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What Sports Stats Can't Predict
Originally published on Fri June 7, 2013 8:29 pm
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Finally this hour, a more popular sporting event, the National Basketball Association Finals. In Miami last night, the San Antonio Spurs went up one game to zero against the Heat. It was a very close game, 92-88 and as NPR's Mike Pesca says, the other numbers that stood out were rebounds and turnovers.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The allure of sport is all wrapped up in defining the possible, from how fast a man can run or how high he could fly. But so often in sports, you hear that you can't win if you don't - as in you can't win in football if you don't run the ball. You can't win in baseball if you don't field well. You can't be successful in the NBA without rebounding.
All of those assertions have a reassuring certainty about them, all are also wrong. After the loss last night, the Heat's Lebron James made the case that statistically speaking, his team played well. Then, he focused on an odd anomaly.
LEBRON JAMES: When you look at statistics, you know, we put our self in a position to win. You know, they shot 41 percent, we out-rebounded them by 9. We had more assists. I was looking at the stat sheet and it says they had 21 second chance points. I don't really understand how is that possible with only six offensive rebounds. I'm very good at math and the only way you can get a second chance point is if you get an offensive rebound, right? Am I correct?
PESCA: Lebron is good at math. Remember when he counted the number of championships the Heat were going to win together? But, in this case, not correct. He failed to account for the fact that a team can score a second chance point on team rebounds or after the ball goes out of bounds. So that's a little bit of pickiness. But the general point that the Spurs were successful without offensive rebounding is a good one.
The Spurs were actually the worst offensive rebounding team in the NBA this year. And the Heat were the worst overall rebounding team in the league this year. There are a lot of explanations for both stats. Mostly, that their coaches prioritized other parts of the game. The reason that teams can be and are so successful without great rebounding is that they excel elsewhere. Like, as Manu Ginobili of the Spurs noted, in taking care of the basketball.
MANU GINOBILI: I think that the most important thing we did offensively is not turning the ball over and that's something we talked about. First play of the game, turnover, dunk. And that's what they do.
PESCA: But after that Dwyane Wade dunk, the Spurs took excellent care of the basketball. The Heat forced only four turnovers for the entire game. That was the fewest number of turnovers a Heat team has forced in 20 years. When told of this fact, Spurs forward Danny Green, who was six years old at the time of the last four turnover game, reacted accordingly.
DANNY GREEN: Wow.
PESCA: Some statistics are just numbers that confirm what's apparent, some are revelatory and some even obscure the truth. Yes, Lebron James had a triple double, so that's a great night, right? But Lebron James had only 18 points, which is his lowest playoff total in two years. If there were no such thing as statistics and you wanted to describe his play, you'd say something like he contributed in a lot of ways but needed to score a few more baskets down the stretch.
Which James all but admitted was the case, as the Heat try to rebound - sorry, probably not rebound - but certainly win game two on Sunday. Mike Pesca, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.