Spurs Could Settle NBA Championship On Sunday

Slate.com's Mike Pesca looks at the odds of the Miami Heat staging a comeback to beat the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA championship in a chat with NPR's Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for sports and the odds. The San Antonio Spurs lead the Miami Heat, three games to one. With the NBA championship - if they win tonight, they're champions for the fifth time in 15 years. Miami is loaded with big-name stars, but no team has ever come back from a three-one deficit. To assess the chances of a championship or a come back, we've called up slate.com's Mike Pesca. Mike, nice to be with you.

MIKE PESCA: Yes, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: I'm fine. Thanks. Before we talk about the odds, how have the Spurs managed to save - save for one game - to tie up a team with LeBron, D-Wade - I think they even have Bill Russell on the bench.

PESCA: (Laughing) Well, they don't have Bill Russell's number of rings. And he had to get a special ring to accommodate them on all his fingers. So they've just decimated the Heat. It's unfathomable almost because the Heat not only - it's not just that they're good. It's not just that they're, you know, nearly great. It's that they play a very coherent style of basketball. And they never seem to get flummoxed, except when they're against the Spurs. And the Spurs pass the ball - I don't know - five, eight times on offense. So like in "Hoosiers," where the coach was demanding five passes...

SIMON: Hot potato, hot potato. Yeah.

PESCA: Exactly. You know, and so I don't know. Maybe the - he put up a picket fence and got caught watching the paint dry. But the Spurs have been so good, and it's confusing to the Heat. And it's confusing to fans who have been watching this going in. Yeah, they've killed them in every game, except the one game the Heat won.

SIMON: I know the odds are against Miami, but I bet they've won three straight games a lot of times during the regular season.

PESCA: Oh, yeah. Three straight, not against a team as good as the Spurs. So the big stat that everyone is citing is down three-one, no team has ever come back in the NBA finals. But there have been very few teams down three-one in the NBA finals. If you look at the bigger universe of all the times in a NBA a seven-game series, how many times has a team down three-one won the series? Well, that doesn't look that great either. Two hundred nine teams have been in - sorry, 209 teams have lost down three-one, and only eight teams have one. Now those teams weren't as good as this - the Heat.

SIMON: No.

PESCA: They're not playing a team as good as the Spurs. But what I did - I tried to tease this out a little more. I called Neil Paine, who's a great writer for FiveThirtyEight. He's also a consultant for the Hawks - one of these great math guys. And he uses calculations that - based on home team advantage and based on a number of factors. And he says, in pure mathematical terms, the Heat have 90.4 chance of coming back. So that's not as bad as the 96 percent of the time that those teams actually in this position in NBA history have won, but it ain't good.

SIMON: All right, but wait. OK. Here's the speech the Miami coach gives, OK?

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Its borrowed from "Miracle," so I'm going to try and sound a little bit like Kurt Russell, OK? I know the odds say they're going to win, but you're the Miami Heat. They're not going to win tonight. Not here. Not against you.

PESCA: Right. And then LeBron leans over to Dwayne and says, I didn't know Spoelstra was from the upper Midwest.

SIMON: (Laughing).

PESCA: So here's the thing...

SIMON: Yeah?

PESCA: That Miami is a great team, but the odds are so against them just in terms of, not only the team they're playing, but the fact that they have to win three in a row. And it will seem - this does seem, of course, like a make or break game. But, you know, going down three-one - so what Neil Paine told me was that was the most important swing game in the entire playoffs so far. If they could have tied it at two-two, they'd have a 45 percent chance of winning the whole series. So it is very likely Miami will lose tonight. And if they do, they'll say they lost the make or break game. But you know what? Just like the Revolutionary War wasn't lost at Yorktown, I don't know - even if the Heat lose tonight - if the series will be lost tonight. They really needed to do a lot better in game four.

SIMON: Well, slate.com's Mike Pesca combining sports and American history. You can listen to his daily podcast, The Gist, on iTunes. Mike, nice to talk to you this weekend.

PESCA: Good talking to you.

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