The NBA slows down in the playoffs…but by how much?

File via Wikimedia Commons

It is a widely-held maxim in NBA circles that “the game slows down in the playoffs” and that teams that look to run in the regular season tend to underperform when they’re forced into the halfcourt.

But is that really true? After all, the Golden State Warriors have won two of the last three titles, and they and the New Orleans Pelicans are playing at a breakneck pace. And the Showtime Lakers ran plenty of fast breaks in May and June back in the day.

So let’s start with the modern era, since Erik Spoelstra coined the term for the style of basketball from which this site takes its name, then we’ll look at the fastest and slowest teams ever to make the playoffs and see what we can learn from the pace of their regular season and playoff games.

We begin with the first round and first couple of games of the second round of this year’s playoffs compared to the regular season. And we’ll start right square in the middle of the argument…literally:

(All stats via Basketball Reference, as always.)

League average pace, 2017-18 regular season: 97.3
League average pace, 2018 playoffs: 95.9.

OK, so we’ve got a baseline. 1.4 possessions per 48 minutes slower. 1.43 percent, if you prefer. That’s…well, not a statistical tie, but mighty close to one.

So let’s instead restrict this to playoff teams…their regular season average was 97.1. So that narrows the gap to just 1.2 possessions. Hmm.

Let’s do the same thing for the five previous years, 2013-17. In order, and assuming that playoff teams are in any given year roughly representative of the league as a whole within statistical reason:

Average regular-season pace: 92.0, 93.9, 93.9, 95.8, 96.4.
Average playoff pace: 89.5, 90.6, 94.4, 93.0, 94.9.

OK, so with one exception (2015), where the league played faster in the playoffs and, curiously, took a big leap forward in pace the following regular season, the pace of the game slowed down between 1.5 and 3.3 possessions per game.

Don’t think that’s a big difference? In 2014, where the biggest difference showed up, you could step through over a third of the league by accelerating pace by 3.3 possessions (Memphis, the slowest team, played at 89.9; Washington was 18th at 93.2, and another 3.3 points in pace, to 96.5, would’ve been good for fifth.)

There’s a big difference between fast basketball and slow basketball, and a noticeable difference between both and league-average basketball. It’s the difference between a standard-issue Cleveland Cavaliers game and, on one end, the Rockets and Nets, and at the other, the Grizzlies and Jazz. And, of course, a Rockets-Jazz game…well, you’re watching the second round this year, right?

Anyway, the point is, in recent basketball history, over a six-year stretch, the playoffs slow the game down by about two or three percent…and that makes a huge difference over the course of 48 minutes and seven games.

So let’s go back to when this conventional wisdom took root…or at least when it could be reliably measured. We start with the Showtime Lakers at their five-year apex between 1984 and 1988, when they beat the Boston Celtics twice in three series and made another Finals against Detroit; the only Finals they missed was 1986, another Boston title (Larry Bird and company’s second over the Rockets; Bird only beat Magic Johnson once.)

Lakers regular-season pace, 1984-88 respectively: 103.7, 103.2, 102.7, 101.6, 99.1. (in each case they were in the top half of the league in pace but were never faster than sixth in any full season under Pat Riley.)

Lakers playoff pace, 1984-88: 100.1, 108.0, 99.9, 100.5, 92.5.

OK, so the first question is what on earth happened in 1985 that the Lakers just ran teams off the floor…but other than that massive outlier, the other four years featured an average slowdown of about three possessions, including a 5.6 possession slowdown in ’88.

So OK, we have so far learned that three percent is a good rule of thumb for how far the game slows down in the playoffs, but it’s noisy data, as playoffs, with massively lower game counts than regular seasons and occasional years where fast teams win titles and other years where slow teams do, generates a bunch of variance.

There will always be outliers (see the Cavs-Pacers series this year; the two teams averaged about a 97 pace during the regular season…and 90.7 over their seven games in the playoffs), but they tend to average out.

But let’s try one more little statistical test. What happens in the playoffs when in theory you can’t play any slower without committing a 24-second violation on every possession?

Enter…the mid-’90s Cavaliers under Mike Fratello, the most boring team in post-1954 NBA history.

Fratello took command in 1993-94, where his team was the second-slowest in the league that year.

But he could go a lot slower…reaching a nadir of 82.3 in 1996.

Fratello only made the playoffs four times in his six years, in 1994 through ’96 and again in 1998, and he never got out of the first round, so this is going to be small sample size derby in the playoffs. Let’s take those four years, in order:

Regular season: 91.7, 84.8, 82.3 (!), 89.9.
Playoffs: 83.7, 85.1, 80.9 (!!), 82.7.

Man, those numbers in 1996. The slowest team OF ALL TIME managed to play even slower in the playoffs. The two times Fratello coached a team that would be a snail but recognizable in today’s game, his pace went to a crawl in the playoffs.

The moral of the story is never underestimate the power of a boring coach with a boring team to be boring in the playoffs. Thank the gods they went a combined 1-12 in playoff games before Fratello was mercifully sent back to the broadcast booth with Marv Albert.

But when someone tells you that “the game slows down in the playoffs”, now you know; they’re right, and it’s by an average of about three possessions for each team per game. It’s not much, but it sure is noticeable, part of what makes the playoffs more strategic than the regular season.