What a first round this is turning out to be in the NBA Playoffs. The Pelicans — the Pelicans! — were the first team to advance to the second round with their stunning sweep of Portland. Meanwhile, three of the East series are knotted at 2-2, and both top seeds lost a game over the weekend to give life to the underdogs.
With how wild it’s been, let’s do a playoff reset and take a look at where these series are, where they’re trending, what we’ve learned and what you need to know going forward about the series still in play.
- Series: Rockets lead 2-1
- Game 4 odds: Rockets (-5)
- Series price: Rockets (-5000), Wolves (+1500)
Game 4 will tell us if this is a series or not. Minnesota hung around in Game 1, and Houston needed an unreal performance from James Harden to get the win. In Game 2, it was more of what we expected from this series, as the Rockets outpaced the Wolves dramatically from beyond the arc and Minnesota’s offense ran headfirst into a wall.
Game 3, obviously, has created a little bit of tension. If the Timberwolves had won Game 1, they’d be up 2-1 with a chance for the daunting 3-1 lead with a Game 4 win at home.
But this is really the best way to look at this series:
Game 1: Rockets shoot poorly, even for them — they’re actually not a great-shooting team contrary to optics — and hit only 10 threes, but Harden carries them.
Game 2: What you would expect.
Game 3: The Wolves made 15 three-pointers, five higher than their season average, and the Wolves lost the 3-point battle by only two makes. That’s the Rockets’ big advantage in this series. Throw in an outlier Derrick Rose performance (17 points), and you have a model for a Wolves win, but one that seems difficult to replicate.
Still, there are some reasons for concern for Houston. In the regular season, Houston sported a 53.7 effective field goal percentage on isolations. In the playoffs, that number has dipped to 47%. Their points-per-possession mark is actually higher, so it’s not costing them, but it’s something to monitor.
Houston averaged 11.4 fast-break points per 100 possessions in the regular season; far from the league leader but a decent amount. That’s down to around 10 per 100 possessions in this series, and in the Game 3 loss? The Rockets had two fast-break points.
This is equally stunning considering the Wolves finished as the 29th team in points given up in transition per game this season via Synergy Sports. Suddenly, they’re getting back and shutting down plays such as this:
They locate threats, Karl-Anthony Towns commits hard to the closeout to force the pump-fake and reset, they were there to stop the ball. All this stuff was missing in the regular season, and it’s a big deal. It’s also contributed to the under hitting in two of the three contests. The Rockets were middle of the pack in pace this season, and this series has been slower than that by about two possessions per game.
Pick and roll? Same deal. Jimmy Butler blows this up (despite a super-illegal screen from P.J. Tucker) and then Taj Gibson makes a hard recovery to force Tucker to drive … where Butler once again blows it up.
Per Synergy Sports, Houston is generating just 8.3 possessions logged as “unguarded catch-and-shoot” shots per game in this series, compared to 10.3 in the regular season, and Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Tucker are a combined 8-of-28 on spot-up shots.
There are two things happening in this series. The Wolves are forcing Houston out of its rhythm and keeping the Rockets in front of them at all times, and Houston is just missing a ton of good looks.
Where you land on which is more sustainable should guide your investments and what you think happens as the series moves on.
- Series: Jazz lead 2-1
- Game 4 odds: Jazz (-5)
- Series odds: Jazz (-350), Thunder (+275)