You Are Here > Basketball-Reference.com > BBR Blog > NBA and College Basketball Analysis

SITE NEWS: We are moving all of our site and company news into a single blog for Sports-Reference.com. We'll tag all Basketball-Reference content, so you can quickly and easily find the content you want.

Also, our existing Basketball-Reference blog rss feed will be redirected to the new site's feed.

Basketball-Reference.com // Sports Reference

For more from Neil, check out his new work at BasketballProspectus.com.

Time to Face Facts — Miami is Unlikely to Be a True .500 Team in Close Games

Posted by Neil Paine on March 8, 2011

The close-game struggles of this year's Miami Heat are nothing if not well-documented. A 5-13 record in games decided by 5 or fewer points has become the team's defining stat, far surpassing LeBron James' gaudy all-around numbers or the scoring brilliance of Dwyane Wade. As far as the mainstream media is concerned, it is now assumed this team will choke until they prove otherwise.

As statheads, we typically detest this sort of cliched, pseudo-psychological nonsense. Part of the sabermetric orthodoxy is to deny the existence of "clutch skills", or at least to minimize them relative to overall factors that impact every minute of the game. But with the Heat so dominant in blowouts and so vulnerable in close games, perhaps there is something to the old sportswriter aphorisms about certain teams being unable to close the deal when the margin gets tight.

As mentioned earlier, Miami is 5-13 (.278) in games decided by 5 points or fewer, while they sport a sterling 38-7 (.844) mark in games decided by 6 or more points. The Heat now have the biggest differential in NBA history between wpct in games decided by 6+ pts and games decided by 5 or fewer:

Margin>=6 pts Margin<=5 pts
Year Team W L WPct W L WPct Diff
2011 Miami Heat 38 7 0.844 5 13 0.278 0.567
1959 Syracuse Nationals 28 10 0.737 7 27 0.206 0.531
2001 San Antonio Spurs 53 12 0.815 5 12 0.294 0.521
1977 Denver Nuggets 46 18 0.719 4 14 0.222 0.497
1986 Milwaukee Bucks 50 12 0.806 7 13 0.350 0.456
1952 Minneapolis Lakers 34 12 0.739 6 14 0.300 0.439
1996 Utah Jazz 48 15 0.762 7 12 0.368 0.393
1972 Chicago Bulls 48 12 0.800 9 13 0.409 0.391
2004 Detroit Pistons 42 11 0.792 12 17 0.414 0.379
1985 Milwaukee Bucks 47 9 0.839 12 14 0.462 0.378
2003 New Jersey Nets 45 23 0.662 4 10 0.286 0.376
2007 San Antonio Spurs 50 13 0.794 8 11 0.421 0.373
1992 Chicago Bulls 55 5 0.917 12 10 0.545 0.371
2006 Indiana Pacers 33 19 0.635 8 22 0.267 0.368
1989 Milwaukee Bucks 44 22 0.667 5 11 0.313 0.354
1967 Boston Celtics 45 7 0.865 15 14 0.517 0.348
1982 Milwaukee Bucks 43 12 0.782 12 15 0.444 0.337
2008 Boston Celtics 55 7 0.887 11 9 0.550 0.337
1997 Seattle SuperSonics 47 13 0.783 10 12 0.455 0.329
2004 San Antonio Spurs 47 13 0.783 10 12 0.455 0.329
1983 Phoenix Suns 44 16 0.733 9 13 0.409 0.324
1991 Chicago Bulls 51 11 0.823 10 10 0.500 0.323
1992 San Antonio Spurs 40 21 0.656 7 14 0.333 0.322
1972 Los Angeles Lakers 59 6 0.908 10 7 0.588 0.319
1977 Phoenix Suns 30 30 0.500 4 18 0.182 0.318
2006 Phoenix Suns 48 19 0.716 6 9 0.400 0.316
1996 Portland Trail Blazers 33 17 0.660 11 21 0.344 0.316
2008 Orlando Magic 45 19 0.703 7 11 0.389 0.314
2001 Portland Trail Blazers 43 20 0.683 7 12 0.368 0.314
1974 Milwaukee Bucks 51 14 0.785 8 9 0.471 0.314

Although APBRmetrics teaches us that all teams' records in close games regress toward .500, at a certain point it becomes statistically unlikely that the Heat's "true" probability of winning those types of games is as good as a coin flip.

Using the binomial distribution, the probability of a true .500 team going 5-13 or worse in a given set of 18 games is just 4.8%. In other words, if our initial hypothesis was that Miami is still a true .500 team who simply suffered a spate of colossally bad luck in close games, we now have enough evidence to reject that hypothesis. The alternate hypothesis -- that the Heat are something less than a true .500 team in close games -- seems far more likely.

How much less, though? Well, using the Empirical Rule, there's a 68% chance that Miami's true "close game skill" falls between a 3-15 record and a 7-11 one, and a 95% chance it falls between 1-17 and 9-9.

Of course, you may want to use Bayes' Theorem to inform Miami's expected skill level with additional information (in which case their .844 record in non-close games would come into play). But if you only look at the evidence from close games this season, it is statistically improbable that the Heat's true ability to come out on top is even .500 when the score is tight.

ShareThis

106 Responses to “Time to Face Facts — Miami is Unlikely to Be a True .500 Team in Close Games”

  1. huevonkiller Says:

    Damn Neil you sure responded to that fast, I didn't know I was that important.

    You said it so smugly, like you just knew LeBron had no chance to be better on defense. Wrong, he locked your guy up and he was trash. Even Dean Oliver needs to take into account mitigating circumstances. The individual PER in this case was so obviously skewed in LeBron's favor.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    All of my readers are important.

    With that example, I was trying to weigh all of the evidence at hand. I admit that I don't take individual DRtg as seriously now (compared to DSPM) as I did then, but it was a piece of evidence to use at the time. Just like calculating that it was statistically unlikely for a true .500 team to go 5-for-18 in a given set of games. This has nothing to do with bias against LeBron James, but everything to do with reliance on the numbers (for better or for worse).

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    And for the record, if you asked me now who played better in the 2010 playoffs vs. Boston, I'd follow this post and say they essentially played at the same level:

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=6618

  4. Sean Says:

    Neil sez: All of my readers are important.>>>>>>>>>>>>

    I have to agree. I can only imagine how badly Neil winces at some of the things I say here---------> yet he is fast to respond when I address him directly. I give Neil a lot of credit for the job he does.

  5. Mike Goodman Says:

    "They're 10-2 in games decided by 6 to 8 points.
    That puts them at 15-15 in games decided by 8 or less."

    ""I personally think "Games with a margin of 5 points or less entering the final minute of the game" makes more sense than the final score."

    I'd probably go with with 5 at any point in the last two minutes of the game, personally. The final score is a pretty horrible metric for deciding "closeness" of a game."

    Good points all.
    A close game in which the Heat put away the opponent in the final minute, winning by more than 5, is removed from consideration.

  6. Sean Says:

    I think regardless of how one operationally defines a 'close game'-----I remain unimpressed with the Heat's sets when they need a basket late. These sets are deployed by many teams late in games when one's possessions are coming to an end. The LeBron has the ball at the top/ everyone clear out with apparently ZERO attention paid to spacing/ LeBron drives the lane against multiple bigs thingy just isn't working out that great.

    They could do better. They MUST do better---or LeBron could simply get really good at making those kinds of shots. The status quo cannot be what they were hoping for.