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Talkin’ 3rd Quarter Blues: Does the Sixers’ Poor Play Out of Halftime Pass the Eye Test?

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In which I do a bunch of math to find out if my gut instinct is right.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

While watching the Sixers struggle to keep their pace in the 3rd quarter against the Houston Rockets, I made a tweet:

The Sixers actually won that quarter 26-23 after a slow start, but it made me think. According to my own eye test, the Sixers typically come out flat in the third quarter, but is that even true? And if so, does it actually show or mean anything? Be warned: I used numbers to find out.

Quick too long, didn’t read version: The Sixers aren’t especially bad in the 3rd quarter compared to other quarters, but 3rd quarter success can be a decent signifier of game success. If the Sixers win a game, odds are they also won the 3rd quarter. If you want to see how or dispute my findings, read on.

Since Brett Brown first stepped onto the sideline for the Sixers, his record is a fitting 76-257. You forgot how bad that actually looked in writing, didn’t you? Admit it.

Okay, so they lost 257 games (writing that put “That Don’t Impress Me Much” in my head so you have to live with it too), but what are their records for each individual quarter? Remember, this is free of any context, which we’ll get into in a bit (all numbers via the wonderful Basketball-Reference):

1st Quarter: 115-218

2nd Quarter: 149-184

3rd Quarter: 131-202

4th Quarter: 152-181

For argument’s sake, this is really more of a didn’t lose-lost record, since I considered ties (quarters with a point differential of 0) in the first column.

On first blush it looks like the Sixers have been historically bad in 1st quarters and actually relatively decent in closing a game out. But that can’t be right. We know they’re generally bad at winning games, so how can they be good at closing out? In many games, the result of the first 3 quarters allowed the opponent to take their foot off the gas a bit and still win the game, even if they lost the final quarter. For example, let’s look at April 1st, 2015. The Sixers won the 4th quarter against the Wizards 31-13. They lost the game 106-93. So that can’t be a reliable measure.

Here are those hard numbers, charted by year:

As you can see, there’s no real pattern of growth there. After going through and figuring out the record for every quarter in every year in Brett Brown’s tenure, I realized I was looking at this wrong. Probably. It doesn’t matter how many quarters you win in a vacuum, it matters how they worked within the game’s final outcome. So going back to that idea, here are the records, by quarter, for wins and losses:

1st Quarter:

Wins: 41-35 (53.9%)

Losses: 74-183 (28.8%)

2nd Quarter:

Wins: 43-33 (56.6%)

Losses: 106-151 (41.2%)

3rd Quarter:

Wins: 53-23 (69.7%)

Losses: 78-189 (29.2%)

4th Quarter:

Wins: 47-29 (61.8%)

Losses: 105-152 (40.8%)

Some things are starting to take shape.

By the high winning percentage for the 2nd and 4th quarters in losses, we can see there isn’t much tying the results of those quarters to the actual outcome of the game (also that the Sixers typically play well in those quarters). But when the Sixers win a game, they’ve also won the 3rd quarter a nice 69.7% of the time. Additionally, if you flip it around and see what percentage of games were won when a certain quarter was won, the 3rd takes it in a landslide again. The Sixers have won the 3rd quarter 131 times total out of Brown’s 333, and 53 of those 131 times the team walked away with a win. That’s 40.5% of the time, well above any other quarter’s results* (1st - 35.6%, 2nd - 28.9%, 4th - 31.0%, all rounded to one decimal). And if they lose the third? They lose the game 89.2% of the time (1st - 83.9%, 2nd - 82.1%, 4th - 84.0%).

This dumb research has shown a couple of things. First, it’s reminded us of just how bad this team has been on paper since the Process began. Second, the team loses quarters a whole lot more than they win them (halves too). But in the end, the Sixers’ performance in the third quarter is as close to an indicator of success (or failure) as I can figure out after doing all this math for no reason.

The team - and Brett - isn’t specifically bad in the 3rd quarter. They’re technically bad in every quarter. But when they lose the third (even if they come in with a lead or a tied game) they lose. A lot. And if they win the third? Well they still lose a lot but working backwards from wins shows that the 3rd quarter is often the most important. This is a lot of work to check if a one-off tweet was accurate, but this is what I’m here for.

So the next time the Sixers are playing a team tight in the 3rd, tell your friend that 100% of the time, winning the 3rd quarter works 40.5% of the time. Or something like that.

*Overall, in 333 games, winning the third quarter has led to a win 16% of the time, while doing the same in the 1st, 2nd, and 4th has led to wins 12.3%, 12.9%, and 14.1% of the time, respectively. I’m done with math forever now.