2021-22 NBA Finals Preview

Celtics/Warriors is a particularly interesting matchup for the NBA Finals on many levels.  Let’s breakdown some of the facts that caught my attention….

Ancient History Between Celtics and Warriors

It has little relevance to the current squads but the Celtics and the old Warriors had quite an interesting rivalry while Wilt Chamberlain was with the Philly/Golden State franchise.  Wilt had little luck actually beating Bill Russell during that time but here’s the breakdown of their prior playoff match ups:

-1957-58:  Boston beat the Warriors 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.  This was actually the Neil Johnston/Paul Arizin Warriors (pre-Wilt).  Boston went up 3-0 and controlled the series (Russ had 28.8 rpg).  Johnston shot well but was held way below his regular season average.  Tom Gola and Woody Sauldsberry couldn’t make a shot (they were 33% from the field).

-1959-60: Boston beat the Warriors 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Wilt shot better in the series than in the regular season (50% versus 46%) but he scored 7 fewer ppg.  Russ had 21 ppg and 27 rpg and Boston largely controlled the series, getting out to a 3-1 lead.  Bob Cousy couldn’t get a shot off (he shot 30%) but Russell and Tom Heinsohn carried the load.  After the series, Wilt threatened to retire because he was getting fouled too much.

-1961-62: Boston beat the Warriors 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals.  This was the closest series between the squads. This was the year Wilt had 50 ppg but Boston held him down to 33.6 ppg on 47% shooting (he shot 50% in the regular season).  Boston never quite ran away with the series as the team alternated wins all series and Game 7 was a barnburner too.  Wilt had only 22 points in Game 7.  Despite the back-and-forth wins, Boston outscored Philly by nearly 6 ppg.

-1963-64: Boston beat the Warriors 4-1 in the NBA Finals.  The Warriors had moved to San Francisco and this was their only Finals meet up with Boston until 2022.  Even though the series was 4-1, the Warriors were actually pretty tough.  They were only outscored by 4 ppg and Wilt had his best showing against Russell (29.2 ppg, .517 FG%, 27.6 rpg).  Russell had 25.2 rpg but only 11.2 ppg on .386 FG%.  I suspect that Wilt being paired with a young Nate Thurmond helped.  This series is most famous for Wilt decking Clyde Lovellette.

Per Earl Strom in Terry Pluto’s “Tall Tales,”:  “Lovellette was at the end of his career and playing backup center for Boston…the Celtics were way ahead, ready to win the title….Lovellette, who thought he was going to put on a show for the Boston fans….was bumping Wilt, throwing some elbows.  Wilt said, ‘Look, Clyde, the game is over….cut the crap out or I’ll knock you out.’….Clyde [then] stuck him with an elbow.  Wilt turned, put the ball on the floor, then reared back and punched Lovellette in the jaw.  Clyde went down in sections, he was out cold….Red yell to me, ‘I want Wilt out of the game.’  I said, ‘Red, get this stiff [Lovellette] out of here so we can finish the game.”

There you have it…Boston went 4-0 against the Warriors in the playoffs and the last time they met, the lasting image is Wilt knocking someone out.   It’s been a long 58 years.

Recent History

Despite all the hype surrounding its offense, the Warriors were a defense-first team in the regular season: 112.5 O-Rating (17th), 106.9 D-Rating (1st) and 98.4 pace (13th).  The Warriors have been slightly slower but a bit more offensively inclined in the playoffs.  Some of that was due to the match ups with the more offensive Nuggets and Mavs.  The Grizzlies series was a much more grind out affair and we should expect that same slower pace against Boston.

Boston has been sort of a throwback to the 1990s style: 114.4 O-Rating (7th), 106.9 D-Rating (2nd) on a languid 96.6 pace (24th).  In fact, Boston has been slower and better defensively in the playoffs (match ups with the Bucks and Heat probably colored the stats a bit).  The Celtics offense, which is primarily isolating Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on a switched defender, isn’t beautiful but it works.  It should be fascinating to see how Boston tries to isolate the Warriors’ weaker defenders (Jordan Poole).  The return of Gary Payton II is going to be quite important because he is well-suited to defend this game plan.


The teams went 1-1, each winning on the other’s home court but the results are pretty meaningless.  GS won in Boston early in the year when the Celtics were a struggling team.  Boston trounced the Warriors later but Stephen Curry barely played.  It should be noted that the Celtics have played the Warriors pretty well in Golden State over the last few years, even when the Warriors were at their peak.

A Little Historical Love for Boston

SRS isn’t everything but Boston had the best in the NBA this year (7.02).  This is a really good team.  To give a little context, in the vaunted history of the Celtics, the 2021-22 squad tanks higher than many Russell and Bird teams.  Here are the Boston SRS leaders:

1. 2007-08, 66-16, 9.30

2. 1985-86, 67-15, 9.06

3. 1961-62, 60-20, 8.25

4. 1959-60, 59-16, 7.62

5. 1964-65, 62-18, 7.46

6. 2008-09, 62-20, 7.44

7. 1979-80, 61-21, 7.37

8. 1972-73, 68-14, 7.35

9. 1966-67, 60-21, 7.24

10. 2021-22, 51-31, 7.02

SRS is a slippery tool, particularly during the era of load management and Covid but this team has been really impressive.

Unprecedented: Return of Golden State to the Finals

I was trying to come up with a historical analog for the 2021-22 Warriors.  The former dynasty looked decidedly over after 2019.  Have we ever seen another dynasty reinvigorate after it looked like the window had closed?  Other dynasties have returned to the Finals after a two year drought.  The 1983-84 Celtics did the same thing but they were a much younger bunch.  Similarly, the Bulls bounced back in 1995-96 with an older team but they were missing Michael Jordan for two years. 

