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The 10 best games of the NBA season, ranked by science

With help from Thuuz Sports, these are the best games of the NBA season determined by pace, historical context, novelty, parity, and momentum shifts. 

Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard.
Jayson Tatum and Kawhi Leonard staged the NBA’s best game this season.

On Feb. 13, the Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Clippers, 141-133. Jayson Tatum finished with 39 points and nine rebounds, out dueling last year’s Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who tallied 28 points on 27 shots.

What began as an anticipated regular season matchup between two hopeful title contenders ended as a nationally televised coming out party for Tatum, who not only cemented himself as Boston’s best player, but also someone who could lead his team through a feverish high-wire walk that required two overtimes.

During crunchtime, it was the only game being played, and the last one before All-Star Weekend. Seemingly everyone who cares about the NBA was watching, and when it finally ended TD Garden felt more like a stage than a basketball court.

Four days prior, the Utah Jazz stunned the Houston Rockets, 114-113, when Bojan Bogdanovic erased what should’ve been PJ Tucker’s game-winning three by drilling his own well-contested 28-footer moments later. There were nine lead changes in that fourth quarter, including four in the final 28 seconds. It doesn’t take a genius to see how exhilarating it was.

But according to Thuuz Sports (as in: enthusiasm) — a 10-year-old company based in Palo Alto that boasts “the most powerful automated video highlights production platform for worldwide sports” — those games were not only worth the audience’s time, but also, objectively, the two most exciting NBA games of the 2019-20 season.

Thuuz was initially founded to essentially let fans know which sporting events are worth watching before they happen, how compelling they are in real time, and then, after they’re done, applying an “excitement rating” that measures each game on a 0-100 scale. In non-global pandemic times these are available on the NBC Score app, and can help guide Tivo and Dish Network subscribers.

But with zero games being played anywhere in the world, Thuuz took a look back at the NBA season to measure which games were the most exciting. Using metadata and a customized algorithm that factors in several relevant elements, they’ve shared their list of the top 10 most exciting games from this season (along with the worst of the season) with SB Nation.

Before we get there, here’s a quick overview of how Thuuz calculates their evaluations:

The key components are pace (the more points, the better), historical context (everything else being equal, a game between the Celtics and Lakers is slightly more attractive to a casual fan than one between the Hornets and Timberwolves — there’s also a “big game bonus” to help separate Game 7 of the Finals from a mid-January clash between the Magic and Cavaliers), novelty (it isn’t every day that Devin Booker will score 70 points), parity (how close the game is expected to be), and momentum shifts (everyone loves a good comeback).

“We ingest play-by-play data from a source and process it as the game goes along,” said Trevor Goldstein, a Thuuz product manager who works on the excitement ratings.

Social buzz is another factor that determines how exciting any one game is, which might lead to one game finishing with a higher rating than another simply because they have more fans and are able to spark a more expansive conversation.

“The best teams and the best players have a very slight advantage when it comes to the social buzz,” Goldstein said. “But that’s also partially because we’re trying to find the most exciting things to tune in and if we’re being frank, people are more likely to tune into a Lakers game than a Phoenix Suns game.”

Thuuz also utilizes a small input that factors in how much of a following every organization has that’s slightly outside the Twitter conversation, but it’s very small relative to the other elements already mentioned.

Scores that fall between 0-39 are “Dull.” Between 40-64 is an “OK game.” 65-84 is a “Good game.” And 85-100 equals a “Great game. You’ve got to watch this!” All 10 games listed below finished with a 100 rating, but in reality some scores climb above that mark, which allows Thuuz to separate them.

“It goes higher [in the app], but just for simplicity sake we limit it,” said John McGuire, Thuuz’s head of product. “I think the highest one I’ve seen is 105 or 106.”

