NBA

Bucks clear favourites, LeBron's Lakers outsiders - Stats Perform AI predicts NBA playoffs

By Sports Desk August 17, 2020

The NBA playoffs are finally here.

After the regular season extended into August with eight rounds of seeding games in the Orlando 'bubble' - followed by the Portland Trail Blazers' win in their play-in game - we have our 16 playoff teams.

The Milwaukee Bucks are the top seed in the East, while the Los Angeles Lakers led the way in the West.

But everything does not always go to script in the playoffs, with the Bucks on top last year, too, but losing out to eventual champions the Toronto Raptors - inspired by Kawhi Leonard, now of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Despite this unpredictable format, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers behind the scenes and running 10,000 simulations.

Using this model, we have taken a look at how the coming weeks could pan out...
 

BUCKS AS CHAMPS? LAKERS WIN UNLIKELY

After another outstanding regular season and with Giannis Antetokounmpo in their ranks, it may come as no surprise the Bucks are favourites to take the title for just the second time.

What might be slightly more unexpected is the distance by which Milwaukee are considered the frontrunners.

According to our model, the Bucks have a 29.6 per cent chance of triumphing, winning 2,959 of the 10,000 simulations.

The Clippers are next on the list and would win the championship in 18 per cent of cases, while the Raptors' title defence stands a 13.6 per cent chance of being successful, just ahead of the Boston Celtics on 13.4 per cent.

That means the Lakers are way down in fifth on our list of contenders, despite boasting LeBron James and Anthony Davis and enjoying a strong season to date.

Indeed, LeBron's team won the playoff tournament in just 848 of the 10,000 simulations - or a measly 8.5 per cent.
 

ORLANDO COULD YET CONJURE UP SOME MAGIC

The Bucks have a great opportunity to win the championship and they will certainly be expected to get through their first-round series against the Orlando Magic, the eighth seed in the East.

But do not count the Magic out entirely at this stage.

Orlando will have their work cut out if they are to get anyway near the Finals, let alone take home the trophy, but not every simulation saw the local side make an early exit.

Of the 10,000 simulations, six (0.06 per cent) actually saw the Magic go all the way and claim a stunning title triumph.

Steve Clifford's team are unsurprisingly least likely to win the championship, although the eighth seed in the West, the Blazers, are ranked ahead of the Brooklyn Nets, who came seventh in the East.

The Philadelphia 76ers and Indian Pacers are each also given less than a one per cent chance of becoming champions.
 

BUCKS IN SEVEN AFTER CLIPPERS SWEEP LAKERS?!

The playoffs can often feel too random for any model to contend with, but what if we ran the simulation just once?

Well, in that scenario, the Bucks still came out on top, but they were pushed all the way to seven games by the Clippers, requiring a remarkable fightback after going 3-1 down in the Finals. They won Game 7 112-90, however.

Both teams had come into that series full of momentum after 4-0 sweeps in the Conference Finals.

Milwaukee brushed aside the Sixers, who beat the odds to come past the Celtics and then the Raptors, while the Clippers battered rivals the Lakers, winning each game by more than 10 points.

Besides Philadelphia's shock run, the biggest upset in the bracket saw the sixth-seeded Utah Jazz sensationally beat the third-seeded Denver Nuggets 4-0.

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  • LeBron's Lakers extend record after taking down Giannis and Bucks, Curry's 30 not enough LeBron's Lakers extend record after taking down Giannis and Bucks, Curry's 30 not enough

    The Los Angeles Lakers stayed perfect on the road after beating the Milwaukee Bucks 113-106 in the NBA on Thursday.

    LeBron James posted a season-high 34 points as defending champions the Lakers extended a franchise record after winning their eighth consecutive away game to start the season.

    James also tallied eight assists and six rebounds to help the Lakers – 8-0 on the road – bounce back from a loss in the first of a seven-game road trip, upstaging reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the process.

    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 23 points for the Western Conference-leading Lakers (12-4) in Milwaukee, where the Bucks (9-6) dropped back-to-back games.

    Antetokounmpo's double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds were not enough for the Bucks, who also had solid contributions from Jrue Holiday (22 points) and Khris Middleton (20 points).

     

    Curry stars

    Stephen Curry put up 30 points, but the Golden State Warriors still went down 119-104 at home to the New York Knicks. The two-time MVP moved into fourth place on the franchise's all-time games played list after making his 714th regular-season appearance, surpassing Paul Arizin. RJ Barrett's 28 points for the Knicks were a career high.

    Golden State's Eric Paschall scored his 1,000th career point in his 74th game, reaching the 1,000-point mark in the fewest amount of games played by a Warriors second round draft pick in the Modern Draft era (since 1966). Previously, Gilbert Arenas did so in 79 games.

    Donovan Mitchell's season-high 36 points fuelled the Utah Jazz's 129-118 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Mitchell was 11-of-19 shooting from the field, while he made six of eight three-point attempts. The Jazz have won seven straight games.

