Adjusting for playoff rotations says Warriors and Cavaliers should be favored to reach NBA Finals

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The Hawks went 60-22, Cavaliers 53-29, Warriors 67-15 and Rockets 56-26 this season.

How much do those record tell us about those teams entering the conference finals?

Something, but definitely not enough.

Players like Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Love, Dion Waiters, Justin Holiday, Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas all factored into their team’s regular-season results. But – due to injury, trade or shortening of playoff rotations – they likely won’t play a part of the conference finals.

So:

In an attempt to get better data, I’ve used nba wowy! to rank playoff teams by regular-season net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), counting only the lineups that include five players projected to be in the team’s post-season rotation.

This measure is far from perfect. It doesn’t account for opponent or weigh lineups based on how often they’ll be used in the postseason, and it’s impossible to precisely predict a team’s playoff rotation.

We did this exercise before the playoffs and before the second round. I’ve updated the numbers with second-round results and modified projected rotations where necessary. As always, remember, this is only one data point in a complex picture when evaluating teams.

Here are the conference finalists’ ratings – actual regular-season to projected based on expected rotations:

Eastern Conference

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Offensive rating: 111.7 to 114.9
  • Defensive rating: 106.9 to 103.3
  • Net rating: +4.8 to +11.6

1. Atlanta Hawks

  • Offensive rating: 109.6 to 110.5
  • Defensive rating: 103.8 to 103.0
  • Net rating: +5.8  to +7.5

Thoughts:

  • The big question: Will Kyrie Irving play? This projection assumes he does.
  • Without Irving, Cleveland actually rates better by this model (114.7 offensive rating/91.4 defensive rating/+23.3 net rating). This doesn’t mean the Cavaliers actually are better without Irving. Of course, they’re not. That stellar play without Irving comes in just 273 minutes, a small sample that was at least partially self-selected by David Blatt. Cleveland surely wouldn’t fare as well if it had to play its Irving-less minutes against the starters of a 60-win team, but that will be the predicament the Cavs would face without him here. This indicates, though, the Cavaliers might fare better than expected without Irving. That’d mean more responsibility for LeBron James, which often works out well. It’s hardly a sure bet, though – just a clue.
  • In the same vein, even with Irving included for Cleveland, the Hawks’ projected rotation players have play more than 2.5 times as many minutes together as the Cavaliers’. Before the playoffs began, Cleveland looked poised to run through the Eastern Conference. But Kevin Love’s injury threw a wrench into the projections. Not only do the Cavaliers rate worse than with Love, we have less information by which to assess them.
  • This model does not account for game location, and Atlanta has home-court advantage.
  • Bottom line: We know the Hawks are good. The Cavaliers – at least those that project to play these Eastern Conference finals – have looked better than Atlanta, but we also know less about them.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

1. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 111.7 to 115.4
  • Defensive rating: 101.3 to 97.9
  • Net rating: +10.4 to +17.5

2. Houston Rockets

  • Offensive rating: 107.5 to 110.1 to 112.3 to 111.4
  • Defensive rating: 104.0 to 101.0  to 101.2 to 104.2
  • Net rating: +3.5 to +9.1 to +11.1 to +7.2

Thoughts:

  • The Warriors’ projection includes includes David Lee and Festus Ezeli, not Marreese Speights, who’s out at least Game 1. If Speights can play, Golden State rates even better on both ends.
  • As noted by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, the Rockets are the first team since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams to reach the conference finals while being outscored in the postseason. Most teams – at least the ones that avoid injury – see their projection rise as they win during the playoffs, but Houston’s has fallen. The Rockets are still well ahead of their actual regular-season production, though.
  • One big reason this model underrates Houston: Dwight Howard doesn’t factor as prominently because he missed so much time due to injury. As long as he remains healthy, the Rockets will rely on him more than projected here – and they’ll be better for it.
  • Bottom line: The Warriors, as has been the case all along, are the clear favorites.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

PBT Extra: How big a threat are Pelicans to Warriors?

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Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans were the surprise of the first round of the NBA playoffs. We knew they were good, but they looked dominant on both ends sweeping the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers right out of the postseason (and into a somber period of reflection).

New Orleans looked like the best team in the West in the first round and now they take all that momentum to Golden State where… let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In this PBT Extra I discuss how the Pelicans have found an identity, but the matchups against Warriors are dramatically more challenging than what they saw in Portland. And that’s before Stephen Curry returns to the fold.

The Pelicans are a great story, but the pecking order in the West is real for good reason.

Nuggets’ Mason Plumlee undergoes surgery to fix core-muscle injury

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DENVER — Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee underwent surgery to fix a core-muscle injury.

The team said Plumlee had the procedure performed Thursday morning by Dr. William Meyers in Philadelphia.

Plumlee is expected to return to basketball activities this summer and be ready for training camp in the fall. He averaged 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists for a Nuggets team that narrowly missed out on the postseason.

The 28-year-old Plumlee was acquired by Denver as part of a deal in February 2017 that sent center Jusuf Nurkic to Portland. Plumlee signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Nuggets last September.