You might not have realized it, but the NBA is currently offering a free introductory course in Efficiency 101.
Where can you enroll? Just pull up a chair and study this Heat-Bucks series. No textbooks necessary, we promise.
Miami won Game 1 easily, scoring 110 points to Milwaukee’s 87. It’s true that the Heat enjoy an enormous talent advantage over their first-round foe and there was no hiding that on Sunday. But the Heat also employ a much smarter brand of basketball and that’s why they’ve achieved juggernaut status while the Bucks' season continues its downward spiral with me-first reckless shooting.
“It’s a great primer to understand the new-school analytics,” Shane Battier said of the series, before calling it “a good case study.”
Cut through all the metrics and you’ll find an analytics movement that has built its foundation on the concept of efficiency. The idea: maximize the return on each possession. At its most basic level, this ethos works on the individual level, as well: score as many points with as few shots as possible.
Watch one minute of this series and you can tell that the Heat and the Bucks exist on opposite ends on the efficiency spectrum.
Erik Spoelstra and the Heat emphasize patience, ball movement and precision in order to find the highest percentage shots possible. The Bucks? Well, let’s just say Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis have never seen a dribble-up jumper they didn’t like.
Take a look at the Game 1 box score. We saw LeBron James score 27 points and Jennings score 26. Similar scoring nights, right? Ah, but very different means of getting there. James used just 11 field goal attempts while Jennings burned 20. In fact, James' 9-for-11 shooting in Game 1 was the highest percentage of his playoff career (81.8 percent). In terms of efficiency, LeBron floated along in a Prius while Jennings drove a rusty Pinto.
James has been acutely aware of his shooting percentages and the value of efficiency ever since he came into the league. And it shows. He has improved his field goal percentage in each of his past eight seasons and he just wrapped up a 2012-13 campaign in which he shot a career-high 56.5 percent from the floor. His true shooting percentage, which takes into account all shots including free throws and 3-pointers, has seen a similarly steady climb over his career.
But what James is doing these days? That’s simply on another level. He’s currently shooting a baffling 70 percent over his past 10 games, including 57 percent from downtown.
Even he admits that his standard has reached almost impossible heights.
“I’m setting the bar actually too high for myself,” James joked after the game. “I’m coming out here and shooting 9-for-11. If I go 9-for-18, you guys look at me crazy.”
A 50 percent shooting display would be “crazy” for James, but it would be a great day at the office for Jennings and Ellis. And James isn’t the only Heat star who’s shooting efficiently. To illustrate, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh scored nine more points (31) with the same number of field goal attempts combined (19) as Ellis alone. What’s more, Wade tallied as many assists by himself as Jennings and Ellis combined (5).
“We’re trying to work for the best shot available,” Battier said.
But the Bucks?
“They’re a little bit different,” Battier said. “Monta [Ellis] and Brandon [Jennings] have made their living and made their names off being great one-on-one players. There’s no question that those guys can get it going. That works for them but it doesn’t work for us so it’s an interesting contrast in styles.”
Interesting, indeed. It was also telling that after getting beat by 23 points in Game 1, Jennings took to the podium and suggested that the Bucks were being, yes, too timid with their shot selection and that they needed to stop hesitating under the bright lights.
“Take shots when we have them,” Jennings advised. “Let’s just hoop.”
Simply put, the Heat want to take the best shot, the Bucks want to take the first shot.
While the Bucks' offense was littered with empty trips down the floor, the Heat scored 110 points on 92 possessions for one of their most efficient outings of the season. Even then, Spoelstra wasn’t completely satisfied with their performance due to their 19 turnovers. Perfection appears to be the standard.
“Obviously,” Spoelstra said after the game, “we can be more efficient offensively.”
Spoelstra went as far as to label the Bucks’ backcourt as “shot-takers,” saying they can be “dangerous” if they can get on a roll. But the Heat will happily let Jennings and Ellis take 20-foot contested jumpers all day. After all, the Heat’s defense is specifically geared to create havoc and force low-percentage shots. All in the name of efficiency.