The closest comparison I could come up with was the late model Spurs of 2012-13 and 2013-14, who had missed the Finals from 2007 until finally breaking through again in 2013.  This isn’t quite the same as the current Warriors either because those Spurs teams were still great that whole time they were not making the Finals while the Warriors’ window looked like it had totally closed after two bad seasons.  In other words, the 2021-22 Warriors should be appreciated, we may not see Golden State as a contender again.

The Bottom Line

This is a very close series but the Warriors have a few advantages: (a) home court advantage, (b) they are well-rested, (c) the Warriors can score more easily than most of Boston’s prior opponents, and (d) the Warriors have quite a lot of experience in the Finals.  None of these facts are decisive but, in a close series, I think it gives the Warriors the slight edge.  The other factor to consider is Boston’s great three-point defense (.317% so far in the playoffs).  I just don’t believe that Boston can shut down Curry and the tons of great shooters like they did against more tepid shooting Milwaukee and Miami teams (the Nets shot quite well from three against Boston).  This will be fascinating to watch and Boston has a good chance of winning but I can’t quite get there.  Prediction: Warriors in seven games.

Miami/Boston and ECF Game 7s

1.            We’ve Got a Game 7!: While these payoffs have had some fun moments, we haven’t really had any epic series.  The two Game 7s we have had (Boston/Milwaukee and Dallas/Phoenix) were blow outs.  I’m moderately hopeful that tonight’s Boston/Miami Game 7 could get us the epic Game 7 we all want a la Milwaukee/Brooklyn last year.   

What should we expect from a Game 7 here?  Well, the series has been a defensive war most of the time.  Miami has shrunk its rotation to about six or seven players (depending on Kyle Lowry’s health) and is relying Jimmy Butler to go crazy in isolation (yes, they won Game 3 with Butler missing the second half but they barely hung on).  The intriguing question is whether Butler’s cumulative minutes will make it too hard for him to go to the well in Game 7.  He has played 40 and 46 minutes the last two games and that’s tough to do again.  Still, if you are a Heat fan, you can note that Butler had some excellent games after heavy minutes in the Philly series. 

It is incumbent on Miami to get some perimeter help.  The 3-point shooting has been pretty bad as a team outside of PJ Tucker.  Erik Spoelstra, though, wants defenders he can trust and we are seeing a lot of Victor Oladipo and Gabe Vincent as a result.  We are also seeing Max Strus over Duncan Robinson because Strus is physically a lot stronger.  It’s easy to understand Miami’s thinking when we see so many isolations called for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and how important it is to make them work hard for shots.  Still, Miami will need a few easy buckets or knock down threes to win.  It’s a difficult balance but it may be tilted slightly too far to the defense side.  Perhaps a little more Robinson in the first half or third quarter could help.

As for Boston, I’m pretty optimistic about its chances even though it is coming off of a crushing loss in Game 6 and has to play Game 7 on the road.  Boston is the deeper team and they have two great scorers in Brown and Tatum.   Ime Udoka has shortened the rotation too but his key players are mostly much younger.  Lastly, the Celtics have outscored Miami handily for the series (+5.5 ppg).  Yes, this is a small sample size and past results don’t totally matter in a one game winner-take-all.  Nevertheless, Boston has been the best team in the East all year by SRS and most measures.  They are not resounding favorites but Boston has a slight edge.

2.            Conference Finals Game 7s, A History:   For fun, we went through all the Conference Finals Game 7s that have been played since the three-point rule came into effect in 1979-80.  The data is not great for Boston but there are some nuggets of hope.  First the list of games:


1981 ECF: 76ers at Celtics, Celtics win 91-90

1982 ECF: Celtics at 76ers, Celtics win 120-106 (*Road Win)

1987 ECF: Pistons at Celtics, Celtics win 117-114

1988 WCF: Mavericks at Lakers, Lakers win 117-102


1990 ECF: Bulls at Pistons, Pistons win 93-74

1993 WCF: Sonics at Suns, Suns win 123-110

1994 ECF: Pacers at Knicks, Knicks win 94-90

1995 ECF: Pacers at Magic, Magic win 105-81

1996 WCF: Jazz at Sonics, Sonics win 90-86

1998 ECF: Pacers at Bulls, Bulls win 88-83


2000 WCF: Blazers at Lakers, Lakers win 89-84

2001 ECF: Bucks at 76ers, 76ers win 108-91

2002 WCF: Lakers at King, Lakers win 112-106 (*Road Win)

2005 ECF: Pistons at Heat, Pistons win 88-82 (*Road Win)


2012 ECF: Celtics at Heat, Heat win 101-88

2013 ECF: Pacers at Heat, Heat win 99-76

2016 WCF: Thunder at Warriors, Warriors win 96-88

2018 ECF: Cavs at Celtics, Cavs win 87-79 (*Road Win)

2018 WCF: Warriors at Rockets, Warriors win 101-92 (*Road Win)

There is a bit to unpack here but here are some takeaways:

-Road teams are 5-14 in Conference Finals Game 7s.

-Despite the overall trend, the last two Conference Finals have been won by the road team, both in 2018 (which feels like 20 years ago).  The Rockets’ loss gets an asterisk because Chris Paul was injured.  The Cavs win also defies trends because they had peak(ish) LeBron James who has negated home court many times. 

