Heat Check

by Matt Scribbins 8. March 2011 14:54

You can follow Matt Scribbins on twitter @mattscribbins

Do you remember the story of the 2010-2011 Green Bay Packers? They were the trendy pre-season pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. After six weeks, their record stood at 3-3, and no one was predicting they would make the title game. They had to beat the Chicago Bears in Week 17 to even make the playoffs. Here is a look at the Packers’ close games during the regular season:

·    Lost to Chicago by 3
·    Beat Detroit by 2
·    Lost to Washington by 3
·    Lost to Miami by 3
·    Beat Minnesota by 4
·    Lost to Atlanta by 3
·    Lost to Detroit by 4
·    Lost to New England by 4

Green Bay was 2-6 in games decided by five points or less during the regular season. In the playoffs, they won three straight road games to capture the NFC Title. In the Super Bowl, they beat a team with an affinity for winning close games. Three of their playoff victories were by seven points or less. Mike McCarthy is not complaining right now about his team’s inability to win close games during the regular season. He is sitting at home reliving the moment he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy as the winning coach of Super Bowl XLV.

The tale of the Miami Heat resembles the story about Green Bay. NBA fans can’t stop talking about Miami’s record in close games and declaring them down for the count. Anyone who follows the Association knows they are 5-13 (that's a better winning percentage than Green Bay's 2-6 for those who are counting) in games decided by five points or less. But did you know Miami is 3-1 in games decided by six points? 3-0 in games decided by seven points? How about 4-1 in games decided by eight points? They have also won two overtime games on the road by more than five points. Their record is 38-7 in games decided by six points or more. Those games obviously aren’t as close as a five point game, but you get the idea.

Here are other numbers regarding Miami’s performance in games decided by five points or less:

·    10 - games as part of a back to back
·    8 - times Miami has been outscored by opponent in fourth quarter
·    3 - games missed by Bosh
·    2 - games missed by Wade
·    1 - game missed by James

This is not to dismiss the notion Miami has issues. They certainly do. They don’t have one player they count on to take the last shot. They have blown late leads. They haven’t beaten either of the teams ahead of them in their conference. They were embarrassed in San Antonio last week.  Chris Bosh bricked his way into the record books with a historically bad shooting performance. The corpse of Mike Bibby is seeing minutes. The only thing we know for sure is they cried after their latest loss.

One potential problem before the season was who will shoot in crunch time? Anyone on board with this school of thought pretty much nailed it. Miami lacks consistency at the end of games. Kobe Bryant will take all the meaningful shots for the Lakers and the Mavericks almost always let Dirk hoist it at the end. The Heat basically use a closer by committee approach. Eddie House, Mike Miller, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are all candidates for the last shot when Coach Spoelstra grabs the clipboard. The Heat might be better off picking either Wade or James for the setup role in the eighth inning and letting the other one get the ball in the ninth every time. At least this would provide consistency and make their teammates more comfortable in defined roles.

Another point worth considering is the onus on the Big Three to log tons of minutes. James, Bosh, and Wade are tied for third, tied for eighth, and tied for 13th respectively in the Eastern Conference in minutes per game through March 7th. It is conceivable the players are just too worn down by the end of games to finish them out. However, Miami may not be in as much as trouble as everyone thinks.

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus wrote a great article two years ago about records in close games. He concludes “we should not read much, if anything, into a team's record in close games.” The Heat's massive disparity in winning percentage in close games compared to the regular season may give one second thoughts, but one still must use caution in forming conclusions from these samples.

For those who think Miami just can’t win close games, your support is here. Take a minute, though, to look at the other teams with substantial discrepancies between their record in close games (five points or less) and other games. All of these teams weren’t fatally flawed. The 1952 Minneapolis Lakers overcame their shortcomings in close games to win the title. The 2004 Detroit Pistons rode the aforementioned Billups to basketball immortality. The 2007 San Antonio Spurs won their fourth championship with Tim Duncan. The record books show the 1991 Chicago Bulls, 1992 Chicago Bulls and the 2008 Boston Celtics were on top of the basketball world by the end of the season. The 2003 New Jersey Nets lost in the NBA Finals, but won two games in the series by a bucket or less!      

