2020 NBA Playoff Predictions Part 2: Our Projections for Each Series (The Fun Stuff)
By: Wilson Yu, Dean Jones, and Lia Bergman-Turnbull
In the first part of our article, we discussed the statistical background of the model that we have used to project the 2020 NBA Playoffs. In this second part, we will proceed to discuss all the match-ups with an emphasis on some of the more intense and interesting matchups, such as the 7-game series, the Los Angeles match, and the Finals, in greater detail.
Western Conference First Round
Los Angeles Lakers vs Memphis Grizzlies (4-0): Our model predicts the Lakers having the best chance of any team in the West to advance past the first round, with a staggering 97.5% probability to defeat the Grizzlies. The two teams have played 4 times this season, with the Grizzlies’ sole win a 105-88 blowout in Memphis by virtue of a stellar 27-point, 14-assist performance from strong Rookie of the Year candidate Ja Morant and a season-low offensive performance from the Lakers. The Grizzlies could similarly pull together a home win to avoid being swept in the first round, but the Lakers are massive favorites. LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be heading closer toward that eventual collision course with the Clippers and, as Lakers fans are hoping, the Bucks. (LAL 97.5%)
Utah Jazz vs Oklahoma City Thunder (4-2): Let’s be clear. No one expected the Thunder to be here. Okay, maybe no one except lifelong underdog Chris Paul. OKC has overcome the offseason losses of Russell Westbrook and Paul George to actually claim the #5 seed, one higher than CP3’s former and Westbrook’s current team in Houston. Their third game against the Jazz this season was postponed just before tip-off when the league suspended its season. Paul’s veteran leadership has allowed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s development to continue flourishing , as he leads the team in scoring with 19 points per game. Dennis Schroeder continues to make a splash off the bench, and Danilo Gallinari keeps proving that he is a dependable scorer. Franchise cornerstones in two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and first-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell lead the Jazz, with Bojan Bogdanovic pouring in 20 points per game and Mike Conley still producing in his 12th season. While an upset is not out of the question, the Jazz have versatility. They match up well against a Thunder small-ball lineup, with a marginally better 3-point percentage, along with slightly better offensive and defensive ratings. Assuming Mitchell and Gobert have genuinely patched things up, the Jazz are favored in this matchup. (UTA 71.4%)
Denver Nuggets vs Houston Rockets (4-3): The Houston Rockets meet the Denver Nuggets in the first round, with Denver holding home court advantage as the third seed. Despite this being a 3rd seed vs 6th seed matchup, Houston is only 2.5 games behind Denver in the standings. Our model predicts that the Denver Nuggets will win Game 7 at home, and ultimately win the series with a win probability of 52.1%.
The teams met four times in the regular season, and they split the season series 2-2 with the home team winning each time. This would suggest a slight tilt in the direction of the Denver Nuggets, as they would host the crucial Game 7 as a result of being the higher seed. While most teams play better at home than on the road, Denver has the extra added bonus of having “home” be at such a high altitude. Higher altitudes are known to tire out athletes faster.
Offensively, the Houston Rockets are a team that shoots as many three pointers as they do two pointers. This is great when they are making their shots. However, just as making a bunch of threes in a row can shoot a team right back into a game, it can also shoot a team out of a game. Most fans can remember how the Rockets gave away an 11 point half time lead to the Warriors when they missed 27 consecutive three point shots in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals two seasons ago. This season, they are not shooting the ball as well as they have in years prior. To date, they are shooting 34.8% from deep. This means they are ranked 23rd in the league in 3FG% despite shooting the most threes of any team. Across the board, 3FG% are down amongst the main shooters as compared to last season. James Harden’s 3FG% has dropped this season. He went from shooting about 37% overall from deep to 35%. Considering the fact that most of his shots per game are from beyond the arc, this dip in number is worrisome. This is especially so when you compare his stats to other extremely high volume three point shooters such as Portland’s Damian Lillard (39.4%), Sacremento’s Buddy Hield (39.5%) and, to a lesser extent, Miami’s Duncan Robinson (44.8%). Russell Westbrook has regressed in this respect as well. Last season he shot 29% from deep. This season he is down to just 25.4%. The supporting cast has also regressed: Eric Gordon went from shooting 36% last season to just 31.9%, Robert Covington went from shooting 37.8% beyond the arc to 34.9% this season and Daniel House went from 41.6% last season to 36.3% this season. This is problematic, as it encourages more teams to double team James Harden, as they are less nervous about leaving people open on the wing. Despite downticks in numbers, Houston seems to be all in with their “small ball” shoot and run strategy, as they traded away their center Clint Capela at the trade deadline.