     

    Schroder struggles in Milwaukee

    Dennis Schroder failed to get going for the Lakers. The offseason recruit was just two of 10 from the field, while missing all three of his attempts from beyond the arc for four points in 33 minutes.

    Kelly Oubre Jr. did not perform much better for the beaten Warriors. His seven points were on two-of-11 shooting from the field at home to the Knicks. Oubre also missed all four of his three-point attempts.

     

    Steph with the behind-the-back pass

    While the Warriors were unable to claim the win, Curry produced a couple of highlight moments. His behind-the-back pass to set up Draymond Green for the three-pointer was the pick of the bunch.

     

    Thursday's results

    Los Angeles Lakers 113-106 Milwaukee Bucks
    Utah Jazz 129-118 New Orleans Pelicans
    New York Knicks 119-104 Golden State Warriors

     

    Celtics at 76ers

    The Boston Celtics (8-5) and Eastern Conference rivals the Philadelphia 76ers (10-5) will do battle again at Wells Fargo Center on Friday after Joel Embiid's 42-point double-double inspired Doc Rivers' team midweek.

  • Liverpool v Burnley: Anfield streak ends but goal drought continues as Pope saves all Liverpool v Burnley: Anfield streak ends but goal drought continues as Pope saves all

    After thrashing Crystal Palace 7-0 on December 19, Liverpool were six points clear at the Premier League summit. 

    Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were all on target in the clinical rout at Selhurst Park, after which Jurgen Klopp said: "It was really difficult to play against us."

    The reigning champions had seemingly found top gear again. 

    Fast forward to January 21 and, following a stunning 1-0 loss to Burnley at Anfield, Liverpool were left to wonder just where it had all gone so badly wrong.  

    For a fourth successive outing in the league they had failed to score, while the shock result sees them stuck in fourth position in the table, six points behind leaders Manchester United. 

    Never mind moving through the gears: the wheels have well and truly come off. 

    BARNES HARMS AILING CHAMPIONS

    Ashley Barnes' penalty condemned the Reds to a first home defeat in the league since April 23, 2017. It had been three years and 273 days since former Liverpool player Christian Benteke struck twice for Palace in a 2-1 triumph. 

    The run of 68 games unbeaten was the second longest in English top-flight history. During the streak, there were 55 wins, 176 goals scored and 36 clean sheets. A total of 43 players were used, too.

    Joel Matip, Georginio Wijnaldum, Firmino and Divock Origi were also in the starting XI that were beaten by Palace, managed by Sam Allardyce, nearly four years ago, while Trent Alexander-Arnold came on as a late substitute.


    GOAL-SHY LIVERPOOL MISS CAPTAIN

    Since Mane's early strike in the 1-1 draw against West Brom on December 27, Liverpool have registered 87 shots in the Premier League without managing to find the net. Eighty. Seven. Shots.

    It was not for a lack of trying against Burnley, admittedly. They had 27 total attempts, their most in a single league match without scoring since April 2013 versus Reading (28).  

    The absence of Jordan Henderson did not help. Even prior to kick-off, Liverpool had lost more of their 11 Premier League games without their captain (3) than they had in 45 games with him (2) since the start of last season.

    KLOPP STREAK CAUSES CONCERN

    This is not yet uncharted territory for Klopp at Liverpool; he previously went five league games without a win between January and February in 2017. 

    That barren run four years ago included fixtures against Sunderland and Hull City – clubs now in the third tier of English football – and a home defeat to current Championship side Swansea City, who were celebrating at Anfield thanks to goals from Fernando Llorente (two) and Gylfi Sigurdsson.

    However, Klopp has never previously gone four without a goal during his Reds tenure. The previous time that happened in his coaching career was while in charge of Mainz, who suffered a drought in the Bundesliga late in 2006.


    POPE SAVES ALL AS REDS PAY THE PENALTY

    Nick Pope excelled when Burnley ended Liverpool's 100 per cent home record in their title-winning campaign – and the goalkeeper was once again in outstanding form on Merseyside.

    The England international made six saves to keep a clean sheet, having produced eight in his side's 1-1 draw in July at the same ground. Since the start of the 2019-20 season, no keeper has made more saves against a single opponent in the Premier League than Pope against Liverpool (19).

    Barnes' penalty was the second spot-kick Liverpool have conceded at home this season too – they had only given up two penalty goals at Anfield under Klopp before 2020-21.

    There is plenty for the German to ponder, then. While retaining the trophy is far from out of reach, what appeared to be a temporary blip is in danger of turning into a full-blown crisis.

  • ​Remembering Kobe's 81-point game - and asking if Lillard, Curry or Beal could match it ​Remembering Kobe's 81-point game - and asking if Lillard, Curry or Beal could match it

    The list of Kobe Bryant's accomplishments during his 20 NBA seasons is almost too long to recount.  

