Two Fridays ago, I watched the Warriors get destroyed by the Lakers. The score wasn’t completely devastating, but points don’t tell the whole story. The Lakers’ young talent played a phenomenal game, and the Warriors were unable to catch up, let alone surpass, the Lakers in the second half.
The game resulted in many surprising numbers (strength wasn’t one of them), including a season-low for the Warriors with a 15-point first quarter. It was downhill from there. Still more notable, was that Steph Curry, known for his ability to knock in three-pointers, didn’t make a single one of his 10 attempts. This was the first of 157 games in which he didn’t make at least one three-point shot. He held records for three-point streaks on the road and in postseason.
Sports statistics don’t predict future outcomes; they may posthumously explain the outcome. But as the game clock ticked on, I, along with the commentators, sat on the edge of my seat expecting Steph to make each new three-point attempt. Given his past performance, we believed that he would, and should, have made one.
When Curry went to the bench before the end of the game, I was perplexed, “How is it possible that he didn’t make a single one?” And later, I couldn’t help but wonder what it all meant going forward—if anything.
But there was another factor affecting the pure statistical probability: psychology. We as fans were thinking it, Steph’s face said it, and he actually said it after the game: “Kind of weird not to make one.” With each attempt, Steph’s chances of making a shot were plagued by what we can surmise was building pressure, confusion, nerves, and frustration.
Two days later, Steph Curry broke the NBA record for most threes in a game, making an impressive 13 of 17 attempts. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said he had the hot hand. In psychology, the hot-hand fallacy describes an arguably unfounded belief that our chance of success at some random event increases with each success. For most of the past, statisticians have denied the existence of a hot hand despite the fact that basketball players may insist that they feel it.
Regardless of this opposite—albeit more expected—outcome, I again, couldn’t believe it. What were the odds of this performance following that against the Lakers?
After the game, I spent some time researching the hot hand fallacy, only to learn that new research has, for the first time, called the fallacy into question. In the study, the researchers went back to basics, looking at the chances of coin flips. Toss a coin four times, and record the percentage of heads coming specifically after heads. Repeated a million times, the average is 40%, not 50% as we might expect.
The same data, read a completely new way, sets a new expectation.
And this new lens holds true for basketball players as well. Applied to the original study, 19 out of 25 of basketball players demonstrated the hot hand effect when shooting from a location where they have a 50% chance of making the shot.
Data is often a helpful predictor of outcomes. But it can also make us myopic as we find ways to support the data at hand. The results of this new study (and of Curry’s record-making game) inspire me. I am able to believe that in this world of smart numbers, we humans still call the shots. It’s up to us to figure out what we make of the numbers—and if we want to make anything of them at all.
When interviewed after his record-making game, Curry explained, “I was hard on myself in practice the last two days. I had pretty good sessions. I don’t overreact to games like that whether I got 0 for 10 or 2 for 12 or whatever it is. My process is the same, but I had another level of focus the last two days trying to get my rhythm back and see the ball go in.”
Perhaps it is our mindset and our belief that we can succeed, regardless of statistical plausibility, that drive our success. Our chances of success or failure shouldn’t prescribe our confidence. We should instead choose our paths deliberately, then create the conditions that enable us to reach our destination.
Yes, we can believe in data, but let’s believe in ourselves—and others—first.