11 seasons of data prove 4th-quarter 'momentum' in NBA games is overrated
While late-game comebacks are exciting for fans, research finds they often don't lead to OT victories.
Game 1 of last year's NBA Championships took place on May 31, 2018, in Oakland. It was the Golden State Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James had a playoff-career high 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. The Cavs outscored the Warriors in the 4th quarter, and their late-game momentum brought the match into overtime.
Yet, Cleveland ended up losing the game by 10 points, 124-114. While Cavalier fans were bummed out, the loss came as no surprise to a team of Israeli researchers from Ben-Gurion University. In a new study, they examined 900 tied games with fourth-quarter comebacks. They pored over the data from about 14,000 games over 11 NBA seasons. "We found that regardless of momentum, teams with the home advantage and more season wins were more likely to succeed in the five-minute overtime,” said Dr. Elia Morgulev, who co-authored the new study in the Journal of Economic Psychology.
The researchers – who have also conducted research on bias among basketball referees – were particularly surprised with the results, considering both teams were tied going into overtime. One could reasonably assume that the momentum heading into overtime would offer up some sway. However, instead they found that teams with a home court advantage were more likely to win in overtime (45.9%) compared to the visiting team (38.4%). Also, teams with better overall season records won 51.2% of games in overtime vs. 33% for underdog teams – all regardless of fourth-quarter momentum.
So why doesn't late-game momentum help? The researchers posit that it could be a number of issues. It's possible that the comeback team is so exhausted from their come-from-behind spurt that they actually lose momentum in overtime. Or maybe releasing tension during the brief break before overtime causes a team to relax because they feel they’ve already achieved their target of not losing – and then they lose any momentum.
But fans still tend to associate NBA comebacks with psychological momentum, even though data does not support it. “It seems intuitive to expect a comeback team to benefit from momentum,” says Professor Ofer H. Azar, another author on the study. “So perhaps when a team that closed a gap in the fourth quarter does win in overtime, it stands out more in people’s memories and reinforces a common belief over time.”
And while the new data back up the Warriors' win over the Cavaliers that night, they are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to stocking up their win column. The California team has looked to Israel in recent years for three additional ways to give them an advantage. First, they installed a SmartCourt system in their training facility from Israel-based PlaySight Interactive. The technology gives the team the ability to record every practice from different angles so they can break down the game, providing instant replay, to better work on player development and maximize the team's performance.
Second, they're using a system that will help superstar Stephen Curry make even more 3-point shots than he already does. Called RSPCT, the technology developed by Israeli entrepreneurs includes sensors attached to the backboard that track all sort of data related to the shot. Using high-resolution cameras, the RSPCT system can tell you exactly where the ball hit the rim and the basket. "The only way to evaluate the result of the shot is with respect to where the shot hit. We are the only ones who can tell you that," said Lior Moravchik, who invented the device with his brother, Oren.
Third, former Golden State star Omri Casspi has invested in DayTwo. The Israeli startup takes samples of their patients' poop and uses it for a whole range of benefits – from eradicating obesity and diabetes to improving athletic performance. Israel's national basketball team is already using DayTwo to tailor diets for each player based on their gut bacteria.
Of course, with sporting events, anything is possible. And perhaps that's why we continue to tune in, bite our fingernails, and sit on the edge of our seats. And hope for a late-game miracle.
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