Ben Gordon and Hot Shooting

Last week I wrote about a study showing that what seems to be hot shooting, what we all assume to be one of the most important aspects of the game, is apparently seldom real.

Then you have to ask ... did anybody see Ben Gordon shooting tonight?

It was a thriller in Boston, full of all kinds of fun stuff, like the Bulls not having a timeout to try to send the game into overtime, Derrick Rose missing a healthy chunk of the first half with two fouls before finishing the game without getting another, and a Boston lineup (Paul Pierce with Eddie House, Stephon Marbury, Mikki Moore and Leon Powe) that reminded me a lot of the bad old pre-Garnett days of the Celtics.

And in the end that wily veteran Ray Allen nailed the game-winner, despite Gordon's best efforts to torch the Celtics and some research.

In a nutshell, the study said that players have their field goal percentages over a certain period of time. Just like a flipped coin will often have streaks of four or five "heads" in a row, so would a 50% shooter. It doesn't mean they're hot. It just means they miss some and make some, and sometimes those misses and makes come in groups.

Ben GordonIf there was no such thing as a hot hand, then whether any particular made shot was followed by another make would be a matter of chance, based on their field goal percentage. But if there was such thing as a hot hand, then a lot of those makes would be grouped together. No matter how you defined "hot hand," whatever it is (six of seven? ten of fifteen? something different every night?) would come along with increased likelihood that a make would be followed by a make.

If I made eight then missed twelve, then seven times a make followed a make, and only once did a miss follow a make. So in this survey of ten shots, it would be seven times more likely that a make would follow a make.

And in fact they found, by surveying four years of the highest-volume shooters, that when one made a shot, it slightly decreased the chance that the next one would go in. Meanwhile, it increased the likelihood that they would take a jumper, and it made them more likely to shoot sooner.

Now we get to the Chicago Bulls' offense down the stretch of a close Game 2 in Boston Garden. Just about all of their offense down the stretch was Ben Gordon, who did the following:

  • Made 3 with 3:43 left

  • Made 3 with 3:13 left

  • Missed 2 -- very tough shot! -- with 2:33 left

  • Made 2 -- another very tough shot! -- with 1:47 left

  • Made 2 -- yet another seriously contested jumper -- with 46 seconds left

  • Made 2 with 12 seconds left (again, a very tough shot)

Now the game only ended a little bit ago, but I have already heard from several people who are sure that Ben Gordon has single-handedly disproved that hot hand research. And maybe he has. But is it really impossible that a 46% shooter would make five of six without magic?

Granted, those five shots were extraordinary in import and execution. It did seem to me, while watching, that he could not miss. He did seem to be hot.

But do I know there was something special going on for him in this moment? I can't say for sure, but since internalizing that study, I'm now open to the idea that this kind of shooting could occur without his being possessed in any special way.

So he may have been hot, or he may be a good shooter who was fortunate to have a spell with very few misses in such an important part of a big game. The research I wrote about wasn't totally convincing on this point.

However, it was convincing on different but related point: When people make a shot, they are more likely to take a quicker shot, further from the basket, compared to after a miss. Which could be taken to suggest that they are "hunting shots" as opposed to working with teammates for high-percentage baskets. And in this game, that definitely happened: Ben Gordon got the ball, and the green light to take some extremely difficult shots. They're shots that the Celtic coaching staff dreams of goading the Bulls into, because they usually miss. Most nights a lot of players would get benched for attempting those shots.

But how can you get everyone's blessing to take really tough shots? Make a few. Right? If you're hot, you can shoot "bad" shots. And that's how hot becomes cold.

On this night, Gordon happened to make most of them. But he also demonstrated nicely the study's main finding ... that players who think they are hot expand their view of what a good shot is. And usually makes them more likely to miss, no matter what Ben Gordon did tonight.

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