Warriors-Spurs still anyone's game
On the way down to San Antonio on Tuesday night for Game 5 of the Spurs-Warriors series, I finished reading "The Signal and the Noise," the book about predictions written by Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog nailed the outcome of the 2012 presidential election down to the very last state. The only definitive conclusion I could draw from it was that even in this era of abundant information, sometimes you're just as well off making a choice by flipping a coin. And that's the way I feel about this playoff series now that we're four games into it.
It's guaranteed to go at least six games, and a long series would be expected to favor the Spurs, whose offense has generated more quality shots (even though the Warriors have hit at a higher rate). The Spurs had the second-best field goal percentage in the league this season, and if they're getting better looks, there should be a payoff the larger the sample size grows.
But now that it's tied 2-2, it's essentially turned into a short series, a best-of-three that could easily be decided by one fluke game or even a quirky play. The Warriors seem to thrive on the improbable and unlikely. And even the fact that the Spurs have home-court advantage might not be as big a benefit as it sounds.
"We've played better [in San Antonio] and they've played better [in Oakland]," Warriors guard Stephen Curry said. "I don't know what to read into that."
The Spurs led for less than six minutes out of the 106 minutes played in San Antonio. The Warriors held the lead for about 20 of the 101 minutes played in Oakland.
If the series goes seven games, history says that's a huge edge for San Antonio. Home teams win Game 7 about 80 percent of the time. But if you look at the 22 most recent seventh games, the home team has won only 59 percent of them (13-9).
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Once again, more data brings more doubt.
In "The Signal and the Noise," Silver revealed that despite satellite imagery and computer-generated models, the 10-day weather forecasts we read have little accuracy once we get beyond a week. Haralabos Voulgaris, who scrutinizes every NBA game and is as successful a sports gambler as you'll find, wins only 57 percent of the time he bets on basketball. And scientists still can't tell you when a major earthquake will hit, only that it's due to happen eventually.
Silver is a big believer in the probability theorem of Thomas Bayes, in which conclusions are drawn through a combination of an initial notion mixed with added data. You take whatever premise you had coming in, then adjust as you gain more information -- be it the latest unemployment figures from the U.S. Department of Labor for an economist or the river card for a poker player.
But the data from this series hasn't produced much clarity. Typically, point differential is as strong an indicator of success as you'll find in sports, and in this series that number has been minimal in four games: plus-2 per game in favor of Golden State.
If you believe the NBA has market corrections, that players will eventually hit their numbers, keep in mind that Golden State's backcourt of Curry and Klay Thompson has yet to have a simultaneous hot shooting night in this round. San Antonio stalwart Tim Duncan is coming off a subpar 7-for-22 shooting performance in Game 4.
There's the wild card of Curry's left ankle and how it will hold up for this stretch of three games in five days. He got through Game 4 OK on Sunday, making 5 of 10 3-pointers and scoring 22 points. And the early start of Game 4 has given him an extra seven hours of recovery before Game 5. He said he can't make sudden shifts on the ankle and he's most comfortable stepping into shots, and that he was able to get through the game without becoming too much of a defensive liability.
But San Antonio guard Danny Green capitalized on Curry's limited mobility to hit the boards and grab four offensive rebounds, as many as any Spur in Game 4. Green also was able to stick with Curry in single coverage, something that has benefited the Spurs' defensive game plan.
San Antonio's Tony Parker is still working through a bruised left calf that was kicked late in Game 3. He went from a dominant 32-point performance to a more pedestrian 17-point result in Game 4.
The subtle change that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich credited for his team's improvement in Games 3 and 4 was the return of Tiago Splitter to the starting lineup. Splitter missed the series opener while recovering from an ankle sprain that he suffered in the first round, and he came off the bench in Game 2. As a starter, he gets the Spurs back to their normal rotation and customary positions.
"We may play well or poorly, but we're comfortable," Popovich said. "We know how to operate starting out a game like that."
Trying to guess the outcome of the series looking forward, it might help to look back. It's hard not to pinpoint Game 1, when the Warriors let a 16-point lead escape in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter and wound up losing on a late Manu Ginobili 3-pointer in double overtime. When teams suffer as shocking a playoff loss as that one, they often bounce back to win the next game, but lose the series. It's just too difficult to make up for a game that was given away.
It was the case when Boston's Larry Bird stole Isiah Thomas' pass (and a certain Detroit Pistons victory) in 1987, when the Lakers' Robert Horry collected a tipped ball and knocked down a 3-pointer to stun the Sacramento Kings in 2002, and when Nate Robinson went nuts to bring the Chicago Bulls back in Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round this year.
In Game 1, the Spurs won when they were rustiest, having sat idly for a week following their first-round sweep of the Lakers, and when Curry was at his best for the Warriors, scoring 44 points. The Warriors played the superior overall game, but once the Warriors lost, it meant they would essentially have to beat the Spurs five times out of seven. The Warriors have been good -- better than many expected -- but asking them to overcome a self-created setback and another ankle injury to Curry could be asking too much.