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Monday, June 21, 2021

Bucks and Hawks Win Game Sevens on the Road to Advance to the Eastern Conference Finals

The 2021 NBA playoffs have featured several unusual and unexpected plot twists. The number one seeds in both conferences have been eliminated before the Conference Finals for the first time since 1995, and two road teams won game sevens. The Eastern Conference top seed Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Atlanta Hawks after twice blowing double digit second half leads; the Utah Jazz posted the league's number one overall record, but did not even make it to the seventh game before being eliminated in the second round by the L.A. Clippers, who bounced back from an 0-2 deficit despite being without the services of Kawhi Leonard for each of the last two games of the series. The Jazz' collapse is worthy of a separate article, so this article will focus on the two game sevens.

Game seven road wins used to be almost unheard of in the NBA, and they are still uncommon. After Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers beat Larry Bird's Boston Celtics 120-106 in game seven of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals, the road team lost 21 straight game sevens until both Houston and Indiana broke through in 1995. Since 1995, there has never been a 13 year drought for road teams in game sevens, but the home team has won more than 75% of the time (not counting the four game sevens in the 2020 "bubble," when the "home" team did not in fact enjoy home court advantage in game seven). 

The home team in a playoff series is the team that had the better regular season record, so it would not be surprising if the home team won game seven more often just on the basis of generally being the superior team--but a winning percentage of greater than .750 for the home team after two teams have split the prior six head to head games suggests that something more than just innate superiority is at play.

The Brooklyn Nets were this year's paper champions after acquiring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, and then surrounding that "Big Three" with Blake Griffin, Jeff Green, and others, but the Nets' talented headlining trio barely played the equivalent of one playoff series together before the 2020 postseason began; their pattern of recurring injuries and the lack of time to develop chemistry were two main reasons that I picked the Nets to lose in the second round. 

The Nets forged a 3-2 series lead in the second round versus Milwaukee after losing Irving to injury for the rest of the series in game four and despite Harden missing all but 43 seconds of the first four games. Harden shot 11-36 from the field (.306) in the final three contests. His fans will claim that he was still limited by injury, but those numbers are hardly distinguishable from how Harden typically performs late in playoff series (see below for more details). 

Kevin Durant played in just 35 of 72 regular season games as he came back from the ruptured Achilles tendon that he suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals, but when Durant played he performed at an MVP level. He carried the Nets to victory in game five, played very well in game six, and then he broke the long-standing single game scoring record for a game seven, with his 48 points eclipsing by one point the mark set by Sam Jones in 1963 and then tied by Dominique Wilkins in his famous 1988 second round duel versus Larry Bird, who finished with 34 points (including 20 in the fourth quarter) as Bird's Celtics defeated Wilkins' Hawks. Jones and Wilkins still hold the single-game record for game sevens that did not require overtime. Durant's airball at the end of overtime does not diminish how well he played in game seven and throughout the series, particularly considering that the two pointer he hit at the end of regulation was just inches short of being a series-winning three pointer.

Durant could have used more help from Harden, who shot 5-17 from the field in game seven, including 2-12 from three point range. Although Harden also had nine rebounds and nine assists, his overdribbling and poor decision making combined with his errant shooting prove to be more than even Durant could overcome.

After not providing many details about his hamstring injury prior to game seven, Harden made a point in his postgame interview of asserting that he played with a grade two hamstring strain; this is a move from the LeBron James playbook: James loves to call himself a "no excuse" player but all you have to do to hear every excuse short of "the dog ate my homework and the game plan" is to replay a typical James press conference after his team is eliminated, particularly if James had any ailment more serious than mild nasal congestion. The bottom line is simple: if you are injured too seriously to play, then don't play; otherwise, you are hurt, not injured, and you have to figure out how to make a positive impact for your team. 

If you think that Harden's hamstring had more impact on his game seven shooting than his skill set limitations and his mentality, then consider some of Harden's field goal shooting numbers in the final game of a playoff series prior to Friday night's game seven: 7-22, 7-20, 2-11, 8-25, 2-11, 8-21, 7-22, 12-29, 10-26, 4-15. Yes, if you scour his career carefully you will find some closeout games in which he shot well, but those are 10 examples of closeout games in which he shot terribly: that is a pattern, while the games in which he shot well are the aberrations. If you are a bettor, you are not going to lose money betting on Harden to shoot poorly and turn the ball over a lot in an elimination game.

