How do contending teams perform in the fourth quarter?

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Always Be Closing.

That’s the name of the game, isn’t it? Great teams close out strong. They finish well together. They’re able to end games with finality. It’s that ability to lock down in the fourth quarter and finish teams off that separates the men from the boys. Young, weak teams can’t get it done, and teams that want to contend for a title have to be able to.

But how does this year’s crop of contenders compare in that fourth segment?

Using stats from HoopStats.com, I took a look at eight teams that could be considered “contenders” should you carry it out to a fairly liberal degree. And yes, Utah, I hear you, but I needed to make a cutoff somewhere and OKC happened to have more wins when I started this post. For reference, here are Utah’s stats.

Here’s what I found:

The first column of data is the difference between the average points scored in the fourth quarter and opponents’ points scored in the fourth. The second and third columns reference the winning percentages when leading or trailing after three quarters, and the fourth is to provide perspective for the season. All data was before Friday’s night’s games.

Before you start screaming, let’s get some caveats out of the way. The Lakers, as you’ll notice, have a 7.6 point differential and yet get outscored in the 4th. Which pretty much means they establish huge leads and then coast in the fourth when their subpar bench unit comes strolling in and let’s teams make pity runs. Some of it is on account of their inability to close out when down (as evidenced by their .25 winning percentage when down after three quarters). Similarly, there’s no data here to suggest who it is that these teams are battling down the wire. If the Mavericks keep coming back against teams they shouldn’t be down in the fourth to anyway, that doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence. But still, if we take the fourth as its own game, they’re getting it done, and that’s the point of this little exercise.

What’s notable here is that the Spurs are the best team in the fourth as well as the best team in the league right now record-wise. Compare this with the Heat who are the third best team in the league and tops in point differential, yet fourth in fourth quarter differential, third in win percentage when leading after three, and fourth when trailing. Not great closers.

The Bulls on the other hand are a study in contrast. When things are going well, they’re going really well (second-best win percentage of any contender when winning after three), and when they’re not going well, they struggle to respond in the fourth (fifth-best win percentage when trailing after three. And with a tops differential of +3 in the 4th, it’s clear that the Bulls play exceptionally strong in the final frame when things are going well.

The Magic have real problems here. The worst point differential in the fourth, tied for fourth when leading, and a pitiful .23 win percentage when trailing. To put that in real terms, the Magic come back on their opponent in the fourth less than a quarter of the time. Getting outscored in the fourth is in and of itself and indictment, but when you look at it,the Magic have a very poor chance of winning should they not be leading after three.

The Mavericks best live by the idea of playing on edge the whole time. Nearly no difference in points scored versus points allowed in the fourth (.1 points better than their opponents’ average), the lowest win percentage of any team going into the fourth with a lead, but the second best percentage when trailing. They come back on their opponent half the time, while losing nearly 15% of the time with a lead. Injuries have likely bogged this down as the Mavericks have been in games late, only to fail without Dirk Nowitzki and Caron Butler.

Perhaps most interesting is the Thunder, though, with the second worst win percentage when leading, third worst when trailing, and third worst fourth quarter differential while having the worst total point differential. The Thunder very much seem like a young team that still struggles with closing out games from this data set, despite their reputation as a team wise beyond its years. While this data set is fraught with caveats like the one listed above and well beyond the boundaries of context, it’s an interesting set nonetheless.

Closing in the fourth during the regular season is vastly different than it is in the playoffs, when you can’t rattle off a 10-2 run against the Kings. But this data at least gives us a sense of what the top teams in the league are doing as the game reaches its close.  And while the Lakers have been great overall but bad in the fourth and the Bulls have been solid overall but brilliant in the fourth, both will need to keep working on keeping that extra gear in good condition. It can be the difference in a ring and disappointment when spring comes a calling.

Is FIBA’s decision to move World Cup to year before Olympics reason for USA drop outs?

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FIBA made a mess of World Cup qualifying moving the games from the summer to during the season for the NBA and all the major European leagues. The USA qualified thanks to a team of G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy, but the process was not pretty. For anyone.

Now it could be another FIBA decision that has led to the rash of stars — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and others — deciding not to play for Team USA this summer.

Traditionally, the FIBA World Cup took place every four years, on the even-numbered year between Summer Olympic cycles. For example, the last World Cup was 2014, the Rio Olympics were 2016 with the Tokyo games in 2020. However, FIBA pushed this World Cup back a year to 2019 (instead of 2018) and that has changed the calculus for players, something Michael Lee of The Athletic speculated about.

