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The Lamp Post: Third Quarter of Death

“People commonly use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post; for support rather than illumination”

– Mark Twain

As our good friend Mark Twain notes above, stats are often misused. When used properly, however, they can bring better clarity to any situation. In hopes of doing exactly that, 8p9s is launching this new “Lamp Post” series in hopes of illuminating various under-discussed issues from time to time.

In this first post, we’re going to break down the Pacers offense by quarter — something that will illustrate some alarming facts about what was perhaps the 2008-09 Pacers’ biggest barrier to success: the third quarter. Throughout the season, the Pacers lost a baffling number of halftime leads and, in the process, dug a lot of holes that they could never crawl out of no matter how well they played in the fourth quarter.

But don’t just take my word for it; let’s look at the numbers.

Drawn & Quartered

It’s pretty obvious from the graphic below that the 2008-09 Pacers were a first half team. Before half time, the Pacers averaged 54.3 ppg while they could only muster an average of 50.1 ppg in the second half. The result was that the Pacers took the lead into the half 48 times last season, which was more than all but 5 other NBA teams. Yes, you read that correctly; the Pacers, despite being the 18th best team in the league overall last year by record, were the 6th best first half team in the entire NBA.

While that may seem nearly impossible, here’s the explanation: Indiana could only manage to win 28 of the 48 games that they led at half. And that winning percentage of .583 was way below the cumulative .731 winning percentage posted by the other 29 teams in games where they led at the half. In fact, only 6 other teams had a lower conversion rate in this situation than the Pacers. Had Indiana simply been able to match that league average winning percentage of .731, it would have meant 7 more wins — and a playoff birth.

Here is the quarter-by-quarter scoring breakdown, both for the Pacers and their opponents.

pacers scoring quarter

Pacers Points Per Quarter (2008-09)

The Pacers offense fell off significantly in the second half, during which they averaged 4.2 points fewer per game than in the first half.

Actual points per game scored can be a misleading number, however, so let’s look at “offensive ratings” and “defensive ratings” instead. For the uninitiated, these “new age” NBA stats basically represent the number of points scored or allowed per 100 possessions, and they have become the standard measure of comparing teams to one another because they adjust for the varying pace that different teams play at. Simply comparing ppg makes it impossible to accurately compare a very fast-paced team (like the Pacers, who play the third “fastest” style in the NBA) to a very slow-paced team (like, say, the Blazers, who are the “slowest” team in the league).

Looking at offensive and defensive ratings provides an even more dramatic look at the Pacers’ second half offensive decline.

pacers off/def rating

Pacers Offensive & Defensive Rating by Quarter (2008-09)
(The equivalent of points scored per 100 possessions)

The defensive rating here shows a steady worsening from the first to the fourth quarter, but the most glaring thing the graph shows is that the offensive rating craters in the third quarter. The offense does recover to above league average in the fourth, but even so, it remains well below the Pacers first half performance.

3rd Degree Burns

Fans and sports writers made much ado about the Pacers’ inability to win close games last year, and this was often attributed to the team’s inability to make “clutch plays.” The fourth quarter always gets the attention, and rightfully so. While that certainly may be a factor, let’s save that discussion for a separate, more detailed analysis. For now, I want to focus on the Pacers’ third quarter performance, because I think that’s where they lost a lot of games.

As noted above, the Pacers opened the third quarter with a lead 48 times last season. Only five teams did so more often. Take a look at the chart below and tell me who doesn’t belong.


Pacers Halftime Leads vs. Pacers Total Wins (2008-09)

The fact that the Pacers are the only team of these six that had more half time leads than wins goes a long way to explain why five of these made at least the second round of the playoffs and the other couldn’t even finish at .500.

Peeling the onion further shows that the Pacers had a full 18 games where the team lost a half time lead before the final period started. Since they were able to turn a halftime deficit into a lead four times, that means they took the lead into the fourth quarter only 34 times. Twenty teams entered the fourth quarter with the lead more often, and the net 14 difference between the 48 leads at the half and the 34 leads at the end of the third is far and away the worst differential in the league. In fact, 20 of the 30 teams led more often entering the fourth than the third, and no team besides the Pacers saw a net decline of more than five leads.

