In his NBA playoff preview, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons mentioned “crunchtime” scoring six times. Simmons, like most basketball writers, believes clutch play to be a major deciding factor in a team’s success. And a major deciding factor in how valuable an individual is.
However, there is a mountain of evidence that clutch offense doesn’t strongly relate to success, closers don’t impact wins and losses much and crunchtime has an even smaller impact on the game of basketball than say, the first five minutes. Many commenters have still insisted that in the postseason, things are different. Games are closer and slower and therefore, at the end of close grinding games, teams need great clutch players to lead them to victory in crunchtime. As in, this is often the deciding factor in playoff games.
First, they might want to read about Late-Game Bias. Even in close games, it is an error in reasoning to claim “they won because of the last shot.” A team can no more win “because” of the last shot than they can “because” of the first shot.
Let’s leave that aside for a second though. Maybe what people are saying, like Mark Bashuk at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year, is that games are really close for a while and then all the “deciding stuff” happens at the end. This doesn’t literally mean it’s 0-0 entering the 4th, but for whatever reason — strategy? fatigue? quirky human nature? — teams don’t have much of a point differential before the end of the game.
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Is this true?
Are Games in the Playoff Closer?
Well, no, not really. In the 249 playoff games from 2009-2011, the average margin of victory was 11.3 points per game. This is right around the number we see in a given season (it was 11.1 points per game in 2011, for example). As we’ve seen in the regular season, more “deciding stuff” is happening earlier in games, as the average game was a 10-point game after the 3rd quarter (10.1 technically).
Are the Outcomes Being Changed in the 4th Quarter?
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Sometimes, yes. Now, keep in mind that teams still need to have stopped the opponent at the exact rate they stopped them and scored points themselves at the exact rate they scored them for the first 36 minutes in order to still accumulate a greater total than them. But, even if we exclude this inescapable fact, less than one in every five playoff games will have it’s outcome changed by playing the third quarter.
In other words, 82% of the time the team winning after three quarters wins the game. Playing the final period was simply an exercise in preserving the lead built in the first three frames.
Are the Outcomes Being Changed in the Final 5 Minutes?
Again, sometimes they are. This is what commentators like Simmons are really harping on. These final few minutes, where people erroneously believe that so many games, series and championships are determined. Not surprisingly, final-five comebacks are less frequent than 4th-quarter comebacks.
All told, 86% of the time the team with the lead at the 5 minute mark wins the game.
Both the 4th quarter and final-5 figures include the 2011 postseason, which seems to be the most clutch-driven postseason in the last 10 years. In the 2010 postseason, 87% of game results didn’t change after three quarters and 92% of games were unchanged by the final five minutes. Teams went entire series without having any clutch possessions.
Playoff Offenses in the Clutch
To illustrate this point, let’s take a closer look at clutch offenses.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out is the difference in the best clutch offense in the league and the worst. Here were the best clutch offenses — in this case, using the final three minutes of five-point games — in 2010 in the regular season, with the change from the team’s overall offense. ORtg is Offensive Rating, or points scored per 100 possessions...
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