The Miami Heat haven't shifted into "playoff gear" this season, according to my analysis from the Eastern Conference finals. The key finding: Miami's slight postseason improvement in net efficiency can be completely chalked up to the team's tighter playoff rotations -- more minutes for the Big Three, less burn for guys like Michael Beasley.
On the other hand, perhaps LeBron James & Co. only really turn it up at select, pivotal moments within the game. If so, the evidence might be buried pretty deeply in the data. The previous analysis could have missed it.
And if any team actually has the ability to shift into a higher gear, there are two places, in particular, we'd expect to see it: during the fourth quarter (versus earlier in the game) and especially during crunch time.
We'll examine both possibilities in detail below. But for those who prefer eating dessert before the main course, here are the surprising takeaways (spoiler alert):
1. The Heat have been superb during their rare moments of postseason crunch-time play, but the evidence suggests it might be a fluke.
2. Contrary to expectations, the Heat have been at their worst defensively in the fourth quarter this postseason, but their late offensive play has been outstanding.
3. Miami's defense has actually been at its best during the first quarter, but its offensive output in the opening frame has been almost disastrously low.
Now, on to the details.
Turning up the Heat in crunch time?
The Heat's net efficiency (offensive and defensive efficiency compared to that of their opponents) has been ridiculously high down the homestretch of close games this postseason. According to nba.com/stats, they've outscored their playoff opponents by a staggering 81.3 points per 100 possessions when the scoring margin is within five points during the game's final five minutes.
But this eye-popping, crunch-time stat is based on a very small sample -- a mere 11 minutes of postseason play -- so it might not be meaningful. How can we tell?
We can start by looking at Miami's crunch-time play during last season's playoffs, when the team fielded a similar roster. Surely, the Heat would have dialed up their intensity during those crucial moments, as well. But they didn't. Miami was outscored by a whopping 22 points per 100 possessions during their 26 postseason crunch-time minutes last season. It looks like an equally fluky -- and meaningless -- small-sample, crunch-time result.
To get a bigger, more reliable sample of Miami's recent crunch-time play (over 100 minutes), we have to turn to the regular season. And we find that the Heat's net efficiency in crunch time roughly matched their non-crunch-time play this season, especially after adjusting for the higher real plus-minus (RPM) value of Miami's crunch-time lineups.
Bottom line: Aside from the obvious boost that comes from simply putting their best players on the floor, there's not much evidence the Heat can shift into a higher gear for crunch time.
Downshifting into first?
And yet, there's at least one trend in the Heat's 2014 playoff performance worth taking seriously. It jumps right out when we look at Miami's postseason efficiency on offense and defense, broken down on a quarter-by-quarter basis:
As shown, Miami's first-quarter offense has been horrible this postseason. The Heat have scored at an anemic pace of 98.9 points per 100 possessions, an efficiency mark that would have ranked next to last in the NBA during the regular season (just ahead of the tanking Philadelphia 76ers).
But the Heat's offense has been unbelievably good over each of the final three frames, with an average offensive efficiency (119.0 points per 100 possessions) that would have led the NBA by a huge margin (more than nine points) this season.
And the Heat's massive jump in offensive output following the first quarter is statistically significant. That is, if we were to randomly select any 15-game sample of play, such a between-quarter scoring discrepancy would appear by chance far less than one percent of the time.
The defense rests
Another trend in the Heat's postseason play worth noting: While Miami's offense tends to get better each quarter, its defense actually gets worse.
In the first half, Miami has given up an average 100.4 points per 100 possessions during the playoffs -- a solid defensive efficiency that would have ranked fifth in the NBA during the regular season. But the Heat's second-half defense has been surprisingly poor, yielding an extra 10 points per 100 possessions (on average), a level that would have rated dead last in the league this season.
Then again: Perhaps the Heat's first-quarter offensive woes and late-game defensive lapses mostly just stem from lineup quirks. In other words, maybe they've deployed their better defenders early and replaced them with offensive specialists (like Ray Allen) later in the game? It's a reasonable hypothesis, but the evidence actually points in the opposite direction.
The Heat's offensive talent level (measured by minutes-weighted offensive RPM) has been at its highest during the first quarter this postseason, while their average defensive talent has been about the same each half.
So it's not about the lineups. It's something else.
Points of emphasis
Drilling down even farther into Miami's playoff metrics this postseason, we find some provocative trends in the Heat's first-quarter stats (versus their numbers from the remaining three quarters). Specifically, during the first period, Miami has been less likely to (A) get to the foul line (over 30 percent drop in free throw rate), (B) attempt a 3-pointer, (C) assist a teammate's basket, (D) corral an offensive rebound or (E) send an opponent to the free throw line.
But they're more likely during the first period to (A) launch a long 2-pointer (typically a low-payoff play), (B) grab a defensive rebound, (C) force an opposing turnover or (D) block an opponent's shot.
Whether by accident or design -- and given Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's meticulous attention to detail, it's probably the latter -- this postseason, Miami has drifted toward a lower-effort mix of plays on offense in the first period: fewer free throws, fewer good looks from 3, less offensive rebounding and fewer assists. At the same time, they've been at their best in many markers of defensive effort during the opening frame, when their defensive efficiency (99.8) has been at its best.
So what's happening?
Here's my working hypothesis: Every team (and every player) has a limited supply of energy to split up between their offensive and defensive play, and the Heat have apparently made it a point to set the defensive tone early. That is, they expend their best effort on the defensive end of the court in the opening period, after which their energy is gradually redirected to the offense.
Has this early defensive focus paid off? Actually, not so much. In fact, the opening quarter is the only one in which the Heat have, on average, been outscored. They've usually fared somewhat better in quarters two through four (with their best net efficiency, surprisingly, in the second quarter) despite steady defensive slippage as the game wears on.
They say defense wins championships, but if the Heat can't find a way to overcome their first-quarter offensive woes against the San Antonio Spurs, their dreams of a three-peat might come to a nightmarish end.
Steve Ilardi is a psychology professor, clinical researcher, and former NBA analytic consultant.