sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The NBA conference finals are just three games old, but we’ve already seen two of the most entertaining games of the entire playoffs.
After Golden State easily dispatched Portland in Game 1 in the West, Milwaukee needed a furious comeback to take down Toronto in the East’s first game. And then came Thursday night, when the Trail Blazers led the Warriors by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, but Golden State used a 27-8 run to get back into the game. The teams traded leads down the stretch, but the Warriors prevailed.
Let’s start with the Golden State-Portland series. What have you made of these first two games?
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): The “Warriors are better without Kevin Durant” crowd has gotten REALLY loud.
I’m not stupid enough to say they’re better without KD, but I can see the argument being made that they might be more fun to watch?
natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Tony, that feels like a way to rationalize the idea that KD will feel dejected or something by the Warriors because they can win without him so he’ll have to come to the Knicks.
tchow: I’m still auditioning for my Knicks GM job, Nate.
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): I think they are more fun to watch this way, for sure. It’s a good reminder of what they were before Durant ever signed with them. The up-tempo, heavy ball-movement, “we can be down by 15, but still come back to beat you” Warriors.
I think Portland losing on Thursday was pretty brutal. It’s sounding more and more like Durant won’t be back in the conference finals, and a win would have gone a long way toward making this a series again. It’s hard to imagine them winning four of the next five.
tchow: You’re not kidding about the heavy ball movement, Chris. Per Second Spectrum, the Warriors have averaged 42 more passes per 100 possessions when KD was not on the floor during these playoffs.
natesilver: I guess the question is whether the Warriors could win grind-it-out, slower-paced, half-court-type games at the same rate without KD.
chris.herring: And that’s the thing. When the Warriors play that way, it’s changing the pace of the game. If you have a game with fewer possessions, I’d venture to guess it leaves things to random chance more often and helps the underdog.
natesilver: Beating Portland twice at home is just not all that rigorous a test, however.
tchow: That’s important to keep in mind. All the Warriors did was hold home court.
chris.herring: It may not be. But the Blazers played really well on Thursday, and then that third quarter happened. I just think we’re used to these sorts of onslaughts at this point.
tchow: Yeah, even with that scoreline at halftime, after the first three minutes of the third quarter, I think all of us kinda went, “Oh, the Warriors are winning this.”
natesilver: The Game 6 closeout against Houston, in a game where the Rockets played pretty well, was impressive. But I’m still not sure I really have a great sense for how Golden State is going to match up with Milwaukee or Toronto, with or without KD.
sara.ziegler: A Portland win would have completely changed the tone of this series. And it was close to happening — even after the Warriors stormed back!
natesilver: “Were the Blazers actually close to winning or was it all just an illusion” is a fun epistemological question. I mean, obviously, a win probability model or whatever would have them ahead for a lot of the game. But the Warriors have made SO many third-quarter comebacks over the years that I just don’t really know.
sara.ziegler: When the Blazers were up 8 with 4:28 left, I thought they could really win it.
Crazy to think that, if Pau Gasol were healthy, there would be two sets of brothers playing against each other this round.
tchow: That’s very interesting. I’m kinda loving the Curry vs. Curry storyline. It’s pretty cool IMO to have siblings play against each other at such high stakes.
I found myself pingponging between “Where’s Steph? OK, where’s Seth now?” when they were both on the court.
chris.herring: I like the storyline. I just think it’s being milked pretty heavily in terms of showing their parents in the crowd, that’s all. But Seth was huge last night.
I think the challenge for Portland is that there’s a lot of “your turn, my turn” from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. McCollum owned the first half, and then Dame got hot in the second half.
And it kind of feels like they may need more of a balance, or another huge bench performance from someone, to get over this hump.
natesilver: What if Seth Curry woke up one day and had Steph Curry’s skills, and vice versa? That feels like a weird/bad movie plot.
tchow: “Freaky Friday 2”
natesilver: Would the Blazers play McCollum at the 3 or something? It would be a really weird team.
chris.herring: I already feel like it’s a weird team as is.
Credit to them for adjusting heavily after how bad Game 1 was.
tchow: You knew they had to do something about that pick-and-roll defense.
chris.herring: Enes Kanter was back at the free-throw line in Game 1 and then moved much farther up to contain their pick and rolls in Game 2. That made Golden State’s looks far more challenging, which you almost have to do in order to have a chance.
sara.ziegler: The Blazers didn’t get much on offense from Kanter on Thursday, though. What was going on there?
chris.herring: His impact is going to be a bit less on a night where they shoot as well as they did from three. Because he doesn’t get any offensive rebounds that way.
