The Other Impressive Streak Within Miami’s Win Streak

Miami’s franchise-record 16-game win streak hasn’t been constructed on a single load-bearing beam. There are dozens of ways the Heat have arrived at a better score than their opponent every night since Feb. 3 — and if you have the SportVU tracking system it’s possible to see hundreds, if not more, of ways of seeing what makes them so good. One way is Dwyane Wade‘s monster tear, another is LeBron James‘ singular play. But one of the most important ways is, not surprisingly, turnovers. In the course of being one win away from tying the longest win streak of the season, however, Miami isn’t just cutting down its turnovers, it’s beating its opponents night in and night out in ways few have in that category.

Turnover percentage is the statistic that admittedly might capture the larger picture with its lack of regard for a game’s pace — it’s why turnover percentage is included in the Four Factors of winning basketball. Per-game turnovers, however, have been the smaller story that have created the larger picture of the Heat’s win streak. Miami enabled those wins by being better with the ball than they have all season, a run that’s been matched or come close to this season — in the Clippers’ 17-game win streak, they had fewer turnovers than their opponent 15 times, albeit never in a streak of more than 11 — but not with this kind of corresponding success.

Until Miami’s win over Minnesota on Monday, the Heat had fewer turnovers than their opponents in 16 straight games — 14 of which were part of the winning streak (that win streak began Feb. 3; the fewer-turnover streak began Jan. 30). Sixteen games in a row of having fewer turnovers than their opponent ties Miami for the 12th longest such streak dating back to 1985 (see chart below). Had the Heat reached 17, they’d have tied Philadelphia’s run from last season as the longest such streak since 2007. Miami’s averaged just barely more turnovers in the 16 games overall (11.4) than they have in the win streak proper (11.3) — both of which beat New York’s NBA-leading 12.1 turnovers per game — and are about 2.1 turnovers lower than Miami’s season average.

Where did Miami improve in that stretch? No one player keyed the improvement by himself. LeBron James, Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade saw their turnovers rise slightly by a combined 0.6 per game. The rest of Miami’s primary minutes-getters all dipped slightly or stayed the same, with Norris Cole (1.1 TO/G season average to 0.8 in streak) and Udonis Haslem (0.6 on the season and 0.0 in the streak) making the biggest improvements.

If not the result of one or two players’ stinginess giving up the ball then, it may be more about the Heat collectively getting much better when it mattered most. During its run of fewer turnovers, Miami sliced its errors in the fourth quarter of games within five points by 1.7 per game, to be specific. Using basketball-reference.com’s engine, we know the Heat have turned the ball over 69 times this entire season in the fourth quarter with the score within five points. In games that fell during Miami’s 16-game turnover streak, 11 turnovers happened in nine games, for 1.2 per game. The other 58 turnovers, given those time and quarter constraints, occurred in 20 games, for a 2.9 per game average.

The Heat, whose turnovers in close fourth quarters alone accounted for nearly a quarter of the Knicks’ NBA-best average for an entire game, suddenly cut the fat from their diet. In doing so, they gave themselves almost two extra possessions to work with. James, Wade and Bosh are human, but by not giving up the ball that extra 1.7 times per fourth quarter, it’s no secret how they were able to put together a win streak that included victories by five (Charlotte on Feb. 4, and Cleveland, Feb. 24), six (Houston on Feb. 6, and New York, March 3), and a double-overtime win against Sacramento that was stretched to 12 by the end but never got outside of a four-point lead either way in the fourth quarter.

Miami’s 16-game streak of fewer turnovers than its opponents is still a long ways off from matching Denver’s record 37-game streak, but the Heat have made history by combining turnovers with shooting. The Heat’s lowest shooting percentage in that streak is just above 46 percent, and no team has ever shot at least that well while withholding mistakes from its opponents for that long. It’s another way of reminding ourselves that turnovers are not the entire story that describe the Heat’s winning streak, which can reach 17 games tonight. Factors can be layered on top of other factors until all we see of the Heat’s 16-game winning streak is an Escher print. The overlap between fewer turnovers and more points than their opponents, however, has held enormous weight for Miami’s recent success.

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