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Fan Engagement, Team Performance

April Madness: NBA Simulation Model Projects Playoff Surprises

By: Sacha Pisani

Following a grueling 82-game regular season, April is usually an exciting time for NBA players and fans. Our NBA simulation model is no different so far, projecting some March Madness-style upsets early in the playoffs.

Stats Perform used a model similar to the one that projected and simulated the NCAA Tournament to give some insight on how the NBA’s regular season could have played out if play hadn’t been suspended on March 11. After some teams were able to make a run to improve their seeding during the simulation, the playoff bracket was set: 

Now, we’re going to reveal what the model predicts for the postseason.

How does it work? Our AI team takes advanced data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each club. Those ratings are paired with the team’s opponent and adjusted for each team’s pace, and the home team is given a slight boost for home-field advantage. This data is then used to calculate a projected final score.

As this series continues, Stats Perform will also simulate the following rounds of the playoffs, hold both our own draft lottery and data-driven mock draft. So let’s find out how the model saw the opening round of the postseason playing out:

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) handles the ball against Denver Nuggets.

JAZZ, MAVS PULL UPSETS IN WEST

Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13, the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers breezed past the Memphis Grizzlies 4-0 – including a 118-89 blowout in Game 2.

The Los Angeles Clippers faded to No. 4 in the West at the end of the regular season, but former Oklahoma City Thunder swingman Paul George helps them get past ex-Clipper Chris Paul and OKC in six games. Luka Doncic’s seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks – back in the playoffs following a three-year absence – took three straight to stun the second-seeded Denver Nuggets, 4-2.

After building a 2-0 lead in the series, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets had one foot in the second round before dropping four straight games to the Utah Jazz. The Rockets had been red-hot after ending the regular season on a 15-3 run to claim the third seed. Entering this postseason, teams had won 288 of 309 best-of-7 series in which they led 2-0.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) is chased by Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren (1).

SIXERS FALL, CELTICS RALLY IN EAST

Like last season, the Milwaukee Bucks earned the best regular-season record heading into the postseason. They swept the Detroit Pistons in the opening round of the 2019 Eastern Conference playoffs and match that feat against the Orlando Magic this year.

After escaping with one-point victories in the first two games, Milwaukee cruises into the conference semifinals – winning 112-106 and 113-93. For the second time in three years, the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat meet in the first round. The Heat lost 4-1 in the 2017-18 series, but they prevail 4-2 this time around as Jimmy Butler has the last laugh against his former team.

In one of the most exciting first-round series, Jayson Tatum and the third-seeded Boston Celtics rally from a 2-1 deficit to beat the Indiana Pacers in six games. With Kawhi Leonard now in Los Angeles, the Toronto Raptors begin defense of their title with a relatively easy 4-1 series win over the Brooklyn Nets.

So with that, our second-round matchups are set, and all eyes figure to be on that star-studded battle for Los Angeles in the West.

Stay tuned next week when we reveal which teams will advance to the conference finals.

Data modeling by Matt Scott, and research support provided by Evan Boyd.