Nate Silver wrote things about the NBA Finals. When Nate Silver writes things, people read them, because he’s smart and makes predictions. People like predictions. His prophetism is exaggerated, but he is a very smart man who likes sports and said pretty smart things about the NBA, so you should read his whole article. It goes something like this: numbers Miami Heat numbers clutch San Antonio Spurs clutch nerd number data data herb-encrusted tofu number mambo number five Blake Griffin.
What, you ask? Here is his argument, many smart things included.
The Miami Heat were heavy betting favorites over the San Antonio Spurs before the N.B.A. finals began, despite computer rankings that showed the teams to be relatively even.
This is mostly true; the Heat fluctuated around 65-35ish favorites before the series. And as Silver explains, that’s mainly because of home-court advantage and the perception that the Heat have “another gear.” But because Silver is smart, he doesn’t just write this, he evaluates it. Do the Heat actually have another gear?
The Heat’s record in critical situations in the regular season was, in fact, extraordinarily impressive. The N.B.A. keeps statistics on what it calls “clutch time” performance, which it defines as situations in the last five minutes of the game when the score is within five points or less. In these cases, representing 176 total minutes of play, the Heat outscored their opponents 427 to 294. That’s the equivalent of beating an opponent 116-80 per 48 minutes, the length of a full N.B.A. game.
That is a good sign. Anything else?
I identified the (regular-season) games that projected to be the most competitive…
How well did the Heat do in these games? They went 14-7, winning two-thirds of the time. That reflects the best winning percentage in the league in games that seemed like even matchups on paper. Miami also outscored their opponents by a margin of 3.3 points in these games.
Boom! Far from complete, but as Silver shows, there is a bit of evidence that the Heat have another gear. Bad sign for the league, bad sign for Popovich, right? (Well, not really. As Silver qualifies, the Heat were projected to win 11 or 12ish of those games, so there really wasn’t much of a difference.)
He does have evidence, real evidence, that the Spurs are much better than their regular season data suggests, mainly because Gregg Popovich is a genius. Because he rested players, significantly, all year long.
Tim Duncan, for example, averaged only 25 minutes per game during the regular season (accounting for the fact that he sat out 13 games entirely) – but has played 34 minutes per game in the playoffs. Tony Parker’s minutes have increased to 36 per game from 27, while Manu Ginobili is playing 25 minutes per game instead of just 17. Although Miami’s “Big Three” – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – are also playing more minutes per game, the increased playing time for the Spurs’ stars is far more dramatic.
So, the Spurs’ regular-season numbers underrate their playoff performance expectations. How much?
The Spurs, however, are practically a whole different team during the postseason. On the basis of John Hollinger’s Wins Added statistic, I estimate that the playing time allocations the Spurs are using in the playoffs make them the equivalent of 14 wins stronger than their record suggested during the regular season — tantamount to adding a star player like Blake Griffin to their lineup. Who needs clutch players when you have Popovich’s clutch strategy?
The points: the Heat may be slightly underrated, because they didn’t always try their hardest. But the Spurs are heavily underrated because Gregg Popovich is Basketball God, and when predicting their playoff performance, you basically should have assumed that Blake Griffin was joining the team, team chemistry intact.
In conclusion, numbers, numbers, pants on fire, Heat are good, Spurs are fire. Game 4, tonight.