Sports Reference Blog

Anatomy of the First Round Upset

Posted by Jonah Gardner on April 14, 2017

After an unusually eventful final week of the season that saw Moe Harkless going to great lengths to get paid, featured thrilling closing arguments from all four NBA MVP candidates in what may be the closest race in history, and ended with Dion Waiters and the Miami Heat falling painfully short in their late push for a playoff spot, the field is set for the 2017 NBA Playoffs.

The question that has loomed over the NBA all season is whether any team had the quality to challenge the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers, or if this year would be one long preamble to a third showdown between those teams. While we won't know the answer with certainty until June, there's plenty of reasons to expect that the playoffs won't be a cake-walk for the either the defending champs or their rivals in the East Bay. In fact, in Cleveland's case, by both raw win-loss record and more advanced stats like Simple Rating System or Net Rating, they haven't even been the best team in the East this year.

Still, the playoffs are a different animal from the regular season, and before those teams can think about replaying the 2016 NBA Finals, they have to win their first round matchups, no sure thing given that both the Warriors and Cavaliers are facing a little uncertainty at the moment. For the former, they're tasked with re-integrating Kevin Durant into their offense after finding a major groove in his absence. For the latter, the problems are more severe: in the second half of the season, only the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers have been worse on defense than the defending champs.

For Warriors and Cavs fans, as well as those cheering on the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, a loss in the first round would be a devastating outcome for a season that seemed so promising. Fortunately, this kind of thing rarely happens. Since 2002-03, the year that the NBA changed to its current playoff format with a Best of Seven series in the first round, only four top-two-seeds out of fifty-six have lost in round one.

Today, we're going to take a look at what went wrong for those teams, and what went right for the underdogs who managed to pull off the unthinkable.

The most important factor for any team in surviving the playoffs is staying healthy, as the Chicago Bulls found out the hard way in 2012. The top-seeded Bulls seemed to be cruising to victory over the Philadelphia 76ers when, at the end of game one, Derrick Rose tore his ACL.

That injury looms large in our collective memory because of the way it single-handedly changed the course of both Rose's career and the Bulls burgeoning dynasty, but it doesn't necessarily have to be on that massive of a scale to have an impact. In 2011, Manu Ginobili played through a broken arm, a factor limiting his effectiveness and contributing to the Memphis Grizzlies' shocking upset of the Spurs that year.

Looking at this year's crop of top seeds, the team with the most risk on this front might be the Celtics. While the Cavaliers obviously need LeBron's brilliance to have any chance of winning the title, it's not hard to imagine Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love at least pulling the team to the second round, the way the Oklahoma City Thunder managed to push through to the second round without Russell Westbrook in 2013.

Similarly, the Warriors are so stacked that they've already shown they can rattle off one of the longest winning streaks in franchise history while missing one of their four NBA All-Stars. They also have the memory of last year's experience, when they fought through a couple of Curry-free weeks in the early rounds of the playoffs.

Boston, however, needs an effective Isaiah Thomas to have any sort of shot on offense. Thomas has a usage rate of 34%, a mark that would have very nearly led the league last year. The Celtics' Offensive Rating plummets from 116.7 when Thomas is on the floor to 102.3 when he sits and, while Thomas doubters have been pointing to the team's massive defensive improvement in the minutes that Thomas sits, their net rating is still +4.7 with Thomas on and dead even when he sits.

More to the point, the playoffs are a different animal entirely. Going back to the Bulls, they only had D-Rose for 39 games in the lockout-shortened regular season. And while they were obviously a much better team with him, (32-7 in those 39 games) they were still quite good without him (18-9). But, while brilliant coaching and roster depth allowed the Bulls to blast through competition in the regular season, those advantages evaporated in the playoffs and, without their star (compounded by the loss of Joakim Noah in Game Three), the Bulls limped to the finish line.

That last paragraph would give any Celtics fan pause, but it might also be concerning to the Spurs. While we think of the Spurs as the ultimate system-driven team, it's turned out this year that the system has largely involved putting the ball in Kawhi Leonard's hands. Kawhi is the only player besides 2008-09 Tony Parker to post a usage rate over 30% under Gregg Popovich. Yes, that's a mark that not even Tim Duncan reached, likely because he learned about the danger of excessive egotism at a young age.

In the popular imagination, Kawhi's game is more Pippen than Jordan, but he scored more points per 100 possessions than James Harden and had more 30-point games than Stephen Curry this season. Although the Spurs' pace and their years of greatness obscures it, this is a team reliant on one superstar player to a degree we haven't seen from a Popovich team in a while.

Even without the injuries, being too reliant on one player can sometimes lead to trouble for a top-seed. The most obvious example of this is the most famous first round upset in the modern era: the We Believe Warriors. In 2007, the Mavericks weren't just a one-seed; they were a 67-win team led by the league's MVP: Dirk Nowitzki.