    Yet among his All-Star selections, championships and signature moments, his 81-point game stands out both for its historical significance and its representation of Bryant's personality and career.  

    Friday marks the 15th anniversary of this astounding feat, the closest anyone has ever come to Wilt Chamberlain's NBA scoring record, a seemingly impossible 100 points.  

    Chamberlain reached triple digits on March 2, 1962, in a much different NBA than the one Bryant faced. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game that season while playing every minute of every game. In scoring 100 points, he led the Philadelphia Warriors to a 169-147 win over the New York Knicks.  

    Bryant's feat, while falling short of the century mark, remains the gold standard for scoring in the modern game.  

    On January 22, 2006, the Toronto Raptors travelled to Los Angeles to face the Lakers and were gaining confidence. After a desperate 1-15 start, Toronto's season had stabilised, and the Raptors entered Staples Center having won 10 of their previous 16 games. But Toronto had just allowed 113 points in a win against Seattle and entered the game giving up 102.2 points per game, third-most in the NBA.  

    Bryant went on to make history, making 28 of his 46 field goal attempts – including 7-for-12 shooting from beyond the arc – and hitting 18 of 20 free throws.  

    Perhaps the greatest testament to Bryant's achievement is that no player over the 15 years since has come particularly close to scoring 81 points in a game, despite several factors working in their favor.  

    In 2005-06, a team got 79.0 field goal attempts per game on average, the fourth-slowest pace of all time. Almost any other season in NBA history would have been more likely to have an astounding scoring outburst.  

    In the 1961-62 season, when Chamberlain made history, teams averaged 107.7 shots per game and attempted 37.1 free throws per game, nearly 11 more than in 2005-06.  

    The league has picked up its pace since Bryant's feat as well, with teams attempting 88.8 field goals last season, giving the modern player more opportunities than Bryant had.  

    The other advantage that current players have in piling up stats is the three-point shot.  

    Bryant's 7-for-13 performance from deep was dynamic in 2006. Twice in the 2005-06 season, Chicago Bulls guard Ben Gordon made nine three-pointers in a game to lead the league. Only four players made more than seven threes in a game that season. The average team attempted 16.0 threes per game.  

    Teams are launching an average of 35.1 three-point attempts during this young season, on pace to be the 10th in a row with an increase in long-range shooting. Ten players have already made eight or more threes in a game this season, despite most teams having played about 15 games.  

    Even with a faster pace and increased frequency of long-distance barrages in the modern game, Bryant's 81-point mark still appears virtually unobtainable.  

    Since that date, Devin Booker's 70 points are the high mark. There have been 19 games in which a player scored 60 or more, four by Bryant himself.  

    One integral element to Bryant's scoring explosion was the composition of that Lakers team. Bryant did have Lamar Odom, but LA's other starters on that historic night were Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Smush Parker. The Lakers finished that season 45-37, far from a bad team, but Bryant scored 35.4 points per game as the Lakers relied on him almost entirely for scoring.  

    Bryant scored 34.7 percent of the Lakers' points that season, the fourth-highest scoring share of all time. Only Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have scored a higher percentage of a team's points in a season.  

    Given that profile, there are a few players who stand out as possible candidates to make a run at a historical scoring game in the foreseeable future.  

    Booker, James Harden and Kemba Walker all have at least one 60-point game in their careers but now find themselves on teams with better supporting casts, making it unlikely they could get enough shots to chase history.  

    Damian Lillard, however, could fit the mould perfectly. Team-mates CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic will both miss significant time due to injuries, and Lillard has crossed the 60-point barrier three times, all within the past 15 months. Add his 36.2 minutes per game – top 10 in the league – and 10.1 three-point attempts per game, and Lillard seems as likely as anyone to produce a dazzling scoring total.  

    Stephen Curry scored a career-high 62 points on January 3 and will be a constant centerpiece in the Golden State Warriors' offense without Klay Thompson. While Curry is 25th in the league at 34.4 minutes per game, his historic three-point shooting makes him a constant threat.  

    League scoring leader Bradley Beal remains in the mix, despite the Washington Wizards acquiring ball-hungry Russell Westbrook in the offseason. Westbrook has often taken games off due to rest, and Beal scored 60 on January 6. He also carries the advantage of getting to the free throw line 9.5 times per game, fourth in the NBA this season.  

    That list ignores perennial MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, as well as young dynamos like Trae Young and Luka Doncic.  

    The fact that there are so many candidates to make a run at 81 points without anyone coming close in the past 15 years indicates just how phenomenal Bryant's accomplishment was.  

    Whether Bryant's mark lasts forever or is eventually bested, it will always be a brilliant snapshot of an all-time great player. He won championships before and after his 81-point game, but Bryant's legacy is as a scorer and a relentless competitor, perfectly represented by that gaudy scoring total 15 years ago.  

    Bryant wore number eight and number 24 during his decorated career, but 81 is just as important to his legacy.

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