HOUSTON -- Remember a week ago when it looked like six of the eight first-round series in the NBA Playoffs looked very sweep-ish? Of course you don’t. If you’re a modern cellphone dependent human of the 21st century, you have the attention span of a fruit fly, and a week ago may as well have been 785 B.C.
Well, trust us. It looked just that way, with routs left and right, plus the Spurs and Clippers to keep you from quitting the sport entirely.
But that has passed, and now we are back to the new “improved” NBA, where the four conference semifinal series are tied at one, and the notion in between-games momentum have been stilled by events.
Darryl Sutter would be so proud, if he gave a damn.
Sutter, as you cross-sporters might know, is the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, and he has been a strident proponent of the notion that there is no such thing as between-games momentum in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a postulate that has been proven time and time again over decades.
The NBA, though, was a different animal, because typically only a few teams could win the title in any given season and everyone else was playing to avoid relegation to the lottery. Teams routinely took 2-0 series leads, and often it led to sweeps and five-game wins. It was why hockey fans could claim with some justification that their playoffs were better – the possibility of deeper and less predictable series.
Then something happened, and maybe this is just the tyranny of the small sample size, but still, it did occur. Teams started splitting the first two games, often taking a lopsided loss and turning it into a lopsided win two days later. Form stopped playing true, with the Warriors-Spurs series in 2013 as a classic example.
San Antonio won Game 1 in double overtime, then lost by nine in Game 2, won by 10 in Game 3, lost by 10 in Game 4, then win by 18 in Game 5 and finally, by 12 in Oakland in the decider. San Antonio was the superior team, all right-thinking people can agree, but the point was that series starting behaving erratically.
Which isn’t all that much of a much, all things considered, but Golden State’s series with Memphis has the same feel. The Warriors controlled Game 1 despite playing about a B-minus game, then were strangled from the get in Game 2. The simple coincidence-is-causation argument is that Mike Conley made all the difference between a 15-point Grizzlies loss and seven-point Grizzlies win, and weirdly enough, he did score 22 points in Game 2 after not playing Game 1.
But if figuring the games were that simple, Vegas wouldn’t take action on them. Besides, Conley didn’t play at all in the Bulls-Cavaliers series (Bulls by seven, Cavs by 15) or Clippers-Rockets (Clips by 16, Rockets by 6) or Wizards-Hawks (Wizards by 6, Hawks by 16), so he can’t be blamed for all of it.
A year ago, two of the four series split the first two games, and in 2013 all four did. In 2012, Oklahoma City beat the Lakers in Game 1 by 29, and then by two two days later.
In short, all your assumptions based on recent evidence are more likely to be wrong than right, and that understanding series like Warriors-Grizzlies may require a more global view, to wit:
- Can Klay Thompson not do a Game 2 again, or at least not be so demonstrably muzzled by Tony Allen?
- Can Draymond Green escape the first quarter without two personal fouls?
- Can the Warriors limit Memphis’ consistent unguardables to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph?
- Can Golden State keep its turnovers closer to 15 (Game 1) than 20 (Game 2)?
- And finally, and maybe most importantly, can they finally ratchet the pace of the game closer to one of their own liking, or have they consigned themselves to playing at Memphis’ tempo? Neither game has been played to Golden State’s preferred speed, largely because Memphis has ceded the offensive rebound so that it can get back quickly on defense and force the Warriors to spend time looking for shots they normally get early in the shot clock.
This much, though, is sure. Whatever you get in Game 3 is very likely to have no bearing on what happens in Game 4, because basketball is now hockey, and hockey is basketball, and if you don’t believe that, Conley’s face looks like it stopped a slapshot.
Somewhere in Alberta, Darryl Sutter smiles.