San Antonio Spurs 102, Dallas Mavericks 88: Regression to the mean means a victory for Tim Duncan and the Spurs
Perception 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:
â€œTo 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 resonanceâ€¦ â€œWell, you know, they had scorers last year too.â€ Popovich explained later. â€œYou pick your poisonâ€¦â€ Popovich rolled the dice and it came out 36. Wrong poison.â€
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 Â 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?