The Stats of the NBA Finals

The Golden State Warriors won Game 5 last night to go up 3 Р2 in the series over the Cleveland Cavaliers.  It has been a great Finals so far, and with so many possible stats to discuss, we decided to look at as many as possible.  These topics include: the importance of 3-pt shooting, the importance of Shaun Livingston, the emergence of Matthew Dellavedova, the effects of going small, the underwhelming Klay Thompson, and the players with the highest usage rate in NBA Finals history.  Enjoy!

Know the winner of each game in the NBA Finals (without looking at points)

by Adam Gilfix

As John Hollinger wrote in 2009, there’s a new motto in today’s NBA: Live by the 3 or die. ‚ÄėFew stats correlate better with winning than 3-point attempts,‚Äô he wrote. ¬†What about 3-point percentage? ¬†My hypothesis is that if shooting more 3-pointers correlates with winning, then shooting more effectively from downtown should help even more. ¬†With this in mind, here are the 3-point field goal numbers by game in this NBA Finals:

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Notice anything? ¬†The team that shoots better beyond the arc (highlighted in green) is 5-0 in the Finals. ¬†Interestingly enough, the team that shoots more 3s (highlighted in yellow) has won just 1 game. ¬†Moreover, in the first 3 games, Golden State and Cleveland had 3-point FG% within 10% of each other…they also had final scores within 10 points of each other. ¬†Games 4 and 5 saw the Warriors out-shoot the Cavs by 25% and 12% from deep by shooting¬†‚Č• 40%, with victories by 21 points and 13 points, respectively. Coincidence? ¬†I think not.

And it’s not all about making three-pointers, but shooting effectively from that range.  Simply making 3s does not correlate as highly to winning.  The Warriors led the Cavs 3-1 in more 3-pointers made in Games 1-4 (but of course were tied 2 games to 2 in the series).  In Game 5, the two teams tied 12-12 in 3PM, but the Warriors clearly shot much better from deep, helping them on their way to a pivotal victory.

Likewise, the Warriors have now shot at a better rate from the floor than the Cavaliers in all but Game 3, and despite that 4-1 margin in terms of field goal percentage, they only lead the series 3-2.  Surprising?  Not really given that abovementioned 3-2 victory in 3-point field goal percentage in the series, as they won each game where they were the more effective team from beyond the arc.

Some people often point out that, in such a closely-contested Finals with hotly-debated calls by the refs on both ends, free throws are crucial.  However, the team that has shot a better percentage from the charity stripe is actually 2-3 in this series (granted, the team that made more free throws has won 4 out of 5, and in the Warriors Game 4 victory, they only made 1 fewer free throw than the Cavs).  Still, again: the team that has shot better from 3-point range is 5-0 in the Finals.

What about turnovers?  The team with fewer giveaways only won Games 2 and 4 (in Game 3, the two teams tied with 14 turnovers).  Similarly, the team with more rebounds has only won in Oracle Arena (Games 1, 2, and 5).  Offensive boards tell the same story: Game 2 and 5 are the only ones where the team with more rebounds on their own shots won the game.  And assists?  The Warriors have had more assists in every single game, but of course lost 2 of the 5.

So when it comes to following a box score throughout this Finals and pretty safely predicting which team will come out on top, it is evident that one has only to compare the shooting percentage from 3-point range.

The Warriors have lit it up from 3 the past two games (>= 40%) and look to wrap it up in Cleveland in Game 6 tomorrow by doing the same.

Chef Curry’s Sous Chef

By Kurt Bullard

When Shaun Livingston inked a deal with the Warriors this past offseason, it marked the ninth team for which the 29-year-old would suit up to play.  He’s made the playoffs three times in his  career, but this time around has arguably been the Illinois native’s most impactful stint.

Livingston is an interesting match for the Warriors.  The former No. 4 overall pick in the draft is the de facto backup for the league MVP, but plays a very different game from Chef Curry.  Livingston only hoisted two three-point shots in the entirety of the regular season Рboth of which missed Рduring the regular season.  Steph took a few more than two threes on the year, averaging two attempts from beyond the arc every seven and half minutes.

The offense operated at a noticeably lower level with Livingston on the floor during the regular season.  Livingston played 80.7% of his regular season minutes with Steph watching on the bench, and 49.3% of possessions without a single Splash Bro. on the floor. In the latter situation, the team averaged .993 points per possession, which would have only ranked above the Knicks, Bobcats, and 76ers.  That’s not the greatest company, to say the least.

But the story has been far different in the NBA Playoffs.

Despite this unlikely matching of styles, he has held his own offensively in the playoffs and even more so in the Finals.  In the 15 minutes that Livingston has played with Thompson and Curry in the Finals, the team’s put up points at a rate of 1.32 per possession.  Pretty impressive. But the real story lies in his performance without that help.  Livingston has logged 321 minutes in the playoffs, and 177 have come with Riley’s dad off the court.  The team has averaged 1.108 points per possession with Curry off the floor and Livingston on Рmore than the 1.097 points per possession that the Warriors averaged over the regular season.

