At this point, it’s becoming not just a broken record, but a shattered one. The Heat lost another close game. And we’re all left wondering what it means.
Are they fatally flawed? Is there something molecularly wrong with the fabric of this team? How long can this last?
We don’t know the answers to those questions yet. What we do know is that the Heat’s abysmal close-game resume is reaching historical depths.
The Heat are now 5-13 in games decided by five points or less. I asked our friends at ESPN Stats & Information to dig up the last time a playoff team posted results of that magnitude during the regular season.
But here’s the kicker: How did they do in the postseason?
This is really what we’re all after, isn’t it? Because in and of itself, the 5-13 record does not matter. The Heat will make the playoffs as one of the top seeds in the East and still rank as one of the best teams in the league. A loss is a loss is a loss. After all, the regular season is just a layup line for the main event called the playoffs.
But the overriding rhetoric suggests that the Heat are doomed. These aren’t your typical defeats. Losing close games over and over again exposes an incurable flaw.
So let’s take a look at the worst records in close games in NBA history for playoff teams and their postseason fates.
Worst regular-season close-game win percentage
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
*2010-11 Miami Heat are 5-13 (.276) in such games thru March 6.
The Heat have some company. But it’s not a very large crowd.
What we see here is that no team has won the title after posting a “close-game” win percentage as poor as the Heat’s .278 mark. But then again, no one expected the 1958-59 Syracuse Nationals to win the title, seeing as though they actually carried a losing regular-season record into the postseason.
John Hollinger projects the Heat to finish with a 56-26 record, so we really have two close comparisons in recent times: the 2002-03 Nets, who went to the Finals as the second seed in the East before falling to Spurs in six games, and the 2000-01 Spurs, who were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Both of those teams failed to win the title, but did their record in close games seal their fate? Considering how far they reached in the postseason, it hardly seems it plagued their efforts. If anything, the 4-10 record posted by the Nets had zero effect as they overachieved their way to a title run.
Of course, the Heat could “figure it out” in the next month and play themselves off of this list. But even if the late-game struggles continue, the team’s overall record in the regular season should have more predictive value. This is a central tenet of the advanced statistics basketball community. Taking this one step further, Neil Paine at Basketball-Reference.com ran a fascinating study that found that in the Finals and conference finals stomping weak opponents in the regular season had more predictive value than winning close games against teams over .500. Paine shows the numbers and concludes:
In the NBA, dominating good teams is clearly the best indicator of postseason success. Teams that had more regular-season dominations (big wins over good teams) won 64.8% of their "final four" series, including 73.3% of their Finals matchups. But the second-most predictive attribute of "final four" success was having more stomps -- that is, destroying the league's weaker teams. And having more stomps was actually a better indicator of success than having more guts (close wins against good teams).
Paine’s findings run counter to the conventional wisdom, but confirm what was already established in the NFL several years ago. Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders ran a similar study and found similar results to Paine. The conclusion: Close games don’t matter as much as you think they do.
Why is this the case? When a team wins a close game, it is as much a product of luck as it is so-called “clutchness.” We saw this in Sunday’s loss to the Bulls, after Luol Deng missed a game-tying free throw with 15.9 seconds left. Deng and Dwyane Wade converged on a loose ball tipped by Joakim Noah in the paint. Deng fell to the ground after drawing contact from Wade and a foul was called. Deng went back to the line and hit the game-winning free throws.
After the game, Heat players were asked how it was possible the Heat failed to recover the loose ball. Their response: It was nothing more than a lucky play. That reads as an excuse and a coping mechanism. But perhaps they don’t believe in the supernatural narrative many have drawn: The Heat don’t possess the clutch gene.
And the Heat have history on their side. As many analysts have discovered, regular-season “clutchness” doesn’t seem to have a hand in postseason success. Randomness plays a critical role in late-game situations, even if it’s not a riveting component to a storyline.