In soccer, they have a concept called “winning on aggregate.” That is to say, two teams in the playoffs (OK, the “knockout round” in Euro-speak) play one game in each team’s home stadium and treat it like an extended 180-minute game, where most goals win. They have some tiebreakers (and, if necessary, they’ll go to extra time and penalty kicks in the second game), but for the most part, it is in essence a game where halftime is the conclusion of a complete game of soccer.
The NBA doesn’t have that. You play a best-of-seven series and it doesn’t matter if you lose three games by 25 points each and win four of them by two points on the final possession, every game counts the same and nobody counts overall points when determining the series winner.
The Denver Nuggets need to thank their lucky stars they’re not a soccer team.
In their opening series against Utah, the Nuggets won their four games by a combined 34 points, including a squeaker right out of the Dark Ages in the deciding Game 7—you don’t see a lot of NBA games end 80-78 anymore, and you especially don’t see a lot of NBA games in 2020 played at a Mike Fratello-esque 87.3 pace.
Their three losses were by a combined 58 points, and the 124-87 thumping they took in Game 4 was, at 37 points, a greater margin of defeat in one game than their combined margin of victory in four.
But you can always make up a convenient narrative for a team going minus-14 on the scoreboard and still winning a playoff series—heck, just ask the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers, who beat the Indiana Pacers in seven games despite being outscored by a combined 40 points and winning their four contests by no more than four points each.
For an extreme example of this, just imagine if the Atlanta Hawks had somehow managed to upset the Boston Celtics in the first round in 2008. Coming into Game 7, the Celtics had won three games by a combined 67 points; the Hawks’ three wins were by a combined 17—a 50-point spread. Of course, Boston won Game 7 99-65 and ended up with an improbable +12 average margin of victory in a series that went seven games, one of the weirdest statistical flukes in NBA playoff history.
All this math would’ve been a cute curiosity for the Nuggets if they hadn’t come back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round.
While that series did ultimately break in the Nuggets’ favor point differential-wise, that’s mostly because the Nuggets started to run away with it in the second half and outscored the Clippers 50-33 after going into the locker room down two points.
Coming into Game 7, the Clippers had followed a minus-24 performance in the first round with a minus-12 performance through six games in the second round.
That is to say, the Nuggets had played 13 basketball games, averaged minus-2.8 points on the scoreboard, but gone 7-6 and put themselves in position to end up in the conference finals.
The fact that Denver won by 15 at least means they got the better of the Clippers for the series combined (plus-3), but they still enter the conference finals against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers with an 8-6 record and a minus-21 (1.5 points per game) point differential that, over the course of a full season, would for an average team produce a record of 37-45.
Prorated to an 82-game season, that wouldn’t have made the playoffs this year. It wouldn’t have even grabbed the 9 spot for a play-in game in the bubble when comparing apples to apples. Portland’s 35-39 record translates up to 38.7 wins (so, rounded, 39-43) for the 8 seed and Phoenix and Memphis both would’ve been good for 38-44 when you prorate their 34-39 record up to 82 games.
Yet the Nuggets are in the conference finals. With the worst point differential since the NBA went to a seven-game series first round format way back in 2003, no less.
In fact, only the 2015 Houston Rockets (minus-1) have made it to a conference finals with a negative point differential in their first two rounds, which by quite the coincidence was made possible by the Clippers choking away a 3-1 series lead with a truly epic fourth-quarter meltdown in Game 6 providing the piece de resistance.
The Rockets, for what it’s worth, got splashed out of the playoffs by the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors in 2015 in just five games, including a 35-point mauling in Game 3 and an overall 41-point difference on the scoreboard across those five games, leaving Houston in the position of having been a conference finalist with an overall winning record (9-8) in the playoffs…despite a minus-2.41 point differential that translates into a regular-season win expectation of 34-48.
And unlike Denver, Houston actually won their first-round series in five games; it was a combined 74-point mauling in the three losses (including 58 in Games 3 and 4 at Staples Center) against the Clippers that handed Houston that dubious honor of entering the conference finals with a deficit on the scoreboard overall.
Unless the absolutely unthinkable happens and the Nuggets either win the conference finals with a deficit or come out ahead on the scoreboard by less than 21 points total (hardly unimaginable even in a sweep), history has taught us that the conference finalist, in the only other time this has occurred, easily hands the underdogs’ rear ends to them on a plate.
The Lakers beat Portland by 53 points overall in the first round and the Rockets by 36 in the second. In ten games, they’re averaging plus-8.8 on the scoreboard (a 65-17 pace in an 82-game regular season.)
If you thought Lakers-Nuggets looked like a mismatch from watching actual Nuggets games so far this playoffs, the statistics absolutely match the eye test.
The Lakers are playing like champions.
The Nuggets? Like an 8 seed at best.
This conference finals could end up looking like a first-round cakewalk for LeBron and company.
Then again, 14 games of basketball couldn’t eliminate the Nuggets so far…who knows how deep this rabbit hole goes?