Friday, December 11, 2009
Winning ways continue in close games
By Marc Stein
No team in the league wins more close games than the Dallas Mavericks.
That's a fact.
The uncertainty comes in when you try to assess how impressive or valuable that factoid is.
The Mavs' 102-101 escape Tuesday night against their old friends from Phoenix nudged their record to 6-1 in games decided by five points or fewer. Dallas' only loss in that situation came in the previous home game -- last Saturday's 80-75 defeat to Atlanta -- and no team in the league has won more nail-biters this season.
Sounds like an unreservedly positive habit. Right?
It's the continuation of a trend that began last season. En route to winning 50 games for a ninth consecutive season, Dallas went 18-5 in 2008-09 in games decided five points or fewer, finishing ahead of Boston (16-6), Cleveland (11-5), New Orleans (13-6), Miami (16-8) and Orlando (14-7).
But here's the thing: NBA stat mavens such as ESPN.com's John Hollinger will tell you that pretty much no team in history has shown sustained, year-after-year success in winning close games, even when keeping most of the same personnel. History says that good teams and bad generally tend toward .500 as the games get closer.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, widely regarded as the face of the NBA's growing "Moneyball" movement, is fond of saying that good teams don't win close games, they avoid them. And as Professor Hollinger loves to remind me, per-game point differential has proved to be a far more reliable predictor of future success over the years -- judging by how teams that have the highest average regular-season victory margins have fared in the playoffs -- than a good down-to-the-wire record.
The Mavs' carryover in close-game success, then, would appear to be a first.
I tend to believe, relying on the sort of feel and instinct quotient routinely applied to ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings, that the repeated ability to win those kinds of games has to infuse the Mavs with valuable down-the-road confidence. Surely they get some lasting benefit from knowing they've survived so many nervy finishes.
Yet that's where the debate starts.
"You've got to execute," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle says. "It helps to have experienced players who have been in those situations before.
"There certainly is an element of luck that enters into it. Sometimes you can dodge a shot by the other team that's a good shot and just happens to miss. But my belief is that there's more skill than luck involved."
Dirk Nowitzki, though, says he can understand the skepticism attached to the significance of the Mavs' close-games mark. Recent home wins over Sacramento and Philadelphia -- and even Tuesday's Phoenix game to some degree, given that the Suns needed a wild, late rally to make it so tense at the end -- never should have been close games.
"I'd feel better about it," Nowitzki said of the 6-1 record, "if we didn't blow so many leads [to get in that position]."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com and is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.