Heat' James goes in for a dunk during the first half of Game 4 of his NBA first round playoff series against the Bucks in Milwaukee

Heat, Spurs took (relatively) easy paths to NBA Finals

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Before going any further, I want say reaching the NBA Finals is hard. Really, really hard. Any team that makes it this far deserves a lot of credit.

But sometimes it’s easier win a conference than other times.

There are a couple objective ways to measure the difficulty of the path a team takes to the Finals. One is the seeding of opponents in the first three rounds, and another is the record of opponents in the first three rounds.

By the first, the Spurs had the easiest path the Finals in 24 years. By the second, the Heat had the easiest path in 25 years.

By opponents’ seeds

The Spurs beat a No. 7 seed (Lakers), No. 6 seed (Warriors) and No. 5 seed (Grizzlies) to win the Western Conference. The seeds of San Antonio’s three opponents total 18. No team team has reached the Finals with its opponents’ seeds totaling that large a number since 1989.

Since the NBA instituted its current four-round format in 1984, only four Finals teams have such a high number in this stat:

1. 1987 Lakers, 20

2. 1989 Pistons, 19

3. 1984 Lakers, 18

3. 2013 Spurs, 18

Two of those three teams preceding San Antonio – the 1987 Lakers and 1989 Pistons – won the Finals. This might be somewhat random, but it also makes sense. A team that enters the playoffs as a high seed is more likely to win a championship, and that team is also guaranteed one series against a low seed. Also, by possessing a high seed itself, that’s one fewer possible high seed the Finals-bound team can play.

By opponents’ records

The Heat beat the 38-44 Bucks, 45-37 Bulls and 49-32 Pacers – opponents with a combined winning percentage of .539. The last Finals team with three opponents that had such a low winning percentage was the 1988 Lakers.

Since 1984, just five Finals teams have faced opponents with a worse combined record:

1. 1987 Lakers, .480

2. 1984 Lakers, .496

3. 1985 Lakers, .528

4. 1988 Lakers, .533

5. 1984 Celtics, .537

6. 2013 Heat, .539

Miami’s opponent winning percentage is pretty remarkable, considering expansion has raised the bar for the lower seeds. Now with 30 teams, assuming conference parity, a median team is a No. 8 seed. In 1988, when there were just 23 teams, a median team was a No. 6 team, meaning below-median teams filled the bottom two seeds.

Four of the five teams that reached the Finals with worse opponents winning percentages than the Heat won the title, and the Lakers lost in 1984 only when facing a team also on the list, the Celtics.

Again, this could be random, but it also makes sense. Teams with good records get more series against teams with worse records. Also, every game a team wins – a sign that the team is good – is a game a potential playoff opponent doesn’t win.

So, an easy path to the Finals might actually bode well for teams once they get there. If that holds true for the Spurs and Heat, we should be in for a heck of a series.

Also, in case you’re wondering, the most difficult path to the finals, by either measure goes to the 1995 Rockets. Entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, Houston beat the No. 3 Jazz (60-22), No. 2 Suns (59-23) and No. 1 Spurs (62-20) to reach the Finals, where it defended its title by beating the Magic.

Kyle Lowry to critical DeMar DeRozan: ‘Every shot you shoot is a bad shot, analytic-wise’ (video)

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Your reminder that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are the best together.

DeRozan was asked about Lowry’s long 3-pointers after the Raptors’ win over the Timberwolves last night.

  • DeRozan: “”Them shots be lucky. … To me, it’s a bad shot.”
  • Lowry (off camera): “Every shot you shoot is a bad shot, analytic-wise.”

That’s not quite what the analytics say, but I won’t let the facts get in the way of a superb diss.

Gregg Popovich pins Spurs’ effort problems on players: ‘I don’t remember playing tonight’ (video)

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich gives instructions against the Detroit Pistons in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Monday, Oct. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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The Spurs fell behind by 18 and eventually lost to the Bulls, 95-91, last night – which begged the question:

Does San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich bear any responsibility for his team’s lack of early intensity?

Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News:

Popovich:

I don’t remember playing tonight. I didn’t play. Guys get a lot of money to be ready to play. No Knute Rockne speeches. It’s your job. If you’re a plumber and you don’t do your job, you don’t get any work. I don’t think a plumber needs a pep talk. If a doctor botches operations, he’s not a doctor anymore. If you’re a basketball player, you come ready. It’s called maturity. It’s your job.

Like it or not, motivation is part of an NBA coach’s job.

But that’s also precisely what Popovich is doing.

His credentials dwarf any other coach’s. He can play to his own ego and absolve himself of responsibility – and players will seek to please him. His years of success have earned him the ability to motivate this way, a method no other coach could use without alienating his team.

Donatas Motiejunas signing four-year, $35 million contract with Rockets

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets is helped to his feet by teammates James Harden #13 and Patrick Beverley #2 of the Houston Rockets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Once the Rockets let Donatas Motiejunas back into free agency, this was only a matter of time.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

This sounds remarkably similar to the salaries and incentives set in the original offer sheet from the Nets. But remember, the Rockets didn’t match some of those bonuses that Brooklyn would have been bound to.

So, why not hold Motiejunas to what became a four-year, $31 million offer sheet once matched? Houston got something in return – a later trigger date on guaranteeing Motiejunas’ 2017-18 salary. Originally, that decision had to be made March 1 – which would’ve meant dropping Motiejunas from the team this season to prevent his salary from counting next season. Now, the Rockets can make that call in July, after this season is complete.

The following two Julys, Houston will also have a choice on guaranteeing Motiejunas’ upcoming salary or dropping him.

Essentially, Motiejunas is signing the most lucrative Hinkie Special in NBA history. If he plays well and stays healthy, the Rockets have Motiejunas at an affordable rate. If he struggles or his back injuries flare up, they can drop him with little to no penalty.

After they backed themselves into this corner, Motiejunas and his agent, B.J. Armstrong, didn’t do so bad. Considering the similarity between this contract and the Nets’ original offer sheet, it seems Houston helped Armstrong save face after a bungled free agency (which is easier to accept when you’re adding a talented reserve to a formidable team).

But for how little is guaranteed and how much control the Rockets hold over the next four years, wouldn’t Motiejunas have been better off accepting the $4,433,683 qualifying offer?

Report: Rockets return Donatas Motiejunas to restricted free agency, working on new contract with him

Donatas Motiejunas, Kenneth Faried
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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The Rockets had Donatas Motiejunas in a bind.

He was beholden to them on a four-year, $31 million deal and unable to sign with other teams. Motiejunas’ choices: Report for a physical or wait in limbo.

But apparently Houston has allowed him out of that constraint.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

This means Motiejunas can’t sign with the Nets, who signed him to the original offer sheet, for one year.

I bet it also means Motiejunas and Houston have agreed to a new contract. Otherwise, why release him from the offer sheet? The Rockets would be giving up a tremendous amount of leverage out of the goodness of their hearts – unless this is just a prelude to a new deal with Houston.