Game 6: The Impact Plays

MIAMI – 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 6 of The Finals — an incredible 103-100 overtime win for the Miami Heat, sending The Finals to a Game 7 for the 18th time.

This was a wild game, with many huge plays. In fact, each of the three plays below had a bigger impact on win probability than any play from Games 2-5.

You know Ray Allen made the biggest play, but which play that was might surprise you.

3. +18.4 percent – Parker drains a 3 to tie it


A 12-4 Heat run had turned a five-point deficit into a three-point lead with two minutes to go. The Spurs seemed to have nothing going on their next possession and Tony Parker was left isolated on LeBron James with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock.

Then, he pulled out a shot we didn’t know he had, stepping back for a game-tying 3 with 1:27 on the clock. He followed that up with a steal and a short turnaround shot in the lane to put the Spurs up two.

The 3 changed the Spurs’ WP from 22.0 percent to 40.4 percent.

2. +25.6 percent – Parker misses the game-winner in regulation


After Allen drained the game-tying, season-saving 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left in regulation, the Spurs still had a 67.3 win probability because they had possession of the ball.

Note: The NBA model assumes a team has the ability to advance the ball with a timeout here, but San Antonio had none left. Still, the difference in WP wouldn’t have knocked this play out of the No. 2 spot.

Parker was able to go about 80 feet in those 5.2 seconds, but he couldn’t get a good shot off.

With the game going to overtime, the home team (Miami) now had the win probability edge. It was 32.7 percent before the play and 58.3 percent when the regulation buzzer sounded.

1. +30.8 percent – Allen strips Ginobili


The Spurs hadn’t scored since the 2:42 mark of overtime, but still had a chance to win the game after Dwyane Wade missed a shot with 10 seconds left.

Parker was out of the game for defensive purposes and the Spurs didn’t use their final timeout. Instead, Kawhi Leonard got the ball to Manu Ginobili, who raced down the floor and attacked the basket through a crowd. Allen got his hand on the ball (and maybe Ginboli’s wrist) as Ginobili rose for a shot.

“We thought it was a foul going down the middle,” Tim Duncan said afterward. “We get two free throws and we’re talking about something different here, if that happens.”

Instead, it was Ginobili’s eighth turnover of the game and it increased the Heat’s WP from 60.1 percent to 90.9 percent. Allen’s subsequent free throws made it 99.7 percent with the Spurs still having a chance to tie with 1.9 seconds left.

What about Allen’s trey?

Allen’s game-tying 3 didn’t rank in the top three plays, because it only increased the Heat’s WP by 10.8 percent, from 22.0 percent to 32.7 percent. Remember that an average possession is worth a little over one point. So, with the Spurs in possession of the ball after the 3, they still had a strong chance of winning.

26 Comments

  1. Roland A Carnavale Sr says:

    sorry Heat fans and with all due respect to LeBron James its obvious the Spurs will take it in game 7 Spurs will not lose two in a row Spurs in game 7……the experience of the veterans of being there more times than LeBron James has been will take over add up the flags there are more green flags then red flags in favor of the Spurs mark my words it is meant to be
    Go Spurs go

  2. haha says:

    We need to look at the shot from 3 different areas.

    1) Setting
    Allen’s shot is not just game-winning, This is a season saving and championship shot.
    The stage is at a highest level. Only game 7 buzzer beat shot could be bigger.

    2) Percentage
    You should look at % change rather than the difference.
    From 10% to 20% is different from 50% to 60%.
    First scenario is doubling the odds.

  3. sammy says:

    Isaac is dead-on, this is a pretty stupid article… NBA.com needs to explain the statistics they come up with properly and not rely on them either. How stupid is the last bit: ” Remember that an average possession is worth a little over one point. So, with the Spurs in possession of the ball after the 3, they still had a strong chance of winning.” They have a strong chance of winning when 1. They have to inbound full court with only 5 seconds left 2. They are facing a rabid defense that is rediculously energized after rays shot 3. Percentage on last second game winners is definitely lower than 40% even for the most skilled players (kobe is like 28% or something)

  4. Isaac says:

    The percentage breakdowns are interesting. But I’d argue that the biggest difference in your chance of winning is the difference between no chance and any chance at all. Ray’s three embodied that: if he had missed, the Heat lose. It was the ultimatum to keep the game alive.

