Sunday, May 20, 2012

Self-Fulfilling Second Guesses

The opinion of almost all observers before the series began, myself emphatically included, was that the Celtics would defeat the 76ers and do so without undue difficulty.  This prediction has taken a bit of a beating in the first four games. The series is tied, and there is as of yet no scoreboard evidence that Boston is the materially superior team, or even marginally superior.

In a dazzling display of one of sports punditry's sillier and nastier maneuvers, many of the predictors are now giving the Celtics a bit of a beating. It's their fault the prediction didn't come true. They had "no respect" for the Sixers (Charles Barkley, TNT). They were "arrogant" (Gary Washburn, Boston Globe). They "always play down to the opposition" (talk radio callers and hosts).

Here's an opinion I didn't hear or read, so remember folks, it's an exclusive. The 76ers were better than I thought. My pre-series analysis has not been supported by subsequent events, and that'll be true even if the Celts win the next two games by 20. The Sixers are low on guys who get overcovered by ESPN, but they have excellent ratings in a number of important basketball virtues -- little things like hustle and defense.

That wasn't so hard to write. Sports forecasting is a mug's game anyway. Being wrong is an inescapable part of making predictions. Write or say why you think you were wrong, and move on.

Instead, many of the folks who picked Boston in a breeze have reacted to an NBA playoff series that's been much like many past series in nature with the odd but common emotion that somehow the Celtics have their predictions down. It's the team's fault they were wrong. If it had had higher standards of professionalism, if the Celtics were better people, THEN they'd have already swept the series, and you'd see how smart the forecaster was.

You see this reaction a lot in sports punditry. For the most extreme example, check out the college football polls. It takes about three losses for a preseason top 10 team to drop out of the top 25, even though NO predictions in sports are based on less information than college football preseason guesses.

The "bad Celtics" meme is not just self-serving, it makes its adherents look like they've never seen a playoff before. It requires ignoring two known facts of NBA history.

Fact 1:  It's match play, not medal. A blowout win/loss is not evidence of the superiority/inferiority of Teams A and B (Two blowouts can be). Just to cite two examples from Celtics history. In the 1984 Finals, they lost 136-104 to the Lakers in Game Three. In the 1985 Finals, they beat LA 148-114 in Game One. And of course, in each case it was the blowout loser who won the series.

Fact 2: Momentum doesn't matter from game to game, but IN the game, it matters a great deal indeed. A big early lead can be and often is a poisoned chalice, especially on the road. It is very, very difficult for a team to maintain its best level of play for 48 straight minutes, and once that level slips, it's harder still to find it again.

And there, class, you have the stories of Games Three and Four in the 2012 Celtics-76ers series. It's a series between two teams of reasonably competitive levels of ability falling into established patterns of such series. With two home games left, it's still more likely than not the Celts will win it. But not because they were prohibitive favorites and SHOULD have done it already if they weren't so stuck on themselves.

In truth, it was the forecasters who were stuck on the Celtics. They took the fact that when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are in top form Boston is more than a match for almost every NBA team and straight-line projected fact into fiction -- assuming that happy circumstance would be the Celtics' default mode throughout the series. Now, with the emotional balance of jilted 15-year olds, the forecasters are attacking the attitudes and character of their former love objects.

Worst of all is how temporary this lover's spat might be. Should the Celtics go on to eliminate the 76ers, the post-series analyses will all either implicitly or explicitly declare "I knew it all along."


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