Where value lies in NBA Finals Game 6

ByJeff Ma ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Traditional sports media is all about creating narratives, and results drive narratives -- they always have. The 2015 NBA Finals have been a perfect demonstration of that, and they also have been providing plenty of betting opportunities.

Here's how the narrative has shifted through five games:

Before the series started, the narrative was LeBron Jamesas an underdog versus a historically great team. The series odds made the Golden State Warriors a little better than a 2-to-1 favorite.

After a Warriors Game 1 victory and a season-ending Kyrie Irving injury, the narrative changed: This was a short series that Cleveland couldn't win, as theCavalierssimply didn't have the talent to hang with Golden State.

Following two narrow wins, the Cavaliers all of a sudden had the perfect scheme: Slow down the pace and force the Warriors' pedestrian role players to beat them. The Cavaliers were simply too big for the Warriors, they wanted it more, and the Warriors didn't have championship experience. Matthew Dellavedova was the ultimate Stephen Curry stopper. And LeBron was simply too much for anyone on Golden State to contain.

Two double-digit Warriors wins later, and now LeBron didn't have the weapons. He can't do it alone. The Warriors had checkmated the Cavs by playing small. Cleveland's role players couldn't handle the moment. Andre Iguodala deserved the MVP.

So with the series sitting 3-2 and Cleveland needing a win to extend its season, what narrative are we to believe? And more importantly, as gamblers, what narrative will determine the results of Game 6?

One of the greatest lessons I've learned in my life is that often the best answer is the simplest one. And the simplest and most consistent narrative of this series has little to do with heart or experience, or even LeBron -- it's all about 3-point shooting.

In Game 1, the Warriors shot 37 percent from 3 while the Cavs shot 29 percent, and Golden State won by eight points in overtime. The OT dagger was a 3-point shot by Harrison Barnes.

Game 2 was a similarly close game, this time won by the Cavs in overtime. Cleveland outshot the Warriors 33 to 23 percent from 3-point range and again the game turned on a made 3-pointer in overtime, this time by Iman Shumpert.

The Warriors actually outrebounded the Cavs in Game 3 (46-43), but lost as Cleveland shot an incredible 43 percent from downtown. The Warriors shot a below-average 35 percent, and it simply wasn't enough.

Following Game 4, narratives centered on the Warriors' small lineup and its ability to push the pace (largely untrue, as the pace in this game was consistent with the pace in the other games in the series). The reality was Cleveland shot an abysmal 15 percent from 3-point range (4-for-27) while the Warriors returned to their regular-season form, shooting 40 percent.

Finally, a Game 5 Warriors victory ushered in questions of whether the Cavs should play big or small, and again the misnomers of increased pace by the Warriors surfaced. The simple story was a torrid 46 percent 3-point shooting performance by the Warriors versus another mediocre 34 percent performance by the Cavs.

While each game has had its nuances and entertaining narratives, the results can in large part be explained by that one simple stat. So as we prepare for Game 6 and look for clues as to which team will win and cover, 3-point shooting percentage seems like a pretty obvious place to start. During the regular season, the Warriors shot 40 percent as a team while the Cavs shot a respectable 37 percent. But Game 6 will feature a shorter bench by Golden State and a Cleveland team that doesn't have Irving (42 percent) or Kevin Love (37 percent). So relying solely on season percentages to predict Game 6 percentages will not work.

Instead, with the help of ESPN Stats and Info, we did a pretty simple player-by-player projection. Starting with a projection of minutes played in Game 6 based on actual minutes played thus far in the series (excluding Game 1 for the Cavs, because Irving played) and then using seasonal averages for 3-point attempts per minutes and 3-point shooting percentage, we can project that the Warriors will shoot 41 percent and the Cavs will shoot 37 percent -- not far off from their seasonal averages.

As I think about Game 6 and all the possible narratives, I am inclined to oversimplify the situation -- this game will be decided by 3-point shooting. And as I look into my crystal ball, I see a Warriors team getting the looks they need to shoot at or above their normal expectations and a Cavs team that has role players taking shots they haven't had to take all season. That's the narrative I believe.

So as you listen to all the pundits and experts talk about LeBron willing the team to victory or the Warriors forcing their pace on the Cavs, ignore them and instead think about which team is more likely to shoot a higher percentage from deep. Do you want to hitch your wagon to J.R. Smith and his irrational confidence or to a Warriors team that is statistically superior in this category?

I know what I think. I'll take the Warriors to end the series tonight.

ESPN Chalk pick: Warriors minus-4.