Friday, October 30, 2009

The Best Is Yet To Come

Towards the end of Game 1 of the World Series a couple nights ago, commentator Tim McCarver noted that the Phillies had augmented a 2-0 lead to 6-0, with two runs in the top half of the eighth inning and two more runs in the top of the ninth. McCarver suggested that "Teams lose a lot of games because of tack-on runs." I found this analysis a bit quizzical. Sure, teams lose a lot of games by allowing runs late. But teams also lose games by allowing runs early. And allowing runs in the fifth inning ain't so good for ya, either. Apparently a baseball purist is to believe that no team worth its salt should be allowing runs late in games; perhaps the presence of an all-fastball-hurling relief pitcher like Mariano Rivera, who didn't even get on the mound that night, means that average runs-per-inning decreases later in the game. [I have looked on Google but cannot find statistics on average runs per inning in each of the 9 innings, aggregating all MLB games.] But why are these late runs by a leading team deemed so embarrassing or so illegitimate?

Presumably offensive players in baseball are slightly less motivated with a lead than they are while playing from behind; defensive players are more motivated when their team is behind. (But if the gap in the score is huge, offensive players and defensive players playing from behind could be demoralized and reduce their effort.) Perhaps we should be critical of the Yankees for allowing those late runs, but it hardly means that their performance was grossly negligent. The same dynamics likely govern in basketball, also.

Back in the NBA, one game I consider archetypal is Game 7 of the Orlando-Boston second-round series from last May. The Magic led by only five points after three quarters, and the whole Garden crowd was totally jacked to see the home side pound Orlando in the fourth quarter for a thrilling comeback. Instead, Orlando scored 11 unanswered points in the first two minutes of the fourth, and then their stifling defense convinced Boston that the decision was locked. Now, can we say that Boston lost because they got lackadaisacal for those two minutes? Were those 11 points equivalent to McCarver's "tack-on runs"? Alternatively, we might say that Orlando proved in those two minutes that they are the better team. Sometimes teams prove their superiority in the first quarter; Orlando proved it in the fourth. (Objectively, it would have been surprising if the Celtics, missing their defensive leader Garnett, had taken the series.) Additionally, let us consider the season debut of the Timberwolves on Wednesday night. The Timberwolves overcame a 16-point deficit with under 7 minutes to play, eventually edging New Jersey 95-93 with a emergency shot at the buzzer by Damien Wilkins. Predictably, Nets-oriented bloggers called the outcome a "punch in the gut". The Nets choked, in the usual vernacular. But it's more likely that this burst of performance from Minnesota evinced their superiority to New Jersey (at least on that night); perhaps New Jersey's ability to mount a 16-point edge was the real fluke.

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