Is This the Most Boring First Round in NBA History?

The first round of the 2019 NBA playoffs hasn’t been completely devoid of memorable moments. Damian Lillard waved goodbye to the Thunder, Jared Dudley brawled with the entire city of Philadelphia, and the Warriors suffered a schadenfreude-laden second-half collapse in Game 2 against the Clippers.

But on the whole, this first round has been rather tame and noncompetitive. Two series were sweeps and another four were gentleman’s sweeps (when the losing team wins just one game). The East’s four favorites went 16-2. Even the expected upset in the West went sideways, as Lillard’s Trail Blazers tore through the Thunder in just five games. That’s pretty boring! But is it the most boring first round in NBA history? We can try to answer that query a few different ways.

Let’s start simple, by looking at how long the different series lasted. The first-round format changed from best-of-five to best-of-seven in 2003. Here are the combined games won by the eight series losers each year since then. (This chart assumes—like the Rockets—that Golden State will finish off the Clippers in Friday’s Game 6. If that series goes seven—which, wow—add one more game to 2019’s total.)

Combined Games Won by First-Round Series Losers

Year Games
Year Games
2004 7
2019 9
2007 9
2015 9
2005 11
2011 11
2008 12
2012 12
2016 12
2017 12
2006 13
2009 13
2010 13
2013 13
2018 13
2003 17
2014 18

So 2019 isn’t at a historical ebb in this regard, but it comes close. It’s rare for so few series to last more than five games; Nuggets–Spurs, which heads to a Game 7 this weekend after San Antonio’s resounding win Thursday, is a saving grace for the entire 2019 first round. And even that series hasn’t entertained all that much on a game-by-game level, with the last four games in the series being decided by double-digits.

That’s the second broad method to compare 2019’s first round to previous ones, and once again, this postseason falls relatively flat. Thanks to a lack of close games and an overabundance of blowouts, the average game in this year’s first round has been decided by 13.9 points. That’s the second-highest mark since 1984 (the first year of the 16-team playoff format), behind only 2016’s 14.7-point average margin.

No 2019 playoff game has gone to overtime, and just three of 39 (8 percent) have been decided by a single possession. That’s a remarkably low rate; it hasn’t been below 10 percent since 2007. From 1984 to 2018, 21 percent of first-round games were either overtime contests or decided by three points or fewer, so even doubling the amount of exciting end-of-game situations in this year’s first round would have left it short of the expectation.

On the other end, 11 of 39 games (28 percent) have been decided by 20-plus points. That’s the second-highest ratio of extreme blowouts of any first round to date, and it doubles the pre-2019 rate of 14 percent.

The greatest culprit here is the Bucks, who dismantled the Pistons in historic fashion. The closest contest in that mismatched 1 vs. 8 series was Milwaukee’s 16-point win in Game 3; overall, the Bucks won by an average 24-point margin. Of the nearly 300 first-round series winners since 1984, that’s the fourth-largest differential—one spot ahead of the 1996 Bulls.

Biggest First-Round Winners, 1984–2019

Team Games Avg. Margin
Team Games Avg. Margin
1986 Lakers 3 31.67
1987 Lakers 3 27.33
2009 Nuggets 5 24.20
2019 Bucks 4 23.75
1996 Bulls 3 23.00

Milwaukee’s 1-over-8 romp set the pattern for the entire round, whereby higher seeds have outplayed their upset-hungry opponents. On the opening afternoon of the 2019 postseason, both Brooklyn and Orlando notched surprising road wins to take 1-0 leads, and the playoffs looked like they could be chaotic. Then their respective opponents—Philadelphia and Toronto—recovered to win four straight games each, and those upstarts’ upset plans shattered.

All six completed series to date have gone the higher seeds’ way. The remaining two series lean that way, too: Denver will host San Antonio, and home teams have historically won about 80 percent of Game 7s; top-seeded Golden State, meanwhile, leads the Clippers 3-2 and can be expected to complete its series victory, recent lackadaisical play be darned. (Though if Golden State loses another 3-1 lead, specifically to this opponent in this fashion, that result would single-handedly make the 2019 first round one of the more memorable in history.) If both Denver and Golden State win, this year will mark the first since 2008 with no upsets. For context, that was the same year that Steph Curry burst onto the national stage with a stirring NCAA tournament run at Davidson.

The bad news is that all these analyses confirm the historical mundanity of the 2019 first round, but the good news is that the past two weeks of boredom, if anything, portend more entertaining series to come. The sample is small, but since 2003, there is a negative-0.34 correlation (on a scale where 0 means no relationship and negative-1 a perfectly inverse relationship) between games in a given postseason’s first round and games in its second round. In other words, more games in the first round tend to lead to fewer games in the second round, and vice versa—so if that pattern holds this season, relatively bored NBA fans should be in store for far more entertainment in the coming round.

That relationship bares out in a subjective glimpse at this year’s second-round matchups. Ever since the Pacers lost Victor Oladipo for the season, the Eastern Conference has looked like a four-team race, and now that fiercer level of competition begins. In the West, meanwhile, the first round had more games and story lines than the East but still not as much drama as might be expected from such a deep conference. Enter (most likely) a conference finals rematch between the Warriors and Rockets, only one round earlier.

This relationship is a bit like March Madness, where some fans find a clash between cheering for early-round upsets and hoping for top-notch play in the Final Four. That the Raptors and Sixers survived early scares in the first round might have disappointed neutral observers, but now those two teams meet for a titanic clash swirling with story lines. The first round has been boring overall; that fact is hard to dispute, barring a Golden State collapse this weekend. But it should yield even more excitement now.

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