San Antonio Spurs 102, Dallas Mavericks 88: Regression to the mean means a victory for Tim Duncan and the Spurs

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Manu GinobiliPerception and reality are two vastly different and constantly changing things, especially in an NBA playoff series where momentum shifts freely from one game to the next.

A superficial glance at the box scores will tell you that the San Antonio Spurs did a much better job guarding Dirk Nowitzki than in his blitzkrieg Game 1 victory over the Spurs. And yes, while there were some rotation changes, defensive adjustments and a concentrated effort to avoid fouls, the true difference between Games 1 and 2 can be summed up in one simple statement–regression to the mean.

Or, as Tim Duncan so astutely put it following Game 1, “and I can go ahead and bet he’s not going to go 12 of 14 again.”

For Dirk Nowitzki the mean is a fairly high standard, or roughly 25 points per game on 48 percent shooting and between five and seven free throw attempts. In fact, as Rob Mahoney pointed out, in most years it would be enough to warrant Dirk Nowitzki serious MVP consideration.

Following Nowitzki’s 12-14 performance, there was much ado about San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s decision to use single coverage for most of the night. Take an excerpt from Gil Lebreton from the Star-Telegram:

“To all who wondered what would happen if, for whatever silly reason, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich chose to defend Dirk Nowitzki one on one, the answer came with near-perfect resonance… “Well, you know, they had scorers last year too.” Popovich explained later. “You pick your poison…” Popovich rolled the dice and it came out 36. Wrong poison.”

For Nowitzki, shooting 12-14 from the field is an outlier–a rare and exaggerated movement away from the mean–as is the 9-24 performance he delivered in Game 2.

Given the same looks he has gotten in the first two games, and they have been the same despite the vastly different outcomes, on most nights Nowitzki will produce a stat line that looks like  8-17 from the field and four to five free throw attempts. A great line, but hardly unmanageable.

That being said, as easily and truthfully as Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs dismissed Dirk Nowitizki’s first performance as a fluke, the Dallas Mavericks are probably taking comfort in the knowledge that Richard Jefferson’s not likely to repeat his 17-point, 7 of 12 performance either.

Free of foul trouble, Richard Jefferson was both aggressive and brilliant in the first half, attacking the basket early, which seemed to breathe life into his missing jump shot. For a night Jefferson showcased the player he was in his peak seasons in New Jersey, but is it something the San Antonio Spurs can expect from him moving forward?

There will be other outliers in this series, the NBA Playoffs are full of them. We recognize them as the moments where “Amazing Happens”. Given the comparative levels of talent, the team that wins out will likely be whoever can best deal with these outliers without deviating from their personality.

Last night the San Antonio Spurs rediscovered part of their championship persona with the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker equally dominant.

Tim Duncan, in particular, displayed his own regression towards the mean–showing that the body of work he’s accumulated in the playoffs over the years still provides a fair gauge of what to expect from him. Facing single coverage most of the night, Duncan reeled off a vintage night, 25 points and 17 rebounds.

Manu Ginobili was his brilliant self, weaving through defenders while coming up with big steals and big three-pointers (23 points, 8-13 shooting) while carrying the team down the stretch.

And filling in the gaps was Tony Parker (16 points, eight assists), presenting the Mavericks with the one matchup they have few answers for: speed and creativity from the point guard position.

Watching Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker on the court together in the playoffs, and how well pieces like Jefferson and Antonio McDyess fit in around them, it’s hard not to wonder if the past two NBA playoffs were not outliers themselves. Aberrations explained by injuries to Ginobili and Duncan.

The night might have been a fluke, but if the victory was merely the San Antonio Spurs regressing to their own mean, what does that mean for the rest of the series moving forward?

  • Bushka

    @Onewing

    Don’t sweat it mate. For some reason a lot of people seem to think that your PG has to be a ball distributor and play like Bob Cousey.

    Not many teams in the league worry about it, Cleveland & Orlando both have scoring points as do many many other playoff contenders. You take your talent where you find it.

  • Trade Tp

    Clevelands offense runs better with Lebron handling. Just as ours is better with Manu. People like Bushka dont understand how flow works in basketball.

    When Parker runs the show its pick and roll with three other people watching because they know its either layup or dump to the post. Parker isnt a great distributor which is why I would love to trade him for a better big than McDyess. Unfortunately the Tim dominance isnt every game, so the pick and roll will only work so many more times.

    And no we do not need Antonio shooting more 16 footers he needs to be inside.

  • Manolo Pedralvez

    One observation that apparently has been overlooked is that Pop used only a nine-man rotation and still produced the effecient, proficient, grind-it-out basketball that has been a Spurs hallmark.
    And should George Hill have healthy legs third time around, harasses Kidd to distraction, on top of sharing the scoring chores, I wouldn’t count out a sweep on the A&T Center floor. Ditto for Dejuan Blair, who reminds us of another mobile 6-foot-7 center of yore, the great Wes Unseld.

  • the wanderer

    “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” — Mark Twain.

    Statistics are often useful as a guide for mapping out the terrain (i.e., recognizing general trends), but are pretty much useless in making tactical decisions. Probability 101 could not tell you exactly whether the next throw will be head or tail, only its probability. The first 5 throws could be heads, but the probability of an unbiased coin coming up tail in the next throw remains 50%.

    The seven-game series is supposed to minimize randomness to make sure the better team comes out on top. Were Nowitzki’s Game 1 and Jefferson’s Game 2 performances merely random blips? Probably. But definitely: hearts win championships.

