Less than seven months after LeBron James argued that it would be “impossible” to play games without fans, he and the Lakers are in a fight for a championship with the Miami Heat. After two largely one-sided games to open the NBA Finals, Jimmy Butler and Miami found their sea legs on Sunday night with a ferocious series of late-game drives and free throws to pull the Heat within a game of the Lakers. It was a fitting twist for what has been one of the greatest crunch-time postseasons in recent memory.
The Denver Nuggets alone were worthy of a “30 for 30” after they became the first team ever to overcome 3-1 deficits in consecutive series. Luka Dončić went for a 43-point triple-double on a bum ankle and hit a step-back buzzer-beater to beat the Clippers, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to hit a game-winner in the postseason. The late-game offense featured in the double-overtime Game 6 of the Toronto-Boston series set Twitter on fire.
The last month and a half has included end-of-game scoring heroics from Butler, Dončić, Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray, OG Anunoby, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokić, Fred VanVleet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Entering the Finals, 14 shots had been made in the final half minute of either the fourth quarter or overtime that resulted in a tie or a lead change, tied for the most of any entire postseason since 2015. Four shots were made in the final second of the fourth quarter or OT to take the lead, tied for the second most of any postseason since 2007.
“When it gets to clutch time, fourth quarter, some people [are] built for it, some people shy away from it,” said Oklahoma City point guard Chris Paul, who entered the bubble on the heels of a historically clutch regular season. This postseason has largely been an exercise showcasing the former.
As The Ringer’s Zach Kram noted last month, the bubble has been a hooper’s gym. While offensive rating isn’t at an all-time playoff high, shooting efficiency is. Relative to the regular season, this year’s playoffs through the conference finals have featured the second biggest jump in shooting efficiency since at least the 2013-14 postseason.
These playoffs have seen a jump in shooting
Difference in effective field-goal percentage from the NBA’s regular season to postseason per season since 2013-14
|Effective Field-Goal %|
With the exception of third quarters, the 2020 playoffs feature high-water marks in shooting efficiency in every period, but this spike in overall shooting performance is most obvious — and dramatic — in the nail-biting moments when games seem to hinge on single possessions. There have been a lot of those: Entering the Finals, the average playoff game included 10 fourth-quarter possessions in which one team led by no more than 3 points. The previous six postseasons all featured fewer one-score possessions.
Broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy noted that one of the biggest differences in the bubble has been the lack of crowd during the final minutes of games. The removal of rabid opposing fans certainly could have lifted something off the shoulders of shooters in do-or-die scenarios. In the final 30 seconds of one-possession games through the conference finals, teams had an effective field-goal percentage of 52.3 this postseason, nearly 6 percentage points higher than any previous postseason since at least 2013-14, according to Second Spectrum data.
Tenuous leads, it seems, have become the norm. In the final 30 seconds of the fourth quarter or later, teams trailing by a possession had an effective field-goal percentage of 65.2, 15 percentage points higher than any previous season and a full 22.6 points higher than last year’s playoffs.
And it’s not because the shots are coming easily.
Quantified Shot Quality (qSQ) is a Second Spectrum metric that parses the likelihood of a shot being made in a given situation, taking into account defender distance, shot location and movement. Of the seven postseasons for which data is available, this year’s playoffs rank fourth in qSQ in the final 30 seconds of one-possession deficits.
By turning to quantified Shooter Impact (qSI), we can measure how much better than average a shooter is for the shots they take in those game-defining situations. This year’s postseason, again through the conference finals, ranks first among all playoffs in the metric by a huge margin, suggesting that we’ve experienced crunch-time greatness throughout the playoffs. Fans will be talking about Dončić’s step-back 3-pointer, Davis’s 3-pointer from the wing and Kyle Lowry’s pass to Anunoby for years to come.
And it should come as no surprise that the two teams still standing haven’t withered on the vine or cratered in high-leverage situations. Among all playoff teams since 2013-14, this year’s pre-Finals Lakers and Heat rank first and third respectively in effective field-goal percentage1 in one-possession games in the fourth quarter or later.
Behind the theatrics of Butler and baby-faced Tyler Herro, the Heat rank eighth among all playoff teams over the past seven postseasons in effective field-goal percentage in the fourth quarter or later and sixth in points per possession in those situations.2
In one-possession games in the fourth quarter or later, the Lakers have produced the high-water mark for all playoff teams in qSQ dating back to 2013-14, having put themselves in position to make timely buckets throughout the bubble. Miami has had to work a little harder but still ranks 12th. The Heat and Lakers also rank in the top five among playoff teams since 2013-14 in qSI, suggesting that the Finals are staging a marquee matchup of shot-makers under pressure. These Finals have yet to require a buzzer-beater, but given what we know about these teams, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see late-game heroics in one of the remaining games.
If we do, that would fit in well with the crunch-time show of these playoffs. This postseason has accounted for three of the top four performers in fourth-quarter-or-later effective field-goal percentage3 and the top two performers in qSI4 in those situations among all postseason players with at least 60 field-goal attempts since 2013-14.
In this most unique of postseason tournaments, we had no shortage of questions heading into the bubble about what would be different. It stood to reason that drama, largely molded by the thousands of fan-to-player interactions that take place over a single game and the general swell of support from home crowds, would be diminished. Some athletes feed off of adrenaline, and it would certainly be difficult to manufacture a supply of it with one of the most important variables removed from the equation. But players have owned the spotlight.
“So much of what makes playoff basketball special is that give and take and that relationship with the crowd,” New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick said on his podcast shortly after the NBA restart. “And there’s no home-court advantage. There’s no energy you can feed off. So that energy has to be supplied by the team. And that’s it. And I think that’s going to be a little different.”
It has certainly been different. The surprise has been that the difference was positive.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.