So far these playoffs, Russell Westbrook is the only player to score a triple double—and he's already got three. He nearly came up with his fourth triple double of the playoffs last Friday, finishing with 23 points, 13 assists, and 8 rebounds in 37 minutes. It was an awesome game, but the weirdest thing about it in the context of triple-doubles might be Russ's minutes count.
We started with a basic question: Are triple-doubles easier or harder to come by in the playoffs? Obviously, the star players all play more minutes, and so will have a better chance to hit their raw numbers. But the competition is also stiffer, and defenses have time to gameplan against specific stars, forcing them to pass. For now, we're just going to focus on the triple doubles themselves, because they're fun, and like a 100-mile-per-hour fastball, are a round number that actually (usually) signifies something real.
So, are they?
Figuring out if they're more common is simple enough using Basketball Reference's Play Index—we just took all the triple-doubles in the regular season and playoffs since 1999-00 against the total number of games in the league (accounting for pre-Bobcats schedule, lockouts, and differing playoff series lengths), and put them on the line chart below. Short answer: Yes, triple-doubles are more common in the playoffs.
While we were at it, though, we could'nt help but notice Jason Kidd, the god of latter day triple-doubles. He was responsible for 11.6 percent of all triple-doubles in the regular season, and a full TWENTY PERCENT of all playoff triple doubles from 1999 through his retirement. So we thought, uhm, was it possible that Jason Kidd was singlehandedly boosting the league's rate in the playoffs? We subtracted the number of games that Kidd played each year, in the regular season and the playoffs, and came up with the second chart. The number of Jason Kidd playoff games isn't quite statistically significant to overall playoff triple double rate (our sample size was relatively small), but you can see the difference he made all on his own.
Is it just more minutes for stars in the playoffs?
The obvious reason here is minutes. So to check, we took the average minutes played in every triple-double game over that same period. The average for the regular season was 40.5 minutes, while the playoff average was 43.3 minutes. Here's how many minutes were played in every triple-double game since 1999:
(The 20-minute triple-double was Westbrook, this March. It was the second-fastest ever, trailing Jim Tucker in 1955.)
That seems cut-and-dry! Playoff triple-doubles are more watered down than regular season triple doubles. But there are actually a few complications. For one, just seeing that triple doubles are taking longer in the playoffs might lead you to think that players are just staying in the game longer and squeaking into their triple doubles. That doesn't seem to be the case, though, since the average of the games by Game Score was actually higher for the playoffs (23.4) than it was for the regular season (22).
This all means that playoff triple-doubles don't just take longer, and thereby allow Andre Miller types collect that 10th rebound for a 12-10-11. Instead, it seems to be the case that, around 44 minute mark, the all-around players start to hit critical mass, and the 27-6-7 that LeBron James averages in the regular season can all of a sudden turn into a 37-11-12.
Charts by Reuben Fischer-Baum