A statistical guide to every first-round series in the NBA Playoffs

The NBA Playoffs are finally here. These are all the statistics you need to know for every first-round series.
Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets
Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets / Justin Tafoya/GettyImages

With the New Orleans Pelicans and Miami Heat’s victories in the play-in, the NBA Playoffs can finally start. Teams battle it out for months to grind through an 82-game season just for the records to be wiped clean and do it all again. The playoffs are where legends are made, but that doesn’t mean the regular season is some money-making farce. 

The regular season provides us with all the information we need to know who are the best teams, what are their strengths, their weaknesses, and everything in between. While the playoffs don’t always go as the numbers foresee, that’s mainly because a seven-game series is an incredibly small sample. The fact that anything can happen is what makes the playoffs so exciting. 

If you missed out on the regular season or simply watch your favorite team, fear not. These are all the data points to know, the stats to blast, and the on-offs to dissect. Here is your statistical crash course for every first-round series. 

Jan 26, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jalen Williams (8) dribbles
Jan 26, 2024; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Jalen Williams (8) dribbles / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs New Orleans Pelicans (8)

Zion Williamson’s hamstring injury has put a damper on the New Orlean Pelicans’ playoff prospects, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make it a pseudo-competitive series. The Oklahoma City Thunder were the clear best regular season team in the Western Conference. Their net rating of plus-7.4 paced the conference as they finished the season with the third-ranked offense (119.5 points per 100 possessions) and the fourth-ranked defense (112.1). Along with the Celtics, they were the only other team to finish in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency. The Thunder are true title contenders. Don’t let anyone talk about their age. 

If the Thunder are so good, how can the Pelicans make this a competitive series? Well, the Pelicans are also a really good team. They finished with the sixth-best net rating in the league (plus-4.5), the 11th-ranked offense (117.4), and the 7th-ranked defense (112.9). Their Pythagorean expected wins total of 52 would have had them as the fourth seed in the west, but they fell short by three games. 

The absence of Zion Williamson feels massive, but the Pelicans were better without him on the court. In the 2,207 minutes Williamson played this season, the Pelicans had a net rating of plus-2.87, but when he sat, it shot up to plus-6.64. While 6.64 is still smaller than 7.4, it’s close enough to start thinking about an upset. 

To be clear, the Thunder should be significant favorites, but the Pelicans do have some attributes to make things interesting. They’re the second-best team at defending the 3-point line (34.9 percent), and the Thunder led the league in 3-point shooting (38.9 percent). The Thunder’s offense is built around hitting shots and limiting turnovers, but the Pelicans’ defense is built around stopping 3-pointers and forcing turnovers. In strength vs strength matchups, it’s hard to know who will come out on top, but should the Pelicans gain an edge in these two areas the series could become closer than expected. 

While I think this series will be closer than anticipated, the Thunder just have so much more talent than the Pelicans do, and that’s including Zion Williamson. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will finish top three in the MVP voting, Chet Holmgren should make an All-Defensive team, and Jalen Williams will be in the mix for Most Improved Player. The Pelicans have Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum who only Pelicans fans grumble about when they’re not All-Stars. I don’t anticipate a sweep, but outside of a serious shooting slump from the Thunder, getting to a game six should be considered a fantastic outcome for the Pelicans. 

Feb 11, 2024; Miami, Florida, USA;  Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) and Miami Heat forward
Feb 11, 2024; Miami, Florida, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) and Miami Heat forward / Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Celtics (1) vs Miami Heat (8)

The Miami Heat may have upset the Boston Celtics in the playoffs last season, but this time around, it could be ugly. The Celtics dominated all regular season and posted a historic net rating of plus-11.6. Their net rating was 4.2 points better than the second-place Oklahoma City Thunder. If that gap were an NBA team, it would have finished with the seventh-best net rating.   

The Heat, on the other hand, finished with a net rating of plus-1.8 and will be without Jimmy Butler. Without Butler, the Heat had a net rating of minus-1.69. There’s just no secret stat or magic voodoo Heat Culture that can close the Pacific Ocean-sized gulf between these two teams. The Celtics should sweep. If they don’t, that should be considered an upset. 