-Zooming out slightly, road teams are 4-3 in the last seven Conference Finals Game 7s.  Dwyane Wade was playing hurt in 2005 but the Pistons legitimately were a deeper team.  The 2002 Lakers/Kings series was an epic but, in the end,  the Kings played tight while Shaq/Kobe did not.  

-The closest Conference Finals Game 7 was the Celtics’ win over Philadelphia back in 1981.   Philly did pay them back the next year in Boston.

-The 1990s had the most close Conference Finals Game 7s.  The 1998 Bulls-Pacers and 1994 Knicks-Pacers have gotten a lot of attention in retrospectives the last few years but the Sonics win over the Jazz in 1996 deserves some props.  That was a crazy series with Payton/Kemp versus Stockton/Malone going to the wire.  Alas, Malone did miss a couple of key free throws near the end of that series.

-The 2012 ECF shares some similar facts to the 2022 ECF.  The same teams played and Miami pulled out a Game 6 in Boston before clinching Game 7 in Miami.  But those superficial similarities don’t hold up on further scrutiny.  Miami was a younger team with more talent.  I don’t think most fans expected Boston to hang so tough or to win the series.  That Boston forced a Game 7 was a tribute to its aging but feisty core of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

-Finally, history tells us we get four or five Conference Finals per decade so enjoy the first of the 2020s!

Barnes/Mobley And The Closest ROY Votes Since 2002-03

Today, Scottie Barnes won the Rookie of the Year over Evan Mobley in the closest vote in over 20 years.  According to the NBA, Barnes received 378 voting points and Mobley got 363 (the current voting format gives 5 points for a first place vote, 3 points for a second place vote, and 1 point for a third place vote).  The closeness of the vote and the reference to historically close votes has inspired me to do a moderate dive into the vote and other close ROY votes.

Was there any voting weirdness?

Not too much weirdness.  In reviewing the results a few things pop out:

-Barnes and Mobley appear to be the best two rookies yet Mobley was actually omitted from one of the ballots.  As odd as that decision is, it didn’t change anything since the additional 3 points (assuming Mobley got a second place vote) was not enough to close the voting gap anyway.

-Jalen Green somehow got a second place vote.  His raw stats look okay (17.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.6 apg) but his advanced stats are decidedly negative (0.15 WS48, -2.8 bpm, -0.5 VORP).  Those advanced stats are consistent with the eye test, which showed Green to be very mistake-prone most of the year.  He did improve over the season but not nearly as much as Cade Cunningham, who looked better objectively and by raw stats as well (17.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.6 apg).

-Both Herbert Jones and Franz Wagner received a few third place votes. Each player had cognizable arguments to be voted ahead of Cunningham.  They both were better for the full year, even though Cunningham finished strong and clearly has the higher ceiling going forward.  That raises an interesting philosophical question about whether a player’s future potential should matter in ROY voting.  I’m agnostic on this issue but, in a very close case, I could see erring on the side of a brighter projected future. 

Were there any candidates who deserved a vote but didn’t receive one?

Arguably, Josh Giddey, Bones Hyland, and Alperen Senguin were candidates.  They all looked pretty good but just didn’t play enough minutes to warrant a third place vote over Jones, Wagner, or Cunningham.

Who did deserve to win between Barnes and Mobley?

Let’s start with the stat tale-of-the-tape:

-Barnes: 35.4 mpg, 15.3 ppg, .552 TS%, 7.4 rpg, 3.5 apg, 16.3 PER, .122 WS48, 0.9 BPM, 1.9 VORP

-Mobley: 32.6 mpg, 17.4 ppg, .549 TS%, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg, 16.1 PER, .107 WS48, 0.6 BPM, 1.5 VORP

Barnes appears to have the edge.  He’s not quite the scorer that Mobley was but Barnes was versatile on defense and is slightly better in advanced stats.  Barnes also played five more games, which ups the edge a little more as well.

On Mobley’s end, his argument rests on his scoring and the fact that he’s a big man who can guard on the perimeter.  Barnes is no slouch on defense either but Mobley feelslike higher ceiling player.  As noted above, though, Barnes has narrow but discernable edge and would’ve gotten my vote.

A look at other close votes in the modern voting format

And now the interesting part….a look at other close votes.  Without even looking at historical records, I recall the two famous ROY voting ties: 1994-95 (Grant Hill with Jason Kidd) and 1999-00 (Elton Brand with Steve Francis).  The voting has changed a bit since those days.  Before 2002-03, each voter had only a first place vote.  This binary system was ditched for the current 5-3-1 weighted vote in 2002-03.  Since that time, there have been few close votes (and plenty of unanimous or near unanimous ROYs) but here are the votes that were closest in that time:

2009-10, Tyreke Evans defeats Stephen Curry, 491-391 (+100).  Yup, the player who changed how basketball is played lost out to Evans (who is now remembered for other not great reasons).  Tyreke had a pretty strong stat argument:

Evans, 18.2 PER, .097 WS48, 1.3 BPM, 2.2 VORP

-Curry, 16.3 PER, .077 WS48,0.7 BPM, 2.0 VORP

Curry was lower usage and still turned the ball over a bit more.  Since then, Curry has pulled ahead slightly.

2003-04, LeBron James defeats Carmelo Anthony 508-430 (+78).  The consensus, at the time, was that LBJ was clearly the better player.  I’m actually pretty surprised that it was so close given that James scored about the same (21 ppg) and was essentially the Cavs point guard (6 apg versus 2.8 apg for Anthony).  It seems that Anthony got some extra credit for bringing a previously terrible Denver team to the playoffs, while Cleveland didn’t quite get in.  