Livingston’s performance without either of the Splash Bros. on the court has been even more impressive.  In the 61 minutes that he has played without the duo in the playoffs, the team has averaged 1.22 points per possession.  That number drops slightly down to 1.083 in the 14 minutes that has happened in the playoffs.  But, for the sake of comparison, Curry has only averaged 1.05 points per possession in the NBA Finals.

Livingston’s rising to the occasion has been huge for the Warriors and has allowed Curry and Thompson to rest up without Steve Kerr having to panic, unlike David Blatt, who has seen the team’s points per possession drop to .55 without LeBron on the court during the Finals.  It’s been a long road for Livingston to get to the Finals Рnine teams, several injuries Рbut now he’s making the most of it.

The Rise of Dellavedova

By Harrison Chase

Before the Finals started even his home country didn’t really know who he was. ¬†Now he is getting his hometown arena named after him. ¬†Such has been the rise of Australia’s newest celebrity – Cavaliers’ guard Matthew Dellavedova.

During the regular season, Dellavedova was an afterthought, starting only 13 of the 67 games he played in, and barely playing 20 minutes a game.  However, after an injury to Kyrie Irving in Game 1 of the Finals, he started the next three games, playing 31 minutes a game.  Furthermore, he is not only playing more minutes, but is also more involved in game, his usage rate jumping to 18.5% in the Finals, compared to 12.6% in the regular season.

Dellavedova has been thrust into the spotlight like no player ever before, his minutes and usage increased at basically unprecedented rates. Since they started tracking usage rate in 1985, only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and Joe Dumars have increased their usage rate from the regular season by more than Delly has (minimum 100 Finals minutes). And most players who increased their usage rates by even close that much were already stars who stepped up in the playoffs, not role players suddenly thrust into the spotlight. In fact, only 13 players have ever increased their usage rates in Finals by more than 5 percentage points – and all of them had a regular season usage of at least 16%.

The most appropriate comparison to what Dellavedova has had to do is the situation Latrell Sprewell was in during the 1999 Finals.  During the lockout-shortened season, Sprewell started only four of 37 games.  However, in the Finals he picked up the slack created when star Patrick Ewing went down with an Achilles tear and greatly increased both his minutes per game (33 to 44) and usage rate (26.5 to 32.3) from the regular season. Even then, Sprewell was already an established player; 3-time All-Star, 1st team All-NBA, 2nd team All-Defense.

But Delly hasn’t been the only Cav to step up in the Finals. ¬†Due to both injuries and a short bench, multiple Cavs have greatly increased their minutes played in the Finals. ¬†Using the same criteria, 3 of the 20 players who have increased their minutes per game by 10 or more in the Finals are on this year’s Cavs team: Delly, Iman Shumpert, and Tristan Thompson. Not to mention Timofey Mozgov, who is playing only a few more minutes, but more impressively has increased his usage rate by 5.2 percentage points.

By being thrust into the spotlight, Dellavedova has joined an elite group of players to increase their minutes and usage rates by so much (as have, to a lesser extent, many of the other Cavs mentioned). ¬†Although putting Dellavedova in a group along with three other Hall of Fame players doesn’t make him a star, one thing is clear: Delly may not be the hero Cleveland deserves, but he is the one it needs right now.

Small-ball or small sample?

By Austin Tymins

Former Warriors head coach and small-ball advocate Don Nelson said Friday that Warriors first-year head coach Steve Kerr should be the Finals MVP if his team comes through.  After being down 2-1 in the series, Kerr made the decision to start Andre Iguodala over center Andrew Bogut.  Equally importantly, he limited the minutes of the team’s other big men including Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights.  Andrew Bogut averaged 23.3 minutes in Games 1, 2, and 3 but only played sparingly in Games 4 and 5.  For the vast majority of Games 4 and 5, Kerr played lineups featuring no one taller than 6-foot-8.

For both these games, Kerr started the Barnes, Curry, Iguodala, Green, and Thompson lineup. ¬†During the regular season however, this group only managed a 1.1 +/- rating while the team boasted a 7.5 +/- rating overall. ¬†This particular lineup was the 88th best lineup combination on the Warriors as judged by that metric. ¬†As Zach Lowe described it on Grantland after Game 4, ‚Äúthe new super-small starting lineup was minus-1 in 14 minutes, got murdered on the glass, and barely nudged the pace up from the snail-like tempo the Cavaliers had imposed upon this series.‚ÄĚ ¬†It‚Äôs also worth remembering that the small-ball Warriors lineup started Game 4 down 7-0 before Kerr called a timeout to regroup.

By playing small-ball the Warriors may be speeding up the tempo on an already ragged Cavaliers team.  Or they may simply be leaving one of their best players on the bench. While Bogut is the 9th leading scorer on the team, he is the 3rd on the team in Effective FG Percentage.  Additionally, his 12.3 rebounds per 36 minutes make him the best rebounder on the Dubs.  The Warriors were clearly missing his rebound presence in Game 4 in which they gave up 16 offensive boards following a Game 3 in which they only allowed 6.  For reference, during the regular season the Cavs averaged 11.1 offensive rebounds per game.

