NBA

NBA Study: What leads to winning in the playoffs?

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Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics.

Key Highlights:

  • 3-point percentage has been the main variable that determines who wins and loses in the 2024 NBA Playoffs
  • Offensive rebounding, bench scoring, turnovers, and points in the paint all also seem to have an impact on winning and losing
  • Free throw attempts may not have as much of a role on the final outcome of a single game as we originally thought

This may sound pretty rudimentary, but at the end of the day, the goal of being in the playoffs (at least for most teams) is to win as many games as possible.

But what facets of the game most often lead to success? Is it 3-point shooting? Is it offensive rebounding? Do those statistics really correlate with winning and losing?

In this edition of NBA Study, we look at a handful of statistics to see how winning those statistical battles has impacted winning and losing in the 2024 NBA Playoffs.

What Statistics Are We Looking At?

For this exercise, the statistics we will focus on are 3-point percentage, offensive rebounding, bench points, turnovers, points in the paint, and free throw attempts. We will look at who won each of these statistical battles and how often that team ended up winning their playoff game (in total, we have 64 playoff games so far).

Why These Metrics?

As The Ringer’s Zach Kram wrote a few years ago, 3-point shooting is dictating the outcome of games more and more with the rise of the pace-and-space movement. So, looking at 3-point percentage was a no-brainer.

The more offensive rebounds and the fewer turnovers a team has, the more field goal attempts they get to take. And the more shots a team gets to take, the more likely that they make a shot. As a general rule, the more shots you make, the better chance you have of winning a game!

We are looking at bench points because it is a good proxy for how deep a team is. Points in the paint is a strong indicator of the quality of shots a team is generating. If you accrue a ton of points in the paint, that means you are probably getting a high volume of shots around the rim (the most efficient live ball shot). Lastly, we are looking at free throw attempts because free throws are the most efficient shot in the sport (regardless of whether or not it is a live or deadball situation).

What We Found

Okay, so here are the results we’ve gathered from the 64 playoff games that have already been set in stone.

2024 Playoff Win Percentage When Win Statistical Battle*

Statistical Battle Win-Loss Record Win Percentage
3-Point % 51-13 79.7%
Turnovers 44-20 68.8%
Points in the Paint 44-20 68.8%
Offensive Rebounds 43-21 67.2%
Bench Points 42-22 65.6%
Free Throw Attempts 34-30 53.1%

*Data Provided by NBA.com

(Sidebar: If two teams tied in a statistical category, we just recorded it as a win. For example, if two teams both had nine turnovers in Game 2 of the conference semifinals, we would just say that the winning team won that statistical battle and log it as a win in the win-loss record.)

3-point percentage has the lead here by a pretty significant margin. When you think about it, this makes sense. Threes are the shots on the floor that yield the most points. So, the team that can hit this shot at a higher percentage has a strong percentage of winning the game.

Points in the paint, offensive rebounds, bench points, and turnovers are all pretty close together, with points in the paint and turnovers holding a narrow lead. This tells us that all these variables are important factors for winningbut just not as important as 3-point shooting.

The last thing to note here is how far behind free throw attempts trails behind the other statistics, as the winner of this battle only wins a playoff game in 2024 53.1% of the time. This result is particularly amusing considering how outraged Toronto Raptors Head Coach Darko Rajakovic was by a large free throw disparity earlier this season. 

If I had to guess, I would say this outcome has something to do with the increased physicality being allowed by the league since after the All-Star break. A lot of teams (like the Dallas Mavericks) are pushing the bounds of this physicality to enhance their defense. This is leading to them getting called for more fouls, which hurts, but they can swallow it because the benefits that it brings to their defense outweigh the negatives of the increased free throws. This is just a theory, though.

It is also the part of the article where I remind you that this is a small sample size and prone to some validity questions because of this.

The Bottom Line

3-point percentage continues to be the kingpin when it comes to determining the outcome of a single basketball game. However, focusing on other battles can tip the scales in your favor. This is evident when you look at teams like the New York Knicks (a team that has done a great job of using the offensive rebounding battle to guide them to wins), the Minnesota Timberwolves (a team that has done that with bench points), the Oklahoma City Thunder (turnovers), and the Mavericks (points in the paint).

Lastly, we may have found out that the free throw battle isn’t as important as we originally thought. But I guess we can revisit that when the playoffs are fully complete and we have some more games to add to our sample.

If you enjoyed this edition of NBA Study, be sure to check out other studies we’ve done, like the one we did on the return of classical bigs and the one we did on the best rookie seasons in NBA history