Of course, it’s a bit simplistic to over-credit Melo for Denver’s good season (they also had Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, and Nene).  The head-to-head advanced stats favored James:

-Anthony, 17.6 PER, .098 WS48, 0.0 BPM, 1.5 VORP

-James, 18.3 PER, .078 WS48, 1.7 BPM, 2.9 VORP

LBJ hadn’t quite lapped Melo yet but it’s pretty hard to justify an argument that Anthony had a better season.

2004-05, Emeka Okafor defeats Ben Gordon 514-443 (+71).  This was a close vote between two solid UConn teammates, neither of whom had incredible years.  Okafor had 15.1 ppg, .447 FG%, 10.9 rpg and Gordon had 15.1 ppg, .411 FG%, .405 3FG%, 2.0 apg.  In reality, Dwight Howard was the real star of that draft class.  Did Howard have a cognizable claim to the ROY as well?  Well, he came in third in the vote with 161 points and his raw stats were competitive (12 ppg, .520 FG%, 10 rpg).  Let’s look at the advanced stats:

-Gordon, 14.9 PER, .084 WS48, 0.7 BPM, 1.4 VORP

-Howard, 17.2 PER, .131 WS48, 0.0 BPM, 1.4 VORP

-Okafor, 16.3 PER, .074 WS48, -2.0 BPM, 0.0 VORP

On top of the fact that Okafor has distinctly lower stats, he played nine fewer games than the other two (though he soaked up virtually the same minutes played as Howard and 600 more minutes than Gordon).  Howard was the clear best player of the group, even as a teenager.  He played the most and was most effective when he did play.

2002-03, Amare Stoudemire defeats Yao Ming, 458-405 (+53).  The closest vote of the modern ROY voting era looked closest on paper too. Check their raw stats:

-Yao, 29.0 mpg, 13.5 ppg, .498 FG%, 8.2 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.8 bpg, 2.1 topg,

-Amare, 31.3 mpg, 13.5 ppg, .472 FG%, 8.8 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.1 bpg, 2.3 topg

I remember looking at these raw stats at the time and thinking that, as exciting as Amare was, he just didn’t shoot, pass, or block shots as well as Yao.  Since that time, we have the benefit of advanced stats and they really tell a clear story even more in Yao’s favor:

-Yao: 20.6 PER, .570 TS%, .176 WS48, 2.2 BPM, 2.5 VORP

-Amare: 16.2 PER, .530 TS%, .116 WS48, -1.3 BPM, 0.4 VORP

Ironically, a March 16, 2013 Houston Chronicle article reported that Yao “appeared to be the runaway winner of the 2002-03 Rookie of the Year award…In an informal poll of 28 voters for NBA postseason awards, Yao was named as the choice for Rookie of the Year by 20 voters, with Phoenix rookie Amare Stoudemire getting the other eight.”  Well, that didn’t work out as expected.  Amare ended up getting 59 first place votes to 45 for Yao.  The twist was that Caron Butler (15.4 ppg, .416 FG%, .318 3FG%, 5.1 rpg, 2.7 apg) somehow got the other 13 first place votes.

Should We Tweak the Play-In?

Is the play-in game bad for the NBA?  Not too many people have directly said that it is.  In fact, Draymond Green called the concept “lit.”  The result of the Western Conference play-in, however, reveals a potential issue.  The 36-46 Pelicans made the playoffs over the 42-40 Clippers, when New Orleans was helped a bit by the Clipps losing Paul George to a particularly poorly timed case of COVID.  Injuries/COVID are facts that all teams have to deal with at all times.  Nevertheless, there is a tension underlying the play-in concept: the attempts to keep the middling teams from tanking definitely risks devaluing regular season success of the seven or eight seeds, which would otherwise have breezed into the playoffs under the previous rules.  The play-in seemed very reasonable in the East, where the seven through ten seeds were separated by one game. 

Personally, I like the play-in concept but there is potential to for problems around the margins.  What if the gap between the seven and eight seeds and the nine and ten seeds was much larger?  New Orleans was six games worse than the Clipps.  The Pelicans leapfrogging the Clipps feels a little wrong but certainly not absurd. 

I thought we could use the past as a guide to see where the typical nine or ten seeds have stacked up in the pre-play-in era, as well as any other interesting tidbits that pop up.  Before we dive into the data, it should be noted that our inquiry will start effective the 1995-96 season, when the Grizz and Raptors debuted (there were only 27 teams before that season, with only 13 in the Western Conference).  The inquiry stops after 2018-19 because the 2019-20 season had that mini-play-in during the Bubble.  With those caveats in my mind, here’s what we found:

-The average nine seed in the East won 38.7 games and the average ten seed won 36 games (we pro-rated team wins for an 82-game season for the two lockout shortened seasons).  Those numbers are lower than the NBA would want from play-in competition but not so low that it would be worth abandoning the experiment.

-The average nine seed in the West won 41.4 games and the average ten seed won 37 games.  This is a little better.  It is also worth noting that that these stats were compiled without the carrot of a play-in game.  It is conceivable that the win totals would be a bit higher with that incentive.

Where things get really interesting is looking at individual seasons and there are some real interesting outliers:

-In 1996-97, the bottom of the Western Conference was so bad that the Kings (34-48) and the Warriors (30-52) would’ve made a hypothetical play-in.  A middling Clipper team (36-46) led by Darrick Martin and Loy Vaught was the eight seed, so it’s not so bad that they could’ve been bumped off. 