In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb…

Basically, the Pacers treated the third quarter as if it were the proverbial month of March, entering as what turned out to be a somewhat cowardly lion, and going out as a sacrificial lamb. One nugget in particular shows the perverse nature of Pacer third quarters: they went 6-7 when entering the third down by 4 or fewer points, but only 6-11 when they came back out of the locker room up by 4 or fewer points.

In order to analyze the third quarter woes a little better, I broke it down into four 3-minute segments. What this shows is a favorable start, both offensively and defensively, followed by a total offensive collapse over the final six minutes of the quarter. In all, the Pacers gave up 143 more points than they scored (about 1.7 ppg) in the third, and an astonishing 136 points of that difference occurred over the final 6 minutes of the third.

I have recalculated the offensive and defensive ratings chart to show that swoon:

Pacers 3rd Q Ratings

Pacers Off & Def Ratings Throughout the 3rd Quarter (2008-09)
(with the quarter broken down into four 3-minute sections)

It’s hard to overcome dead spots like that, particularly when the team is not well-built for making comebacks. Case in point: The Pacers fell behind by 10 or more points in 37 of their 82 games. While they were able to erase that deficit (tie or re-take the lead) 20 times, they still only won six of those games. Not exactly the 2004 Red Sox when it comes to playing from behind.

The following chart similarly highlights their shooting difficulties throughout the third, tracking eFG%, which is another “new-age” NBA stat that has become favored over traditional FG% because it also factors in the extra points gained by shooting three points (something especially prevalent in Jim O’Brien’s offense):


Pacers and Opponents eFG Throughout the 3rd Quarter (2008-09)
[ eFG = (FG + 0.5 * 3P) / FGA ]

The shooting decline throughout the quarter goes a long way to explain the offensive failures. The bench rotation was not particularly strong here, obviously, and even the key players shot pretty poorly throughout the third. T. J. Ford, Troy Murphy, Jarrett Jack and Brandon Rush, for example, each shot under 40%.

Polishing a Third

Looking back at the latter part of last year, there were some rays of hope. Specifically, the Pacers became a much better second half team, at least offensively, over the last two months of the season.

Here is a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of the Pacers offensive and defensive ratings from March-April.


Pacers Offensive & Defensive Ratings Per Quarter (March – April 2009)
The equivalent of points scored per 100 possessions)

As you can see, the second half offense became stronger and more consistent, although the defense became a little worse.

This late-season improvement can be seen throughout the third quarters played in March and April as well.


Pacers Off & Def Ratings Throughout the 3rd Quarter (March–April 2009)
(with the quarter broken down into four 3-minute sections)

Over the 21 games played in March and April, the Pacers went 11-10. Brandon Rush finally settled down, averaging 12.6 points on 48% shooting (including 16.3 on 53% shooting during March). They were also aided by Danny Granger’s return from injury and a relatively favorable schedule.

In any case, for the Pacers to continue that late-season, second half success into the 2009-10 season, they will have to avoid that dead spot in the third quarter. This is going to fall primarily on the bench players, and, as we’re going to discover more and more as the season approaches, Mike Dunleavy.

Without Dunleavy, the bench will consist of Earl Watson, Dahntay Jones, Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Foster. And when those guys are on the floor, fans questions will consist of “Who in the hell is going to score?” and “No, seriously, who in the hell is going to score?” Digging deeper on the bench doesn’t provide any answers either as you are left with journeymen Travis Diener, Solomon Jones, Josh McRoberts and rookie 2nd rounder A. J. Price.

For there to be any real chance of success (modest, though it may be), the Pacers will need Dunleavy to be relatively healthy and productive, and they will need Brandon Rush to be as productive as he was in March and April last year.

Otherwise, it’s going to be a long and grueling season.

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