    Blaise Pascal, who helped develop the theory of probability, showed a healthy respect for the indomitable human spirit when he said that “the heart has its reasons which reason cannot know of.”

  • gr

    the wanderer: great post

  • Tim in Surrey

    One thing about this series that I thought from the beginning: The longer it goes on, the better it is for the Spurs. Why? First of all, there’s Hill’s injury. He has become a very useful player, especially against teams with strong backcourts, like the Mavericks. The longer this goes, the more of a factor he’ll be. Second, the Spurs are a lot better at the adjustment game. And third, I can’t help but think that the Spurs will get inside the Mavs’ heads as the series goes on. They were on a roll coming into the playoffs and now they might start to question themselves. And that can be a real problem when facing that same group of players, led by that same coach, supported by those same fans, and standing under all those banners.

    So from my POV, winning Game 2 was especially big.

  • idahospur

    I have to say I was nervous about Duncan going into the playoffs. I thought he burned out early in the year, carrying this team until Manu resurrected. I thought he had nothing in the tank and would be playing 20-25 minutes with 15 pts 8 reb. Again, he has shown that he will dominate.

  • Manolo Pedralvez

    If I had my druthers, I’d like to see the Spurs wrap it up in six games, giving Timmy and company more time to rest, which assumes, of course, their opposite number goes the full route.
    This gives the Big Fundamental more time to recover for the semis, the same with Tony Parker and George Hill.
    Riding the momentum from Game 2, I’m keen on seeing San Antonio sweep the Mavericks off the A&T floor, giving them the cushion of a Dallas comeback at home, then closing it out once more on their own turf.
    End this dogfight early then sharpen their teeth for their semis rivals, whomever they may be, is what I say.

  • rj

    GREAT WIN!!!

    despite a late dallas flurry in the 3rd, we looked pretty in-control throughout this game. duncan, parker, and ginobili were there offesnively and tonite it was george hill instead of rj.

    if we can get one of these two to score in double figures along with ginobili and duncan, we are in good shape.

    can you guys believe we won a playoff game without a 3? this spurs team hasn’t reached its ceiling yet. our defensive rotations were solid and the spurs are simply playing with more agression and urgency than the mavericks.

    we found the mavs weakness. no low post offense, no bench production. jj barea was inserted as a starter in the second half, but at the expense of caron butler. shawn marion continues to be a now-show, but this isn’t really much of a surprise. caron will bounce back and so will jet, but our team appears to be more consistent.

    the big bad 2 headed monster of dampier and haywood?…..non factor

  • Jeff

    No schemes or brainiac strategies need for Dirk. As was the case in game two, just stay close to his body, get a hand in his face and rotate on defense.

    Still too many jumpshots. Mavs can be had in the paint. Dumping the ball in to Duncan early and often will get Dampier to the bench. Haywood is better than Damp as a player, but Dampier is stronger and does a better job on Duncan.

    With Haywood in the game, Tim can work him out all night long.

    Also, here is a thought….Would it be possible to use Mcdyess on the low block when Duncan is resting? Is that far fetched?

    I’d pay to see Mcdyess spend a little more time in the paint. He would put enormous pressure on the Mavs front line if he made them play him honestly.

    Blair, Duncan, and Mcdyess could really do well against this frontcourt…

    Hope its kicked around a bit as a possibility…

  • Steve

    Parker’s jumper broke the “run” by the Mavs. Spurs fans need to forget about him being a true point guard and realize what makes Kobe so great isn’t the acrobatic drives or big threes … it’s the demoralizing idea that he can get and hit a 16 ft jump shot to stop your run and kill your momentum. That is what Parker brings as well.
    Go Spurs Go!

  • Alan

    If I had my druthers, I’d like to see the Spurs wrap it up in six games, giving Timmy and company more time to rest, which assumes, of course, their opposite number goes the full route.
    This gives the Big Fundamental more time to recover for the semis, the same with Tony Parker and George Hill.
    Riding the momentum from Game 2, I’m keen on seeing San Antonio sweep the Mavericks off the A&T floor, giving them the cushion of a Dallas comeback at home, then closing it out once more on their own turf.
    End this dogfight early then sharpen their teeth for their semis rivals, whomever they may be, is what I say.

  • Julie

    If I had my druthers, I’d like to see the Spurs wrap it up in six games, giving Timmy and company more time to rest, which assumes, of course, their opposite number goes the full route.
    This gives the Big Fundamental more time to recover for the semis, the same with Tony Parker and George Hill.
    Riding the momentum from Game 2, I’m keen on seeing San Antonio sweep the Mavericks off the A&T floor, giving them the cushion of a Dallas comeback at home, then closing it out once more on their own turf.
    End this dogfight early then sharpen their teeth for their semis rivals, whomever they may be, is what I say.

  • Joseph

    No schemes or brainiac strategies need for Dirk. As was the case in game two, just stay close to his body, get a hand in his face and rotate on defense.

    Still too many jumpshots. Mavs can be had in the paint. Dumping the ball in to Duncan early and often will get Dampier to the bench. Haywood is better than Damp as a player, but Dampier is stronger and does a better job on Duncan.

    With Haywood in the game, Tim can work him out all night long.

    Also, here is a thought….Would it be possible to use Mcdyess on the low block when Duncan is resting? Is that far fetched?

    I’d pay to see Mcdyess spend a little more time in the paint. He would put enormous pressure on the Mavs front line if he made them play him honestly.

    Blair, Duncan, and Mcdyess could really do well against this frontcourt…

    Hope its kicked around a bit as a possibility…

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