Defensively, Denver as a team is set up to counter this small ball approach. All of Denver’s starters are at least 6’5”. This gives them decent versatility in matchups against the smaller Rockets. While Jokic can hold down the paint, as well as watch PJ Tucker, the rest of the Nuggets will match up with their position and hold a size advantage. Due to the poor shooting of Russell Westbrook, whoever covers him, perhaps Jeremi Gant, can sag a bit to help Jokic in the paint prevent Westbrook’s explosive drives. The players guarding the wings have to make choices; they can try to double team Harden and force other players to make shots, or they can prevent the Houston wings from getting open. Option 1 would force the Houston wings, all of whom are having down years shooting the ball, to make clutch shots. Option 2 would allow James Harden and Russell Westbrook to win the isolation battle, but since none of the Houston wings are good at creating any offense, Harden and Westbrook would have to essentially outscore Denver as a team. This is unlikely.
On the flip side, Denver offensively has a huge advantage against Houston: size. In their small ball lineup, Houston’s starting center is 6’5” PJ Tucker. Despite his strength, he is much shorter than most other centers leading to a mismatch in the paint. This is a problem for Houston because Denver is led offensively by seven foot center Nikola Jokic. Not only is he a great scorer in the paint and a strong rebounder, he also leads the team in assists. He will have a significant size matchup against PJ Tucker, and when the inevitable double team comes he will be able to dish the ball to the open man. Though Denver doesn’t rely on the three point shot the way Houston does, when they do shoot the long ball, they shoot it at a decent clip of 35.8%. However, despite the lack of three point shots, they are still above average in eFG% (which takes into account the fact a 3 point shot is worth more than a 2 point one). Though Denver does not play at a fast pace (they rank 29th in the league), they are effective when they have the ball. They are shooting the ball well at 47.1% FG%, good for 6th in the league. They also distribute the ball well, averaging 26.5 assists per game, while limiting turnovers to just 13.7 per game, both of which are top 10 figures in the league. Already one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, Denver will be able to capitalize on their size advantage and win the battle of the boards on both the defensive and offensive side game after game.
Defensively, Houston will have trouble stopping this offense. When they traded Clint Capela, they traded their primary rebounder and rim protector. While they are faster and better able to intercept passing lanes, they do not have a response for Jokic. And therein lies the difference maker in this series: Denver has the tools defensively to potentially stop the Houston Rockets and contain their stars; Houston does not have the players to stop Denver's star. This coupled with the fact Denver has home court advantage is just enough for Denver to squeak by in a 7 game battle. (DEN 52.1%)
Los Angeles Clippers vs Dallas Mavericks (4-3): For a matchup between the #2 and #7 seeds, our model’s calculated win probability for the Clippers (56.4%) is surprisingly low. The team’s chances are hurt by the fact that so many different starting lineups have been used this season - 29 to be exact - and their two biggest stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, have not played as frequently together as fans would like. In the playoffs, that will change. Beyond the perennial All-Stars are the consistently effective and underrated Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, each accounting for about 18 points this season, Patrick Beverley’s reputation as a pesky defender remains. The Mavericks have been riding Luka Doncic’s impressive sophomore season, and continue enjoying reliable output from Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway, and even Seth Curry. They also have the edge over the Clippers in offensive rating, defensive rating, and effective field goal percentage. Yet despite the Mavericks being better than their seeding might suggest, the Clippers remain deeper, more experienced, and undeniably elite. By focusing their efforts on containing Doncic, LA should be able to advance past the first round and defeat Dallas in an intense, hard-earned series. (LAC 56.4%)
Eastern Conference First Round
Milwaukee Bucks vs Orlando Magic (4-0): Two words. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Reigning MVP. Either or works. The Greek Freak does it all, stuffing up the stat sheet with 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game. Oh, plus one steal and block each too. All-Star Khris Middleton is happy to play Robin to Giannis’s Batman, at an efficient clip of 21.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game. He dropped 51 points earlier this season in a 151-131 win against the Wizards; yeah, you read every part of that right. Eric Bledsoe had 34 points that night, which leads to another fact: the Bucks’ bench is arguably the best in the league. Without Antetokounmpo or Middleton on the floor, the team outscores opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions, and stifles other teams in the paint. The Magic have seen Aaron Gordon’s scoring and 3-point shooting decline from last year, partly due to injuries, and have been developing Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba behind Nikola Vucevic. Orlando could possibly steal a win like it did against Toronto last year, but Milwaukee should progress one step closer toward their ultimate goal of the championship that slipped away in 2019. (MIL 99.7%)