-The West was even worse in 1997-98.  The last gasp of the Hakeem/Barkley/Drexler Rockets made the eight seed at 41-41 (they were actually beating Utah in the playoffs until Barkley hurt his elbow). At the nine seed were the terrible Kings (27-55) and the worst tenth seed ever, the 20-62 Mavs (-6.33 SRS).  The gap between these teams and the Rockets was so great that it seems absurd that Houston could have even theoretically lost out on the playoffs in a play-in, even if the risk was remote.   Still, it could’ve happened if they had used the play-in system.  All the Kings needed was a badly timed injury to a Rocket star coupled with a hot game from Mitch Richmond.  This would’ve been a nightmare result for the NBA.

-In the East, the worst ten seed in a full season was the 2009-10 Pacers, who were 32-50 and big step below the nine seeded Raptors.  In a partial season in 2011-12, the ten seed Pistons were slightly worse (25-41, which projects to 31 wins).

-The only Eastern Conference nine seed to exceed .500 was the 1998-99 Hornets who were 26-24 and just missed the playoffs to a 27-23 Knick team that had that memorable run to the Finals.

-The play-in would’ve been quite fair for the 2006-07 Warriors and 2013-14 Suns, who missed the playoffs despite going 48-34.  The 2008-09 Suns were 46-36 but missed the playoffs.  The ten seed Warriors, however, were 29-53.  That hypothetical nine-ten play-in game seems a bit absurd.  (The 2018-19 Nuggets also missed the playoffs with 46 wins).

In all, the play-in game is an improvement over the old system.  The data shows that the nine/ten seeds are historically good enough to overcome most of the misgivings we have about letting a blah team have a puncher’s chance at the playoffs.  We do see some scenarios where the play-in breaks down when teams are so bad that their presence in the play-in wouldn’t have passed the straight face test.  The NBA should set a modest minimum win total (perhaps 33 games) under which a nine or ten seed forfeits its eligibility for the play-in.  There would be some potential bad unintended consequences (most notably a team could tank its way out of the play-in) but I think the alternative of having a joke play-in game, while unlikely, would be worse.

Examining the 50-Point Explosions

March 2022 has featured eight 50-point games so far.  According to NBA.com, this month has had the most 50-point games since there were nine in December 1962 (six by Wilt Chamberlain and three by Elgin Baylor).  In the early 1960s, with the fast pace and the existence of Wilt, 50-point games were quite commonplace.  But now we have seen 50-point games emerge more often and, sometimes, from more random players like Saddiq Bey, a good player but quite surprising 50-point guy.  I wanted to take a look and see about the frequency of 50-point games over time and what, if anything, we can learn from this.

With the help of Basketball-Reference we have gleaned the following fun facts:

-Since 1946-47, there have been 605 50-point games (including playoffs but excluding ABA)

-A reminder of how great Wilt was…he has 122 of all NBA 50-point games, or roughly 20% of the total.  46 of Wilt’s games came during his legendary 1961-62 season when he averaged 50.4 ppg.  As he slowed down with age, and the NBA slowed down, Wilt scored much less. From 1965-66 to the end of his career in 1972-73, Wilt had 12 50-point games.  His last 50-point game came on February 9, 1969, when he dropped 66 points on Phoenix.

-Michael Jordan is second with 39 50-point games.  He had six 50-point games after his return in 1994-95.  He had none in 1997-98, his final year with the Bulls, but pulled one more with the Wiz on December 29, 2001.

-The recently retired Jamal Crawford has four 50-point games, which is the most by a player never to be an All-Star. 

-Purvis Short has the most points in a game by a player who never made an All-Star game when he dropped 59 on the Nets on November 17, 1984.  Incidentally, the Warriors lost that game by 17.

-Box scores are incomplete until the mid-1980s but the lowest Game Score for a 50-point scorer was Dale Ellis on November 19, 1989, when he put up 27.4 (he shot 18-39 from the field in 69 minutes (!) and had one assist and eight turnovers).  Kobe Bryant was next lowest at 27.6 on March 30, 2007 (19-44 shooting, and only two assists).  The best Game Score goes to MJ’s 69-point game against Cleveland in 1990, which just edged out Kobe’s 81-point game.

-The ugliest shooting 50-point game goes to James Harden on December 3, 2019.  He shot 11-37 from the field and 4-20 from three but was an impressive 24-24 from the line.  Wilt had a bad 50-point game on October 28, 1962 when he shot 23-60 with two assists against the Royals.  Both of their teams lost.  Wilt and Russell Westbrook had quite a few poor 50-point games where they shot under .412%.

-GOAT alert! Jordan has the most playoff 50-point games with eight.  He had a bunch of those during the scoring scarce 1990s.  Wilt is second with four 50-point playoffs games.  Allen Iverson is third with three (two happened in the same week against the Raptors in 2001). 

-In all, there have been 45 50-point playoff games but many have come recently.  12 of the 45 games have come since 2017 and four came in the 2020 bubble (two each by Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell).  The overall breakdown of 50-point playoff games by decade:

1950s: 2

1960s: 9 (4 by Wilt, 2 by Jerry West)

1970s: 3 (note there is a gap of 11 years between the last 50-point game of the 1970s, Bob McAdoo in 1975, to Dominique Wilkins in 1986)

1980s: 6 (4 by MJ)

1990s: 5 (4 by MJ)

2000s: 8 (3 by Iverson)

2010s: 5 (there was a gap of 8 years between Ray Allen in 2009 to the next 50-pointer by Russell Westbrook in 2017)

2020s: 7

So, the flood gates have really opened up in 50-point playoff games.  The three-point shot has helped. Murray hit 9 threes in each of his two big games. Giannis Antetokounmpo did it the hard way in the 2021 Finals with only one three-pointer.  Jordan was the last player to score 50-points in a playoff game without making a three back in Game 4 of the 1993 Finals versus Phoenix.

