- Series Hub: Spurs-Heat
SAN ANTONIO — The most important play in a game isn’t always the one you remember most. Sometimes, it’s subtle and doesn’t even make the highlight reel. Sometimes, something as simple as a change in possession can be more important than a shot that does or doesn’t go in.
The NBA has a way to use analytics to figure out just which plays had the biggest impact on a close game. It’s a “leverage” model that was developed to evaluate and instruct referees by pointing out which calls or no-calls had the biggest impact on a game’s result.
Here’s the idea: At every point of a game, each team has a certain probability of winning. Putting the quality of each team to the side, when the game tips off, the home team has a 60 percent probability of winning and the road team has a 40 percent probability of winning. After the first basket, those numbers haven’t changed much. But if the home team is up 10 with the ball and five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, their win probability (WP) is obviously a lot greater than 60 percent.
So, by calculating win probability both before and after a play occurs, it can be determined just how important that play was. Score, possession and location are the factors. And obviously, plays in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter (or overtime) in a close game are more important than any others.
Using the league’s data model, we’ve determined the three most important plays of Game 5 of The Finals, a 114-104 win for the San Antonio Spurs, which gives them a 3-2 series lead as the series heads back to Miami for Games 6 and 7 (if necessary).
The Heat never led on Sunday, but they got to within three points early in the third quarter and to within one late in the third. Both times, the Spurs answered with a Danny Green 3-pointer, two of Green’s Finals-record 25 threes in the series.
As you might expect, those threes were two of the biggest plays in the game.
3. +7.7 percent – A Green 3 gives the Spurs some breathing room
An 8-0 Miami run, capped by an unconventional 3-point play (+7.6 percent) made it a 75-74 game with three minutes to go in the third quarter.
But on a broken play, Green took a handoff from Boris Diaw, and drained a 3-pointer over both Shane Battier and Dwyane Wade to keep the Heat at bay. That sparked a 12-1 San Antonio run to finish the quarter and the Heat never got a chance to tie or take the lead.
The three changed the Spurs’ WP from 62.1 percent to 69.8 percent.
2. +8.3 percent – James’ steal leads to a Chalmers 3
The Heat were within single digits at the half and James got the third-quarter scoring started with a 3-pointer*. He then poked the ball from behind Green, pushed the ball up the floor, and found Mario Chalmers in the corner. Chalmers had another off night (2-for-10), but made it a one-possession game with a 3.
Before James’ steal, the Heat’s WP was 23.1 percent. The change of possession increased it to 25.7 percent (+2.6) and the three made it 31.4 percent (+5.7).
*James’ shot was originally counted as a two. That’s why the score is off in the video.
1. +9.0 percent – A steal and a record
Chalmers’ 3 was part of an (earlier) 8-0 run for the Heat, cutting the Spurs lead down to three. James then got a hand on Green’s pass, one of three live-ball turnovers in San Antonio’s first five possessions of the third. But Wade dribbled into traffic on the ensuing break and lost the ball. Manu Ginobili picked it up, brought it up the floor, and flipped it back to a trailing Green, who stepped into a three from the top, breaking Ray Allen‘s record of 22 Finals 3-pointers.
Before Wade lost the ball, the Spurs’ WP was 65.4 percent. The change of possession increased it to 68.6 percent (+3.2) and the three made it 74.5 percent (+5.8).