Miami Heat vs Indiana Pacers (4-2): Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo lead the Heat, averaging 20.2 and 16.2 points per game apiece. Behind them is a young core of Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro, who have fans in Miami excited about the team’s future, and will be making their first playoff appearance. Also: 2015 Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala. The rest from this quarantine may be particularly beneficial to the return of Playoff Iggy. On a similar note, Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon for the Pacers are enjoying the opportunity to fully recover. The two will be crucial to Indiana’s success going forward, even as injuries have limited their time on the court. In their absence, Domantas Sabonis and T.J. Warren have done well leading the team to the playoffs. The Pacers lost both times they played the Heat. Indiana’s struggles with finding the right lineup gives the edge to Miami, who should win a tough series. (MIA 72.8%)
Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers (4-2): This series is debatably the most exciting matchup of the First Round, with two of the East’s favorites battling it out. Our model predicts a 66.6% win probability for the Celtics leading to a (4-2) series. Had Celtics’s probability been just 1% lower, it would be predicted as a (4-3) series instead. This means that the probabilities of a six vs seven game series are extremely similar. Should this series extend to a seven game series, the Celtics hold home court advantage, having gone 23-9 at home this season while the Sixers have struggled on the road at 10-24 for the season. So far, the Sixers lead 3-1 in their bouts, but the largest win margin in these four games actually belongs to the Celtics during their most recent match. The Sixers dominate in size with bigs like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Al Horford, who will prove difficult for the Celtics to overcome. However, the Celtics hold better Offensive and Defensive Ratings than the Sixers. They are led by Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown offensively, all with 20+ points per game, and Marcus Smart on the defensive end. It is certain that this will be an extremely hard fought series, with both teams having a considerable chance to come out on top, but our model gives a slight edge to the Celtics due to their Win% difference. (BOS 66.6%)
Toronto Raptors vs Brooklyn Nets (4-0): The Raptors are predicted to sweep the Nets with an overwhelming 96.9% win probability. This value is mostly explained by the 25% difference in Win% between the two contenders. Having played four games together this season, the Raptors have only lost once. In their losing game, the Raptors exhibited a very poor display of scoring, shooting only 37.8% that night, compared to shooting over 50% in their previous 15 games. With All-Stars Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam leading most of the cast of the defending NBA champions, we expect them to be consistent and fare extremely well in this series. (TOR 96.9%)
Western Conference Semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers vs Utah Jazz (4-2): The Lakers are expected to win this series against the Jazz in six games. They have only played two games so far, both resulting in the Lakers’ victory. These games were led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the offense, lighting up the board by scoring 20+ points each in both games. However, what the Jazz really struggled overcoming was the Lakers’ tight defense. The Lakers forced 23 turnovers in the first game and were able to score 21 points off Utah’s 19 turnovers in the second game. The Jazz have their own defensive star in back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, who is fourth in the league in blocks and tied for third in rebounds. They also have offensive talents Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic, who both average 20+ points per game and can play together very effectively when both are in sync. However, against the team with the best Defensive Rating in the West, it will be a tough match for the Jazz to win. (LAL 77.4%)
Los Angeles Clippers vs Denver Nuggets (4-3): In this battle of the Western Conference Semifinals, the Clippers are projected to win in an intense 7-game series battle. Considering this is a match between the #2 and #3 seed, with both having a very similar Win% this season, it is expected that this will be a close series. They have faced off in three matches so far this season, with the Nuggets leading 2-1. Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, despite being 7 feet tall, is extremely versatile on the court, excelling in dishing passes, guarding the rim, posting up, and scoring all over the floor. The Clippers have Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell in response, but Zubac still has ways to go both offensively and defensively before matching up with Jokic, and Harrell lacks the size needed to stop the 7-foot, 284 pounds center. Jamal Murray, Nuggets’ second leading scorer, has been consistent and is a great asset. The Clippers will most likely send Patrick Beverly to defend Murray, and with Beverly’s aggressive and troublesome defense, it is important that Murray rises above this challenge to increase the Nuggets’ chances.
The role of the bench players will also contribute greatly to the outcome of this match. It is crucial that Lou Williams is able to replicate his stellar 2019 Playoffs performance as support for the two new stars. Montrezl Harrell has also become an incredibly reliable player off the bench, being one of the league’s best scorers in that regard. The Nuggets’ bench has capable center Mason Plumlee as Jokic’s backup, who exhibits great defensive skills on the court. With young and developing talent like Michael Porter Jr. finally injury-free, the Nuggets’ bench has solid matchups against the Clippers' bench.
