Believe it or not, Monday marks the first day of the 2020 NBA playoffs. It has been a season unlike any other in league history, but here we are embarking on a familiar 16-team playoff to crown the 2020 NBA champion.
As we head into the postseason (tipping off at 1:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), let’s check in on the must-know storylines and eye-popping stats. Here are the numbers that I’m watching most closely. And, of course, it only makes sense to start with the hottest man in the game …
MORE: ESPN’s expert picks for every Round 1 series
Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers get a spot in the NBA playoffs after coming out victorious over the Grizzlies 126-122.
When people discuss the most transformative 3-point shooters in the NBA, they’re quick to talk about Stephen Curry and James Harden. But let me give two reasons why it’s time to add Lillard to that list.
First and foremost, the dude is deforming decades-old conventional wisdom surrounding appropriate shooting distances in pro basketball. Lillard’s ability to take and make deep 3s is nothing short of revolutionary, and the stats are incredible. Here are two of them:
Lillard has made 54 of 130 (41.5%) shots from at least 30 feet this season. You’re not supposed to be able to do that. As a whole, NBA shooters converted 22.9% of shots from that range.
Before this season, the record for most made shots from at least 30 feet was 25. Lillard made 54.
And if that wasn’t enough, Lillard is also forcing us to reevaluate the fine art of multi-dribble 3s. He has become the most dangerous off-the-bounce marksman in the league. Of his 624 3-point attempts this season, a whopping 64% of them came after at least two dribbles. Leaguewide, only 19.9% of triples come after multiple bounces, per Second Spectrum tracking.
Only Harden has tried more multi-dribble 3s this season, but Harden can’t match Lillard’s accuracy. While Harden made a respectable 34.9%, Lillard drained a disgusting 41.6%. You’re not supposed to do that either.
What Dame is unleashing is truly unprecedented. The Los Angeles Lakers have to worry about him at all times in Round 1.
Another splash brother’s catch-and-shoot rate
Duncan Robinson is spot-on with five 3-pointers as the Heat take down the Kings 104-98 in a scrimmage Wednesday night.
The Miami Heat came out of nowhere and became one of the league’s most dangerous catch-and-shoot teams. The Heat rank second in the league by sinking 39.3% of their catch-and-shoot triples this season, per Second Spectrum tracking, and they also rank second in total makes with 754.
How have they done it? Duncan Robinson, that’s how. After playing only 161 minutes last season, Robinson played 2,166 this season and arguably just finished the greatest catch-and-shoot regular season of any shooter.
Robinson became the first in the player-tracking era (dating to 2013-14) to take at least 500 catch-and-shoot 3s and make at least 45% of them. This guy is unreal. Just look at this list:
Best FG% on catch-and-shoot 3s (min. 500 attempts)
Duncan Robinson (2019-20): 46.2%
Klay Thompson (2017-18): 44.4%
Klay Thompson (2014-15) 43.7%
Stephen Curry (2018-19) 43.7%
Klay Thompson (2015-16) 43.6%
There are a lot of reasons to like the Heat as a surprise team in the East, and Robinson is a major one.
LeBron James scores 29 points while dishing out 12 assists in the Lakers’ 124-121 win vs. the Nuggets.
James is combining scoring and assisting as well as any veteran ever. This season, James became the first player in NBA history to average at least 25 points and 10 assists at age 30 or older. He’s still really good, you guys.
As a teammate, James has always been the rising tide that lifts all boats. This season, he has taken that to another level. These Lakers aren’t exactly stacked, and James’ on/off splits are among the most eye-popping in the league. Check this out:
With James on the court, the Lakers are on average 8.5 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents.
With James off the court, that net rating drops more than 10 points — all the way to minus-1.9.
This is a rough team when James sits, but the Lakers ended up with the top seed because LeBron’s greatness is contagious when he’s on the floor. He hasn’t been at his best in the bubble so far. That should change when the games really matter.
Harden’s 589 step-backs
James Harden leads the Rockets with 39 points as they beat the Lakers 113-97.
This year, Harden became only the third player to win three consecutive scoring titles since the league added the 3-point line in 1979. The other two: Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant.
Harden owes his remarkable three-year run to his patented step-back 3. Dating to 2017-18, when Harden won his first scoring title, he has made an absurd 589 step-back triples, per Second Spectrum. In that same period, no other NBA player has made more than 178.
Harden’s step-back is this generation’s answer to Kareem’s skyhook. With Russell Westbrook banged up, it looks to be on full display as the Rockets try to eliminate a very strong Oklahoma City Thunder squad in Round 1.
Harden is an unmatchable scoring machine, and while his game is quirky (and, yeah, kind of annoying at times), it’s positively unstoppable. He’s had his playoff misses, but this time around he’s well rested, there’s no Warriors juggernaut present and his team has doubled down on his phenomenal abilities. Expect those step-back 3s to be even more frightening than usual.
Jayson Tatum has a strong performance, finishing with 29 points as the Celtics defeat the Grizzlies 122-107.
Tatum is a different beast this season, and that’s most clear in his own shot-creation stats. Check out these two nuggets:
Last season, Tatum’s 290 isolation plays generated just 0.75 points per chance. That ranked last out of 43 players with at least 250 isos.
This season, Tatum’s 386 isolations generated 1.09 points per chance. That ranked third best among 28 players with at least 250 isos.
How did Tatum go from the worst iso player in the league to one of its best in only one season? A combination of better shot selection and a few new tricks from downtown.
A season ago, Tatum had the kind of shot diet that would make Daryl Morey cringe. He dribbled into way too many ill-advised midrange pull-ups and didn’t make them very often. He didn’t attack the rack or leverage the 3-point line well enough. This season, he has trimmed out those junky midrangers and started ruining opponents with pull-ups from downtown instead.
Tatum has also become a one-man 3-point engine, hitting 41.1% of his unassisted 3s this season. That’s the highest conversion rate among 16 players with at least 200 tries. Lillard is the only other player above 40%. And, mimicking Harden, Tatum is adding the step-back 3 in his arsenal — hitting 61 total (while shooting 41.2%) compared to 14 makes last season.
That’s the move to watch in these playoffs. If Tatum can cash these self-created triples, it raises the Celtics to a whole different level.
This last one’s a little unusual, but the NBA and NBPA continue to announce zero positive coronavirus tests among hundreds of players in the bubble. That’s a legitimate accomplishment. This whole thing has been awesome so far, and now we’ve made it to the playoffs. Let’s roll.