baseline as a second defender.)

tchow: It definitely made a difference. Siakam shot 80 percent from the floor and 75 percent from three in Game 1. In Game 2, he shot 36 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three.

chris.herring: The Sixers don’t have but maybe one guy who can credibly guard Siakam (and Ben Simmons is doing his best to guard Kawhi), so that shift was really important for them.

It may not work going forward, but you had to try it.

natesilver: What if Gasol decides to take more shots? He’s been pretty passive, offensively, since joining the Raptors. But he is capable of scoring, either in the post or from downtown.

chris.herring: If Gasol ends up being the guy to torch you, I think you can live with that more easily than Siakam.

Also, I’d expect for the Raptors to do more to get Siakam rolling, and to use him in pick and rolls in hopes of having Philly switch them. That would nullify the Harris/Embiid stuff they’re doing.

Again, the countermoves are going to be fascinating.

To Neil’s initial question, too: The other thing that stands out is just how damn good Kawhi is.

The guy is Terminator in a basketball uniform.

He couldn’t do it all by himself in Game 2. But he’s just having his way from a scoring standpoint.

neil: He’s probably been the best player of the playoffs so far, at least by the advanced metrics.

chris.herring:

natesilver: Are people stretching a little too hard to call this an even series? Game 1 really wasn’t all that competitive, the Raptors have the best player, they were the much better team in the regular season, and all the adjustments and counteradjustments are gonna cancel out.

I mean, there are only five games left and the Raptors have lost home-court advantage, but I feel like if this is a nine-game series, or an 11-game series, the Raptors are a huge favorite.

chris.herring: I dunno. On the one hand, yeah: Toronto should have the upper hand. But we haven’t seen Nick Nurse under all that much pressure before. I assume they’ll counter well, but if they don’t … it’s not as if Philly doesn’t have talent.

There are pretty clear things that could happen to tilt this in the Sixers’ favor, though I wouldn’t put my money on those things.

And the next two are in Philadelphia. I think this is about all the Sixers could ask for at this stage.

I would like to see Embiid do a bit more offensively. He was sick during the last game, but if he can’t find advantages against Gasol (which has been the case for a while now), it becomes harder to see how Philly can beat them four times. Unless the Raptors have no counter whatsoever for what happened to Siakam in Game 2.

tchow: Nate, are you proposing we make the postseason even LONGER to ensure the best team wins?

natesilver: I think it should vary based on how enjoyable the series is.

Like if people find GSW-HOU annoying, just make it a three-game series.

neil: We should develop a metric: The SILVER (Series’ Ideal Length Varied by Enjoyability Ratio)

chris.herring: Oh, Lord.

natesilver: Neil.

tchow: According to SILVER, Sixers vs. Raptors should be best-of-11 and Bucks vs. Pistons should have been a one-game playoff.

neil: LOL

So while we workshop our latest backronym metric, let’s end the chat by focusing on the Bucks and the Celtics. After disappointing at home in Game 1, Milwaukee can breathe again thanks to a 123-102 win in Game 2.

Was that Game 1 loss just a blip on the radar for Milwaukee, or something to legitimately worry about for them as the series shifts to Boston?

tchow: Giannis Antetokounmpo had a +/- of minus-24 in Game 1. What happened?

(FWIW, he did bounce back fine. Game 2, his +/- was plus-20.)

chris.herring: I think it’s actually pretty similar to Toronto-Philly. The Bucks punched back with a different strategy in Game 2, and now the ball is seemingly in Boston’s court to try and adjust to it.

natesilver: Gordon Hayward was pretty nonexistent in Game 2 and not great in Game 1, which is bearish for Boston because I really think they need him to be pretty good to compete at an elite level.

neil: Also, Kyrie scored 26 on 57 percent shooting in Game 1. Had 9 points on 22 percent in Game 2.

natesilver: It did feel a bit like maybe the Celtics were gonna steal one game in the series because of Brad Stevens and their coaching/analytics/scouting staff, and maybe Game 1 was that game.

chris.herring: We touched on it last week, when we discussed the Bucks being ranked No. 1 in the league on defense but doing so with a drop strategy in pick and roll coverage. They got torched with that in Game 1, and Boston had a field day from deep. But they moved to a completely different scheme in Game 2 and switched everything (something they almost never did in the regular season).

And for what it’s worth, Boston was the least-efficient team in the NBA against switches during the regular season, according to data from Second Spectrum.

So I’m interested to see what they counter with, because the Bucks certainly have the length and versatility to make life difficult for them with that strategy.

To Tony’s question from before, we did some writing on what went wrong for Giannis in Game 1.

The truth is, Giannis kind of lives off of open-court opportunities. He’ll score plenty without them, but if he has them, it showcases how and why he’ll likely be the MVP. It’s nearly impossible to stop him with just one guy (and sometimes even two) in the open floor.

But Milwaukee wasn’t forcing enough misses in Game 1 for that to even be a real possibility for him. And even when it was, the Celtics set up a wall against him. Was something they did effectively against Giannis all year.

natesilver: So are you saying that Giannis is liable to be less effective in the playoffs, when it becomes more of a half-court game?

chris.herring: Yes and no.

I think he will still score, and if you overcommit to trying to stop him, he’s unselfish and will find his teammates, who finally hit shots in Game 2

The other thing that’s interesting: Giannis’s struggles as a jump-shooter are well-documented. He was the worst wide-open shooter in the NBA from three on 150 or more attempts.

But he started knocking them down at a somewhat respectable clip after the turn of the new year. And when Boston dared him to shoot them in Game 1, he shot 3 of 5.

He’s 5 of 9 from three for the series!

I imagine that if you’re Boston, you’re simply going to make him prove he can hit that shot. But the idea that he’s begun to figure out how to hit threes should be terrifying for everyone outside of the state of Wisconsin.

natesilver: I’m happy to let him shoot as many threes as he wants.

I don’t think you learn how to shoot threes in one series. Maybe if it’s a big offseason focus of his, sure.

neil: Either way, the model currently gives the Bucks a 70 percent chance of winning. In fact, it also gives Toronto exactly the same 70 percent chance against Philly, despite both series being 1-1.

Do those probabilities seem right to y’all? If you had to take the over or under on one, which would it be?

chris.herring: I feel like Milwaukee’s is a touch high, even though they’re my favorite to come out of the East.

tchow: Interesting, I was going to say I would pick the Bucks to be too low.

neil: I’m in the same camp, Tony. Really more based on looking at our title odds for each:

I’m surprised Toronto is at 24 percent and Milwaukee only 14 percent. (Although a lot of that is due to head to head Toronto-vs-Milwaukee odds.)

natesilver: I mean, there’s a case to be made that Toronto is just super good.

chris.herring: Yeah. I think almost 70 percent sounds about right in that case.

natesilver: They won 58 games in the regular season while missing a bunch of Kawhi and Kyle Lowry. And with Gasol only on the roster for the last third of the season.

chris.herring: The matchups still favor them, and I think they’ll figure out a way to get Siakam going. Just not guarding him at the top of the key isn’t going to be enough.

Am interested to see whether Kawhi can keep doing this for the whole series, though. He’s completely wrecking Philly.

natesilver: Kawhi looks like an MVP in the playoffs, and neither of the two losses they’ve taken in the playoffs (to Orlando in Game 1 or Philly the other day) seemed to expose particularly exploitable problems.

Our model also thinks Philly is quite good, by the way. It gives them a lot of credit for being good “on paper.”

So I think our prices are relatively fair, but if I had to pick one, maybe it’s the over on Toronto.



Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

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