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Digital Debunking – Is Playoff Basketball Truly a Game of Inches?

Legendary coach Vince Lombardi famously said, “football is a game of inches, and inches make the champion." These words have been applied to just about every sport to the point of cliché, but in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the fate of an entire series may have been decided by a single inch.

The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers squared off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The two teams had traded blows throughout a physical, evenly matched series and found themselves tied at three games apiece headed into a series-deciding game seven.

Philadelphia considered themselves an ascending juggernaut, led by young stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. A win would affirm their place among the upper echelon of the league and perhaps send them on the path to the first of multiple titles.

Opposing them was Toronto, a perennial playoff team whose game was predicated on continuity and defense, but whose season seemed to always be cut short by the game’s brightest stars. They had made the bold choice to break up the team’s core and trade for talented but mercurial forward Kawhi Leonard. The Raptors knew he would likely play only a single season in Toronto before leaving as a free agent, but his transcendent skills raised their ceiling, perhaps giving them one all-in shot to become Canada’s first NBA champion.

Each team went on impressive scoring runs and mounted gritty comebacks throughout the game, but with 4.2 seconds remaining, the two teams found themselves deadlocked at 90. With the ball in Toronto’s possession, the player the Raptors had bet their entire season on would get a chance to prove his worth. Fading out of bounds along the baseline, Leonard launched a high-arching shot over the outstretched arms of the 7-foot tall Embiid as time expired.

"ALL-ANGLES! Kawhi Leonard's AMAZING Game-Winner!" YouTube, uploaded by NBA, May 13, 2019 

The ball caromed off the rim once, twice, three, and four times before finally gently falling through the hoop. The home crowd erupted, celebrating the first game seven buzzer-beater in NBA history. The shot had seemingly defied the laws of physics, propelling the Raptors past the 76ers and eventually to the NBA championship. But if basketball really is a game of inches, how close was Kawhi Leonard’s shot to missing?

Leonard’s now iconic shot can be recreated in a digital environment with simulation-driven design platform Altair Inspire™. Using realistic physics, the simulation shows the ball precariously bouncing again and again before falling through the basket.


Leonard’s “Perfect Shot” recreated in Altair InspireTM

We also decided to test the outcome of the shot if it had landed on the rim just 5/100ths of an inch (1.27 mm) in various directions to see how the Raptors’ fate could have changed with just the slightest variation to the ball’s trajectory. Each attempt, 5/100ths of an inch longer, left, or right fails to go through the hoop.



Alternate simulations with the ball landing 5/100ths of an inch longer, left, and right

With Inspire’s help, we can validate this theory. Had the ball’s path deviated even slightly, by the thickness of a dime, NBA history would have been far different. For Leonard and the Raptors, the old saying “it’s a game of inches” holds true, making their championship that much sweeter.

Altair Inspire accelerates the creation, optimization, and study of innovative, structurally efficient parts and assemblies early in the product development lifecycle. Inspire's award winning user experience for geometry creation and modification can be learned in just a few hours and delivers dependable Altair solvers including Altair OptiStruct™, Altair SimSolid™, and Altair MotionSolve™. Try a free trial of Inspire here.