Looking back at their matches, the Clippers were able to pull off a 132-103 blowout in their most recent match. Incidentally, this was the first time the Clippers had a healthy roster consisting of both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George against the Nuggets. Using the same principle in our Los Angeles series discussion, we took the team statistics when Leonard and George played together to calculate the new win probabilities. This yielded a 17.1% increase in win probability, and our model predicts a (4-2) series instead of (4-3). With the addition of Leonard and George, the Nuggets’ wings, Gary Harris and Will Barton, are likely to struggle on defense against these two offensive powers while also having to compensate for their size difference. With the now healthy George and Leonard leading the Clippers, it is expected that the Clippers will emerge victorious in a tight series spanning six or seven games. (LAC 56.6%)
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Milwaukee Bucks vs Miami Heat (4-1): As the team leading the East in statistics such as Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Rebound%, to name a few, the Bucks are projected to win the series against the Heat in five games. With the best Defensive Rating in the league by a large margin at 101.6, their defensive prowess will be a tough trial to overcome. The Heat happens to have the second highest OEFG% in the East, which can be attributed to offensive talents like Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, and Duncan Robinson. This skill will be especially important for them against the Bucks’ tight defense, but their OEFG% also happens to be second to the Bucks themselves. Looking at their previous two matchups, the Bucks actually lost twice, so we believe that our model may have slightly underestimated the Heat’s win probability. In the first game, the Bucks led by 21 points in the first quarter but succumbed to the Heat’s offensive might in overtime. In the second game, the Heats managed to hold Bucks star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to only 13 points. What really lost this game for the Bucks was hitting a dismal 7-34 from beyond the arc against the Heat’s 18-37 from three. Because of this, we believe that the Heat will prove to be a surprisingly tough matchup for the Bucks, as they seem to have devised a strategy to stifle Giannis and the Bucks. While in the end, the Bucks are still favored to win this series, the Heat may drag this duel longer than we expect. (MIL 88.5%)
Toronto Raptors vs Boston Celtics (4-2): The Raptors and Celtics would be an exciting matchup to prelude the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston has won two out of three of their regular-season meetings this year. A resounding 118-102 win in Toronto on Christmas is a bit diluted by the fact that the Raptors were dearly missing core pieces Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, and Norman Powell that night, instead relying on Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher. And the Raptors’ response three days later in Boston, a 113-97 victory with those same three players on the sideline was a powerful statement. Still, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker were excellent that night, and will have to be if these two teams meet in the playoffs. Also, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum will have to continue adding balance to the Celtics’ offensive attack.
On defense the Celtics are solid. With a position-less style and frequent switching, Boston consistently applies pressure on opposing offenses. The offseason losses of Aron Baynes and Al Horford perhaps forced this change in strategy. They have one of the league’s best defensive ratings at 106.8, and the Raptors, while having a slight edge, can respect the Celtics’ approach. Yet Boston’s recent history of disappointment in the playoffs seems destined to continue. History is in favor of teams like the Raptors who are more battle-tested and hold greater playoff experience. Nick Nurse’s strategic counterpunches, displayed so masterfully last year against the Bucks and Warriors, make it seem likely that the Raptors will effectively neutralize this young Celtics team. His deft utilization of zone defenses and role assignments for Siakam, Gasol, VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry has been a huge part of why the team, minus Kawhi Leonard, has still had the second-best defense and #2 seed. Nurse may be the team’s greatest asset - his team should return to the Eastern Conference Finals. (TOR 68.4%)
Western Conference Finals (The Los Angeles Series)
Los Angeles Lakers vs Los Angeles Clippers (4-1): The Los Angeles showdown between the Lakers and Clippers is a highly debated and anticipated series to see who will represent the City of Angels in the Finals. The common consensus is that it will be a tough match for both teams resulting in a close series. However, our model actually predicts that the opposite outcome will occur, with the Lakers having a staggering 83% win probability and winning the series in only five games. As the creators of this model, we disagree with this result. To clarify, it is not that we lack faith in the model itself; it is that we believe the team statistics for the Clippers are not very reflective of their expected playoff success. When discussing matches involving the Clippers, their two new All-Stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, are often brought up in the topic of discussion. This makes perfect sense as they are the only two players on the team averaging 20+ points per game, and are also two of the best two-way players in the entire league. The reason we bring up this duo is because, despite being the second seed in the West, Leonard and George have played only 29 games together, which constitutes less than half the games of this season thus far. We expect them to play most, if not all, of the playoff games together now that they have both been back on the court for the last eight games, provided no further injuries occur. Because of this, we reason that the regular season team statistics underestimate the win probability of the Clippers when these two stars consistently play together in the playoffs.