There are many fans who enjoy the NBA but don’t believe regular-season competition can consistently rise to a level of appointment viewing that justifies almost three straight hours on a couch, seated in front of a screen. Those feelings are normal because the stakes are lower; whether in a win or a loss, individual outcomes rarely dent any one team’s bigger picture.

But that doesn’t mean a random game in February or January or even before Thanksgiving should be ignored. This list exists to shine a spotlight on why we watch.

1) Los Angeles Clippers 133, Boston Celtics 141: Feb. 13, 2020

Tatum smash:

2) Utah Jazz 114, Houston Rockets 113: Feb. 9, 2020

Bojan smash:

3) Philadelphia 76ers 129, Portland Trail Blazers 128: Nov. 2, 2019

The Furkan Korkmaz game! Philly’s best shooter decapitated Portland with 0.4 seconds on the clock, right after Blazers guard Anfernee Simons hit his own go-ahead three with 2.2 seconds remaining. This was way back when the Sixers could feel good about themselves, which now feels like 12 million years ago.

The end was amazing, but don’t overlook the fourth-quarter build up:

4) Houston Rockets 133, San Antonio Spurs 135: Dec. 3, 2019

The protest game! Houston led by 13 with eight minutes left when James Harden’s dunk was, for reasons that make little sense to this day, said to have not gone through the rim. The Spurs won in overtime, despite Harden going 24-for-24 from the free-throw line and finishing with a 50 ball. (Also, Lonnie Walker’s hair was on fire that night.)

5) Boston Celtics 112, Los Angeles Lakers 114: Feb. 23, 2020

It’s official: According to science, Tatum’s best performances are guaranteed to make you sit up straight. Here he finished with 41 points despite drawing constant double teams from one of the NBA’s best defenses. Not too shabby.

In the end, LeBron James had the last laugh when he turned Jaylen Brown into his little brother with a chef’s kiss fadeaway. The whole game was a gem.

6) Houston Rockets 119, Los Angeles Clippers 122: Nov. 22, 2019

This game inspired this article about how Harden was forcing defenses around the NBA to venture into uncharted waters. If you enjoy watching all-time great scorers bend all-time great defenders, this fourth quarter has your name written all over it.

7) Dallas Mavericks 120, Milwaukee Bucks 116: Dec. 16, 2019

It’s weird but understandable for the Bucks to not appear on this list until now, with a loss that ended their 18-game winning streak. This game featured a 48-point, 14-rebound powerbomb by Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Milwaukee still took the L even though Luka Doncic did not play. Kristaps Porzingis was everywhere and Jalen Brunson showed why he could be a long-term starter in Dallas.

8) Philadelphia 76ers 97, Denver Nuggets 100: Nov. 8, 2019

For 45 of this game’s 48 minutes, Philly had more points than Denver. Early in the fourth quarter they led by 21. But with 15 seconds left and their lead down to one, Al Horford (poor Al Horford) missed a three. Nikola Jokic came down to the other end and hit a totally unreasonable game-winner. Wild ending.

9) Orlando Magic 119, Los Angeles Lakers 118: Jan. 15, 2020

Markelle Fultz had a triple-double and scored more points than James. Quinn Cook also scored more points than James. Instant classic.

10) Dallas Mavericks 107, Toronto Raptors 110: Dec. 22, 2019

I personally refuse to acknowledge this game because after the third quarter I changed the channel and am still not over it. If for whatever reason you’re still wondering why people think Nick Nurse is a great coach let this game bless you with all the answers you’ll ever need.

And now, the worst game of the NBA season

Miami Heat 86, Philadelphia 76ers 113: Nov. 23, 2019

Every other game mentioned in this article received a score of 100 (or slightly above). This was awarded a 1. Jimmy Butler’s first game in Philadelphia since they traded him to Miami was a monumental let down. The Sixers went up 28-8 in the first quarter and never looked back. I remember trying to get through it on my DVR but giving up early in the third quarter, when Philly took a 73-38 lead.

Check back next week for the NBA’s 10 best games of the 2010s.