The Mazzola Minute: NBA Playoffs Update

The New Orleans Pelicans completed a four-game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs on Saturday, April 21. The win marked the first time in NBA history that a team seeded sixth or lower swept a first-round series in the modern best-of-seven format, which replaced best-of-five series in 2003. If that wasn’t enough, the Pelicans outscored the Trail Blazers by over nine points per game in the four victories.

What changed from the regular season? The Trail Blazers were, after all, the No. 3 seed. Let’s start by examining some factors going into the playoffs.

The Trail Blazers were the higher seed, so they had home-court advantage in the series. Having up to four home games in the series is, indeed, an “advantage,” as demonstrated by the fact that 26 of the 30 NBA teams posted superior home records, (the Pelicans, curiously, ended up with an even home-away record). Seeding-wise? Advantage Trail Blazers.

We’ll now look at the regular season as a whole. The Trail Blazers were the third seed for a reason: they posted the superior record over the seven-month regular season. In the loaded Western Conference, however, this only translated to a one-game advantage in regular season record over the Pelicans. Of note, New Orleans and Portland split their season series 2-2 (the point differential over those games was a tiny +1.0 ppg for the Trail Blazers). Looking at point differential tells an even more interesting story. On the one hand, the Trail Blazers (+2.6) had a higher overall +/- than the Pelicans (+1.3). However, the Pelicans had a higher net rating (+2.1 to +1.9). Net rating combines offensive and defensive ratings to look at point differential on a per-100 possession basis, essentially a pace-adjusted +/-. Regular season performance? Tie.

Most models used to predict NBA games (eg. FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO ratings) give higher weight to more recent results, as a team’s performance may change significantly over the course of a season. For that reason, we’ll continue by considering the very end of the regular season. New Orleans went 5-0 to close out the regular season, while Portland went 1-4. Granted, Portland’s average point-differential of only -3.2 points per game in that five-game stretch is far less worrying. Additionally, the Trail Blazers did finish the season off with a high-stakes win against the Jazz to clinch the third seed in the Western Conference. The Pelicans, however, posted a dominant point differential of 18 points per game in that five-game stretch. Momentum? Advantage Pelicans.

Now that we’ve established the teams as relatively evenly-matched going into the series, it’s time to look at what changed. A logical initial inquiry would be whether the Pelicans got better, or the Trail Blazers got worse. Unsurprisingly, the answer is a little bit of both.

The Pelicans improved their offensive and defensive ratings, while the Trail Blazers saw their offensive and defensive ratings decline. The most dramatic shifts were in New Orleans’s offensive rating, which rose from 107.7 in the regular season to 114.7 in the playoffs (a higher offensive rating representing more points scored per 100 possessions), and Portland’s defensive rating, which rose from 104.2 in the regular season to 114.7 in the playoffs (a higher defensive rating meaning more points allowed per-100 possessions).

Adjusting for years of defensive weakness, Portland ran a somewhat unconventional defensive scheme this season. Understanding that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who comprise Portland’s starting backcourt, aren’t strong defensive guards, the Trail Blazers elected to have center Jusuf Nurkic drop deep in the lane during pick-and-rolls, effectively encouraging the opposing player to pull-up and launch a mid-range jumper (the least efficient type of shot on an expected points-per-shot basis). Unfortunately for the Trail Blazers, the Pelicans shot a solid 40.3% on mid-range jumpers in the series, taking 16.8 attempts per game. New Orleans’ two best players, Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, are lockdown mid-range shooters, converting on 47.4% and 53.8% of their shots , respectively.

Another disadvantage of this defensive scheme is how heavily it relies on Nurkic to make a stop in the paint. In effect, it shifts the defensive burden from Lillard and McCollum to Nurkic. With All-NBA big Anthony Davis on the court, Nurkic had his work cut out for him. Davis averaged 33.0 points on 57.0% shooting from the field in the series (including a jaw-dropping 68.9% mark in the paint), an improvement on his already-impressive regular season averages of 28.1 points and 53.4% shooting.

Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo, dubbed “Playoff Rondo,” was in full force, averaging a near triple-double of 11.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 13.3 assists per game on an efficient 48.7% shooting mark from the field (compared to 8.3/4.0/8.2 on 46.8% shooting during the regular season). Jrue Holiday played out of his mind, slashing 27.8/4.0/6.5 on 56.8% shooting (a dramatic increase from his regular season numbers of 19.0/4.5/6.0 on 49.4%). These huge performances from the big three of Davis, Rondo and Holiday were critical for New Orleans’ offensive improvement.

Another major factor in the series was Holiday’s lockdown defense on Lillard. Lillard, considered a potential top-five MVP-candidate, struggled over the four games, averaging 18.5 points on a dismal 35.2% shooting from the field and 30.0% from three-point range. The Trail Blazers rely heavily on their backcourt for scoring, and while CJ McCollum managed 25.3 points per game on an efficient 53.9% shooting, it was not enough to make up for Lillard’s high-volume, low-efficiency offensive performance.

The Pelicans will move on to face the winner of the series between the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, while the Trail Blazers will reevaluate after a second straight year of getting swept in the first-round.