Are All Basketball Games Worth Winning?

April 17, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich watches game action against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE


On the 8th day of SpurLakers, my dear friend gave to me: A discussion of game types, and the ultimate philosophical question of regular season basketball.

After spending most of the season bemoaning the schedule-makers' decision to place all of the Spurs vs Lakers games into a tiny window during mid-April, J.R. Wilco of PoundingtheRock and I decided that instead of an epic series of posts leading up to the three games, we'd instead turn the 10 days themselves into an event.

Witness (with all due respect to Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack) the 10 days of SpurLakers.Today is day eight, and every day through the final regular season meeting between San Antonio and Los Angeles on Friday the 20th, you'll be treated to another exchange between the two of us. Here's yesterday's precursor, in case you missed it, and remember, tomorrow's ditty will only be available on PTR, so don't be a stranger.

J.R. Wilco:

I'd never suggest that I'm a normal fan, by any stretch of the word, but I probably differ from most in the kind of game that I prefer to watch. We've already talked about my feelings toward blowouts, but there's we have not yet discussed my favorite kind of game.

Back when I lived in Houston, my father gave me some Rockets tickets for my birthday, enough for me to go with a group of my friends. We got there early, got some food and ate while the players warmed up. I think it was the Hawks who were visiting, and the Rockets jumped out to a big lead. As the first half wore on, Atlanta slowly chipped away at their deficit, and it was tied at halftime. The 3rd quarter saw Spud Webb et al making incredible plays and simply taking it to the Rockets. All my pals started griping and talking about heading for the exits, but this was my birthday present and there was no way I was going to leave early.

Toward the end of the 3rd quarter the Rockets made a change. There's no way I could explain what it was. My understanding of the game was not too sophisticated at the time (whether it is now is a matter of some conjecture, as well) and so I couldn't say whether it was a lineup change, an adjustment to the defense/offense, or whether Hakeem and company just decided they didn't want to lose. Whatever it was, Houston started their comeback, the lead went back and forth between the teams, and finally a Rockets run put the game away while the Summit crowd went nuts at every last basket.

As we made our way home, I realized that I'd just seen my favorite kind of game. One that was competitive throughout, with both teams showing their strengths and their ability to play with the other, with the good guys eventually prevailing. Now, I don't expect to see my preferred kind of game every night, but whenever I do, it's such a treat.

Since the beginning of April, the Spurs have been involved in two games that ended with a less than 10 point differential. The second game of the Utah home-and-home that Pop held the Big 3 out of, and the game in Boston that the Spurs held on to win by 1. That's it. The rest have been settled by 10 points or more, and while I have no room to complain about such wins, I'd really like to expect something different from Friday's rubber match between the Spurs and the Lakers.

After a blowout on each end, do you think we have any reason to expect a competitive third game?

Chris:

Do you think we have any reason to expect a competitive third game?

When it comes to an individual game of basketball, you have reason to expect anything. Do we have reason to believe that the Lakers and Spurs could produce a competitive contest? Sure we do. Although there's lots of difference in the two teams' records, they do reside (by the slimmest of margins) next to each other in the conference standings, which can be interpreted at its most simplistic to indicate that no other teams in the league have a better chance of producing a competitive contest. The net point differential between the two teams after two contests is Spurs +3.5 ... that's a close contest as defined by measuring of "clutch".

But why, after all your years of basketball watching experience, would you head into a contest expecting anything at all? You weren't expecting the Lakers to destroy the Spurs at home last week, and yet when they did, (some of) the elements that led to it weren't surprising. You couldn't have expected the Spurs to return the favor last night, but it was hardly a surprising result. The bottom line is that, no matter what you may think, nobody knows what's going to happen in a game of professional basketball. There are far too many consequential events that can go either way to determine even a baseline expectation over a one game series.

That's actually a big reason why I don't care as much for the regular season. Get into the playoffs, and you get a much clearer picture of who's who, league wide. You win a seven game series against another team, and there is a very, very good probability that you were, in fact, the better team. Upsets can still happen, as you are all too painfully aware, but the upsets usually have a more solid factual basis to them than "that guy got hot today".

Did I expect Tony Parker to go all "mid-range demi-god" on us? Not exactly, but I knew even as I was watching it that he was far better than the player who showed up the week before. Did I expect the Laker defense to be so polar, going from "We can shut you down with ease and grace" to "We wouldn't be able to stop your 5th unit" in one contest? Honestly, I kinda did. That's exactly in keeping with the Modus Operandi that has been established all season long. Do something (in this case, defending) good just long enough to know you can do it, then stop trying so hard. The Lakers are, and have been for as long as I can remember, an inconsistent team, and the only explanation that makes any sense is that they are lazy about what they do. Having "sent a message" to the Spurs last week, I'm not surprised in the least that they were unready or unable to receive the return message from the Spurs.

The issue here is sample size. With one (or even two games), there are simply too few opportunities to give the teams to balance things out. We just happen to have witnessed two particularly weird games, one in which the Spurs stars couldn't hit anything and the Lakers received superb efforts from unlikely sources, and another in which the Spurs stars (and rest of the team for that matter) didn't miss, and the Lakers received superb efforts from nobody. All we can hope for is that the regression to the mean in the next game regresses to the mean, and not once again wildly past it.

But there is one aspect of your team that is uniquely suited to outliers, one way or the other, and is Coach Popovich's curious (and famous) unwillingness to chase after contests. Pop is already willing to throw games to his 2nd unit at tip off, so its not particularly surprising that Parker, Duncan et. al. are not likely to see 4th quarter time if the score of a game gets out of hand. Concordantly, I can only assume that your 2nd unit is capable of protecting leads so well in the exact opposite circumstances because they have so much experience playing together in garbage time. Therefore, if the Spurs go down big, they are likely to stay down big, and if the Spurs go up big, they are likely to stay up big. This dynamic prevents the within game regression that so often occurs.

The thing I've never understood about this particular character trait for Pop is: In game regression works. It's totally possible even somewhat likely, for teams that are down to make a run and get back into a contest, especially teams as capable as the Spurs are. So I have to wonder if Popovich's angle here isn't so much that such games are unlikely to be won, but instead he refuses to chase "lost cause" games simply because the level of energy required to mount a comeback itself wouldn't be worth the win? That agrees with his overall willingness to throw games by resting his starters, and hell, based on the Spurs' record over the past few seasons, it's hard to do anything but agree with that thinking.

So what do you think? Are there games not worth winning simply because of the effort required to win them? Wrap your head around that doozy of a question...

To be continued tomorrow on Pounding the Rock

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