Mar 2, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA;  Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) grabs a
Mar 2, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) grabs a / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Nuggets (2) vs Los Angeles Lakers (7)

After the most competitive sweep in NBA history in the 2023 Western Conference Finals, we get the Nuggets and the Lakers facing off in the first round. The Nuggets’ 57 wins saw them tied for the best record in the Western Conference with the Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Lakers finished eighth with 47 wins. And the ten-win gap explains a lot about these two teams’ quality. 

For the season, the Nuggets finished with the fourth-best net rating (plus-5.5), the fifth-best offense (118.5), and the eighth-best defense (113.0), making them one of four teams in both the top-ten in defensive and offensive rating. Meanwhile, the Lakers ended the season with the 19th-best net rating (plus-0.6), the 15th-ranked offense (115.9), and the 16th-ranked defense (115.3). 

Based purely on full-season efficiency metrics, the Nuggets should evaporate the Lakers with little fuss. However, the Lakers have perked up as of late, ending the season on a 17-6 sprint to finish in the top half of the Play-In bracket. It took most of the season, but Darvin Ham finally found the Lakers best starting five of Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, and Austin Reaves. In 389 minutes, that five-man unit has a net rating of plus-6.88, with an offensive rating of 120.17 and a defensive rating of 113.29, according to PBP Stats

While the Lakers’ playoff five-man unit looks formidable, their schedule to close the season was very favorable. They only went 8-6 against playoff teams and caught more than a few breaks. They beat a skeleton crew Knicks team without O.G. Aunuoby and Julius Randle, the Clippers without Paul George (George owns a plus-14.3 on-off net rating), the Timberwolves without Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Sixers without Joel Embiid, and the Cavaliers with a physically compromised Donovan Mitchell. The only full-strength playoff teams they beat were the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had one of their worst shooting performances of the season, and the Pelicans twice. 

The Nuggets, much like the Lakers, were incredible post-All-Star break, going 21-6 to close out the season. And while the Lakers took until February to find their best five-man unit, the Nuggets have known for ages who their best group is. The lineup of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. posted a plus-13.93 net rating, a 128.71 offensive rating, and a 114.78 defensive rating in 959 minutes, according to PBP Stats. Of the 21 five-man lineups to log over 300 minutes, the Nuggets quintet ranks second in net rating, while the Lakers best unit ranks 13th, according to NBA.com

The Lakers’ one superpower as a team is their ability to win the free throw attempt battle. Per 100 possessions, the Lakers averaged a plus-6.1 free throw attempt edge, a figure that more than doubles the second-ranked Celtics’ plus-2.9. The Nuggets, however, were dominant even though they averaged a minus-2.4 free throw attempt difference per 100 possessions. Realistically, the only route for a Lakers upset is if they can maintain a serious edge at the line, but even then, the Nuggets looked poised to weather an unfavorable whistle. 

Mar 12, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) dribbles against
Mar 12, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) dribbles against / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

New York Knicks (2) vs Philadelphia 76ers (7)

The Knicks and the Sixers are not your usual two-seven matchup. The two were only separated by three games in the standings, and have at different times looked like the biggest threat to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference before injuries derailed them. The big question is what are their true talent levels?

The Knicks immediately took off after acquiring OG Anunoby on Dec. 30. They went 14-2 in January with a plus-16.2 net rating but lost Julius Randle to a season-ending shoulder injury, and then Anunoby missed an extended stretch with an elbow injury. However, with Anunoby and Jalen Brunson on the court without Randle, the Knicks still produced the comical net rating of plus-22.75 in 351 minutes. 

The Sixers looked like a genuine Finals contender to start the season as Joel Embiid laid waste to the league. They rampaged to a 29-13 record before Embiig succumbed to injury. However, with Embiid on the court, the Sixers have a net rating of plus-9.82, and the combination of him and Tyrese Maxey clocks in at plus-11.76 in 958 minutes

The Sixers and the Knicks, at their best, are heavy-weight contenders but it’s hard to know where they currently stand. Anunoby and Embiid are back, but Embiid still looks far off his pre-injury level, and while the Knicks are 20-3 with Anunoby in the starting lineup, he has a 94 offensive rating since returning from injury. 