Turning to the regular season, here’s the decade-by-decade breakdown of 50-point games (we define a decade based on the year the season ended in.  For example, the 1950s range from 1949-50 thru 1958-59, etc.):

1950s: 11

1960s: 162

1970s: 51

1980s: 60

1990s: 49

2000s: 85

2010s: 85

2020s: 54

There you have it.  In not quite three seasons, the decade of the 2020s is poised to exceed the 1960s as the decade of the most 50-point games (if the 2020s keep the same pace, there should be about 180 50-point games).  Obviously, the rules could change in such a way that could stifle offense but it’s clear that the modern rules have us in an inflationary offensive atmosphere.  We should also take this opportunity to marvel, again, about how Jordan was able to score in the era where the rules so favored defense.

Linsanity Revisited

Roughly ten years ago, on February 4, 2012, Jeremy Lin came off the bench to lead the Knicks to win against the New Jersey Nets.  Lin, who had not previously played more than six minutes one time all year, had 25 points and 7 assists in 36 minutes.  This spurred a 25-game run where Lin was ignited to instant stardom before more weirdness ensued.  Now, Linsanity is remembered for that fun run but few actually delve into what happened and whether it could have or should have turned out differently.  I thought we could take another look back at Linsanity and see if ten years later, we can properly put this phenomenon in context. 

A Little Background on Lin

Lin had a great career at Harvard, where he started for three years and showed flashes of real athleticism.  After his senior season, Lin looked a solid sleeper prospect, particularly when he scored 30 points against a ranked UConn team. On May 13, 2010, our own Ed Weiland wrote a post where he noted that Lin’s rate stats (particularly blocks and steals) were good indicators that Lin was viable as a pro: “[t]he reason is two numbers Lin posted, 2-point FG pct and RSB40. Lin was at .598 and 9.7. This is impressive on both counts. These numbers show NBA athleticism better than any other, because a high score in both shows dominance at the college level on both ends of the court.”

Ed didn’t think Lin would be a star but did note that “I like Jeremy Lin as a PG prospect, but he isn’t without flaws and concerns. He isn’t a great passer yet and he didn’t score as frequently as a prospect from a small college should. Both numbers are in the grey area though. They’re lower than I’d like them to be, but not low enough that I’d say Jeremy Lin was doomed as a prospect. That being noted, he does bring that combination of a high 2-point pct. and RSB40, which has been a very, very good thing for aspiring NBA PGs to have on their college report card in past years.”  Other publications also wondered whether Lin would the first Asian-American drafted to the NBA (though Ed probably did the deepest dive at the time).

Lin in the NBA pre-Linsanity

Ultimately, Lin was not drafted but the Warriors signed him in the summer of 2010 and he ultimately made the roster out of training camp.  Lin’s background, a Harvard player and the first Asian American to possibly excel in the NBA, got him a lot of attention.  Before the 2010-11 season, The OC Register profiled Lin’s unique story, calling him “a somewhat reluctant torch-bearer for race” and noting that if he makes the NBA, Lin “becomes a lasting image in this place where they say amazing happens, and the inspiration grows.:”

Lin made the Warriors but did get sent down frequently to the G-League where he had 18 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.4 apg in 32 mpg in 20 games for Reno.  (As an aside, that Reno team went 34-16 and had a ton of future/past NBAers, most notably pre-famous Danny Green and Hassan Whiteside.  Green and Lin were mostly in the NBA but led Reno in scoring when they did play). 

Lin played a total of 29 games for GS and averaged only about 10 mpg (Steph Curry and Monta Ellis had a lockdown on the majority of the backcourt minutes).  Lin did get a bit more extended time at the end of the lost season and his best game came in the last game of the season (12 points and 5 assists in 24 minutes versus Portland).  Lin had some decent momentum as a prospect based on his G-League stats and his solid last few games.  Even so, GS had a logjam with Curry and Ellis and added to the mix for 2011-12 were Nate Robinson and rookie Klay Thompson.   With no room on the roster, the Warriors waived Lin in training camp.  He was quickly signed by the Rockets but was also cut before the regular season because Houston already had young PGs Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, and Jonny Flynn.

Pre-Linsanity Knicks

Finally, on December 27, 2011, the Knicks signed Lin.  This was a better gig for Lin because New York’s only actual point guard was a mostly cooked 33-year old Mike Bibby and the team really struggled finding a legit point guard to start (sound vaguely familiar Knick fans?).  Mike D’Antoni said at the time that he liked Lin: “[h]e went to Harvard so he might be the smartest guy we have. But he’s very quick, he defends pretty well and he can really get in the lane and distribute the basketball. We haven’t seen him for a couple of years but when we worked him out we liked him.”

D’Antoni did not play Lin much early and actually looked to try to get by at the point without a true ball handler (a la Alec Burks and the 2021-22 Knicks).  First, D’Antoni tried Toney Douglas at the point but he really struggled.   Douglas played well in an opening night win but was pretty bad overall as a starter (in 7 games, 11.7 ppg, .340 FG%, .275 3FG%, 4.0 apg).

Next, D’Antoni took a whirl with rookie Iman Shumpert.   Shump had a nice career as a defensive guard but he was also no PG.  He started 16 of the next 17 games and also struggled, putting up 9.4 ppg on .365 FG%, .250 3FG%, and 3.5 apg.  New York went 6-11 in that span (after a 3-4 start with Douglas).  During all this time, Lin had not played much except for a 20-minute look against Houston (9 points on 3-9, .333 FG%, 6 assists, 3 rebounds).

