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The NBA Playoffs Have a Blowout Problem. Is the Trend Really Worse Than Ever?

It hasn’t mattered whether it’s Celtics-Heat or Warriors-Mavs. This postseason has featured one double-digit snoozefest after another. Why is this happening? And how do this year’s results compare to playoffs past?

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Adam Silver’s kingdom for a close game in the playoffs. Please! Just one!

The last 10 contests leaguewide—two second-round Game 7s and eight conference finals games—have been decided by an average margin of 17.6 points. Only one has had a single-possession lead within the last five minutes of the fourth quarter. Most of them, alone in a prime-time TV slot, have been effectively over by halftime.

This spot on the NBA calendar belongs to the league’s best teams, who are expected to compete in tense games full of dramatic moments that turn on memorable plays. Instead, these games are yawners. Even the final scores that seem close serve as illusions that mask yet more blowouts: The Mavericks beat the Warriors 119-109 in Tuesday’s Game 4, but led by 29 points midway through the second half. What’s going on?

Talk to folks around the league, and a host of theories arise. The prevalence of blowouts this spring might just be a product of small-sample randomness. Injuries keep changing teams’ rotations. An every-other-day schedule in the conference finals could influence teams to take it easy if they fall behind early, so as to conserve energy for the next game.

One explanation is the increased variance from beyond the arc—which makes sense in a make-or-miss league, when long-range accuracy is more important than ever. In this postseason, teams that win a game by 20-plus points have connected on an average of 15.4 3-pointers while making 41 percent of their attempts; their opponents have made 10 3s while connecting on 29 percent of their tries from deep. Those are much larger gaps than in games with closer final margins.

3-Point Disparity in 2022 Playoff Games

Winning Team's Margin Made 3s Opponent Made 3s 3-Point % Opponent 3-Point %
Winning Team's Margin Made 3s Opponent Made 3s 3-Point % Opponent 3-Point %
1-9 12.2 11.4 37% 34%
10-19 13.7 10.2 39% 31%
20+ 15.4 10.0 41% 29%

For all the frustration over the lack of close games, though, it’s possible the difference between this postseason and prior playoffs has been overblown. Across the 2021-22 postseason so far, 12.4 percent of possessions have been low leverage, while 3.3 percent have been high leverage, according to analysis of PBP Stats data. (Technically, PBP splits the latter category into “high” and “very high,” but we’re combining them here for ease of use.) Neither figure is far off from the typical NBA postseason. Over the past decade, on average, 11.1 percent of possessions have been low leverage, versus 3.6 percent high.

A graph showing the proportion of high- and low-leverage playoff possessions since 2013, with significantly more low-leverage possessions than high.

That red line hints at an important concept that’s easy to forget when reflecting on past playoffs: Most games aren’t all that close. In fact, the average margin of victory in the postseason is usually in double digits. We just don’t remember those games as vividly as we do the rarer, more exciting ones.

Think back to the 2015-16 postseason for a prime example. What comes to mind? The first answer is probably Game 7 of the Finals, which featured LeBron James’s famous block and Kyrie Irving’s title-winning 3. The other choice is Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, when Klay Thompson’s second-half heroics saved the Warriors against the Thunder. Those were incredible series, right?

Well, sure—as long as you ignore that games 2 through 4 of Warriors-Thunder were all decided by at least 24 points, and that games 1 through 6 of the Finals all finished with double-digit margins. Until Game 7, the average margin of victory in those Finals was 19.7 points—even more lopsided than the recent stretch of blowouts this spring.

The 2015-16 playoffs hold the all-time record for highest proportion of games decided by 25-plus points (23 percent). But we can still look back on that stretch with nostalgia, because it produced a few moments that will live on forever in the collective NBA memory.

The broader problem with the 2021-22 postseason is that it has lacked that sort of late-game pizzazz, even with a roughly standard amount of high-leverage possessions. Thus far, these playoffs feature seven made field goals in the final 30 seconds of a game that either tied the score or flipped the lead, according to Stathead. That’s not an unprecedented number, but it’s on the low end, especially compared with recent postseasons that have roughly doubled that count.

A graph showing the number per year of game-tying or go-ahead shots in the last 30 seconds of playoff games since 1997.

Even worse is the distribution of those impactful late-game moments. Six of the seven clutch shots in these playoffs came in the first round, from, in order: Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Trae Young, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards, and Ja Morant. Only one came in the second round, from Bobby Portis. None have come in the conference finals.

In general, the close games in this postseason all came early. The first two rounds featured compelling series like the Grizzlies’ matchups against Minnesota and then Golden State, and the Celtics’ matchups against Brooklyn and then Milwaukee. Tatum’s buzzer-beater to sink the Nets and Morant’s last-second winner to topple the Timberwolves may have made a more widespread impact if they’d occurred in a later round with a brighter spotlight. The Celtics-Bucks bruiser was itself a classic seven-game series. But as the playoffs have progressed and the games have grown more important, the margins of victory have widened considerably—and the indelible late-game swings have decreased accordingly.

A graph of the seven-day rolling average of margin of victory in the 2022 postseason, which shows an increased average margin of victory as the playoffs have progressed.

That ugly trend line doesn’t mean we’re doomed to ever-more-lopsided blowouts for the rest of the postseason, however. Here’s a sampling of headlines from the 2016 playoffs, before the Warriors and Cavaliers redeemed the whole enterprise with one of the greatest games in league history:

So all we need to salvage the 2022 postseason is for two historically relevant teams full of future Hall of Famers to meet in a Game 7 thriller that changes the NBA landscape for years to come. Piece of cake!

Or at least we can start with a close game, as it’s been so long since fans saw even one. That could come on Wednesday, when the Heat and Celtics will meet in a swing Game 5 that has historically proved ripe for drama. We’re desperate. At least we can hope.