Dirk had a phenomenal scoring season, putting up 24 points per game along with a field goal percentage over 50%. But, as sad as it makes me to say this, he was awful in that playoff series.

Dirk averaged 19.7 points per game in the six game series, while shooting a dismal 38.3% from the field and 21.1% on three-point attempts. Nowitzki was one of the most talented scorers in NBA history and yet, were it not for the Mavs' 2011 title run, his most memorable playoff moment would have been one where his shot totally abandoned him.

Without Dirk cooking, the Mavs didn't have much else, especially in the face of the Warriors' stifling defense. They shot 42.3% as a unit, well below their season-long mark of 46.7%, and their offensive rating sunk from 111.3 (2nd in the NBA) to 106.6 (which would have ranked 13th).

This, again, is a tad concerning for Celtics fans, given that their team is also reliant on a transcendent scorer having a career year. And even though the 2016-17 Bulls are not quite the 2006-07 Warriors, there's some worrying stuff in here. In their playoff clinching stretch run, the WBWs had a net rating of +7.1. This year's Bulls, on the other hand, were a +2.9 in the final 21 games. But the Celtics have a worse net rating for the season (+2.7), although they've been better in the stretch run (+3.0).

Of course, one of the main memories of that Warriors run was how lit the crowd was at Oracle Arena. Home-court advantage is obviously crucial in all facets of the playoffs, but it's especially vital in this circumstance. All four major first-round upsets concluded in six games, meaning the lower seed stole home-court advantage at some point and avoided having to play an elimination game on the road.

In the seven-game era, there have been eight top-seed (1-8 or 2-7) first-round matchups that lasted seven games. And despite many of those sharing many of the characteristics of the other upsets, the better seed won all eight, thanks to playing that crucial game seven at home. In 2009, for example, the Celtics lost Kevin Garnett to an injury and looked vulnerable to the Bulls after a shocking loss at home in game one. However, they were able to regain home-court advantage with a road win in game three and hang onto it with a narrow two-point win in game five, ensuring they'd have a game seven at home.

Are any teams particularly at risk of an early home loss that would flip home-court? Probably not. As you'd expect, all four top seeds also compose the top four in home record this year. However, lurking at number eight on that list is the Indiana Pacers, meaning that if the Cavs do lose a home game, they'll face the toughest challenge in getting back.

However, the Pacers also seem like the team with the worst odds of stealing one on the road, since they rank 22nd in the NBA in road winning percentage. On the flip side, the Grizzlies have the best road record of the four lower seeds, coming in a tie for 10th at 19-22.

The Grizz, of course, are no strangers to this kind of upset and, specifically, to pulling off this kind of upset on the Spurs. One thing that sticks out in my mind from that series is that, even despite Manu's injury, the Grizzlies really did feel like the better team in that series and even an outside threat to make the NBA Finals that year.

It turns out, my memory was kind of right. While the Spurs were better in the regular season, the gap was not nearly as wide as the Spurs' 15-win advantage in regular season record would indicate. While those Spurs had the second best record in the league, they were actually merely the fourth best team in SRS, and they happened to be matched against another top team in the Grizzlies, who ranked tenth.

That's also what happened to the 2010 Dallas Mavericks, who went 55-27 in the regular season and were rewarded by being matched up against a team that was better than them in the regular season, via SRS. The Spurs team that beat those Mavs even ranked ahead of the ultimate champs, that year's Los Angeles Lakers, in SRS.

This year doesn't feature any seeding disparities that extreme, but neither the Celtics nor the Cavs lead the Eastern Conference in SRS. Instead, the Toronto Raptors were actually the East's best team by that measure. However, their opponents are no great shakes either. The Bulls rank 14th and grade out as almost exactly average (0.03 points better than an average NBA team this year), while the Pacers were 18th and worse than an average team.

The danger would have been greater had the Heat pulled off their quixotic dash to the playoffs. That team ranked 12th in SRS and the two-point gap between them and Boston or Cleveland is much smaller than the one between the Grizzlies and Spurs in 2011.

Meanwhile, in the West, the Warriors and Spurs are properly seeded as the top two teams in both the West and the NBA.  The Grizzlies did finish just outside of the top ten, but behind the Thunder, meaning the Spurs got the preferable opponent. The Warriors actually got a little lucky in that the Portland Trail Blazers are around a point worse in SRS than the Denver Nuggets, however, given the torrid pace the Blazers have been on since acquiring Jusuf Nurkic, it's fair to say the gap is probably not that large.

In the end, these kind of mega-upsets are so rare because of the confluence of multiple factors required to make them happen. Short of a 2010 Spurs-style seeding situation, which isn't happening this year, or 2012 Bulls-type injury, which hopefully no team will have to face, it takes a perfect gameplan, determined players, engaged home crowds, and lots of luck to unseat one of the best teams in the league at such an early point in the playoffs. But, as the We Believe Warriors can tell you, a kind of basketball immortality awaits any team that can pull it off.

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