By sitting Bogut the Warriors are also benching one of the league’s better defensive forces in the paint.  En route to making the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, Bogut posted a team-best 97 defensive rating which is even better than fellow defensive juggernaut Andre Iguodala and only second in the NBA to Kawhi Leonard.  As measured by defensive box +/-, Bogut actually had the best defensive season of all players in the league.  It’s extremely unlikely that benching a player of this caliber could possibly lead to a net positive outcome.

While the Warriors small-ball strategy seemed to struggle at points in Game 4, David Blatt was happy to accommodate and play down to the Warriors level in Game 5. ¬†In Game 4 though, three different Cavaliers achieved double-digit rebound totals while seven-footer Timofey Mozgov completely dominated the paint and led the game with 28 points during his 33 minutes. ¬†Blatt played the Russian only nine minutes in a scoreless and rebound-less Game 5. ¬†‚ÄúIn many cases,‚ÄĚ Blatt said earlier in the series, possibly alluding to his Game 5 shakeup, ‚Äúyou may want to put your five best all-around players, regardless of position, on the court.‚ÄĚ

In recent days many basketball commentators have praised the Warriors’ small-ball approach and have credited the move with turning the series around.  While most of the summary statistics don’t necessarily support this opinion, it is possible that the strategy is positively affecting the series in other ways such as tiring the Cavs defense out or creating more open transition baskets.  This certainly seemed to be the case in the early minutes of Game 5 in which the Warriors had a few fast break buckets, though these were certainly aided by Cleveland’s five quick turnovers to start the game.

Before we hail Steve Kerr as a basketball savant that won the NBA Finals with shrewd tactics, let’s not forget the marked improvement of the Warriors shooting and the reawakening of the MVP (or other not-so-smart basketball moves dating back to his time as Suns GM).  The Warriors shooting improved drastically between the first three games of the series and the last two.  And while some of that could be due to small-ball, a lot of it is simply regression to the mean.  And in the case of the Golden State Warriors, the mean is more than enough to get the job done.

Paging Klay Thompson

By William Ezekowitz

Klay Thompson’s NBA Finals performance has been underwhelming.  Maybe it hasn’t been disastrous enough for you to notice, but it also hasn’t been what we’ve come to expect from an All-Star when it matters most.

After averaging nearly 22 points per game in the regular season, Klay is averaging exactly 18 per contest in the Finals. But 20 of his 90 points came in the first half of Game 2.  In the three and a half games since then, Thompson has been averaging just 14 points per game. These numbers become even more damning when you consider the increased minutes that Thompson is seeing in the Finals.  40.6 minutes per game is more than any other series of his career, and certainly dwarfs the 31.9 minutes per game he played in the regular season. When you control for minutes by looking at per 36 minutes statistics, Thompson’s stats look like this.

Points

Rebounds

Assists

FTA

Reg. per 36

24.5

3.6

3.3

3.7

Playoffs per 36

19.3

3.8

2.6

1.8

Finals per 36

16.0

3.7

1.4

2.1

Now, this certainly isn’t terrible. That Finals line is eerily similar to Avery Bradley’s per 36 numbers from this season (15.9, 3.6, 2.0 and 1.5), and everyone would agree that Avery Bradley is a perfectly competent offensive basketball player.  But those numbers, along with a 30% three point shooting mark represent a definite regression for Thompson, a player who many heralded as making The Leap this season.

What specifically isn’t going right for Klay besides the three point shooting slump? For starters, he’s being too deferent.  His regular season usage rate of 27.5% was good for 20th in the league and just below Steph Curry’s 28.3 mark.  Fast-forward to the Finals, and Thompson’s usage rate has plummeted to 20.5, while Curry has remained at 29.6.  This mostly stems from Thompson’s anemic output in getting to the line, with just twelve attempts in five games, and one attempt in the past three.  Klay has also been poor driving to the hoop, with his percentage of made shots in the paint falling from 54% in the regular season to 42% in the Finals.  Some of this, surely, owes to the Cavs’ defense; for all the publicity that Matthew Dellavedova got about being an unlikely Curry-stopper, perhaps the true press should have gone to Iman Shumpert for being a Klay-stopper, which is a tad more believable anyway.  But Klay’s per 36 numbers suggest a Playoffs slide that has only worsened with the Finals, so it is unfair to give all the credit to a staunch Cavaliers defense.

With the Warriors one win away from the Championship, however, it is very possible that they do not need the best Klay Thompson in order to win it all.  But, with scoring drying up at times in the series, and a team offensive rating down from 109.7 in the regular season to just 104.9 in the Finals, it couldn’t hurt to have the other Splash Brother start living up to his name from here on in.  Maybe if he had played his best all series, we wouldn’t even be discussing Game 6.

LeBron is on pace for the highest usage rate in NBA Final history 

(They started keeping track in 1985)

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