On offense, the Knicks and Sixers finished the season with identical 57.4 percent true shooting percentages. The Sixers turned the ball over less than any team in the league and finished tied for second in free throw to field goal attempt ratio. Despite those advantages, the Knicks mustered an offensive rating 1.3 points per 100 possessions better than the Sixers by leading the league in offensive rebounding rate at 29.4 percent. The Sixers finished 25th in defensive rebounding rate at 74.3 percent but were far better with Embiid on the court at 76.9 percent. 

This series will likely come down to Embiid’s health and if the Sixers can keep the Knicks off the boards in the minutes Embiid rests. If Embiid can play at 90 percent of his pre-injury level and manage a substantial minutes load, both significant ifs, then the Sixers are the better team. However, if Embiid can’t carry the Sixers, the Knicks’ combination of Brunson leading the offense, and Anunoby creating havoc on defense should give them the edge. Regardless, these two teams deserve to meet deeper in the playoffs than in the first round. 

Apr 14, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) works around
Apr 14, 2024; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) works around / Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Timberwolves (3) vs Phoenix Suns (6)

A lot will be made of the Phoenix Suns’ 3-0 record against the Minnesota Timberwolves this season, but there’s a massive helping of small sample-size tomfoolery. The Timberwolves shot 29.3 percent from three in those games, while the Suns shot a blazing 48.8 percent, outscoring the Timberwolves 118.3 to 102.7. However, for the season, the Timberwolves actually shot better from 3-point range (38.7 percent) than the Suns (38.2 percent). If you normalize both teams’ 3-point shooting to their season averages, you would have expected the Timberwolves to score 110.4 points per game to the Suns 109.2. 

While the Suns being a bad matchup narrative is a bit overblown, it’s not completely without merit. The Timberwolves first ranked defense is the best in the league at preventing and contesting shots within ten feet of the basket, but the Suns are one of the best mid-range shooting teams in the league. The Suns led the league in shots 10 to 16 feet from the basket, finishing third in efficiency (49.9 percent), and the Timberwolves allowed the second most shots in that range. Death by a million mid-range jumpers isn’t usually a winning strategy in the long term, but it can win you a series. 

Another area where Phoenix’s offense aligns with a Timberwolves weakness is at the free throw line. The Suns led the league in free throw to field goal attempt ratio (.219), but the Timberwolves finished tenth worst in the metric on defense (.197). The Timberwolves’ defense was the best in the league at limiting shooting efficiency, fifth best in forcing turnovers, and sixth in defensive rebound rate, but their only flaw is they will send players to the charity stripe. 

While so much of the conversation has been about how the Suns can win the series, not enough has been made about the Timberwolves advantages. The Suns force few turnovers on defense (11.3 percent, 25th) and cough up the ball a ton on offense (13.4 percent, 28th). The Wolves' main offensive weakness is turnovers, and they’re excellent at forcing turnovers on defense. There’s a strong likelihood that the Timberwolves win the turnover battle by a significant margin, more than making up for the Suns' shot-making advantage. 

The biggest question mark for the Suns is what advantage their big three even present them. The combination of Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, and Kevin Durant has an on-court net rating of plus-6.6 in 862 minutes. Out of 140 three-man units to play at least 800 minutes, the Suns’ big three ranks 65th. The Timberwolves have six separate three-man lineups to play at least 800 minutes that best that net rating. A big three that comes up small is a scary thought for the Suns because the Timberwolves’ bench is far superior. 

This should be a fun series, but the Timberwolves are far better than they’re being given credit. There’s a chance the Suns win the series, but in all likelihood, the Timberwolves, the substantially better team all season, will prevail. 

Jan 3, 2024; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) dribbles the
Jan 3, 2024; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) dribbles the / Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee Bucks (3) vs Indiana Pacers (6)

The Milwaukee Bucks and the Indiana Pacers engaged in the silliest, dumbest, most childish beef of the NBA season, which is saying something, when a game ball intended for Giannis Antetokounmpo may have ended up in the Pacers locker room. Besides the ‘bad blood’ between these two teams, their five contests were incredibly fun affairs. The Pacers did go 4-1 against the Bucks, including the In-Season Tournament, but the average scoring margin was 128.8 to 125.2, which is made all the more ridiculous considering the Pacers shot 30.5 percent from 3-point range and the Bucks shot 31.7 percent. 

