Chaos creates unexpected NBA conference finals

Jimmy Butler in Heat-Nuggets
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The Denver Nuggets‘ thrilling comeback from down 3-1 – including overcoming big second-half deficits in Games 5 and 6 – sparked a lot of joy. Big upsets are fun. These Clippers are particularly disliked.

But it also robbed us of a highly anticipated Los Angeles Lakers-Clippers Western Conference finals.

Lakers-Nuggets doesn’t hold the same allure on paper.

Sure, the Los Angeles market hyped the Lakers-Clippers matchup. Still, more than just intra-big-market rivals, the Lakers and Clippers proved themselves to be excellent teams throughout the season.

The Clippers outscored opponents by 6.4 points per game in the regular season and seeding games – best in the West. Only the Bucks (+10.1) topped that mark in the league.

Of course, the Bucks won’t be in the Eastern Conference finals, either.

Instead, a series of upsets have put a few unanticipated teams in the conference finals. The third-seeded Boston Celtics face the fifth-seeded Miami Heat in the East, and the top-seeded Lakers face the third-seeded Nuggets in the West.

But seeding doesn’t fully capture the unpredictability of these matchups – especially for Denver.

Here’s how teams ranked in scoring margin per game during the regular-season and seeding games, conference finalists bolded:

  • 1. Bucks (+10.1)
  • 2. Clippers (+6.4)
  • 3. Celtics (+6.3)
  • 4. Raptors (+6.2)
  • 5. Lakers (+5.8)
  • 6. Mavericks (+4.9)
  • 7. Rockets (+3.0)
  • 8. Heat (+2.9)
  • 9. Jazz (+2.5)
  • 10. 76ers (+2.4)
  • 11. Nuggets (+2.1)

The average conference finalist outscored opponents by just 4.3 points per game in the regular season and seeding games. That’s the lowest mark since 1984, the first year of the NBA’s 16-team postseason:

Coronavirus obviously changed dynamics. There was a long layoff. Rhythm and training were interrupted. The bubble created new mental challenges, and the teams most-equipped to handle the environment weren’t necessarily the teams who won the most regular-season games. Top regular-season teams no longer get home-court advantage in the playoffs.

Maybe it’s because there’s less correlation between regular-season and postseason success generally. The playoffs require stylistic adaptability in a way the regular season doesn’t. There’s something to using the regular season to prepare for the postseason then peaking at the right time.

Or it could just be happenstance. Some seasons are bound to have bigger upsets than others.

Ben Taylor combined those ideas and posited an interesting theory:

Whatever the reason, the conference finals includes teams lacking the typical season-long record of excellence.

This round can still be enjoyable. Heat-Celtics Game 1 was a delight. Though the Lakers have a talent advantage with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Denver has shown it’ll compete to the end.

But this isn’t the norm.