Debunking NBA playoff myths
They say NBA postseason basketball is a whole new game. They're wrong.
This article appears in the May 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
We're in the midst of the second round of the NBA playoffs, and if my calculations are correct that means you are already sick of commentators telling you everything changes in the postseason. Yeah, yeah -- the game is chippier, the crowds rowdier, the pressure heavier. From where I sit, though, the playoffs don't look much different from the season's first 82 games. In fact, many such commonly repeated mantras are more like myths. Let me break down four of them for you.
Myth 1: Defense tightens in the playoffs. You've heard all the bluster about playoff matchups being knock-down, drag-out wars in which every point made is a minor miracle because locked-in defenders know the offense better than their opponents do. That makes sense. Over a seven-game series a team would be able to scout foes down to the equipment man, making them completely prepared for every imaginable option.
If only it were true. "San Antonio was a great team in 2005," says Suns coach Alvin Gentry. "But we averaged 104 points against them in the playoffs." Gentry is no dummy. Offenses maintain their level of efficiency in the postseason. Last year, teams actually scored slightly more on a per-possession basis in the playoffs (1.056) than in the regular season (1.048), and that's consistent with results of the past few years. Teams did shoot slightly worse from the field in the 2009 playoffs than in that regular season (45.1% vs. 45.9%), but they made up for it by turning the ball over less (14.4% of possessions vs. 14.8%).
That's just a continuation of a regular-season trend. Offenses struggle early, then pick up steam. This year, the league average in offensive efficiency was 103.0 after the first two months and 105.1 after, rising with each monthly interval. There's no reason to think that pattern would stop in the playoffs.