The 2012 NBA Finals – A Case of Small Sample Sizes

Published: June 19, 2012

Mason takes a quick break from our continuous Hornets247 draft coverage to give his own unique take on the first 3 (UPDATE: 4) games of the NBA Finals.

After every NBA Finals game so far, there have been numerous opinions expressed and various analyses presented about why the winning team achieved victory, as well as why the losing team suffered defeat. Blame has been placed on numerous variables, whether stat-driven or opinion-based, and many for good reason (Derek Fisher’s 28 minutes of playing time in Game 3 is just as inexplicable now as it was on Sunday night).  Being that it is the NBA Finals, every minor detail about every game will be immensely scrutinized, and much of it will be directly correlated to each game’s outcome. That being said, there seems to be a much simpler explanation for what has led to the Miami Heat’s 2-1 series advantage after three games that many have appeared to overlook. After doing a little research, it is clear that seemingly inexplicable variances in both free throw shooting and three point shooting have significantly tipped the series’ results in favor of Miami.

Free Throw Shooting

In the regular season, both Miami and Oklahoma City finished among the league’s top ten teams in free throw percentage. In 2011-12, The Thunder led the league with an impressive 80.6% mark, and the Heat came in 7th at 77.5%. In the first three games of the NBA finals, those numbers flipped, and dramatically so – Miami made 67 of its 78 attemps from the free throw line, good for 85.9%, whereas Oklahoma City has only made 54 of its 77 attempts, a mere 70.1%. If both teams were to maintain these percentages over the course of the entire 2011-12 season, the Heat would have finished over 5% higher than Oklahoma City’s league-leading percentage, and the Thunder would have finished behind every single NBA team besides the Clippers and Magic. One would assume that the reason behind a Thunder dip in free throw percentage could be attributed to who is shooting them, but that is not the case; Durant, Westbrook and Harden have accounted for two thirds of the entire team’s free throw attempts in the first three games. The group shot 84.4% from the charity stripe in the regular season, but are only 38-51 (74.5%) in the Finals thus far.

The question then becomes how this free throw shooting efficiency disparity has impacted the series thus far. If each team had made the same percentage of its free throws as it converted during the regular season, the Heat would be 61/78 (78.2%) and the Thunder would be 62/77 (80.5%). In total, the difference for each team amounts to two points less per game for the Heat and 2.67 points more per game for the Thunder. By itself, that 4.67 points per game swing is enough to potentially alter the outcome of the Heat’s four point victory in Game 2, when the Heat made 22 of its 25 free throw attempts (88%) compared to the Thunder’s 19/26 mark (73.1%). Improved free throw shooting by Miami combined with Oklahoma City’s struggles in that department have clearly impacted this series’ first three games.

GAME 4 UPDATE: Free throw shooting averages began to swing back towards normalcy in Game 4. The Thunder converted 15 out of 16 attempts, a 93.8% rate for the game. This improvement brings them up to 69/93 (74.2%) for the series; if shooting at their regular season clip, they would have made 75 out of those 93 attempts (80.6%). Conversely, the Heat shot a bit worse than their regular season average from the charity stripe last night, making 18 out of 25 attempts (72%). For the series, they now have made 85 out of 103, good for 82.5%, which is 5 free throws more than we would have expected them to convert based on regular season totals (80/103 = 77.7%). An eleven point swing over five games doesn’t look nearly as lopsided as a fourteen point swing over four games, but it’s still a meaningful difference, especially in a series that has had as many close games as this one.

Three-Point Shooting

While a difference in free throw shooting efficiency from regular season averages can largely be attributed to “luck”, three point shooting isn’t quite as simple, mainly because the caliber of the defense comes into play. Throughout the regular season, the Thunder held opponents to 34.2% from beyond the arc, 9th best in the NBA. In the series, Miami has made 17 of its 46 attempts, good for 37% and just slightly above its regular season average of 35.9%. Seems normal enough so far, right? Look at it from the other side, however, and things really start to get strange. Heat opponents shot 36.3% from long range, 5th worst in the league, and the Thunder made 35.8% of their three point attempts in the regular season. Through three NBA finals games, the Thunder are just 18 for 61 from that distance, equating to a horrendous 29.5%; for comparison’s sake, that percentage would have tied the Bobcats for last in the NBA during this past season.