But also, when he’s playing so much higher up on D, it probably wears him down a bit.
Not to mention the fact that he’s fasting during daylight hours, which seems like such a tough thing to do during such a high-stakes series.
sara.ziegler: That does seem brutal.
chris.herring: Now THAT storyline I find fascinating.
sara.ziegler: I can barely edit when I’m hungry. Can’t imagine trying to play basketball at the highest level!
natesilver: If I fasted during daylight hours, I don’t think I could even do a Slack chat, let alone play in an NBA game.
tchow: Muslim soccer players do it all the time! (during Ramadan)
It is pretty cool the Blazers have three Muslim players on the roster (Kanter, Jusuf Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu).
chris.herring: Hakeem Olajuwon did it as well, and apparently Kanter reached out to him to figure out what all he did to maintain his game during that stretch of the postseason.
natesilver: I didn’t realize that the dates of Ramadan shift around a lot from year to year. It doesn’t always coincide with the playoffs.
sara.ziegler: What, if anything, can the Blazers do to turn the tide as the series heads back to Portland?
chris.herring: I think it goes without saying that they did enough to win Thursday.
You’d imagine they can control the tempo better at home than they did at Oracle, where the Warriors play extremely fast and in transition during those ridiculous comebacks. I think maybe Terry Stotts would call timeout when he feels one of those runs coming on. And they need to clean up some mistakes, in terms of fouling and taking care of the ball. Andre Iguodala made a great steal on Lillard on the final play, and Lillard had that pretty brutal foul on Steph while he was shooting a three late.
tchow: I’m actually not sure what else they can do. They played well on Thursday and still lost. I feel for Portland fans, I really do. But our predictions give them a 6 percent chance of making it to the finals which seems … high?
chris.herring: Realistically, unless Golden State has another major injury, that was probably it. I don’t see a whole lot of adjustments for a scenario where you were in control most of the game. You just have to finish the game. Period.
natesilver: I guess the one piece of good news for Portland is that it’s not obvious that KD’s going to play any time soon.
tchow: Chris mentioned that they needed another huge bench performance to have a chance, but both Rodney Hood and Seth Curry had pretty decent games. I don’t know where else it could come from. Zach Collins?
sara.ziegler: Meyers Leonard! He had a pretty good game.
chris.herring: Collins had five fouls in eight minutes yesterday, somehow. Leonard was impactful, though.
tchow: Yeah, some of those Collins fouls were bad fouls, too.
chris.herring: That’s why it’s hard to see Portland doing this: Everything seems really scattered right now.
Also, props to Draymond Green for raising his game to a ridiculous level lately. You can’t mention the Warriors looking like the Warriors of old without talking about how incredible he’s been on both ends.
natesilver: Maybe Draymond secretly hates KD and so ups his effort level when KD is out?
sara.ziegler: LOL. I kind of want that to be true. Since the NBA is just a soap opera, at its core.
tchow: “The Plays of Our Lives”
sara.ziegler: OMG, yes.
Moving on to the East: Chris, you wrote after Game 1 that the Raptors would likely be kicking themselves for letting that get away from them. How important was that outcome to the series?
chris.herring: Not nearly as much of a killer as Game 2 for Portland. But still potentially big.
There’s that saying that a series hasn’t begun until a road team wins a game. And on some level, that may be true. I just think that if you’re going to beat Milwaukee, it makes sense to grab the winnable game when it’s there. And the Bucks played really poorly in some regards, yet they still won. They are a complete team, whereas the Raptors look very stilted on offense at times.
And it’s part of why I continue to like Milwaukee’s chances of winning this whole thing.
tchow: It’s been really impressive seeing how well the Bucks have continued to play when Giannis Antetokounmpo is not on the floor.
natesilver: The thing I’d hate if I were a Raptors fan is that I felt like my team played pretty well in Game 1, and it still wasn’t enough. Obviously, not everything was perfect — the cold shooting in the fourth quarter — but it felt like a relatively fair contest.
chris.herring: Yeah. I guess there are two ways to view it:
1) Lowry is probably never going to shoot like that again.
2) There’s probably no way they’ll ever get less of a contribution from the rest of the team than they did in Game 1.
tchow: 3) Brook Lopez will not have a game like that again.
sara.ziegler: Lopez was EVERYWHERE.
chris.herring: I’m not completely sure about No. 3! If Toronto doesn’t go smaller, the Raptors are going to have to sacrifice something defensively. I don’t know that he’ll have almost 30 again, but the Raps are going to dare Brook and guys like him to prove they can make that shot as opposed to letting Giannis run wild in the paint.