When the Bucks and Pacers played this season, no one stopped anyone, but a lot has changed since they last played on January 3rd. The Pacers added Pascal Siakam, the Bucks replaced their head coach, Tyrese Haliburton took a massive dip following a hamstring injury, and now, Giannis Antetokounmpo is out for at least game one with a calf injury. 

Unfortunately, Antetokounmpo’s injury looms over this entire series. With Giannis on the court, the Bucks have a net rating of plus-5.99, but without him, it craters to minus-4.29. There’s not all that much analysis needed to understand that the Bucks are taking on water every game Giannis misses. On the flip side, Haliburton looked like a runaway All-NBA member over his first 33 games but saw his production tail off substantially following a hamstring injury. 

Through his first 33 games, Haliburton averaged 23.6 points and 12.5 assists per game on 40.3 percent 3-point shooting, but since returning from injury he has averaged 16.9 points and 9.5 assists per game on 32.3 percent 3-point shooting. Interestingly, the Pacers haven’t seen much of a decline on the offensive end. Before his injury, the Pacers had an offensive rating of 123.8, and after his injury, which includes games he didn’t play, it only dropped to 120.4, and that’s with the league experiencing a mid-season drop in offensive efficiency. However, where his injury has been most felt is in the pace of the Pacers. Pre-injury, the Pacers played a 102.6 possession pace, and afterward, it has been a more pedestrian 99.8. 

This series will ultimately come down to which team gets more out of their best player. If Haliburton can rediscover his pre-injury form, the Pacers should run the Bucks out of the gym. But if Giannis can come back at close to peak capacity, he can abuse the Pacers’ porous interior defense. The best-case scenario for the neutral observer is that both happen and we’re treated to an absolute cascade of points. 

With so many uncertainties heading into this series, it’d be foolish to look too deeply into any statistics. We simply don’t know how this series will look until the ball is tipped off and who will be there to receive it. Fully healthy, the Bucks probably have a slight advantage due to their best four-man unit’s strength, Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokpounmpo, Damian Lillard, and Khris Middleton own a plus-16.82 net rating in 677 minutes, but with Giannis’ health up in the air, the advantage has to go to the Pacers.

Dec 20, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA;  LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) controls the ball as Dallas
Dec 20, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) controls the ball as Dallas / Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs Dallas Mavericks (5)

The Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers will face off in the playoffs for the third time in the past five seasons, but this time the Mavericks may finally have the edge. At different points during the season, both the Clippers and Mavericks have had the look of a championship contender, but those moments have been fleeting. 

The Clippers, following their trade for James Harden, ripped off a 30-8 stretch between November 17th and February 10th. Over that span, they ran a net rating of plus-7.4, an offensive rating of 123.4, and a defensive rating of 116.0. However, outside of that extended stretch of dominance, they’ve been a sub .500 team (21-23), and since February 10th they’ve had a minus-1.5 net rating, a 116.5 offensive rating, and a 118.0 defensive rating. 

A significant part of the swing in their fortunes has to do with 3-point shooting variance. During their 30-8 rampage, they shot 40.2 percent from three and held opponents to 35.8 percent. Since then, they’ve shot 35.4 percent and seen their opponents convert 37.3 percent. The Clippers were never as good as their mid-season run, and aren’t as bad as their lackluster second half. 

The Mavericks, after a middling start to the season, have been excellent since early February. Entering their Feb. 5 matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Mavericks were 26-23, but following a series of trades to add Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington they finished the season on a 24-7 run before resting their key players in the final two games of the season. While the additions of Gafford and Washington helped sure up some rotation holes, the Mavericks benefitted from a weak schedule. Six of their seven losses came to playoff teams, and the seventh came at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Much like the Clippers, the Mavericks aren’t as good as their impressive second half and weren’t as bad as their mediocre beginning. 

The Clippers and Mavericks are surprisingly similar teams, but their seasons have different arcs. They are both offense-first teams with average defenses. They both have superstar players surrounded by functional role-players who can’t be trusted to handle the ball. For the Mavericks, Luka Doncic put together an MVP-quality season, and Kyrie Irving would have an All-NBA case if he had played enough games to qualify. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were exceptional this season, and James Harden settled in nicely as the distributor-in-chief before hitting a scoring slump in the second half for the Clippers. 