Of course, Miami could have decided they were going to focus on contesting three point shots more heavily in the finals, which could significantly impact these numbers. After reviewing the film of every three-point shot taken by Oklahoma City in the Finals thus far, it is clear that this is not the case. Out of the Thunder’s 61 three point attempts, 25 of them were completely uncontested, and 15 more were poorly contested. That means that two thirds of Oklahoma City’s looks from beyond the arc were good to great ones, and yet they converted on just 10 of 25 uncontested threes and 4 of 15 poorly contested threes. Take away Durant’s 9-22 series total, and the results are horrific; on poorly contested or uncontested three pointers not taken by KD, the Thunder have made just 6 out of 27, good for a mere 22.2%. It doesn’t appear that the Heat have altered their philosophy on 3-point shooting defense; they are still doing about as poor of a job in this regard as they did in the regular season. The difference is quite simple – the Thunder just aren’t hitting them.

So, to ask the same question as was asked about the free throw disparity – how have these 3-point shooting results impacted the series? Since the Heat’s three-point percentage through three games is only about 1/2 of a 3-pointer above its regular season average (37% vs. 35.9%), we can leave this number unchanged. If the Thunder had converted on 35.8% of its three-pointers so far in this series as they did in the regular season, that 18/61 rate would improve to 22/61 (36.1%), or an average of 4 additional points per game. Add that to the 4.67 additional points per game from the free throw discussion, and that’s almost a 9 point swing.

GAME 4 UPDATE: Unlike the regression to the mean in the free throw department, shooting patterns continued along the same trajectory from 3-point range. The Heat connected on 10 of their 26 attempts (38.5%), again just slightly above its regular season percentage, bringing them to 27/72 (37.5%) for the series (just one 3-pointer more than expected; 26/72 would be right at their regular season rate). The Thunder, on the other hand… yikes. Somehow, despite only 4 of Oklahoma City’s 16 attempts being well-contested by Miami, they could only convert on 3 of them. Seven of the twelve good looks were taken with no defender even in sight, and yet the Thunder could only knock down one of those (Harden went 1-4, and Sefalosha, Westbrook and Durant went 0-1). This brings Oklahoma City to 21/77 overall for the series (27.3%), and 17/52 (32.7%) on  attempts that were either poorly contested or uncontested. Based on their 34.2% regular season average, the Thunder have scored between 15 and 18 points less in this series from 3-point attempts than expected. When a team’s 3-point percentage for the series on wide open attempts (11/32 = 34.4%) is basically the same as its conversion rate on ALL 3-point attempts in the regular season (34.2%), there’s really nothing you can say except that the Thunder are doing this to themselves.

What does it mean?

Either team can make whatever adjustments they want in order to improve their chance to win, but ultimately it will all come down to – surprise, surprise – making the shots that they’re supposed to make. Despite all of the analysis about what the Heat have done right and the Thunder have done wrong on both sides of the ball, the fact of the matter is this – if both teams had converted their free throws and three pointers at the same rate as they did in the regular season, this series could very well be one game away from an Oklahoma City sweep. Instead, the Thunder have fallen victim to an incredibly poorly timed shooting slump and trail the series two games to one as a result. After taking these shooting numbers into account, there is a strong case to be made that the Thunder have outplayed the Heat in this series. For the Oklahoma City Thunder to have a chance to erase their current deficit and win the NBA title, they need to make the shots that they have been making all season long; though this sounds like a fairly simple task, it is one that they have largely failed to complete thus far.


Three Things to Watch For in Game 4:

1. Expect Miami to make a more conscious effort to defend the 3-point shot in Game 4. The Thunder’s impressive ball movement is what typically gets them so many open 3-pointers, though, so that won’t be easy. Still, don’t think that the Heat don’t realize the facts that have been noted above.

GAME 4 UPDATE: Didn’t really see any changes here, and it ended up not mattering one bit.

2. More Sefalosha & less Fisher. With the foul trouble that Durant has gotten himself into (fairly or unfairly) over the past two games, Brooks would be wise to keep Durant off of LeBron for as long as he can. Doing so likely means more time for both Sefalosha and Harden on James, which should inherently limit Fisher’s minutes.

GAME 4 UPDATE: This was half-right; we saw less of Fisher (22 minutes), but that was due to increased minutes for Durant (46) and Westbrook (45); Sefalosha’s minutes (27) remained the same.

Increased attention to Chris Bosh on the defensive glass. Bosh has collected 11 offensive rebounds over the past two games, an unacceptable amount. If Bosh is able to continue to own the offensive glass, the Thunder will continue to struggle defensively, so expect him to be a major focus as soon as a Miami shot goes up.

GAME 4 UPDATE: Bosh collected four offensive rebounds which turned into four Miami Heat points. Not much of an improvement, but not catastrophic either.


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