A thermal theory of basketball


Chemistry is a good metaphor for how teams work—especially when times get tough, such as in the playoffs happening in the NBA right now.

Think about it. Every element has a melting point: a temperature above which solid turns liquid. Basketball teams do too, only that temperature changes from game to game, opponent to opponent, and situation to situation. Every team is a collection of its own human compounds of many elements: physical skills and talents, conditioning, experience, communication skills, emotional and mental states, beliefs, and much else.

Sometimes one team comes in pre-melted, with no chance of winning. Bad teams start with a low melting point, arriving in liquid form and spilling all over the floor under heat and pressure from better teams.

Sometimes both teams might as well be throwing water balloons at the hoop.

Sometimes both teams are great, neither melts, and you get an overtime outcome that’s whatever the score said when the time finally ran out. Still, one loser and one winner. After all, every game has a loser, and half the league loses every round. Whole conferences and leagues average .500. That’s their melting point: half solid, half liquid.

Yesterday we saw two meltdowns, neither of which was expected and one of which was a complete surprise.

First, the Milwaukee Bucks melted under the defensive and scoring pressures of the Boston Celtics. There was nothing shameful about it, though. The Celtics just ran away with the game. It happens. Still, you could see the moment the melting started. It was near the end of the first half. The Celtics’ offense sucked, yet they were still close. Then they made a drive to lead going into halftime. After that, it became increasingly and obviously futile to expect the Bucks to rally, especially when it was clear that Giannis Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world, was clearly less solid than usual. The team melted around him while the Celtics rained down threes.

To be fair, the Celtics also melted three times in the series, most dramatically at the end of game five, on their home floor. But Marcus Smart, who was humiliated by a block and a steal in the closing seconds of a game the Celtics had led almost all the way, didn’t melt. In the next two games, he was more solid than ever. So was the team. And they won—this round, at least. Against the Miami Heat? We’ll see.

Right after that game, the Phoenix Suns, by far the best team in the league through the regular season, didn’t so much play the Dallas Mavericks as submit to them. Utterly.

In chemical terms, the Suns showed up in liquid form and turned straight into gas. As Arizona Sports put it, “We just witnessed one of the greatest collapses in the history of the NBA.” No shit. Epic. Nobody on the team will ever live this one down. It’s on their permanent record. Straight A’s through the season, then a big red F.

Talk about losses: a mountain of bets on the Suns also turned to vapor yesterday.

So, what happened? I say chemistry.

Maybe it was nothing more than Luka Dončić catching fire and vaporizing the whole Suns team. Whatever, it was awful to watch, especially for Suns fans. Hell, they melted too. Booing your team when it needs your support couldn’t have helped, understandable though it was.

Applying the basketball-as-chemistry theory, I expect the Celtics to go all the way. They may melt a bit in a game or few, but they’re more hardened than the Heat, which comes from having defeated two teams—the Atlanta Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers—with relatively low melting points. And I think both the Mavs and the Warriors have lower melting points than either the Celtics or the Heat.

But we’ll see.

Through the final two rounds, look at each game as a chemistry experiment. See how well the theory works.



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