    Also, if he doesn’t make that shot, he doesn’t even have the opportunity to make the “more valuable” play of stripping Ginobili at the end of overtime.

    • artifex says:

      That’s what I thought.
      I think the WP was 22% BEFORE Allens shot and 32% AFTER he made it (ok Spurs could still have won it).
      But the fact THAT he hit the 3 increased their chance from 0 to 32% (which would rank higher than all others in difference and calculating the rate of increases the WP by Inf.
      5 Horry Points!
      - though I wish Spurs make it, this shot was huge and I still have ultimate respect for Allen (as a player) -

  5. sad to say heat funs…your hope will end tomorrow.!!!GO SPURS..!!

  6. Viva La Liga El Tomasino says:

    did anyone notice the “illegal” insertion of duncan on the last play of regulation?

  7. Ernesto says:

    Once again the Spurs are a victim of NBA invisible hand who determines who wins championships. Without that invisible hand, the Spurs would have won 6 or 78 championships in their glory days, but they got stolen from them.
    Spurs are still the greatest team of the 21st century.

  8. L says:

    I don’t care what that says..Chris Bosh getting the ball and giving it to Ray….that was the game changer..from that point on.

  9. 2013 Spurs champ says:

    It was very clear. It should be a foul to the FT. Ginobili’s penetration is a masterpeace.. Spurs is the best Championship Teams ever after the Bulls dynasty in the 90′s.

  10. Gerardo Neves says:

    I am a long time Spurs fan and still trust in a win in game 7, should there be some power left in Manu’s, Tim’s and Tony’s legs ( in their hearts I know there is); however I have an ‘european input’ for MVC-E( most valuable coach-EVER) Pop: why systematically ‘hack-a-Evans’ last year in the Clippers series? and 3 points up, 5 secs away from a championship win NOT foul one_any Miami player and take him to the line for a MAX. concession of only TWO points?
    GO SPURS GO!! Give us a magical game 7!!

  11. kevinfiggs says:

    Season saving 3 after laying more bricks than a mason, maybe not in your top 3 shots but definitely in mine. Ray-Ray showed what a professional he is with the cool hand in the biggest show in his profession good for him

  12. danmacatuno says:

    More of a travelling than a foul.

  13. danmacatuno says:

    Is that a foul? More like a travelling.

  14. João says:

    How do you calculate these??? What are the criteria??? This is absolutely meaningless unless we can understand where the calculation comes from!

  15. CelticsNation says:

    What about the play when LeBron dunked and his headband came off??

  16. The Prufessa says:

    that was not a foul. he knocked the ball out BEFORE he hit his arm. van gundy is an idiot and i can’t wait for him to join mark jackson as a coach. both of them together was the worst commentating duo ever. i can’t stand van gundy commentating games because he says the most ridiculous nonsense ever. and if he can’t see that the ball was knocked loose BEFORE ray allen hit his arm then he’s just as dumb as i always thought he was.

    • B-Ball4Life says:

      Yeah right GiFLOPili what a joke. They simply lost the game period. On to the next one. HEAT will repeat.

      • tkotkoPetko says:

        foul on parker at the end of regulation: not called, the same goes for the one on green at the end of OT, as well as this one on Manu. And count Ray Ray’s steps on that 3

  17. J says:

    8 turnovers ouch!
    come on i hate this 99.7 wp all the spurs gotta do is get a 3 still a decent chance
    heat in 7!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • David says:

      Well it’s a mathematical model right, so it’s far from perfect. I also think that the 5 second remaining three is the biggest play. Anyways, I’m sure that there is a larger than 0.3% chance of hitting a three or getting an and one. I’d say 15%?

  18. Flopu Ginobili traveled on that good no call lool