The first round of the NBA Playoffs provides infrequent upsets – especially since 2003 when the first round was extended to a best-of-seven series (from a best-of-five).
Per the usual, this year has its share of favorites in the driver’s seat. For example, it’s a fair assumption that the Celtics, Rockets, Trailblazers and Bucks will advance after winning their first two home games.
All of the aforementioned teams were the higher seed in their respective series and – with the exception of the Trail Blazers vs. Thunder – none were seriously expected to end in upset. And while being down 2-0 isn’t a kiss of death, it is difficult winning four out of five with two of the remaining games on an opponent’s floor; in the 282 seven-game playoff series throughout NBA history, only 20 teams have come back to win from a 2-0 hole, which examines all rounds of the playoffs.
So then let’s focus instead on the underdogs of the 2019 NBA Playoffs who stole a game on their opponent’s floor: the Magic, Clippers, Spurs and Nets, all of whom are tied in their respective series at a game a piece.
For context, according to Westgate Las Vegas Superbook via an article written by Kaelen Jones for Sports Illustrated, the Warriors were -50,000 against the Clippers entering the series; the Raptors were -1,400 against the Magic; the 76ers were -800 against the Nets and the Nuggets were -200 against the Spurs.
Put plainly, Vegas had no faith in the Clippers and Magic advancing. It felt strongly about the 76ers’ chances to advance past the Nets. And it was marginally confident that the Nuggets would eliminate the Spurs.
And while none of the aforementioned odds conclusively indicate that a team will advance, it speaks to the outlook of experts as of the start of the playoffs.
But experts can be wrong. And while we know all four series should still not be viewed evenly, stealing one of the first two games is the first step to upsetting a favorite. So which of the four underdogs who stole one of the first two playoff games are most likely to advance (if any)?
From an analytics standpoint, the Spurs have played their first-round opponent the best of the four teams we’re examining. In the aggregate, the Spurs are -4 against their first-round opponent through two games, whereas the Nets and Clippers are both -13 and the Magic are -26.
After splitting the first two games, the Spurs are given a 36.6% chance to advance to the second round of the playoffs by Basketball-Reference.com, which is not the best odds of the four teams. The best odds go the Nets, who are given a 39.1% chance of success. Next up is the Clippers, who are receive a 23.1% chance of advancing. And finally, the Magic have only a 21.1% chance of advancing. Those odds are determined by 1,000 simulations of the remainder of the playoffs after two games.
But we all know that analytics and simulations aren’t 100% accurate – after all, the Warriors’ odds for success on Monday was as high as 99.9% when up 31 points against the Clippers. Players and teams get hot at unexpected times and coaching and strategy plays a bigger factor in the playoffs more than it does in the regular season.
So what else might affect the outcomes? Let’s examine three factors that could swing the results in favor of the underdogs.
Brooklyn Nets: Jared Dudley
His initial allure to the Nets was his veteran leadership. And that was valuable enough to justify his spot on the roster.
But his impact on Game 1 was profound. However, he was sorely missed in Game 2 as he was recovering from a tight right calf.
In Game 1, Dudley guarded Ben Simmons on 22 possessions, Joel Embiid on three possession, Boban Marjanovic on seven possessions and Mike Scott on 11, in which time they scored a combined two points (Simmons). Drilling down to the All-Stars (Simmons and Embiid), that’s two points on 25 possessions. Not bad for a veteran leader.
And after examining game film from the first game, his value is even more clear. His defensive instincts are incredibly sound. Dudley makes the right choices far more often than not, as evidenced by his discipline in transition when picking up Simmons. He regularly correctly sagged off of Simmons, resisted the urge to bite on fakes and forced Simmons to take less-than-ideal shots or pass the ball.
And Dudley is a willing passer and screener, too, rarely shooting the ball unless open. He provides the Nets with energy, focus and wisdom. If the Nets are to advance, they will need everything they can get from Dudley, who is listed as probable for Thursday night’s game in Brooklyn.
Orland Magic: Point guard play and three-point shooting
The Magic have a few kinks to iron out that could sway their fortunes.
The first of the two comes from D.J. Augustin. They’ll need Augustin to play like the capable floor general he proved he can be in Game 1 when he dropped 25 points and six assists on the Raptors and shot 80% from three-point range, including a game-winning shot with 3.5 seconds remaining.
On the contrary, when he plays like he did in Game 2 – 9 points, 0 assists and 0-1 from three-point range – the Magic will struggle.
Augustin has the ability to be his team’s best three-point shooter and most capable playmaker with the ball in his hands. He must summon his best play if they are to stand a chance against the Raptors.
But Augustin’s strong play and improved shooting won’t do it alone. The Magic must must shoot better as a team, notably on three-point field goals. In Game 1, the Magic seized that opportunity, shooting a scorching 48% from deep on 29 attempts – that adds up to 42 points on three-pointers. Compare that to Game 2, in which they shot only 26.5% from three-point territory, which resulted in only 27 points.
Hitting the three-ball has residual benefits that are arguably as important as the points. It opens up driving lanes and forces the defense to either close-out aggressively on shooters or deny them the basketball – either way, the result is a better-spaced floor. While it will be a dog fight for the Magic, they’ll have a shot if they can shoot the three at an above average clip and get elite level play from their point guard and floor general.
San Antonio: Home court advantage
San Antonio isn’t typically mentioned among the elite home crowds by the mainstream media. We hear about Denver and Golden State regularly, and rightfully so. Madison Square Garden gets props despite not playing host to a competitive team in some years. Philly has a reputation for being aggressive, too. But the Spurs home record hints that its home court should get more props than it does.
The Spurs were tied for the third-best home record during the regular season (32-9). Add in the fact that the Nuggets had a sub-.500 winning percentage on the road in 2018-19 and we have a recipe for an upset. Interestingly, the inverse is also true – the Spurs were a sub-par road team and the Nuggets a superb home team – so it’s far from guaranteed that the Spurs win the next two. But if they can, the Spurs will go back to Denver up 3-1 with three opportunities to close out the series.
The NBA Playoffs is less about early-round upsets than it is about seeing giants go head-to-head in the conference semifinals and beyond. The first round and its victors is mostly an afterthought. But maybe not this year. There is potential for more than one underdog to advance, which would shake-up the playoff landscape moving forward. The next step in that journey begins tonight, as the Nets, Spurs and Clippers all look to defend their respective home courts.