Motivated by this idea, we decided to find the team statistics of games in which Leonard and George played together to use in our model. We found that these games have a Win% of 73.9% and a OEFG% of 53.3%, a 5.1% increase in overall Win% and a 0.1% increase in overall OEFG%. Given these results, there was not a significant change in OEFG%, but there was a significant increase in Win%. Using these new values, we ran our model again to see what the outcome of the Lakers vs. Clippers match would look like. We observed that the Clippers had a new win probability of 31%, a 14% increase from their previous probability! This still means that the Lakers win the series, but now they are predicted to win in six games instead of five. Below is a graph noting the difference in win probability if we had used this version of team statistics (Clippers 2.0) instead of the original one in our model (Clippers 1.0).
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George only played 29 games together due to injuries sustained by both players, but also because of load management. Load management is the practice of resting key players in back to back situations, or against weaker teams to keep them rested and healthy for the postseason. While most teams use load management and players get injured all the time, missed games add a wrinkle in using regular season stats for predicting playoff success. Teams will not be resting their stars in the playoffs. Often, rotations are shortened, and stars stay on the court for longer. Using that logic, it would make sense to only account for games where the stars play to predict the outcome in the playoff
However, if we are to make models based on when stars are healthy, it creates additional problems. If we were to just use the 29 games that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard played together, then we would also need to apply the same standard to the other teams and their star players. Since some teams had their stars play more than others (the Lakers Lebron James and Anthony Davis missed fewer games combined than either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George individually). Thus sample sizes of games played would be different for each team.
We would also have the problem of the using seedings that take into account all the games played, but only using stats from certain games as the team stats for the model. Most teams have better win percentages in the subset of games when the stars play. Injuries and load management can cause teams to drop games they might otherwise have won. This can affect seeding. For example, the Clippers are 5.5 games behind the Lakers for the top seed. If they hadn’t been so dedicated to load management, might they have challenged the Lakers for the top seed. Load management and injuries might have caused other teams to drop a game here and there which could drastically alter the playoff landscape. As it is, the path to the Western Conference Finals is MUCH harder coming from the second seed as it is coming from the top seed. Dallas and Houston are arguably much stronger teams than Memphis and Utah.
In short, we decided to run our model using the team statistics from the entire season. While this may mean that it predicts the Clippers to have a harder time in the first two series, and losing by more than they might in real life in the Conference Finals, it honestly represents the circumstances they face. Losing stars for any number of games due to injuries or load management affects how a team performs in the regular season. Take the total collapse of the Golden State Warriors dynasty this season as an example. While we recognize the bias against the Clippers as a result of this decision, we feel it is the right decision. Players rise to the occasion all the time, and it is very possible that the Clippers will exceed the models predictions now that their stars are back. In the future, we could add another metric for “playoff mode” that accounts for the extra reliance on star players during the playoffs and recognizes the fact that they can often single handedly drag their teams through the playoffs in the pursuit of championship glory.
Moving on from this discussion, we believe that there are several other factors that would dictate the flow of the series. Observing their most recent game back in March, it seems that the Lakers superstar duo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are closely matched with the Clippers’ respective duo, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. It was so evenly matched that each pair both coincidentally scored 58 points. Now, this game ended up to be the Lakers’ first win against the Clippers this season. What really pushed the Lakers to the front was Avery Bradley’s stellar performance, scoring 24 points for a season-high and having the highest plus/minus of 13. For the Clippers, Lou Williams suffered defensively and fell short offensively, shooting 3-11 from the field, which was still not as bad as Marcus Morris’s 0-9 display. This game revealed the significant impact of role players and how their performance may ultimately be the deciding factor of the series. For the Lakers, to name a few, this means Danny Green has to be an excellent sharpshooter from beyond the arc and Kyle Kuzma has to be more consistent offensively and defensively to patch up any mistakes from the two superstars. For the Clippers, Lou Williams has to stay true as a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner and Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac have to be able to compete with the bigs on the Lakers. Speaking of which, we believe that the size difference between the two teams may also play a role in the series outcome.
With the rise of “small ball” in today’s game, the size of the players seems to matter less and less. However, this strategy is only effective if a team’s three-point percentage is much higher than their opponent’s. In the case of the Lakers and Clippers, the Clippers only have a 1.1% higher three-point percentage; not high enough to completely dismiss the existence of a size difference. While already having to deal with LeBron’s drives and assists to Anthony Davis below the rim, the Clippers also have to fight against veteran centers Javale McGee and Dwight Howard. With only Harrell and Zubac as options defending the paint, it will prove difficult for the Clippers to stop the Lakers in this regard. Considering these factors, we believe that this matchup will be a very close series, possibly closer than even what our adjusted model predicted. However, we still expect the Lakers to have a slight edge over the Clippers and proceed to the Finals. (LAL 83.0%)
Eastern Conference Finals (2019 Rematch)
Milwaukee Bucks vs Toronto Raptors (4-1): These two teams ending up in the Eastern Conference Finals would feel like the natural sequel to last year’s stunning result, when Kawhi led the Raptors to victory after falling down 0-2 in the series. The Game 3 double-overtime win was the start of that. Credit Nick Nurse’s coaching too for slowing down Giannis and the rest of the high-flying Bucks with a box-and-one defense.
