Thursday, May 7, 2015

Reggie Miller Shoots, Steals, and Rebounds the Pacers out of a 250 to 1 Hole

Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most impressive NBA playoff performances of all time: Reggie Miller's sucker punch of the Knicks in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals. In nine seconds of game time, Miller scored eight unanswered points, the first six of which came in a brutally efficient five second span. Miller's eight points turned a seemingly insurmountable six point deficit into a two point lead. The Knicks players, who appeared just as shocked as the remaining MSG crowd that day, weren't even able to get a shot off in their final possession.

If you want to relive the moment, you can't go wrong with ESPN's 30 for 30 feature Winning Time, And Shea Serrano has a feature today on Grantland about his experiences as a young Reggie Miller fan in the mid-nineties (I, too, missed the 8 points in 9 seconds miracle due to the mistaken belief that the game was over). I'm not the writer Shea is, and I'm certainly not a filmmaker, but I can put Reggie's achievement in a historical context of sorts.

At its core, this site's NBA win probability model is a set of historical benchmarks. When teams hold a 10 point lead midway through the second quarter, they tend to win about 75% of the time. That same 10 point lead midway through the fourth quarter results in victory about 96% of the time. And so on.

And when a team is trailing by six points with 18 seconds to go, as the Pacers were 20 years ago, victory is just an 0.4% proposition. Official play by play data is not available for the 1994-95 season, but I was able to cobble it together by hand from the broadcast. What follows is a blow by blow account of that comeback, and how each play moved the win probability needle:

time left score game state win prob
18.7 down 6 with possession 0.4%
Reggie Miller makes catch and shoot three pointer (+2.3%)
16.4 down 3 opponent with possession 2.7%
Reggie Miller steals inbounds pass (+6.3%)
16.4 down 3 with possession 9.0%
Reggie Miller makes turnaround three pointer (+28.9%)
13.2 tied opponent with possession 37.9%
Derrick McKey fouls John Starks (-10.8%)
13.2 tied opponent with two foul shots 27.1%
John Starks misses first free throw (+15.0%)
13.2 tied opponent with one foul shot 42.1%
John Starks misses second free throw (+16.8%)
13.2 tied opponent missed free throw 58.9%
Patrick Ewing rebounds missed free throw (-20.7%)
10.5 tied opponent with possession 38.2%
Patrick Ewing misses 7 foot jump shot (+16.4%)
10.0 tied opponent missed field goal 54.6%
Reggie Miller rebounds missed field goal (+6.6%)
8.5 tied with possession 61.2%
Reggie Miller fouled (+16.0%)
7.5 tied shooting two free throws 77.2%
Reggie Miller makes first free throw (+4.9%)
7.5 up 1 shooting one free throw 82.1%
Reggie Miller makes second free throw (+3.6%)
7.5 up 2 opponent with possession 85.7%
Knicks fail to get a shot off in regulation (+14.3%)
PACERS WIN 100.0%

Miller's win probability contributions:
  • The first three pointer: +2.3%
  • The steal: +6.3%
  • The second three pointer: +28.9% (the presence of mind!)
  • Rebounding Ewing's miss: +6.6%
  • Getting fouled: +16.0%
  • Making the first free throw: +4.9%
  • Making the second free throw: 3.6%
  • Total: 68.6%
Then you have the two John Starks missed free throws, worth -32% in win probability, and Ewing's miss from point blank range, worth -21%. What surprises me is how little the first two plays in the series are worth. A three point deficit and the ball gets you within "striking distance", but that's still just a 9% chance with 13 seconds left.

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