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.

Dwyane Wade sinks halfcourt buzzer-beater (video)

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Dwyane Wade is secure in his legacy. He’s an all-time great, and an extra missed 3-pointer during his farewell tour won’t change anything. (It doesn’t hurt that his resumé already includes subpar 3-point shooting.)

So, when many players would hold the ball, Wade heaved in a halfcourt shot to end the third quarter of the Heat’s 110-105 win over the Spurs on Wednesday. It wasn’t the biggest shot of Wade’s season, but it still mattered plenty.

Miami’s lead when San Antonio began intentionally fouling late? Three.

Jonas Valanciunas hits game-winning free throw, spoils James Harden’s 57-point night (video)

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The Grizzlies blew a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter and a five-point lead in the final 30 seconds of overtime. James Harden scored 57 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter and all 10 of the Rockets points in overtime.

But Jonas Valanciunas saved Memphis from total collapse. He drew a foul on his putback and hit the game-winning free-throw with 0.1 seconds left to give the Grizzlies a 126-125 win Wednesday.

Report: Suns exploring signing Jimmer Fredette

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Jimmer Fredette remains a fascination because he scored a ton at BYU eight years ago and… other reasons.

He has been lighting it up in China, and his season there just ended. Now, the former No. 10 pick could return to the NBA after three years away.

John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7:

Phoenix still needs another point guard, and the 6-foot-2 Fredette looks like one. But he hasn’t shown the playmaking to play point guard regularly. He’s better, and sometimes even effective, off the ball.

Fredette could have stuck in the NBA with a different attitude. His long-distance shooting was an asset.

But he’s also now 30 years old. A new approach likely won’t be enough. His shortcomings, particularly defensively, will be even more pronounced as his athleticism has declined.

The Suns are bad and will remain bad, with or without Fredette. But their younger players have shown signs of progress lately. Fredette’s high-usage style could interfere with their development.

It’s hard to see the upside here other than a brief uptick in attention.

Marcus Smart shoves down Joel Embiid from behind, gets ejected (video)

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Marcus Smart recently bemoaned the lack of physicality in the NBA.

After Joel Embiid dropped his shoulder into him on a screen, Smart brought some to tonight’s Celtics-76ers game.

Smart shoved Embiid in the back, sending the center to the floor. A cheap shot? Yes. Embiid wasn’t looking. But Smart would surely argue Embiid started it. I also doubt Smart intended to push Embiid from behind. Smart just wanted to get at Embiid as quickly as possible, and Embiid happened to be facing the other way when Smart arrived.

Smart got a flagrant 2 and the accompanying ejection. Embiid received a technical foul.