Of course, the outcome of this series is not just about what the Nets did or did not do. Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 31.9 ppg, 12.9 rpg, and 3.6 apg while shooting .574 from the field. No, he cannot reliably make a jump shot or a free throw, but despite those limitations he was the best player on the court for a significant portion of the series, which is saying a lot considering how well Durant played (Durant averaged 35.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg, and 5.4 apg while shooting .497 from the field). In game seven, Antetokounmpo tallied 40 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists while shooting 15-24 from the field, while Durant finished with 48 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and 17-36 field goal shooting. Both players were tremendous, but Antetokounmpo did a bit more, he did it more efficiently, and he came through with clutch plays in the overtime with the outcome of the series hanging in the balance.

A day after the Bucks eliminated the Nets, the Hawks took out the 76ers, whose much praised "Process" is most assuredly not about "tanking to the top" but rather a cautionary tale about how the game will mess with you if you mess with the game. The Hawks' official social media channels made mocking references to the "process" after game seven, which suggests that perhaps at least some teams are tired of the positive publicity that the 76ers received from gullible media members despite the 76ers spending years undermining the league's competitive integrity.

I thought that the 76ers' size and experience would be enough to lift them past the second round before losing in the Conference Finals, but the 76ers were done in by problems that have been recurring themes for several years: Joel Embiid is an MVP caliber player who is often hurt and rarely in top physical condition, so he is just not the same guy in the fourth quarter that he is in the first half; meanwhile, Ben Simmons can pass, rebound, and defend, but his reluctance and/or inability to make a field goal in the fourth quarter greatly reduces his late game impact. 

In contrast, even though Trae Young is undersized, not particularly efficient, and guilty of poor shot selection at times, Young has the heart of a champion and the guts of a cat burglar; while Embiid struggled to keep pace down the stretch and Simmons seemingly ran from the ball, Young repeatedly scored or assisted on Atlanta's field goals as the Hawks took the lead with 3:48 remaining in the fourth quarter and never trailed again. Young shot a Hardenesque 5-23 from the field in game seven, yet with the outcome on the line he came up clutch several times--which is most definitely not Hardenesque. When Bill Russell was a CBS commentator, he often said that when you score your points is more important than how many points you score. Russell was talking specifically about Julius Erving's impact as a clutch performer, but Russell's comment carries weight beyond that specific example.

There is much evidence that Philadelphia's Doc Rivers is an excellent coach--from his work with the "heart and hustle" Orlando Magic to his 2008 championship season with the Boston Celtics--but he has also presided over some ignominious collapses, including a record number of series losses after taking a 3-1 lead, and this latest setback against Atlanta. His overall legacy is positive, but there are more than a few lowlights as well. Broad conclusions should not be made about any player or coach based on one series.

Is Nate McMillan reprising what Lenny Wilkens did with the late 1970s Seattle SuperSonics? Wilkens took over after Seattle started 5-17 in the 1977-78 season, and he led the team to 42-18 record down the stretch, followed by back to back Finals appearances, including a championship run in 1979. Seattle is one of the few NBA champions of the past several decades that did not have at least one player from the league's official 50 Greatest Players List (or a player who would have clearly made that list had the list been updated). 

Similarly, McMillan took over a Hawks team that had limped to a 14-20 record, and he led them to a 27-11 record down the stretch before upsetting New York and Philadelphia in the first two rounds of the playoffs. As great as Young appears to be, I will go out on a limb and predict that when his career is over he is not regarded as one of the top 50 players of all-time. The Hawks have no All-Stars other than Young, but under McMillan's leadership they play hard, they play together, and they are much improved defensively. 

It would be interesting to put together an anthology of "hot takes" issued during the Bucks-Nets series and the Hawks-76ers series to see how many of those "hot takes" aged well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM



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