Could the same happen again this year? We are less convinced. The Raptors lost their Finals MVP to the Clippers in the offseason, and while they have not skipped a beat in the regular season, they would be playing without their best two-player from a year ago. Both times the teams have played this season, the Raptors have struggled offensively. The miserable field goal percentages from their critical players in the last meeting - Kyle Lowry going 2-12 from the field and 1-7 from behind the arc, Serge Ibaka 2-15 and 1-10 - are concerning signs that could foreshadow troubles in the playoffs. The Bucks and Raptors have similar offensive rebounding percentages, but on defense, Milwaukee enjoys a healthy 81.7% advantage over Toronto’s 76.1%. That deficit was a crucial factor in determining the outcomes of those regular season games.
While Pascal Siakam has taken impressive offensive strides this season and Kyle Lowry remains a handful for most defenses, the Bucks are not just any team. They allow 102.0 points every 100 possessions, 8.2 points better than the league average this season to give them the NBA’s best defense since the 2008 NBA Champion Celtics. Their defensive strategy is fast; it purposely allows poor shooters to hoist up 3-point attempts, and rejects shots at the rim at a frightening 40% rate within 3 feet. That previously mentioned defensive rebounding rate is best in the league. The Raptors match up well too - second in defended field-goal percentage at the rim and first in opponent 3-point percentage in the league - to make life difficult for Antetokounmpo once again. Yet the balanced attack in the teams’ most recent meeting, with Antetokounmpo’s 19, Khris Middleton’s 22, Eric Bledsoe’s 17, and Brook Lopez’s 15 shows that the Bucks can overcome this.
The Bucks did lose Malcolm Brogdon to the Pacers, and sure wish they could have kept him, but Middelton has also improved to a degree similar to Siakam and Giannis; he has covered up a couple remaining holes in his offensive game, particularly from mid-range and distance. The Bucks are hungry to avenge the shocking upset suffered last year. They know advancing past the defending champions will be no walk in the park. Our model predicts a five-game series, but we are inclined to note a six-game series is just as likely. Regardless, we see Milwaukee exorcising its demons and reaching the Finals. (MIL 84.4%)
Milwaukee Bucks vs Los Angeles Lakers (4-3):
Bucks-Lakers. It is the matchup that seemed destined to happen since the start of the season. It features LeBron James, long the face of the NBA against reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak. The Bucks will have home court advantage due to having the better record in the regular season. Our model predicts that the Bucks will win Game 7 at home, and ultimately win the series with a win probability of 64.3%. The teams met two times in the regular season, and they split the series 1-1 with the home team winning each time.
The Lakers have a clear size advantage over the Bucks. The Lakers have two traditional big men in Javale McGee and Dwight Howard. In addition, they also have 6’10” Anthony Davis as well as 6’9” LeBron James. Both of them are capable of playing the center position as well. Their normal starting lineup features McGee, Davis, and James with Danny Green and Avery Bradley on the wings. Even if the Lakers were to play “small-ball” by moving Davis to the 5 and bringing in someone like Markieff Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Kyle Kuzma, they would still have a bigger lineup than the Bucks, while being able to space the floor.
By contrast, the Bucks have only Brook Lopez and his twin Robin Lopez as big men. As Robin is merely a journeyman role player, he cannot be counted on to anchor the Bucks defensively with the likes of James and Davis coming at him. The Bucks run into trouble matching up with the talented Lakers big men when Brook gets into foul trouble; this is what happened in their game that the Lakers won. While Giannis has the strength to go up against the Lakers bigs, other power forwards on the Bucks struggle. Ersan Illyasova lacks the athleticism and mobility necessary to overcome the size mismatch. Marvin Williams, though more athletic than Ilyasova, measures in even smaller. More importantly, he has been struggling to find any sort of offensive rhythm since signing shortly after the All-Star break.
Ideally, the Lakers would want to stay big, and keep Javale McGee and Dwight Howard in the rotation. Problems may arise if Brook Lopez manages to stay out of foul trouble and knock down some three pointers. This would force either McGee or Howard to move out of the paint to guard him, leaving an open lane for Giannis to drive in. In this situation, the Lakers would likely bench their centers and move Davis to the 5. If Milwaukee leaves Brook Lopez on the floor, Markieff Morris might get minutes as he has the size to go up against either Lopez or Giannis. Another choice could be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has much greater flexibility when it comes to defending multiple positions.
