Thirty nine times Dirk Nowitzki lofted the ball toward the basket in Game 1, thirty six times it dropped through the net. Dirk came out on hot from the tip, scoring eight quick points. In the second quarter, Oklahoma City’s lead evaporated as the German’s shooting continued to heat up. In the third and fourth quarters, the Wonder from Wurzberg seemed entranced in a Zen-like state of calm while the Thunder, and the game itself, were engulfed in the flames of his greatness.
This, surely, was the mythical hot hand. Dirk was in a zone the likes of which I’d never before witnessed. I swear I could see his aura. It was light blue and it’s center was black, still and merciless.
But maybe those makes were playing tricks on my pattern forming mind. Maybe we experienced something as mundane as it was magnificent. Could the methods of Dirk’s efficiency disprove one notion of the hot hand while suggesting an alternative definition?
In the postgame presser, Nowitzki repeatedly referred to his “rhythm” as the key to his torrid shooting. If we believe his statement–and that’s a leap of faith given that players, and especially Dirk, are prone to mind-numbing extravagances of cliché-speak—it’s actually not that hard to square Dirk’s performance with the research done by Sandy Weil disproving the Hot Hand phenomenon.
To start, Weil et al really proved that making multiple shots, a natural consequence of probability trends, is like catnip for scorers. They get energetic and a little crazy, shooting bad, quick shoots in the rush to score again. But Nowtizki only took fifteen shots from the field the whole game. A gunner he was not.
Take a look at the shot chart above, and you’ll see that each attempt came from below the free throw line-extended and within 20 feet from the basket. Half of his shots came within fifteen feet of the hoop (he made 7 of 8). Eight of them were launched from a tiny patch on the right hand side of the court, midblock-extended. Not one was forced, wild or out of place.
All this is to say: it’s not as though Dirk was some whirling dervish.
In fact half his points came when he was standing still: a cool 24-24 from the free throw line. Such perfect shooting is a statistical unlikelihood, sure, but Nowitzki is shooting 90% from the line, so he really only made two more free throws than his typical rate would predict.
Every shot Nowitzki arced toward the hoop took flight from one of his sweet spots on the court; he didn’t press, he didn’t break his rhythm to hunt a shot (to borrow a term from David Thorpe). A player’s foolish faith in the Hot Hand is supposed to make the apparently scientific scorer offer a heat check to test the hypothesis that “I can’t miss!”
Dirk refused this temptation, even though he must have been acutely aware that he was absolutely mauling each and every defender—in all, five would take a serious go at stopping Nowitzki—that Scott Brooks sent at him. On Twitter, @netw3rk put it perfectly: “This is like watching a kungfu movie where one guy beats up a whole dojo.”
Nowitzki stayed loyal to his rhythm and his team’s offensive plan, got some luck, and was rewarded with the most efficient night of scoring in playoff history. But it’s not as though Nowitzki eschewed the ready heroism of shot-hunting in favor of “just letting the game come to him.”
No, there’s that matter of the 24 free throws, which came from Dirk refusing to settle for typical hot hand traps. Instead, he fought relentlessly for position, displaying an unyielding mental and physical toughness in pounding and chiseling at the Thunder defense until he had once again created a hauntingly familiar scenario: in isolation, mid block extended, 12-17 feet from the hoop.
This video is a compilation of every Nowitzki jumpshot from Game 1, you tell me which one is the bad shot…
And herein lies truth about Nowitzki’s “hot hand” scoring bonanza: he might miss a few more of those looks, but there’s no doubt that over the long run he’ll make a high percentage of fadeaway 15-footers and layups. It’s also possible he’ll have an off-night getting those same shots. But this was not Russell Westbrook on a randomly fruitful pull-up bender. He’s Dirk Nowitzki, and making those shots is what he does best, what he’s work towards his entire professional life.
But Dirk is only a man, incredible as he may be. He’ll make 22 out of 24 free throws every time, but even attempting the exact same field goals he made in Game 1, he’s unlikely to keep up that kind of shooting. If the Thunder are going to give up 48 to Nowitzki, it has to be from the floor. Even if Dirk again defies statistical likelihood and shoots around 75% from the floor, but needs to take 25 shots to score his 48, that’s still four more chances for the Thunder to run out off of a rebound. Even a made field goal offers opportunities to push the pace that a made free throw does not.
If the Thunder don’t find ways to push him from his comfort zones, particularly the one at the free throw line, and Oklahoma City looked all out of ideas by the end of Game 1, it’s logical to expect more lights out, if not black out, performances from Nowitzki.
All the reasons that the hot hand is thought to not exist–it encourages bad shot selection, greedy play, an itchy trigger finger and more focused defense—are serious dangers to any scorer focused on efficiency. The hot hand myth hurts because the result of the ball going through the hoop becomes more important than the process of generating good shots. Understanding statistical likelihood is replaced by a feeling of Godlike power. Any shot will do because I’m hungry and hunting.
It turns out that it may be more possible, but not probable, to be searingly hot by simply avoiding these snares. It was not a mystical event. Dirk could easily have shot 6-15 last night, although he did an incredible amount of work in the years before the game and during the game itself to put himself in the best position possible to have the incredible night we just witnessed.
What impressed me most about Dirk’s transcendent performance was his strict adherence to the game plan of feeding him in the post and his sage reading of the Thunder’s defensive strategies. His determination to not simply settle for what his opponent would give him, but to take measures which forced the defense to give him what he wanted.