Thursday, March 28, 2013

Having a Rational Streak

Shane Battier On Tuesday I posted something over on Ocelot Sports regarding the Miami Heat’s amazing 27-game winning streak. Am glad I managed to do that when I did, as last night the streak was finally halted by the Chicago Bulls.

Was quite something for the Heat to have managed to keep the streak alive as long as they did, although it is probably better for the team that it ended a few weeks shy of the playoffs. With the best record in the Eastern Conference already essentially locked up and the NBA’s overall best record firmly in hand -- they’ve yet to clinch that, but likely will within a few more games -- the Heat could probably use a breather to rest some players during the last few regular season games.

Following last night’s loss to the Bulls, Miami Heat forward Shane Battier offered some comments about the game and the streak as a whole that I found interesting. Battier, by the way, has been getting some extra attention of late for having also been part of the 2007-08 Houston Rockets team that won 22 games in a row, previously the second-best NBA mark behind the all-time best 33-game winning streak of the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. In college Battier was also was part of a Duke team that won 32 straight games during the 1998-99 season.

It was a compelling, hard-fought, and super physical game in Chicago. Indeed, I’ve been spending some time lately watching some college basketball from a couple of decades ago, and when watching that Miami-Chicago slugfest last night I was reminded how the game they are playing today is altogether different from the one I grew up playing and watching.

But while most of those watching probably thought the game stood out from the usual late-season NBA offerings when most of the playoff spots are already locked up and the level of competition isn’t always high, Battier downplayed the game’s uniqueness, noting that only the streak ending made it at all notable.

“Pretty much a garden-variety road loss in the NBA,” said Battier of the game. “You don’t play with energy to start, the other team comes out firing, guys shoot above their percentages, and that fuels the confidence of the rest of the team. I’ve been in this league long enough, that’s pretty much the recipe for a road loss.”

I shouldn’t like Battier. He’s a Dookie, after all, which as a diehard UNC fan makes it very difficult for me to send any praises in his direction. But in truth, he’s one of the few Duke players I’ve found it hard not to like over the years, along with Grant Hill, Mike Gminski, and a couple of others. (Meanwhile, you better believe I’ll be pulling for Michigan State against Duke tomorrow night, and not just because I have MSU making the Elite Eight in my bracket.)

Shane BattierI very much like how Battier speaks in rational terms about how the game went as well as what he says about the game having fit a common pattern when it comes to favored teams losing road contests. Unlike so much sports commentary that gets bogged down with endless “intangibles” like playing with “heart” or other such applesauce, Battier smartly connects concrete events (aggressive play, shots falling) to an increase in confidence which in turn (one understands) improves energy, focus, and the ability to execute.

It’s like a poker player recognizing how losing a few hands early in a session might negatively affect his or her decision-making thereafter, thus creating more difficult situations that lessen the likelihood for success.

Finally, Battier noted how another way of looking at the “garden-variety” game that just ended was to point out how lately -- to employ another poker analogy -- Miami has been on the good side of variance.

“What’s amazing is that we’ve avoided that for so long,” said Battier, speaking of the outcome (a loss). “That was my first thought after the game... ‘We’ve avoided a loss like this for a long time.’”

Indeed, as I was writing about in that Ocelot Sports post, 13 of the Heat’s 27 wins during the streak had come on the road. And a number of those featured this same “recipe” that saw Miami come out sluggishly, the other team taking an early lead, then Miami having to deal not only with overcoming a deficit but also competing against a team for whom the early lead gave them confidence.

But the Heat managed to keep winning, and just like there were rational explanations for other teams getting those leads, there were reasons why the Heat kept coming back, too. On average -- as Battier recognizes -- they likely should not have been able to do so as often as they did. But their hands kept holding and/or they kept drawing out when they needed to, and thus did the streak continue.

It’s probably no accident that a level-headed guy like Battier has been part of so many winning streaks, and it’s my impression that the other Heat players also share this same sort of analytical ability when it comes to assessing their own and their opponents’ performances. LeBron, D-Wade, and company are also pretty damn gifted, too, which perhaps makes it easier to have that sort of perspective.

“Rushes” happen in poker, but they generally result from a combination of good decision-making and good fortune. The same is true in other games, with the ability to recognize and understand the role luck plays being perhaps one of the most important skills of all.

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