I held off on writing this up because I thought I might have to put the Heat in the conversation as well, but they have put that story off until tomorrow. So today we focus on the upset of the moment, the Thunder beating the Spurs. More specifically, we focus on how odd things happen to allow such an upset.
I think something that’s been overlooked since the Thunder won game 5 is that this was, in fact, an upset; an unexpected outcome. The Spurs tied for the best record in the league and had the second-best point differential; they won something like 100 games in a row at one point; everyone in the TrueHoop Smackdown picked them to go to the Finals; people were writing paeans about how they were on their way to being one of the great teams of all time. By the time the Spurs went up 2-0, they were in pretty solid control and had history on their side.
That being said, the Thunder were no slouches. They had the third-best record and point differential in the league this year. I expected the series to be relatively close and gave the Thunder about a one-in-three chance to win. So, knowing nothing about how the playoffs had gone so far or win streaks or whatever, we knew (or should have known) that sometimes the better team loses. Did you know the Bobcats beat the Magic this year? By 16! Occasionally odd things happen.
But sometimes it isn’t enough to just say ‘shit happens’. Even if math views the games as a random process, like flipping unfair coins, people want an explanation. And as you would expect for an upset, the Thunder had some unlikely things happen to help them win the series. It started in game 3, when Thabo Sefolosha took 16 shots. That in itself is enough to make the game weird; it’s over four times his average for the regular season and over three times his average for the postseason (including that game). But for the most part, game 3 just got away from the Spurs. Game 4, on the other hand, featured Serge Ibaka going 11 for 11 from the field. Kendrick Perkins even went 7 for 9. Perkins usually takes half that many shots and shoots under 50%; Ibaka gets some shots and usually hits them, but obviously wouldn’t be expected to be perfect. That was a six-point win for the Thunder; if Ibaka still has a great game but only goes 8-11, or Perkins misses another one or two as you’d expect, it’s a different game.
Game 5 featured an odd appearance by Daequan Cook, who went 3-3 and scored 8 points in four minutes. In his other 94 playoff minutes this year, Cook is 10-31. On the other side, Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal combined for a 1 for 10 evening. Neal also had a poor game 3 but was still 12-26 in the series to that point; Leonard typically shoots well and more often (54% eFG on 6 shots per game in the regular season), and was 18-32 in the series before that game. This was a five point game, so Cook missing one three and Neal or Leonard getting even one more basket is enough to even it up. Finally, game 6 features poor shooting not only from Leonard and Neal again but also Manu. On top of the shooting issues, there have been other unexpected oddities in the series, like the turnover issue.
The story right now is about the Thunder growing up and Durant making ‘the leap’, but look at Durant’s stats for the Spurs series compared to his regular season: despite playing an extra 4.4 minutes per game, he only scored an extra .3 points per game and his rebounding actually went down. To be fair, his turnovers, assists, and steals all improved, and he actually shot a bit more efficiently. But this is not a drastic improvement, and even if it were there’s no sign yet that it would be sustainable. We’re hearing all these good things about the Thunder because they pulled an upset and people need to justify it. Only in the playoffs do people consider 4 to 7 games enough of a sample to determine someone’s personality and personal fortitude; no one called Durant selfish or a gunner when he had a few bad shooting games to start March. Had he done it in the playoffs and the Thunder lost, we’d be shaking our heads and wondering when Durant would break through.
Side Note: All this is not to say, of course, that the favored teams don’t have unusually good streaks as well. Tony Parker’s game 2 against the Thunder and LeBron’s game last night come to mind (and at least one other person would like to point out that it was fortunate). But when you’re already on the better team, that’s just icing on the cake. It turns a close game into a laugher. When weird things happen for the less fortunate, it can be enough to turn losses into wins.
Side note to the side note: while Henry caught the luck involved in LeBron’s game, he kind of missed the boat on Parker’s game. There’s an admission late in the article that maybe Parker would have missed some of those shots if he took them again, but for the most part the article sets up an expectation that Parker is an efficient scorer when it in fact isn’t true. This year Parker shot just a little better than an average point guard. He’s been better in the past, but his three point shooting this year was the worst percentage of his career, he took more long twos than the past two years and more mid-range twos than ever in his career and the fewest shots at-rim ever in his career. In short, Tony takes more crummy shots than he used to, took more crummy shots that night, and had a good night. Sometimes that’s all it is.