Finally, on February 4, 2012, D’Antoni gave Lin extend time and he torched Deron Williams for 25 points and 7 assist off-the-bench in a win.  Naturally, D’Antoni gave his only actual PG the starting job immediately.  Thus we would soon have the apex of Linsanity.  Including the win over Jersey, the Knicks won Lin’s first seven games as the primary PG and Lin hit a couple of game winners.  He put up 24.4 ppg, .512 FG%, 9.1 apg, and 4.0 rpg (he still had only .256 3FG%) which also featured a 38-point game and four other games over 23 points.

The world then began going crazy about this exciting underdog, who was leading New York back to respectability while crashing in his brother’s apartment on Canal Street.   After the hot start, Lin had two more great games but came back to earth a bit.  New York went 3-9 in the next 12 games where Lin shot much worse (18 ppg, .412 FG%, .368 3FG%, 8.1 apg, 3.4 rpg).  Things also got strange because Carmelo Anthony was hurt for most of the hot streak (Amare Stoudemire also missed most of that streak too) but the team immediately started losing upon Melo’s return, which people noticed.

After that bad stretch, Lin continued to start but his minutes and shots dipped.  The Knicks went 6-1 in that next stretch but Lin was much more role player (28 mpg, 13.3 ppg, .429 FG%, .294 3FG%, 5.4 apg, 4 rpg).  On March 24, 2012, Lin tore ligaments in his knee, ending his season.  New York had gone 16-10 during that span and Lin’s stat line for Linsanity was: 34.1 mpg, 18.5 ppg, .449 FG%, .324 3FG%, 7.7 apg, 3.7 apg.

Without Lin the rest of the way, New York did not struggle.  The Knicks went 12-5 with an older Baron Davis playing the point most of the time (In 14 games, Baron was very limited and had 24.6 mpg, 7.6 ppg, .386 FG%, .354 3FG%, 4.4 apg, 2.2 rpg).  Baron wasn’t exactly Lin at that point but New York had gotten good minutes from Shumpert, Novak, Landry Fields, and newly signed JR Smith and that was enough to continue to excel.   New York finished 36-30 but were thrashed 4-1 by the peak LeBron/Wade/Bosh Miami Heat.

Would a healthy Lin have changed anything at the end of the 2011-12 season?

Lin was a clear upgrade over the older versions of Bibby/Baron but Lin wasn’t going to make a difference against LBJ & Company.  Nor is it likely they would’ve been better than 12-5 to end the season, even with Lin.  In fact, the strong finish actually hurt New York.  Had they slipped to the eight seed, the Knicks would’ve drawn Chicago, which lost its first round series due to a Derrick Rose injury.  In theory, the Knicks might’ve had the same fate of beating a Rose-less Bulls and drawn a better Boston team in Round Two that was beatable but this whole sliding doors scenario would’ve only happened with a bad finish to the regular season and having Lin for the playoffs, an unlikely combo.

New York was also close to catching Orlando for the six seed, which would have drawn New York a good Indiana team in the first round featuring Paul George and Roy Hibbert.  New York probably would’ve not beaten Indy either (the same Pacer team dispatched New York in the 2012-13 playoffs fairly easily).  So,, an upset of Indiana in 2011-12 wasn’t impossible but unlikely.  Even if the Knicks could’ve beaten Indy, the reward would’ve been a thumping by Miami in the next round anyway.  All this is a long way of saying that Lin’s injury was sad and disappointing but probably didn’t materially change New York’s playoff outcome.

Free Agency Debacle?

Lin entered the 2012 summer as a restricted free agent, so New York could’ve matched any deal.  The young point guard market that summer was very interesting.  There were three very nice young players out there.  Here are their per-36 minute stats (with their signing results in parentheses):

-Kyle Lowry (age 25): .409 FG%, .374 3FG%, 5.1 rebs, 7.4 asts, 1.7 stls, 0.3 blks, 3.1 TOs, 16.0 pts, 18.8 PER, .156 WS48, 4.1 BPM (signed with Toronto for two years, $12 million)

-Goran Dragic (age 25): .462 FG%, .337 3FG%, 3.5 rebs, 7.2 asts, 1.7 sts, 0.2 blks, 3.2 TOs, 15.9 pts, 18.0 PER, .139 WS48, 1.9 BPM (signed with Phoenix for four years, $30 million)

-Jeremy Lin (age 23): .446 FG%, .320 3FG%, 4.1 rebs, 8.3 asts, 2.1 stls, 0.3 blks, 4.8 TOs, 19.6 pts, 19.9 PER, .140 WS48, 3.8 BPM (signed with Houston for three years, $24 million)

Intuitively, it would seem the Knicks would match any offer given to Lin because of how much peak Linsanity was worth to New York.  Lowry and Dragic were older and seemed to have lower ceilings. How do you not take another shot at Lin with these options and the good vibes he imparted?

Two things happened that sabotaged that plan: (a) Lin signed a backloaded deal that would’ve cost New York up to $40 million in luxury tax penalties and (b) Melo didn’t seem keen on playing with Lin anyway.  Before discussing the free agency decisions, let’s address Melo’s alleged complaints about playing with Lin.  Here are Melo’s stats broken down from the 2011-12 season:

-Pre-Lin: 20 games, 35.7 mpg, 23.9 ppg, .406 FG%, .295 3FG%, 6.4 rpg, 4.4 apg, 15.3 GmSc, 1.1 +/-

-During Linsanity: 19 games, 30.8 mpg, 15.8 ppg, .390 FG%, .288 3FG%, 5.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, 9.9 GmSc, 0.4 +/-

-Post-Linsanity: 16 games, 36.1 mpg, 29.1 ppg, .491 FG%, .429 3FG%, 7.3 rpg, 3.4 apg, 20.8 GmSc, 4.9 +/-

Melo had been pretty bad before Lin and even worse with Lin.  Anthony then exploded post-Lin.  Based on these numbers you get why he didn’t want Lin back.  Not sure that jettisoning Lin was a great idea but Melo’s perspective was surely rational.

