NBA Finals: Dallas tops Miami in Game 5 with an outlier, but what of it?

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The Dallas Mavericks took a 3-2 series lead on Thursday night with a 112-103 win, but their tremendous offense — the propulsive force that allowed them to pull within a single victory of taking the NBA title — was immediately tagged as an outlier, and saddled with all of the negative stigma that statistical improbabilities tend to attract. Dallas won the game, but only because they hit “tough” (NBA speak for low-percentage) shots. Only because the Mavericks converted that which should not have been converted. Only because they defied who they are, and managed to jump outside the curve for a swim in the unsustainable.

There’s no escaping the basis of that very idea; Dallas’ hot shooting was indeed an outlier. Single games are, after all, a playground for the aberrations of small sample size. The Mavericks made 68.4 percent of their three-point attempts and posted a 65.9 effective field goal percentage, numbers far above the expected values for any team in the entire league. Yet there still seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the mean — the statistical average to which we expect all teams to regress — in basketball. The Mavericks’ mean shooting averages aren’t the most common outcomes for their performance, but simply their most central. They won’t hit those marks in every game, and may not hit them in any game at all. Averages give only the illusion of stability, and though much of basketball is dependent on skill, effort, and execution, we perhaps underestimate the role of randomness (and by extension, variance) in deciding makes and misses, wins and losses.

“You get hot, you get on a roll, and you can have a night like that,” Rick Carlisle said. “They don’t happen very often. Last time we had a shooting night like this was Game 4 against the Lakers. That’s why you just keep working your game, and that’s why you stay persistent, you keep defending, you keep systemically stepping into shots that are there and you’re going to have some breakthrough games.”

Teams that consistently and effectively work for open shots within their offense will always have the upper hand, but all players and teams are subject to the will of the odds. They’ll have hot shooting games and cold ones, and these occurrences are so common and prominent in sports culture that we’ve developed a corresponding vocabulary. Maybe Jason Terry was “in the zone.” Maybe J.J. Barea was “on fire.” Both seem possible or even likely, but the idea is hardly outrageous, especially considering how poorly both have shot in these NBA Finals.

The Mavericks’ amazing shooting in Game 5 merely moved the needle in a positive direction, away from Dallas’ off-setting 4-of-19 (.211) shooting from outside in Game 4. Lost in the declarations of the Mavs’ overachievement was the fact that prior to Game 5, Dallas’ effective field goal percentage in the Finals was actually down significantly from their overall playoff average. Plenty of that has to do with Miami’s impressive defense, but this kind of performance was overdue in bringing Dallas closer to reasonable expectation. The Mavs didn’t really surge forward with their shooting in Game 5, but were merely getting back on track.

“This was our highest scoring game of the series,” Shawn Marion said. “We were bound to get one easy [offensive] game sooner or later. It was just a matter of when it was gonna happen. We should be due for another.”

Maybe the Mavs are. Regardless, did we not expect a degree of oscillation? Was there really an honest expectation that Dallas would be right in line with their shooting averages every single night, without room for error in either direction? Outliers are inescapable. They help to define mean levels of performance, even as they inherently rebuke them. They show the level of success or failure that a team is capable of, if only in extreme circumstances. Yet when we reduce the sample to a single game, those extreme circumstances are more likely to occur than ever. There is no mitigating volume; this is a singular performance by a particular team in a particular game, and yet many act bewildered at the sight of anything out of the ordinary.

Underneath the incredible magnitude of this contest was just a team shooting over its head for the better part of 48 minutes. In a series this competitive, that alone is enough to tilt things in the Mavs’ favor, but it doesn’t make this outlier different from any other. This particular occurrence is granted import through context, but the numbers themselves are the same as they’ve always been: up and down in an endless and inexact flow between two extremes.

Bulls unveil blue uniforms (photo)

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Michael Jordan famously wore a pair of North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform.

Now, Chicago will bring baby blue to the surface.

Bulls:

These are a major-departure from the Bulls’ red-and-black color scheme. Even the logo is altered.

Such deviations are becoming normalized. The Magic will wear orange. Expect other teams to get more radical.

These jerseys will certainly sell. The short-term revenue boost of all these alternate uniforms is the entire idea.

But I wonder whether there’s a cost to teams diluting their identities. These don’t look like Chicago uniforms. It could become increasingly difficult to value the prestige of NBA jerseys if they’re so loosely associated with a team.

Bucks to wear ‘Cream City’ jerseys (photos)

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The Bucks making cream one of their colors? Great! It was distinctive and local, celebrating the cream-colored bricks throughout Milwaukee.

These uniforms?

Bucks:

Not so great. Everything about the uniforms is fine except the words on the front of the jersey.

I’m sure nobody will crack immature jokes about those.

Reporter: Charles Barkley told me, ‘I don’t hit women, but if I did, I would hit you’

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Charles Barkley has a history of sexist comments.

The crudest publicly came in 1990. Los Angeles Times:

Barkley, who said the remarks were meant as a joke, was quoted as saying after a tough Nov. 3 win over the underdog New Jersey Nets that “this is a game that if you lose, you go home and beat your wife and kids. Did you see my wife jumping up and down at the end of the game? That’s because she knew I wasn’t going to beat her.”

But since becoming beloved for his outspokenness as a commentator, there have been others – calling the Warriors’ style “little-girly basketball,” mocking the weight of female Spurs fans.

Now, Barkley has again run his mouth in this direction.

Alexi McCammond of Axios:

Turner Sports:

This was obviously inappropriate for Barkley to say. I’m not sure how else to characterize it. It doesn’t sound like a threat. It’s not related to domestic violence. It’s just not the way to speak to someone working professionally.

I’m glad he apologized, and I hope he learned from this. But history suggests he’ll continue to make off-color jokes. In fact, he’s rewarded for repeatedly pushing the line.

That might eventually get him into serious trouble. I don’t think these remarks should be the ones to spark mass outrage.

Derrick Rose: If load management existed back then, I’d probably still be with Bulls

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In 2011, Derrick Rose won MVP.

In 2012, Rose tore his ACL.

After playing big minutes early in his career, Rose was frequently sidelined the next few seasons. That took a toll on everyone involved. He felt the loneliness and despair of major injuries. The Bulls struggled to meet expectations with their best and highest-paid player repeatedly injured.

Eventually, Chicago traded Rose to the Knicks.

NBC Sports Chicago:

Rose:

It was just a different time in the sports world, period. Now we have the term “load management.” I don’t think that I would’ve taken it as far as Kawhi, as far as like they’re really being cautious about his injury or whatever he has. But if load management would’ve been around, who knows? I probably would’ve still been a Chicago Bull by now. But it wasn’t around.

Load management was around. That term hadn’t become popularized. But teams – most notably Gregg Popovich’s Spurs – had already begun resting players throughout the season.

Then-Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau just didn’t subscribe to that thinking. He wanted his best players on the court as often as possible. He had them practice long and hard to build good habits.

The science has evolved since then, but Thibodeau continued in his old-school with the Timberwolves. He just appeared stuck in his ways.

We’ll never know what would’ve happened if Chicago were more cautious with Rose. Maybe his on-court impact would’ve been lessened without all those reps. Maybe he would’ve gotten hurt, anyway.

But in this “what if?”, more focus should be on his coach than the era.