Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were decidedly unremarkable in the first game of this year’s NBA Finals Thursday night (11 and 9 points, respectively, and a combined of 8 of 27 from the field). But stellar bench play, including 20 points from Shaun Livingston on 8 of 10 shooting, counteracted the relative offensive stagnation of the Splash Brothers and gave the Golden State Warriors a 1-0 series lead over LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers.
So what now? How will Curry and Thompson bounce back and compete for three more wins? What about the Cavs, who shot just 38 percent from the field in Game 1? Will Kyrie Irving respond in a big way following a less-than-ideal shooting performance (7 for 22)? Can Golden State really beat Cleveland in the Finals two years in a row?
It’s fun to look towards statistics to predict what is most likely to happen, but the problem here is that this situation doesn’t happen that often: During the league’s existence—since 1950—the same two teams have competed in back-to-back championships only 14 times: in 1953, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1969, 1973, 1979, 1983, 1985, 1989, 1998, 2014, and now, 2016. Still, there’s some significant data to be found.
For example, maybe Golden State shouldn’t get too cocky just yet, because in these types of series, the first game doesn’t seem to matter all that much: The team that won the first game has gone on to win the title six out of 13 times (’58, ’61, ’63, ’83, ’89, ’14), so about half. After Game 1, fortune doesn’t really favor one side over the other.
The incumbent Warriors also shouldn’t presume that they have this series already locked down because they’re the reigning victor: Of the 13 teams that had a chance to win back-to-back titles against the same opponent, six of them pulled it off: the 1953 Minneapolis Lakers, the 1961, 1963, 1966, and 1969 Boston Celtics, and the 1998 Chicago Bulls.
All the data seems pretty down-the-middle so far, so can it really say anything? Let’s find out.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’re only going to consider stats from 1983 to present: Basketball, both in terms of its rules and its style of play, has changed drastically over the past 66 years (just ask virtually every former NBA player), so for the sake of historical comparison, using just the last 33 years of NBA Finals numbers seems the most appropriate.
But this gives us just five years of data to work with, meaning we may not be able to make any statistically sound predictions, but we can still figure out what happened, how it happened, and if that history can be of any use to either the Warriors of the Cavs.
So what are Golden State’s odds to repeat? Well, in the latter half of the NBA’s existence, only the 1998 Bulls managed to beat the same team in the Finals (the Utah Jazz) in consecutive seasons. Here are a few key stats from that series (all data comes from Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted):
Before we press on, a quick explanation of the statistics: eFG% (Effective Field Goal Percentage) is essentially a standard FG% that “adjusts for the fact that a 3-point field goal is worth one more point than a 2-point field goal,” and ORtg (Offensive Rating) is “an estimate of points produced (players) or scored (teams) through 100 possessions.” We also combines STL (Steal) and BLK (Block) statistics to create one defensive stat. For each statistical category, we calculated the change from year-to-year, to illustrate whether a team (or key player) improved or dropped off from the previous year’s series. Beyond that, the other figures are pretty standard.
Michael Jordan’s Bulls managed to hang on to the Larry O’Brien trophy in 1998 through consistency. There were no significant stat changes from ’97 to ’98, but the Jazz did drop off notably in points per game, and thusly, in offensive rating. This teams appear to have been evenly matched, but the Bulls had the ball in their hands more: In the six-game series, the Bulls attempted 22 more field goals than the Jazz did (453 to their 431).
What does this mean for the Warriors? The obvious–they shouldn’t tinker with their approach to last year’s Finals all that much, when they did essentially everything but out-rebound the Cavaliers:
This is LeBron’s second time appearing in a Finals repeat, so we have some more direct historical context for what may happen with the Cavaliers. Stats from the 2013 and 2014 Finals, when LeBron was a member of the Miami Heat:
Miami did the opposite of what he’s trying to do with they year’s Cavs: lose following a win. So let’s look at this one backwards: From 2013 to 2014, Miami really fell off in terms of rebounds and assists, and not-so-coincidentally, those are areas in which LeBron also struggled in 2014 as opposed to the previous year.
His scoring stats increased, but that can be attributed in part to volume: He attempted 21.4 shots per game in the 2013 Finals, and then 18.2 per game in the 2014 Finals. Ultimately, Miami was more successful when LeBron was less ball-dominant and got his team more involved (7 AST in 2013 against 4 AST in 2014). In what may be a positive omen for Cleveland, LeBron has played this postseason more like he did in 2013 than he did in 2014, posting averages of 24.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 7.0 assists (via stats.nba.com).
And for the record, here are the statistics from the other Finals repeats since 1983 (gray cells indicate that those stats weren’t recorded during this time):
What does all of this mean? Ultimately, not that much, as Golden State has shown that they’re impossible to predict. Nobody saw 73-9 coming, nor Steph Curry’s 402 3-pointers, nor Klay Thompson’s also-historic shooting, nor Draymond Green’s emergence as a versatile star. Based on the numbers, every series of this nature has existed in isolation, largely unaffected by what happened the year prior.
What we can learn from this is that despite the legacy-related implications of this series for the Warriors, in terms of these statistics, there may be more pressure on Cleveland. The bulk of both rosters from last season is mostly intact, so the Cavs have to figure out how to use what they have differently than how they used it last year, when they were bested in just about every statistical category over six games.
Then again, the Warriors have the burden of regrouping following an arduous series with the Oklahoma City Thunder that pushed them to their limits and exposed a few cracks in the armor, and doing something that’s only been done one other time in the past 47 years: Beat the same team in the NBA Finals two seasons in a row.
Stats are fun, but reality is far more exciting.
Check out the full highlights from Game 1 below.
featured image: Flickr user nikk_la