If you watched the NBA three-point contest, then no doubt you heard a few hundred times how important it is for players to get into a rhythm and get a good start. It’s absolutely true that getting into a rhythm and getting a good start helps a player to win the contest—since, you know, they have more points after the first rack—but it doesn’t actually help them shoot any better on the rest of the racks. Actually, making shots on any rack does not encourage better shooting on following shots.
We watched 12 total rounds of shots from eight players, and most of them were able to fire off all 25 balls before time ran out, so there were 295 shots taken. Thus, there were 283 shots that players took immediately following a previous shot.* Combined, players shot 152 shots immediately following a previous make, and of those 152 shots, players made 81 (53.3%). Immediately following misses, players shot a combined total of 131 shots, making 72 of them (55.0%). Players actually shot a tiny bit better after misses than they did makes. Obviously, that provides no evidence that players need to make shots to “heat up.” The evidence suggests that players maintain their true shooting ability constantly.
In fact, during exactly half of the 12 rounds, players shot worse immediately after makes, and during none of the other six rounds did a player shoot statistically significantly better after makes.
What about hot starts? As you might have expected, it did take players a while to warm up. The group shot a combined 27-for-60 on the first rack (45.0%) versus 33-for-55 on the last rack (60.0%). That difference is borderline statistically significant (p-value = 5.4%). However, players that shot better on the first rack were no more likely to have success on the ensuing racks. The correlation between a players first rack and his next four was just 0.10, and was not statistically significant.**
Sure, Marco Belinelli made six consecutive shots during the tie-breaking final round against Bradley Beal. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he was on fire. If I flipped a coin 300 consecutive times (broken into 12 rounds of 25), I would expect a streak of at least six makes 86 percent of the time. In other words, if we assume that players do not heat up, then we would still expect a streak like Belinelli’s. So that cannot serve as evidence that players heat up.
We’ve seen before that players don’t “heat up” during games. But even when players get to shoot sequences of shots with nothing in between—no defense, no setting picks, no coming off screens, no rebounding—they still don’t gain or lose psychological momentum in any way.
*No shots, obviously, follow the last shot of a player’s round.
**And that 0.10 correlation—if due to anything—is probably due to better players simply shooting better, regardless of rack.