The two most pressing questions for this series are how much does current form matter? And what is the health of Kawhi Leonard’s ailing knee? I’m inclined to believe that their current form is largely happenstance. The Mavericks got upgrades, healthier, and hit an easy stretch of schedule when they took off. The Clippers added a new star and had fortunate shooting luck when they ran roughshod over the league. When steaks happen it has a large effect on the narrative structure of a season, but it has little bearing on the playoffs and the true quality of a team. 

However, nothing the Clippers accomplished this regular season will matter if Kawhi Leonard isn’t healthy and available. With Leonard on the court, the Clippers own a plus-8.15 net rating, and when he sits, it collapses to minus-3.72. The one saving grace for the Clippers, should Leonard miss time, is the duo of James Harden and Paul George has a net rating of plus-7.63, but when none of their big three are on the court, the Clippers turn into a G League team with a net rating of minus-15.86. In a tightly contested series, you can’t afford to get blitzed in the minutes your stars rest, and every game Leonard misses is more minutes without any stars on the court. 

Feb 22, 2024; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs (4) dribbles beside Cleveland
Feb 22, 2024; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs (4) dribbles beside Cleveland / David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Cavaliers (4) vs Orlando Magic (5)

The NBATV Memorial first-round playoff series is likely to be headlined by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic. All jokes aside, the Cavaliers and Magic are two of the most interesting playoff teams. The Magic rode incredible bench production to the playoffs, while the Cavaliers caught lightning in a bottle when injuries revealed to them that playing one point guard and one center at the same time is more functional than playing two. 

The Magic are a defense-first team that struggles to create in the halfcourt due to poor spacing and relying on a second-year player in Paolo Banchero to pilot the offense. Banchero has an incredibly bright future, but he just isn’t actually ‘capital-G’ good in a playoff sense yet. His minus-7.3 on-off net rating is the worst of any Magic player to play over 400 minutes, and he looks in line to play 40 minutes a night. This isn’t a diss about Banchero as a player, but it’s clear running their offense through him is going to be a mess at times against the Cavaliers, but they’ll make due through the sheer strength of their defense. 

The Magic’s defense is built around forcing turnovers, their 13.8 percent defensive turnover rate led the league, and their second-ranked defensive rebound percentage (78.1 percent). They’re not particularly good at limiting shooting opponent efficiency or free throws, but their hyper-active effort-based defense got them to second in defensive rating. 

The Cavaliers don’t take especially great care of the ball (12.4 percent offensive turnover rate, 19th) or attack the offensive glass (23.2 percent offensive rebound rate, 21st), which should give the Magic the ability to maintain their defensive advantages throughout the series. While the Cavaliers' offense doesn’t look likely to break the Magic’s defense, their defense should put the Magic in a bind. 

The Magic struggle to efficiently convert their chances and cough up a tremendous amount of turnovers but make up for it with offensive rebounds and trips to the line. The Cavaliers’ defense finished sixth in defensive rating (112.7) because they limit opponent shooting efficiency and have no real weaknesses. The Magic will have moments where they can gain advantages, but there isn’t an area for them to relentlessly attack. The Cavaliers’ weakest defensive unit is their guards, but that also happens to be the Magic’s weakest offensive group. 

The Cavaliers have been swooning since Donovan Mitchell suffered a bone bruise to his knee, but should he be healthy, they just have too much talent for the Magic to overcome. The wildcard for the Magic is Jonathan Isaac. Due to a series of serious knee injuries, Isaac played sparingly and strategically this season, but his on-court impact was off the charts. His on-court net rating of plus-11.6 was the one of best in the league, and he improved their offense and defense substantially. If the Magic believe Isaac can play substantial minutes, that could be enough to swing the talent disparity in their favor. 

The Cavaliers are the more talented team and talent usually wins in the NBA. The Magic had a great season, but their secret sauce was of the try-hard variety. That can work wonders in the regular season, but in the playoffs, everyone is a try-hard, and thus talent wins out. 

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