NBA Scoring by Minute


Previously, we looked into NFL scoring by minute as well as a breakdown of the type of scoring plays.  In this post we will investigate NBA scoring by minute using data from a sample of games from the early part of the current season.  Unfortunately, we do not have easy access to all games so I took a random sample of games from ESPN and collected the scoring data to get an idea of when points are scored and whether they are free throws, 2-pointers, or 3-pointers.

NBA Scoring by Minute

Below is a minute by minute breakdown of points scored from the sample of games we selected.  There is likely a little bit more variability per minute in our sample that in reality, but there are a few clear signals. 

nba scoring by minute

Scoring data were collected from a sample of games in the first few months of the 2015 NBA season.

The most obvious thing is that the first minute of each quarter, there is a drop in scoring.  In general teams are going to run a play coming out of a timeout, so they will probably burn more of the shot clock than during other game minutes where transition scoring is more likely to occur. As a result, there may be less opportunities to score during the first minute of each quarter.

Another thing to notice is that there seems to be increased scoring at the end of each half.  We noticed the same thing in our NFL scoring breakdown.  Just like in the NFL, the rules and style of play encourage more plays to occur during the last few minutes of the half.  We will discuss this more later when we look into free throws and the late game ball advancement rule.

NBA Scoring by Type

In addition to a breakdown in scoring by minute, in the graphic below we have presented a breakdown of the type of score (free throw, 2-pointer, or 3-pointer).  We aggregated the data into 4 minute ranges so you can better see the trends that occur over the course of a game.

nba scoring by minute - point type

Scoring data were collected from a sample of games in the first few months of the 2015 NBA season.

Free Throws

When I discussed scoring in NFL games, I mentioned the number of opportunities to score increases at the end of each half.  The same is true for the NBA.  The main contributor is fouling which stops the clock.  We see below that at the end of each half, the free throws indeed spike.  In the 4th quarter the fouling may be on purpose, but in the 2nd quarter, it’s most likely just teams getting into bonus as players tire out and commit more fouls.  This is a large part of the scoring spike, but not the full picture.

In the final 2 minutes of regulation, a team may advance the ball after a timeout under certain conditions.  Of course this extends the game since teams can save a few seconds dribbling up the court.  Better yet, they can easily set up a play to quickly score from the in bounds using a screen.  Grantland pokes fun at the rule, but it does exactly what the NBA or any sports league for that matter wants…creates increased late game suspense.  Of course this is mostly relevant in close games, so the effect of ball advancement on scoring is likely not as much as the free throws. (For more timeout rule information, see Sections VI and VII of the NBA rules here.) 

2-Pointers and 3-Pointers

With regard to 2-point and 3-point baskets, there seems to be a bit more variability in the first half than in the second.  In the first 20 minutes, there seems to be a general increase in 2-pointers which corresponds with a decrease in 3-pointers.  My guess is that teams which score a lot of 3s come out hot and take more of these shots early on in the game.  Then as they settle into the fast pace of the game, they score more transition baskets.  There are also rotation changes that can affect scoring as often the bench players won’t be as skilled with 3-pointers as the starters.

In the second half, the teams seem to come out hot as well scoring more 3-pointers in the first 4 minutes and then tapering off although not as drastically as in the first half.  The result is that there is much less variability in both 2 and 3-point scoring throughout the second half.

Conclusion

Looking at the NBA scoring by minute and then breaking it down by type paints a pretty good picture of the flow of the game in general.   With NBA games having so many scoring runs/droughts, even a first half blowout can turn into an interesting game in the second half when teams seem to get into a better rhythm.  Tons of free throws at the end of the game can be a huge drag to watch but it can also create opportunities for added drama making the game more interesting to watch.


About Hugh Crews

Hugh is an independent statistical consultant and founder of Eligis Analytics. His love for sports statistics started at a young age when he would read player stats on the back of baseball cards.