The Bucks’ response? If they stay big with Lopez in with Giannis, Lopez would likely have to cover Anthony Davis. This would force him away from the paint. If the Bucks decide that this is acceptable, then both Davis and Lopez will be stretch 5’s. If the Bucks decide that having Lopez constantly pulled away from the paint ruins their defensive schemes too much, they can match the Lakers in small-ball by, as mentioned above, subbing in either Ilyasova or Williams for Lopez. Doing this will lead to a size mismatch that either Davis or James can take advantage of through post-ups without a true rim protector on the floor for the Bucks.
Where the Bucks have the advantage is on the offensive end. They come into the Finals with the NBA’s best offense. They have scored the most points per game (118.6), have the best eFG% (55.3%) and are in the top-5 for 3 pointers made per game with 13.7 across the NBA.
Three point shooting is an area where they hold a significant advantage over the Lakers. The Bucks are averaging 2.5 more 3FG per game than the Lakers. Giannis has added a three point shot this year; while it is still a work in progress at 30.6%, he is knocking down 1.5 3s on 4.8 attempts per game. While not sharpshooter numbers, they do force defenders to respect his outside shot and not completely sag off him the way they can against a player such as Ben Simmons. Surrounding Giannis is a talented group of guards and wings that are capable of hitting from long range: Kyle Korver (41.5%), Wesley Matthews (36.5%), Eric Bledsoe (34.8%) and Khris Middleton (41.8%). While none of them shoot the long ball at an incredibly high volume, they are effective when they do shoot it, making it harder to double team Giannis. Even Brook Lopez has managed to reinvent himself into a stretch-5 over the past few seasons, though he has not been shooting it as well as hoped. Though the team can struggle with hitting wide open looks, if they can get just a few more to go in, the Lakers could have problems.
The Lakers are not a horrible three point shooting team. They are just...average. They are ranked 22nd in 3FG per game (11.2) and 17th in 3FG percentage (35.5%). These numbers are simply not going to cut it in the NBA Finals in a league dominated by the rise of three point shooting. The Lakers wings have ranged from streaky to awful when it comes to shooting the long ball this season. Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels do not get many minutes these days since they cannot consistently hit from deep. Danny Green (37.8%) is streaky, and Kyle Kuzma (29.7%) has been struggling. Davis and James, 33.5% and 34.9% respectively, are not particularly threatening from behind the arc either. It does not help that Davis has a tendency to take long two pointers, one of the worst kinds of shots in the game of basketball. Caldwell-Pope shoots at a high percentage (39.4%), but not at a high volume (1.4 out of 3.5 attempts per game). Playing with a true center hurts their shooting numbers, however the team is still able to generate good spacing. The problem, though, is that they are not making enough shots. The Bucks are the highest scoring team in the league, and the Lakers will need to be able to score with them if they want to win the series.
It is one thing to be able to knock down wide open shots off of passes from teammates. It is another thing to create your own shot, or even create an open look for a teammate.
The Bucks have a very reliable point guard in Eric Bledsoe. Sure, he is not the leader of the team the way many of the league's top point guards are, but he fits in nicely as a third option. He distributes the ball well, and can both set up shots for teammates and score himself if need be. Both Giannis and Middleton are also very capable of setting up teammates. Amongst the three of them, they average almost 15 assists per game. Running the second unit is George Hill, who is serviceable not only in creating his own shot, but also in creating shots for his teammates.
The Lakers do not have a true point guard. LeBron James has handled most of the ball handling responsibilities this season. While he is effective, averaging 10.6 assists per game, the Lakers have problems when he sits. Rajon Rondo is supposed to lead the second unit, however he is no longer the player he once was. He is a terrible shooter, and is not good at creating his own shot. He struggles in the pick-and-roll. Though he can still create shots for his teammates, the Lakers are at a disadvantage with him on the floor without James. While the Lakers have had some success in generating offense by playing Alex Caruso with Rondo, that tandem creates problems defensively. Kyle Kuzma was supposed to develop into a legitimate third option, but his shooting numbers are not great (43.2% FG and 29.7% from 3). He has not been able to generate much offense as a result. Though it is inevitable that a team will perform worse without their star on the court, the difference in offensive output is pretty significant for the Lakers without James. It is minimal with the Bucks.
Being the best team in the regular season takes work. Getting to the NBA Finals takes even more work. However, playing in the NBA Finals is a very different beast altogether. It demands great concentration and energy when momentum swings against you. Leaders must step up and help the team regroup. Mistakes need to be quickly forgotten. The focus must always be the next play or the next game.
