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Do Heat's struggles against elite matter?

The Heat lost another tight game against an elite team on Sunday. On the season, the Heat are now 1-6 against the league's top 5 teams in win percentage (Spurs, Mavericks, Celtics, Bulls, and Lakers).

Surely, that's a bad omen for Miami come playoff time, right?

Not so fast.

It appears the fatalistic commentary regarding the Heat's postseason prospects seems a bit premature. Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference did some extensive research and found that maybe the 1-6 Heat aren't as doomed as everyone says they are.

The conventional wisdom tells us that this [record] going to be a problem for Miami and L.A. come playoff time. But is that actually true? Do teams with better records vs. the NBA's top teams win postseason series more often?

Here's the breakdown since the merger (1977-2010):

  • The team with the better regular-season WPct vs. top-5 teams won the series 65.9% of the time.

  • The team with the better regular-season WPct vs. top-10 teams won the series 71.8% of the time.

  • The team with the better WPct vs. teams outside the top 10 won the series 73.2% of the time.

  • The team with the better regular-season pt diff vs. top-5 teams won the series 69.1% of the time.

  • The team with the better regular-season pt diff vs. top-10 teams won the series 73.0% of the time.

  • The team with the better pt diff vs. teams outside the top 10 won the series 71.7% of the time.

  • The team that played Game 1 at home won the series 74.1% of the time.

In other words, knowing how a team performed vs. elite teams actually tells you less about who wins a playoff series than a team's record against all teams, even non-elite teams. Team records vs. the cream of the crop certainly sound meaningful, but when it comes to predicting success or failure in the playoffs, you'd be better off knowing how they did against the entire league.

Interesting. Why the discrepancy between the conventional wisdom and history? It's the power of small sample sizes -- more observations, more predictive value.

No doubt that the 1-6 record looks ugly on the surface, but if you look deeper, you'll see that the record overstates the Heat's underlying struggles. Four of those losses were by five points or fewer. In the game of basketball, randomness has a heavy hand in games that come down to a final possession. We saw that in Sunday's game when Mike Miller missed a wide-open 3-pointer to tie the game. The Heat lost that coin flip, and many others this season.

When it comes down to it, we simply can't learn much from a handful of regular season games -- no matter how tempting it might be. We impulsively draw conclusive narratives to these outcomes because, well, randomness is boring.

If you really want to learn about what the 1-6 record means, history is offering a free lesson. Pay close attention.