In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors demolished the Cleveland Cavaliers by 33 points, signifying to many that the Warriors were en route to a dominant sweep. Then in Wednesday night's Game 3, the Cavaliers demolished the Warriors by 30 points, signifying to many that they still had a chance of winning the NBA Finals.
This is not new in the finals. There have been lopsided basketball games for the entirety of the 2016 Playoffs:
10th game this postseason with margin of 30+. Previous three postseasons combined? 10. Not a single one in 2006-07. pic.twitter.com/FyL88XzFEs— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) June 9, 2016
There have been 83 playoff games so far this year. Twenty-four of them have been decided by 20 or more points. Think about that: 28 percent of the games between the NBA's best teams have been blowouts. That's twice as many as last year, when 12 games were decided by 20 or more. There have been more 30-point games this year (10) than there were 20-point games in 2012 (7).
But the strange thing is that while the individual games have been routinely noncompetitive, the actual series have been pretty tightly contested. We've had four Games 7 in these playoffs, and two of those Games 7 were decided by at least 25 points.
The Western Conference Finals featured plenty of spectacular basketball in a back-and-forth seven-game series, but it also featured each team completely demolishing the other in individual games. The Warriors won by 27 in Game 2, and then the Thunder won Games 3 and 4 by 28 and 24 points. Before that, the Thunder were humiliated by the Spurs in a 32-point Game 1 blowout, but then went on to win four straight.
The Heat-Hornets first-round series started with a 32-point Miami win, then went to a decisive Game 7, then ended with a 33-point Miami win. In the next round, Miami took on the Raptors in a series that also went seven games, concluding with a 27-point Toronto win. In the next round, the Raptors lost four games by an average of 28.5 points, but also managed to beat the Cavaliers twice.
Why have the NBA Playoffs become a parade of blowouts? How come competitive series are being decided by uncompetitive games? Why are teams capable of destroying their opponent in one game, then getting destroyed in the next?
Here are a few theories:
Home-court advantage is more important in the playoffs
These blowouts are primarily being won by the home teams. Of the 10 30-point games in the playoffs, all were won by the home team. Of the 24 20-point games in the playoffs, 20 were won by the home teams. Only one of those four 20-point road wins happened after the first round of the playoffs, when matchups are a little more lopsided.
It's understandable that home court advantage plays a bigger role at this time of the year. The crowds are bigger, more unified and louder. The players are gassed after seven months of basketball and running off sheer adrenaline. Combine those two factors, and it's not surprising that one team sometimes bursts out of the gates while the other seems unaware they're playing a game.
That said, the advantage this year has been especially ridiculous. Last year, in the 12 playoff games that were decided by 20 or more points, five (almost half) were won by road teams. The year before that, it was five out of 14. There's nothing to explain why the uptick in blowouts has been so strong or why it's so dramatically in favor of the home team.
Jump-shooting is random
NBA players in general are better at shooting threes than ever, and the Warriors and the Cavaliers are amongst the best in the league. Golden State set the team record for threes in a season this year, and Cleveland set the record for threes in a game this season.
Shooting is a skill, of course, and the Warriors and Cavaliers are two of the best ever at that skill. But no matter how good you get at shooting, there is some randomness involved. You're throwing a ball at a slightly larger hoop from 25 feet away. Sometimes, you will miss. Sometimes, you will miss a lot. Sometimes, you will miss a lot on the same night your teammates are also missing a lot. This is an off-night, and although the Warriors and the Cavs are less likely to suffer off-nights than anybody in basketball history, they will still happen sometimes. That's how shooting works.
And on the rare occasions when one of these good-shooting teams does have an off-night, the good-shooting team they're playing against is likely to have an on-night. That's when a blowout happens.
But while NBA teams are shooting more jumpers now than ever before, they're not shooting twice as many threes as they were last year, or three times as many threes as they were in 2011 and 2012. The uptick in blowouts isn't fully explained by an uptick in jump shooting.
Adjustments play a huge role in playoff series
A seven-game series is like a chess match. While NBA teams can only do so much game-planning during the regular season -- if you play the Bucks on Friday and the Mavericks on Saturday, you can't really plan a ton individually for the Bucks or the Mavericks -- a playoff series involves intense analysis of your opponent. Over two weeks, these teams become so familiar with each other, and it shows.
This means that each team has the advantage to make serious, meaningful tweaks to their strategy based on their opponents' weaknesses -- say, moving LeBron James to power forward, and starting Richard Jefferson, or asking James to guard Draymond Green. And it also means that when these tweaks happen, the other team might be unprepared. They've studied for days, only to find a completely different set of questions on the test.
A strategic or personnel tweak can make a huge difference. Then, when the game ends, the teams go back to the drawing board, study what happened and adjust.
The quality of these teams is really low
A blowout requires a complete failure by one team. They can't stop the other team from scoring, and they aren't doing a good job of scoring themselves. Great teams don't get blown out: Their level of play is too consistent for a complete failure to occur.
The fact that these series feature two teams suffering blowout losses does not speak highly of the teams involved. If the two teams competing for the NBA's championship are each capable of playing poorly enough to get blown out, the quality of play just isn't very high.
The quality of these teams is really high
Let's think about the teams we're discussing here. The Warriors won 73 games this regular season, more than anybody has won ever. The Cavs went 12-2 in the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
These were the best teams in the NBA all season long and earned their way to the final few rounds of the NBA Playoffs. That did not happen by luck. And they have all gotten blown out at various points in the playoffs.
It's a freakin' miracle that an opponent could break these teams so thoroughly, on offense and defense. There should not exist gears high enough to stifle teams that so thoroughly stifled their opposition for an entire season. Each of these blowouts is brilliance.
Basketball is awesome and unpredictable, and we should stop trying to derive certain meaning from everything
Each blowout in the playoffs has led to definitive statements.
The Spurs proved they were light years ahead of the Thunder with a Game 1 blowout. We began preparing for a Spurs-Warriors Western Conference Finals. And then the Spurs lost.
The Warriors were the clear favorite entering the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder, and they proved it with a massive Game 2 win. Then the Thunder blew out the Warriors, proving Golden State wasn't really a world-beater. And then the Warriors stormed back, turning the Thunder into "chokers."
The Warriors were the clear favorite entering the finals, and they proved it with a massive Game 2 win. Then the Cavaliers blew them out in Game 3, and suddenly, it's clear that Cleveland has what it takes to win it all.
We love basketball because it is unpredictable, and these NBA Playoffs have proved that even on the sports' highest level at the most meaningful time of the year, it remains completely unpredictable. Therefore, we need to stop trying to act like every basketball game tells us everything we need to know about future basketball games. It's easy to Crying Jordan a team after a blowout loss and say that they're undeniably doomed, but the truth is we have no idea.
Do not listen to any sports analyst who tells you they know what is going to happen in an upcoming game, series, or season. They are lying. If an analyst predicted Warriors would blow out the Cavaliers in Game 3, they were wrong. If an analyst predicted the Cavaliers would blow the Warriors out in Game 3, they were stupid. There was no good reason for it to happen, and yet it happened.
The best we can do is study all the information and make a pretty good guess about what might happen. My best guess is that the Warriors will win, and I'm happy to say that I have no idea whether I'll be right or wrong.