Miami fans better keep their schedule for May and June clear. The Heat crushed the defending champions on the road. They split the season series with their division rival, a team who played in the Conference Finals last year and the NBA Finals the year before.  They have the second highest expected winning percentage in the NBA. Their efficiency differential is still the best in the East. Even in the midst of a four game losing streak, they are only four games out of first place in the Eastern Conference.

Chicago Bears coach Love Smith was guaranteed a spot in the NFL playoffs last fall heading into his Week 17 matchup versus the Green Bay Packers. Smith didn’t look at Green Bay’s record in close games and conclude they wouldn’t be a threat in the playoffs. He knew the young team was dangerous so he made the gusty decision to play his starters throughout a game they did not need to win. His attempt to prevent the Packers from post-season play failed and the Bears eventually lost to Green Bay in the NFC Title Game.

NBA coaches would love an opportunity to prevent this squad from making the play-offs, but it isn’t going to happen. The Miami Heat will be there. Tom Thibodeau, Stan Van Gundy, and Doc Rivers aren’t counting out the Heat. You shouldn’t either.

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Comments

3/8/2011 4:37:22 PM #

Greyberger

The Heat occupy such a weird place in sports.  On the one hand, they're the Yankees of the NBA, stacked and arrogant and everybody's best bet to rule the decade.  Losing in the Eastern Finals would be a huge disappointment.

On the other, this is their first year together, and setting a goal like that doesn't credit the Celtics or Bulls with their rightful chance to be this year's best.  They can lose in the second-round this year and still be a better team than the 2010 Cavs or most any 2011 team.

The playoffs are going to be awesome this year, especially if the top three in each conference stay healthy.  The way the second round is shaping up (Lakers-Mavs, Heat-Bulls) we ought to get some great series.

Greyberger United States

3/8/2011 11:53:15 PM #

Gomezd

"But did you know Miami is 3-1 in games decided by six points? 3-0 in games decided by seven points? How about 4-1 in games decided by eight points? They have also won two overtime games on the road by more than five points. Their record is 38-7 in games decided by six points or more."

Huge difference though, the numerical value is not as imporant as is the number of possesions, thats why thers such a huge difference between losing by 3 and losing by 4, while there might seem like there is only one point difference you have to account for the opponents possesion and the probability that they will score, specially in close games where you have to foul and give them 2 free throws.


The argument is that the heat stink in close games, and while numericaly losing by 5 or 6 or 7 are very close realistically those games are not really close games 7 points is a 3 posession game not close a all, 5 and 6 two possesion games, again not close at all.

Gomezd Australia

3/9/2011 12:46:08 AM #

Lisa Clarkson

I can't believe on a data-driven website that a blog post tries to draw an equivalence between a 5-point lead in the NFL and a 5-point lead in the NBA.

Obviously scoring a field goal in a basketball game does not require the same level of sustained consecutive execution that a typical touchdown requires. A single player in the NBA can occasionally will himself to the basket for 2 points (or free throws). This happens multiple times in a game and hundreds of times a night across the Association.

When a single player in the NFL wills himself to a touchdown, it causes earthquakes in Seattle.

Lisa Clarkson United States

3/9/2011 12:59:59 AM #

Greyberger

I think he was just making the comparison between Green Bay's performance in close games and the reasons people found to explain it, and what's going on in the NBA with the Heat.

Performance in close games, in the fourth quarter, against the league's elite - putting these things under the microscope is just punching your own ticket to Small Sample Size Theater.  You're setting yourself up for some unfounded conclusions, and to look the fool when the heartless, un-clutch Packers flip the script.

Sometimes you do find a seemingly significant example, like Miami's 5-13 or how the Mavericks have consistently collected more wins than you'd expect from projecting their point/efficiency margin in recent years.  But what does it mean?  And how can you predict it or expect it to continue when the vast majority of such statistical curiosities are best described as noise or fog?

Greyberger United States

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