That’s the risk.
sara.ziegler: To your second point, Chris, you can’t imagine a scenario happening again where no Raptor aside from Lowry makes a single shot in an entire quarter.
chris.herring: Yeah, those stats — 0 for 15 aside from Lowry in the fourth, and 1 for 23 in the second half outside of Lowry and Leonard — were some of the more insane ones I’ve ever seen.
And the one second-half basket that someone else made was a buzzer-beating 3 by Pascal Siakam in the third! One he wouldn’t have even taken if not for how much time was left.
tchow: The last time Lopez had a double-double while scoring more than 20 points was … one second, I’m still scrolling up on Basketball-Reference.
chris.herring: That part is true. But him scoring a bunch wouldn’t shock me based on how they’re defending him. Brook isn’t the biggest rebounder, in part because he’s more concerned with boxing out and making sure a teammate collects the miss. (But also, their minutes are longer in the playoffs, meaning he’ll have more chances.)
tchow: Found it! Nov. 3, 2017, when he was on the Lakers. And it was the Lopez revenge game because they played the Nets.
chris.herring: Remember: Milwaukee was 11 of 44 from three! That’s 25 percent. So the Bucks left a ton of points on the table. And many of them were wide-open shots.
As I was saying, I think Toronto may want to consider playing a little smaller. That would potentially crank up the tempo to a level Lopez isn’t comfortable with, and potentially give him more defensive responsibility, to where he has to come out farther to defend.
natesilver: I dunno, I feel weird about slicing-and-dicing the Raptors’ shooting stats into so many little pieces. Overall, they shot 15 of 42 on threes, which is pretty average/good.
chris.herring: Lowry was 7 of 9 by himself!
natesilver: They didn’t shoot great on twos, but a lot of teams don’t do that well against MIlwaukee. They made 85 percent of their free throws.
chris.herring: The other Raptors will likely shoot better. But Milwaukee did plenty to make Kawhi Leonard get his points. This team is really great at pushing star scorers to drive with their weaker hand.
tchow: Sixers should take note. Too soon?
chris.herring: The statistics illustrated that in Game 1. Leonard drove 15 times, and 11 of them were to his left. During the season, he drove to his right a little more than 57 percent of the time.
sara.ziegler: That seems to be a huge focus for the Bucks — and it looks like it’s paying off. But again, the Raptors almost stole Game 1. It would be huge for them to get Game 2 tonight.
While I still think Milwaukee is clearly the stronger team in this matchup, I wouldn’t be foolish enough to say that Toronto is out of this, regardless of what happens tonight. This is a more evenly matched set of opponents than with Portland and Golden State, clearly.
sara.ziegler: So let’s end on some soft predictions. How long will each series go?
tchow: I’m predicting a gentleman’s sweep for the Western Conference finals.
natesilver: Yeah, five games seems like the smartest bet.
sara.ziegler: It would be only fair to the Curry parents.
tchow: I believe Dame and CJ can do enough to get at least one win in Portland.
chris.herring: Agreed on the West.
In the East, I’ll go six, with the Bucks winning. Though if Milwaukee wins tonight, I wouldn’t be shocked if they closed it in five.
natesilver: I’m going to go seven games for the East. Despite what I said earlier about Game 1 being a bearish indicator for Toronto, I still think they’re a liiiiiiittttle underrated, and Nick Nurse probably has more ways to make adjustments than Mike Budenholzer does.
tchow: I think it’ll be Bucks in six, too.
natesilver: I have a hot take.
natesilver: Steve Kerr’s comments about Kevin Durant’s injury sound fairly ominous.
WHAT IF DURANT HAS PLAYED HIS LAST GAME FOR THE WARRIORS?!?!?
tchow: * searches in google * Durant Knicks jersey
chris.herring: That doesn’t sound as crazy to me as some people might think.
If it’s a more serious strain, and it’s closer to a month than it is a one-week or two-week injury, then the NBA Finals or the middle of the finals would be more realistic for him.
But if the finals aren’t competitive …
natesilver: So Knicks fans should be rooting for a Warriors sweep?
chris.herring: I don’t know. It would be really interesting. If the Warriors win easily without him, it would be weird for him to stay if he wants validation. If the Warriors LOSE, it gets interesting. Because, obviously, the last time the Warriors lost, he went and signed with them.
tchow: I just really want Curry to win his first finals MVP trophy.
sara.ziegler: Would THAT push KD to the Knicks?
natesilver: I think the BEST-case scenario for the Knicks would be if the Warriors are like up 3-1 over Milwaukee in the finals, and then KD comes back and they LOSE.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.