The Lakers are led by LeBron James. He went to 8 straight Finals, where he experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows. He has seemingly single handedly dragged numerous teams to the Finals, and has improbably come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship in the infamous 2016 Finals. He will undoubtedly rally the Lakers should they fall behind in a game or the series.
The Bucks, on the other hand, famously collapsed last season. They were the top seed in the East and took a 2-0 lead against Toronto, then proceeded to lose the next four games and thus the series. Eric Bledsoe has struggled in the playoffs at key moments. He was outplayed by Terry Rozier a few seasons ago, and collapsed last year in the Toronto series. This year, they are also the top seed. Will they be better prepared to handle the adversity? If they were to lose Game 5 at home, could they go to Los Angeles and win Game 6? Can Giannis and Khris Middleton step up as leaders when called upon? Or will the ghosts of 2019 come back and haunt them? The Lakers will be ready for the moment. The Bucks need to figure out a way to be as well.
It will be an interesting matchup. Both teams have at times looked dominant, and both have shown flaws that could be exploited. The Lakers will be able to take advantage of Davis and James to create mismatches. They might succeed in getting Brook Lopez into foul trouble and then run riot with their big lineups. However, they will not be able to do this every single night. The Bucks have gotten out to fast starts in both matchups this season, and will surely come out flying again in the Finals. The Lakers will need to survive the initial onslaught and then generate enough offense to compete with the Bucks pace and shooting. This has been a weakness of theirs all season, and it will be hard to rectify it against one of the leagues top defenses in Milwaukee. LeBron will most likely play 40 minutes or more per game, and continue to facilitate for his teammates while scoring plenty. He has previously dragged weaker teams than the current Lakers roster to the Finals. While he might be able to lead his team to victory in an elimination Game 6, we believe that the Bucks will ultimately prevail in Game 7 at home and win the 2020 NBA Championship.
Outcome: Milwaukee Bucks wins 4-3
We hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as we did writing it. Again, the fate of the 2020 NBA playoffs remain up in the air, but we are cautiously optimistic that basketball can return in July.
We are quite happy with the model we generated and the predictions it produced. There are clearly areas of improvement. We would have liked to include more than the two variables of winning percentage and offensive effective field goal percentage (OEFG) that the model deemed most accurate for predicting playoff success. We would have preferred to compile this model after a full 82-game regular season and even adjust our predictions a bit to reflect expectations about teams like the LA Clippers shifting into a higher gear for the playoffs. But at the end of the day, our calculations worked out pretty well. We cannot change the fact that the coronavirus shortened the season and left us with a smaller data pool to work with. We also cannot deny that all of the combinations besides the simple pair we ended up using were dramatically flawed. Our current knowledge of statistical techniques like logistic and Poisson regression led us to this point, where we gained an exciting glimpse into what the future might hold.
Breaking down each playoff series allowed us to frame each matchup in terms of what the numbers tell us, but also to consider the colorful personalities and nuanced strategies that add depth to the game we love. In the East, we are excited to see whether the potential first-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers plays out as we expect, with the latest chapter of this storied rivalry resulting in hard-fought victory for The Green. Ultimately though, the elite Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks seem almost predestined for a rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals. Expect The North minus Kawhi Leonard to have a harder time matching the firepower of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, even as they try their best to replicate their 2019 success. In the West, we see fiercely competitive series lined up for the Clippers, first against the Dallas Mavericks and then against the Denver Nuggets. We expect Leonard and Paul George to be more than capable of leading this talented roster to the Western Conference Finals, where they should meet the Lakers in the highest-profile battleground for the City of Angels’ crown. As much national attention is captured by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the purple-and-gold’s route to the Finals may be paved by role players getting hot at the right time and pushing them over the top.
So finally, we will have the Finals matchup most fans should be satisfied with: Lakers-Bucks. Two teams with a laughable disparity in market share, despite being quite evenly matched. The converging storylines are as rich as any this season. The Bucks suffered heartbreak and a sense of opportunity lost last season, as their meteoric rise to the top with Antetokounmpo’s MVP campaign ended with a thud against the only basketball team in Canada. The Lakers, along with the rest of the world, have mourned the shocking loss of franchise great Kobe Bryant this season. It would certainly mean something special for them to win this championship after such a bizarre, brutal year 2020 has proven to be.
Our model predicts a classic, intense 7-game series… and victory for Milwaukee.
In some form or another, basketball will eventually return. This discussion is our best prediction of how it all plays out. Thank you for reading.
Sources: basketball-reference.com, stats.nba.com, espn.com