Conventional wisdom says teams that play at a fast pace cannot succeed in the half-court, grind-it-out game that (supposedly) is the NBA Playoffs. You’ll hear this axiom relayed from TV analysts, casual fans, and basketball nerds alike. But is this really true? Welcome to Mythbusters, Dime style.
This season, there are seven teams with a pace (i.e., number of possessions per 48 minutes) of over 96 that are in position to make the playoffs: the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder (all stats per NBA.com/Stats). These seven teams make up seven of the top eight teams in the league in pace, which seems to be indicative of the league-wide trend towards small-ball. We still have to wait just a little over a month before we find out if one or more of these teams will dispel the notion that fast-paced teams can’t succeed in the playoffs, so in the meantime, let’s take a look at numbers from the past.
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Does the pace really slow down in the playoffs?
Yes. For every season from 2000-01 to 2011-12, the overall league pace for the playoffs has been slower than that of the regular season (the playoff pace for those seasons ranges from 90.4 to 93.04). Looking at the 192 teams that have made the playoffs in the last 12 seasons, 45 teams have actually increased their pace in the playoffs from the regular season (23 percent). However, only 18 of those teams made it past the first round (nine percent of playoff teams). Out of the last 24 conference champions, four have been teams that increased their pace in the playoffs over the regular season: the 2005-06 Mavericks, the 2002-03 Spurs, the 2001-02 Nets, and the 2000-01 Lakers.
We have confirmed that yes, the pace does slow down in the playoffs, and that generally not many teams have success increasing the pace from the regular season to the playoffs. But what about teams that already played at a high pace during the regular season? How have they fared in the playoffs?
How do fast paced teams fare in the playoffs?
Using a pace of 96 as a threshold for high pace during the regular season, there have been 27 high-pace teams who made the playoffs from 2000-01 to 2011-12. Fourteen of those teams made it out of the first round. However, only five of the 27 teams were able to play at a pace either higher than or only within one possession lower than their regular season (2009-10 Nuggets, 2009-10 Jazz, 2004-05 Wizards, 2002-03 Kings, and 2000-01 Kings). So while teams with a fast pace have had some success in the playoffs, keeping up that fast pace in the playoffs is difficult. The 2007-08 and 2008-09 Lakers are the only teams to have had a pace of at least 96 in the regular season and went on to win a conference championship. Let’s take a closer look at some of those high-pace teams.
Case Study 1: The 2007-08 Los Angeles Lakers
If you think the current Mike D’Antoni-coached Lakers play at a fast pace (97.01), the 2007-08 Lakers have them beat, registering a pace of 98.01 during the regular season. The 2007-08 Lakers go against common ideas about fast paced teams in a number of ways: they were not heavily dependent on fast-break scoring (11.4 percent of their points during the regular season, good for 18th in the league, and 9.2 percent during the playoffs, second to last at 15th) and they played good defense, holding opponents to an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 48.5 percent during the regular season (7th in the league) and 47.7 percent during the playoffs (4th).
The Lakers ran through the Western Conference with ease, sweeping Denver, beating Utah 4-2, and overcoming the Spurs 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals, only to fall to the Big Three Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. Led by defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau, the Celtics were able to slow things down — the Lakers played at a pace of 96.12 against the Western Conference, and 93.32 against Boston. Against the Celtics, the Lakers also shot worse (53.7 percent TS percentage against Boston vs. 56.9 percent against the West), turned the ball over more (14.9 percent TmTOV percent to 13.5 percent), rebounded worse (46.8 percent REB to 48 percent), and assisted at a lower rate (16 ASTRatio vs. 16.7). On the other hand, Boston actually got better marks against the Lakers than against their Eastern Conference peers in True Shooting Percentage, Team Turnover Percentage, Rebound Percentage and Assist Ratio.
Boston’s ball control and defense appear to have been the big variables from the Lakers’ smooth sailing against the West to the rough seas they encountered in the finals: the Lakers scored fewer points off turnovers (12.7/game against the Celtics vs. 14.9/game against the Western Conference), fewer second chance points (10.8/game vs. 11.9), fewer fastbreak points (8.0/game vs. 9.9), and fewer points in the paint (33.7 vs. 46.7). They also gave up more points off turnovers (17 vs. 14.7).