On Wednesday, the Utah Jazz accomplished three remarkable things - two of which were par for the course, and one of which was losing to a team that starts Brook Lopez at center and has an owner who sounds like the villain in a Matt Damon poker movie. In losing to the Nets, the Jazz were outscored in the first quarter while winning the final frame, two things that they do extraordinarily well. In fact, no team is being outscored more per game in the first quarter than Utah, and no team has a higher scoring margin in the fourth. Matt Moore of PBT and HardwoodParoxysm took a look last week at how contenders perform in the fourth quarter so far this season. He drew some interesting conclusions about the Lakers, Bulls, and Thunder, as well as pointing out how the San Antonio Spurs are blowing their opponents out of the water in the fourth quarter on the way to the best record in the league, but his numbers showed no real link between fourth quarter scoring margin and winning percentage, for the elite teams.
Mr. Moore can be forgiven for not including the Jazz in an article about contenders, but Utah leads the league in fourth quarter scoring margin - by a full point over San Antonio and Chicago. However, the Spurs and Jazz tell two very different stories by outscoring their opponents so handedly in the fourth. In showing that there isn't necessarily a correlation between fourth quarter performance and winning, that article piqued my curiosity - how strong is the relationship? How big of an outlier is the Jazz' first quarter/fourth quarter split? And why are the Spurs destroying teams?
As the chart above shows, Utah would be hard pressed to be more...um...unique in their first quarter profile. They stick out like an Amish man with a mustache. Only the Knicks, Thunder, and Jazz are above .500 and being outscored in the first quarter, and no team is being outscored by more than the Jazz - not even the not-quite-Mendoza-line Cavaliers. The relationship between the two variables is .37 on a scale of 0-1 - significantly related, but not very strong. More significant is the scoring margin at halftime, however, and again the Jazz find themselves on the wrong side of the regression line.
The first thing that stuck out to me about this chart was poor, poor Cleveland. They get outscored in every quarter, so the cumulative margin just looks worse and worse. If the Cavs could have negative wins, they'd make a run at it. More importantly, look at Utah - their halftime scoring margin is more similar to teams that have winning percentages between .400 and .500.
This data will come as no surprise to anyone who watches the Jazz or even hears discussion about the team - the talk this year is that Utah is a second half team. Hell, when a Jazz blogger made an appearance in an ESPN basketball chat (go DDL!), he did so in the second half and cracked that he was just acting like the team he covered. Their scoring margin backs up this common wisdom, but it understates the extreme nature of Utah's tendency to play catch-up. The Jazz are only making up .7 points per game in the third quarter on their opponents. In fact, Utah plays so poorly in the first quarter that they still trail their opponents after the third quarter.
Poor Cleveland. This chart is strikingly significant, for two reasons. First, the relationship between the two variables is .79 - very strong, and even stronger if one removes poor Cleveland from the data. Second, Utah is the ONLY team above .500 that trails its opponents after 3 quarters of play. Utah's margin after the third is the same as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and the Clippers. As a result, the Jazz have to outscore their opponents in the fourth quarter to have a chance at winning - and outscore they do.
Utah blows teams off of the court in the fourth quarter. They dig themselves into such a large hole in the first quarter that they must. The by-product of this style of play manifests itself in the playing time of the Jazz' starters. Utah has 6 players averaging at least 30 minutes per game; no other player averages more than 15. Deron Williams, as one might expect, handles the brunt of this - he's averaging 38 minutes per game, good for tenth in the league (coincidentally, Derrick Rose, whose Bulls also outscore their opponents in the fourth, is one spot behind Williams).
Fans of the Spurs may read this analysis of Utah's playing time and think that flies in the face of what we know about Coach Popovich and his tendency to get his players rest. Is it possible that Pop actually plays his starters longer minutes in order to blow opponents off the court in the fourth quarter?
The answer to that question is a resounding "no." No Spur is in the top 70 minutes per game. On average, Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili are resting for over 16 minutes per game - more than a third of the entire game! Ginobili leads the team at 32.9 minutes per game. The Spurs also have eight players averaging at least 20 minutes a game, and this doesn't include Antonio McDyess getting almost 18. Their most common 5-man unit has played less than a quarter of the available minutes together - and this isn't a result of injuries forcing rotation changes.
These numbers and trends seem to indicate that the Spurs have a secret weapon that makes them the most elite team in the game - their bench. Popovich is able to send out a 10 deep rotation that not only keeps the Spurs in games but actively opens up leads on opponents, especially in the fourth quarter while the starters rest. It's questionable how much of an impact they will have in the playoffs when rotations shorten, but the bench of San Antonio seems to largely be responsible for the Spurs' ability to crush opponents in the fourth quarter and keep their starters' minutes down, and a fresh Tim Duncan in the playoffs is a force without question. Utah, on the other hand, runs the significant risks of regressing to a worse record, wearing out the most important cogs of their team, exposing them to injury and being at the mercy of last-minute shots and situations. Both the Jazz and Spurs have been clutch in the fourth quarter this year - but only one team forces itself to be, night in and night out.