2011 NBA Finals: Game 2 Loss Overshadowed Heat Wade's Brilliance

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A constant theme on this blog has been how winning preys on our cognitive biases. It props up winners and diminishes losers. Humans are not perfect decision-makers, and we often want black-and-white explanations in a sea of gray. What’s The Reason why team A won? What’s The Reason why Team B lost? Multifactorial answers are swept away and forgotten.

This can wreak havoc on our ability to accurately assess individual performances. The latest example: Dwyane Wade‘s game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals. It was, unarguably, one of the best performances of the postseason. It’s already been forgotten.

The overload of stories after the classic game in Miami focused on either (a) the Heat’s collapse (and premature celebration) or (b) the Mav’s amazing comeback. The more detailed analysis centered around everything that happened in the last 6 minutes of the game. Two days later, some people are still searching for an explanation as to what exactly happened. After all, it’s beyond rare that a team scores 13 straight points only to surrender 20 of the next 22 points, all in the final act of the game.

Completely lost in the shuffle are the other 160 possessions in the game. And even further down our mental totem poles (and in the written coverage of the game) are all the good things Miami did for most of the night and all the bad things Dallas did. As if 95-93 games can simply be explained by a few plays in the 4th quarter.

To the point, the individual performances of the winning team are magnified — Dirk scoring the last 9 points despite a subpar game — and the individual performances of the losing team minimized — see Dwyane Wade.

How good was Wade’s game?

According to Expected Value, it was the best game of the 2011 playoffs. This in a game in which there really wasn’t another excellent individual performance. Here is the raw EV box score (unadjusted for pace or relative to league averages) from Game 2:


HEAT Possessions Def Off EV
Dwyane Wade 77 6.0 19.2 25.2
Mike Bibby 41 4.8 3.8 8.6
Joel Anthony 49 1.3 0.3 1.6
LeBron James 73 -0.7 1.5 0.8
Mario Chalmers 46 -0.2 0.3 0.1
Udonis Haslem 54 1.1 -1.5 -0.4
Mike Miller 28 2.2 -2.4 -0.9
Chris Bosh 73 -1.6 -4.9 -6.5

MAVERICKS Possessions Def Off EV
Shawn Marion 75 1.6 4.9 6.5
Dirk Nowitzki 77 4.4 2.0 6.4
DeShawn Stevenson 41 2.2 2.8 5.0
Tyson Chandler 70 -2.3 6.5 4.2
Jason Terry 57 -0.9 3.4 2.4
Brian Cardinal 2 -0.9 0.0 -0.9
Brendan Haywood 15 -0.3 -0.9 -1.2
Jose Barea 26 -0.8 -0.8 -1.6
Jason Kidd 69 0.4 -2.2 -1.8
Peja Stojakovic 9 -1.9 -1.1 -2.9

For a more offensive-centric measurement, Wade’s Game Score was 34.7, which puts it just outside the top-100 playoff games of all-time and the 6th-best playoff game this year.

Yet because his team lost this game it has immediately dampened Wade’s performance. The man started the game 13-17 for 36 points. History will remember a desperation miss and some chest-thumping.

He completely carved up the defense all night, constantly setting the table for teammates (13 Opportunities Created). He was excellent defensively, getting scored on only once, nabbing three steals and blocking two shots. The firmest criticism levied against his play was his quick-trigger 3-point attempt with 6:30 left; That heat check, in lieu of driving to the hoop, might have been the only mistake he made all night. That and his one turnover.

Of course, little of Wade’s excellence was even mentioned. Instead, most of the recaps focused on his celebration after Miami’s 13-0 run to take an 88-73 lead. People don’t want to dissect dozens of quality plays. They’d rather latch on to a narrative.

Variance, game trends and dozens of possessions can’t be neatly wrapped in a headline.

And here’s the crux of the issue: When Wade celebrated by talking to his hand last year against Boston in his 46 point explosion, no one quipped about it because his team won. Surely, celebration would have been a non-story again if Miami scored more than two points over those next six minutes, or if Dallas actually, you know, missed. (The Mavs finished 9-10, with the only “miss” coming from a block.)

Ultimately, this has little to do with Wade or this year’s Finals. This happens all the time: Highlight the winner’s positives, lambaste the loser’s negative. Nothing exists in between. And throw in a recency effect while were at it; Everyone remembers the last six minutes of the game significantly better than the loping middle act.

Losing Bias happened to Karl Malone after 90 minutes of amazing basketball. It happened to Dwyane Wade on Thursday night. And sadly, it will happen again.

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