- Series Hub: Spurs-Heat
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.