For American players, the Olympics are the bigger draw, when more people watch. We grew up with the Dream Team at the Olympics, not the World Championships. That means if players have to choose, despite the allure of the Chinese market, they will choose the Olympics next year.

The other factor: The NBA feels wide open, with as many as eight teams heading into the season believing they can win the title. A lot of those contending teams have new players, which is leading players to prioritize club over country this time around.

This is different from 2004, when the NBA’s top players stayed home from the Athens Olympics because of a combination of terrorist concerns and players not liking coach Larry Brown. Today’s players love Gregg Popovich, but other concerns are weighing on them more.

It has left team USA without the biggest stars of the game — Kemba Walker is the only All-NBA player on the roster — but USA Basketball has such a depth of talent that they are still the World Cup favorites. The margin for error just got a lot smaller, however.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was working on jump shot with Kyle Korver (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s jumper is getting better. Last season after the All-Star break he shot 31.5 percent from three (up from 22.3 before the ASG) and in the playoffs that jumped to 32.7 percent. He struggled on catch-and-shoot threes in those final 19 games after the ASG, shooting just 16.7 percent, but off the bounce he shot 33.8 percent after the break. Also, all of last season he didn’t take many long twos, but when he did he shot 41 percent on them.

What would make his jumper better? Working on his shot with the newest Buck, Kyle Korver.

Which is happening.

Be afraid NBA. Be very afraid.

Antetokounmpo recently said he is only at about 60 percent of his potential. If he can start to consistently hit threes off the bounce when defenses sag back off the pick-and-roll (trying to take away his drives), he might become unstoppable. Or, more unstoppable. If that’s a thing.

Zion Williamson signs shoe deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand

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Russell Westbrook. Jimmy Butler. Blake Griffin. Chris Paul.

And now Zion Williamson has joined them as a Jordan Brand athlete. Williamson announced that he had signed with Jordan on his Instagram.

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Let’s Dance #JUMPMAN

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Williamson was probably the biggest shoe free agent on the market this summer. While still a rookie, he already is a huge marketing presence — Summer League in Las Vegas sold out to see him the first two nights (people ended up disappointed) — and it was estimated he would make north of $10 million a year on his rookie shoe deal.

While we have not heard official numbers yet, the rumors are he did get that money.

If true, this is the second-largest rookie shoe deal in history. LeBron James got seven-years, $87 million, however, Williamson is second and bumps Kevin Durant to third (seven years, $60 million).

There are rumors Puma had offered even a larger contact, but Williamson wanted to be a Jordan brand guy.

“I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the Jordan Brand family,” Williamson said in a statement. “Since I was a kid, I dreamed of making it to the league & having the type of impact on the game Michael Jordan had & continues to have today. He was one of those special athletes I looked up to.”

“Zion’s incredible determination, character and play are inspiring,” Michael Jordan said in a statement. “He’s an essential part of the new talent that will help lead the brand into the future. He told us he would ‘shock the world,’ and asked us to believe him. We do.”

Nike continues to dominate the NBA and basketball shoe market, with more than two-thirds of NBA players wearing Nikes. Even still, landing Williamson — who will play for the New Orleans Pelicans — was such a big score that Nike stock jumped up one percent on the news. He has the potential to be the next LeBron or Durant for Nike, if he can live up to the hype and weight of being the most discussed No. 1 pick in a decade.

He’s the kind of player who could sell a lot of shoes, and Jordan is betting on just that.

Al Horford calls Celtics’ reported tampering allegations ‘ridiculous’

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The Celtics have reportedly complained about the 76ers tampering with Al Horford.

Horford opted out, and it seemed he could return to Boston. But more than a week before free agency officially began, a report emerged he’d leave the Celtics while expecting a four-year, $100 million contract elsewhere. He committed to the 76ers on the first day of free agency, getting $97 million guaranteed and up to $109 million over four years.

What did Horford make of tampering allegations coming from Boston, where Danny Ainge runs the front office?

Horford on The Dan Patrick Show:

It’s pretty ridiculous. But it is what it is. Danny – I love Danny. Danny was always really good to me. I know that he’s definitely frustrated with things didn’t work out with us.

Notice the lack of a denial.

But Horford is right: It’s ridiculous. Because the Celtics are hypocrites who locked up Kemba Walker before free agency officially began.

Though Boston’s specific complaints don’t hold water, there are legitimate issues with the wider landscape.