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How do contending teams perform in the fourth quarter?

Jan 15, 2011, 12:30 PM EDT

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Getty Images

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.

  1. itskerem - Jan 15, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    I’d be interested to see how the newlook Magic compare here. Looking at their entire season seems unfair, as they had Vince stinking up the joint in the 4th. I’m not 100% on this, but I think they’ve done a lot better recently. Almost came back to win against OKC and New Orleans, came back in 2nd half vs Dallas, Golden State, Boston.

  2. hungrybear22 - Jan 15, 2011 at 6:06 PM

    I think a better benchmark is how teams perform in the 3rd coming out of halftime. It would show how teams adjust on defense and offense based on how the opponent is doing.

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