The team’s handling of Lin’s free agency, however, was poor.  In hindsight, Lowry and Dragic were better choices but, not knowing what we do now, signing Lin made all the sense in the world.  On top of that, the Knicks didn’t replace Lin with these youngsters, opting for Raymond Felton, age 27, who was coming off a terrible season in Portland (13.4 PER, .042 WS48, -1.5 BPM) and had never been that good to begin with.  The Knicks were actually good in 2012-13 (54-28) as Felton was okay and a very old Jason Kidd manned the point pretty well but it all fell apart quickly (Felton regressed hard and Kidd retired).

As for Lin, he started for the Rockets in 2012-13 and put up stats consistent with his last few games of the 2011-12 season:  32.2 mpg, 13.4 ppg, .441 FG%, .339 3FG%, 6.1 apg, 3.0 rpg, 14.9 PER, .099 WS48, 0.3 BPM, 1.5 VORP.  The real story was that the Rockets landed James Harden that year and Lin’s skillset made little sense around a ball dominator like Harden.  Lin then bounced around as a mostly backup PG with the Lakers and Hornets.   He did have a nice run as a starter with the Nets in 2016-17 before a few more serious leg injuries in Brooklyn turned him into a backup for good.   He last played in the NBA in 2018-19 when he won a ring as deep bench payer with the Raptors.

Lin and Hoopsanalyst

Before summing up on Linsanity, let’s digress for a minute about how it sort of affected this little blog.  When Lin first started playing well, I vaguely recalled that Ed had written about Lin and wondered if anyone would notice.  Shortly after, I started getting hundreds of Twitter notifications, which was strange because I didn’t even remember I had an account.  Next, I got a call from several media members, most notably The Wall Street Journal, wanting to track Ed down.   This resulted in tons features from big shops like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Business Insider, The Huff Post,  Fox Sports, CNN, and WSJ

At the same time, by pure coincidence, the site went down. We assumed it was a bandwidth issue due to increased traffic (which was what I told WSJ at the time).  I later learned this was purely coincidence but who knew?

Even weirder was an April 2012 article by Daryl Morey about Linsanity in The Economist, where he recognized Ed’s work but was skeptical that anyone could guess something like Lin’s success.  Morey wrote that: “Mr Weiland’s seemingly clairvoyant forecast is a red herring. In fact, no one could have predicted the level of play Mr Lin has attained—at least not without mistakenly foreseeing similar achievements for dozens of other players as well. Rather than life imitating Poe’s art, what Mr Lin’s story really demonstrates is the old Niels Bohr adage: prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” 

Morey further noted that Lin’s stats package in college was similar to that of Josh Slater, a guard from Lipscomb, who never came close to sniffing the NBA, to highlight how hard it is to find the next big thing.  Morey then accepted some shame for letting Lin go previously but explained this was not foreseeable: “Mr Lin has received so much attention because he embodies the reason we love sports: every time you watch, something amazing might happen that no one anticipates. He is an outlier and an underdog whose hard work is paying off at last. Just don’t tell me that anyone—even C. Auguste Dupin—could have predicted it.”

Of course, Morey was broadly correct.  No one can predict with great accuracy that a second rounder or undrafted player would project as an above-average starter.  Morey got it further incorrect when he signed Lin and let Lowry and Dragic both go.  But none of that mattered because Morey predicted that Harden would be good.  In the end, this proves Morey’s point that predictions are imprecise.  Still, that’s a real oversimplification of the prediction process.  Predictions, whether based on scouting or stats, may be wrong but if they are based on sound logic, they will be more often correct than wrong and being correct puts you in the position for a happy surprise like Linsanity or Draymond Green or numerous happy finds. 

Finally, do not take this article to mean that Morey wasn’t impressed with Ed’s analysis.  Ed later was hired to work for the Rockets.

Summing Up Linsanity

No matter what you think of Lin, the Linsanity Run was pure fun for all.  Having said that, we can safely draw the following conclusions:

-Lin was bona fide and legit NBA point guard.  His hot streak was a bit above his head but he deserved to be drafted in mid-first round of the 2010 Draft based on his ability. 

-A healthy Lin probably makes no difference to the 2011-12 Knicks.  The Knicks replaced him adequately in 2012-13 as well.  That doesn’t make the decision to jettison him any better.  Opting for the adequacy of Felton over Lin still feels bad and really represents a lack of imagination by the Knicks.  No one knew Lin’s ceiling but we all knew Felton’s and it wasn’t very high.  That the Knicks put the kibosh on Lin’s return still seems like weirdness.  Any normal organization would’ve tried to sign Lin quickly and without giving him a chance to get a deal that could submarine his return. 

-Lin’s career was solid but hurt by some bad luck.  He had leg injuries that cut short the two best stretches of his career.  His only healthy shot at possible stardom was also quickly gone because he had to share time with a superstar like Harden.  Lin made about $54 million in NBA salary as well as plenty endorsement cash, so he’ll be fine but I get why he might look back with a little frustration at his career.

-Finally, Linsanity gave me whiff of derivative viral popularity and it was both cool and weird.