Pushing Their Luck
Inside the Spurs’ incredible Game 1 comeback.
After blessing SLAMonline with the nERD Power Rankings throughout the season, our guys at numberFire are back to help us look at the postseason in an analytics-based way. So what do the algorithmic models say about the Spurs’ odds of winning at various points in the fourth quarter of Game 1? NumberFire’s Chief Editor is here with the answer.—Ed.
by Zach Warren / @ZachWWarren
In Game 1 against the Spurs, the Warriors shot a .565 effective field goal percentage (eFG%) on 100 attempted shots. They collected 27.3 percent of available offensive rebounds. They were up 104-88 with less than four minutes remaining. They had it; they conquered the Alamo.
But Tony “Davy Crockett” Parker doesn’t give up that easily.
You also know what happened at the end of the second OT: there was one man you don’t want to leave open, and the Warriors left him open. But honestly, given the odds, the game should have never gotten to that point. We should be talking about a night of great upsets and lauding Stephen Curry and Nate Robinson for the giant-slayers they are.
The San Antonio Spurs like to laugh in the face of silly numbers. So here’s more of them, but this time, with the Spurs playing the role of underdog hero. Just for fun, we decided to see the Spurs’ likelihood of winning at different points in the fourth quarter leading up to their incredible 16-point comeback to even send the game into overtime. For a time, their chances didn’t look pretty.
Inside the Fourth Quarter
Beginning of Fourth Quarter: Spurs held 12.5 percent win odds—The Spurs were down 92-80 going into the fourth quarter, and prospects were already looking a bit bleak.
Considering the Warriors shot an .813 eFG% during the third quarter, with Stephen Curry’s shot chart featuring scattered green circles just about everywhere, the Spurs may have actually been happy to only be down 12. At this point, the Spurs were only shooting .477 eFG% as a team themselves, down from second-best-in-the-NBA .531 eFG% average during the regular season. The Warriors weren’t just decimating them offensively, but Curry and Co. were actually playing extraordinarily solid defense as well.
9:00 Left: 3.0 percent—Carl Landry makes a 19-foot jumper, and all of a sudden, the Spurs are down 98-82.
Landry is somewhat of an outlier on the Warriors these Playoffs—his .524 Playoff eFG% places him as the only player on the Warriors shooting worse during the team’s first seven Playoff games than they averaged during the regular season. Through this Playoff run, every single Warriors player who has played at least 40 minutes has averaged an effective field goal percentage above .510 eFG%. During the regular season, only three Golden State players—Curry, Landry and David Lee—managed that mark.
4:31 Left: 0.6 percent—After Jarrett Jack nails two free throws, the Warriors still hold a 16-point lead with 4:31 left.
The Spurs may have had time to come back before, but the Warriors were actually able to maintain that 16-point lead for roughly five-and-a-half minutes in the fourth quarter. That’s what makes the comeback truly so stunning—Golden State didn’t just take an early lead in the beginning of the game and hold on for the rest of the time. They actually expanded the lead and then maintained it for the majority of the fourth quarter.
3:57 Left: 0.5 percent—Tony Parker is about to head to the line for two free throws, but the Spurs’ prospects are looking grim with fewer than four minutes remaining.
Just how unlikely is this comeback? If these two teams were put in this exact situation at 3:57 left in the game, the Spurs would win about once every 200 times. Matt Bonner is three times as likely to get a block on any given possession than the Spurs were to win this game. Tony Parker grabs offensive rebounds at a higher rate than 0.5 percent of the time. It just wasn’t going to happen, or so it wouldn’t 199 times out of 200.
3:05 Left: 2.0 percent—Parker may have scored six straight points, but the Spurs’ chances are still low while down ten with about three minutes remaining.
This stretch of game was about the only time all night where Parker actually shot well. He may have finished with a team-high 28 points, but those 28 points came on 11-26 shooting. His .423 eFG% in Game 1 sits a full .111 below his regular season rate; there’s a good chance he’ll be even better in Game 2. And that should be scary for Golden State fans.
1:40 Left: 10.5 percent—The momentum started to shift even further after a Kawhi Leonard three-pointer cuts the game to five, but the analytics care nothing for your silly momentum. The Warriors still hold an 89.5 percent chance of winning.
At this point, the Warriors were getting the ball back with 1:40 left and up two possessions. Given a full 24-second shot clock, the Warriors can cut at least 48 seconds between this possession and their next possession, taking the game under one minute left without even factoring in the Spurs’ time taken. But of course, their own chance of scoring would go down with that strategy as well. According to 82games.com, Curry only shoots .496 eFG% between nine and five seconds left on the shot clock and only .417 eFG% with four or less seconds left. Naturally, his shot is blocked when he attempts one at five seconds left.
1:17 Left: 18.0 percent—Now we’re in one-possession game territory. Tony Parker’s layup—his fourth field goal of this comeback after having just four previously all game—cuts the Golden State lead to three.
The Spurs still didn’t hold a great chance to win, with their odds less than 1-in-5. A big reason for that is Golden State’s own offensive efficiency. The Warriors averaged 1.064 points per possession during the regular season, the 11th-highest mark in the NBA. Curry’s own personal mark sat at 1.15 points per possession, helped out tremendously by those copious amounts of threes. But this may be where the Warriors missed David Lee the most—his 1.10 points per possession sat second among the Warriors’ starters this year. Instead, it’s Landry who misses the next shot.
The Spurs still weren’t the favorites at this point, since the Warriors had the ball and regulation’s final possession and all. But Curry’s inability to shoot late in the clock reared its ugly head again, and off to overtime we headed after a missed shot with a second left. In the span of less than four minutes, the Spurs went from a 0.5 percent chance of victory to overtime.
The Spurs shouldn’t have won this game. Put these two teams in the same situation tomorrow, and the Warriors likely pull it out. But in the Playoffs, you need to close. Even with all of the odds on their side, the Warriors just couldn’t do it. And with San Antonio now holding an 82.2 percent chance of winning the season per our projections, Game 1 may become the toughest pill to swallow for Golden State fans.
NumberFire is a sports analytics platform that uses algorithmic modeling to better understand sports. Follow Nik Bonaddio at @numberfire, Keith Goldner at @drivebyfootball, and Zach Warren at @ZachWWarren. Check out numberFire on Facebook.