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

Jun 10, 2011, 3:38 AM EDT

Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks - Game Five Getty Images

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.

  1. diablito0402 - Jun 10, 2011 at 7:20 AM

    Chris angel could not make these diasapearing acts in the 4th quarter over and over like lebum does hehhhe. Come on real and bandwaggon heat fans whats yall take on this, or whats the excuse this time.

  2. bittersonicsfan - Jun 10, 2011 at 7:22 AM

    Mr Mahoney is a downer! That was another great game to watch, and he drops a steamer right on it. Who cares if they were “shooting over their heads”, Dallas is on the verge of beating the favored super team in a slugfest of a series and it inspires an article about happenstance? This guy seems to be enrolled in the Dan LeBatard school of contrarian rhetoric. Numbers, sample sizes, advanced metrics and space case articles, yawn.

    • almzor - Jun 10, 2011 at 10:26 AM

      I’m not sure you read the same article I did. Rob spent that entire thing explaining how the Mav’s great game was completely expected given things like variance and the fact that they had until game 5 been performing well below their averages.

  3. diablito0402 - Jun 10, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    Mahonney is not a downer, hes just another heat apologist who justifies there losses and never sees the reality that lebum choked once again and the heat just flat out got ran off the building in the lasf 4 mins of the game.

    • almzor - Jun 10, 2011 at 10:27 AM

      Err Rob runs a Mavs blog (Two Man Game). I’m about as positive as I can be he’s not rooting for the Heat, nor will he be apologizing for them.

  4. allkingdom - Jun 10, 2011 at 7:54 AM

    Rob is a hater, we know no team or person performs exactly the same every time. We celebrate the good and work on the bad.

  5. frobaggins - Jun 10, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    im not sure i get this article. james and wade never “shoot over their heads”? every team in the playoffs has had a game where they can’t miss, it happens during the regular season also, look at the spurs shooting lights out vs miami. why are you bringing it up now like the mavs are the only team in basketball to shoot a very high percentage from three for one night? miami double teams, mavs player wide open, this game they actually make those shots, where as they’ve been missing them. whats so “outlier” about finally making some open looks? if you look at the last two months for dallas, its an outlier when they DONT shoot a high percentage, credit the heat D, but that doesn’t mean anyone should be surprised when dallas gets it going, there’s a reason they are still playing

  6. davidly - Jun 10, 2011 at 8:57 AM

    Questions loom:
    – Now that the Dallas Mavericks have had 15 games handed to them on a silver platter by four different astronomically superior basketball teams — teams which spanked Dallas a combined 4 times, displaying definitively just how how inferior the Mavericks team is — can they win one more, going on to be the first NBA champion to’ve won on pure luck alone?

    – Will Jason Terry’s premature celebration outrage the Heat? (Has anyone read their Twats to see?)

    – Now that LeBron James has shown that he is possibly the least talented player in the history of basketball in being limited to a triple double in game 5 (a further indication that his shot blocking is not what it was when he was a young man), will Chris Bosh — himself the third worst PF in basketball history — be enough for them to out-rebound the luckiest team in the universe again, and will that be enough for them to overcome the worst choking of all time?

    – Can the NBA survive without Michael Jordan?

    • pl4tinum514 - Jun 10, 2011 at 9:24 AM


    • davidly - Jun 10, 2011 at 9:26 AM

      Another question:
      – Will the inevitable negative response the above post receives be the result of its not being irrationally biased against either team?

    • fouldwimmerlaik - Jun 10, 2011 at 12:51 PM

      I agree…..The Heat is full of Twats.

      • davidly - Jun 10, 2011 at 1:32 PM

        In fairness, every team has a couple of players who talk through their Twats. Heck, each team even has an official Twat for the fans. Is it any wonder that we are evolving into a species incapable of conceiving of anything too large to fit in our Twats?

      • fouldwimmerlaik - Jun 10, 2011 at 1:43 PM


        Yes, Twats are very important in today’s society. It seems that more and more twats are in the news each day. And as these twats come out, it seems as if a lot of folks are getting into hot water due to their use of twats. So, i think it is fair to say: Beware how you use Twats. They can be dangerous.

      • davidly - Jun 10, 2011 at 10:33 PM

        Exactly! But don’t forget that whether we spread out Twats all over the world or not, or anything in between, it’s all a part of Kobe’s plan.

      • fouldwimmerlaik - Jun 13, 2011 at 1:06 PM


        ANYTHING that happens only happens because Kobe allows it to.

  7. pl4tinum514 - Jun 10, 2011 at 9:23 AM

    The really awesome thing is, Dallas had their exceptional ‘outlier’ game with the series on the line. That proves they got some mega nuts.

    • davidly - Jun 10, 2011 at 9:29 AM

      Something about that three that Kidd made; it was like: Nerves of steel.

  8. lucky5934 - Jun 10, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    I am not going to celebrate yet, but it doesn’t look good for the Heat. Yes I know they are at home, but the Mavs are in their heads now. Only team to beat them at home in the playoffs. Only team to notch consecutive wins against them in the playoffs. Now Wade has a bruised hip, and Lebron fades away in the 4th quarter. In fact, he has put so much pressure on himself now that I am not sure if he can relax for the last two games. Sure the Heat could have won the series by now and been in a parade by the end of the week (Which also goes for the Mavs). Yes they can pull a 2010 Lakers and win the final 2 games at home to win the series 4-3. But I just don’t see it. The Heat are not learning from their mistakes. They continue to blow late game leads by settling for jumpshots instead of driving the lane and earning the foul.

  9. mrnovacaine - Jun 10, 2011 at 11:34 AM

    This post is bullish,is there ONE post that gives the MaVS 100% props after they win? MAVS have won games like this all season long(reg&playoffs) their not in the finals by accident or luck,they can play

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