The major plotlines of the NBA Finals to this point have been Dirk Nowitzki's shooting prowess and LeBron James's Game 4 disappearing act.
Nobody, for the time being, is talking about the Dallas Mavericks' total inability to keep their hands off one another.
But if physical contact between teammates has some bearing on the outcome of a basketball game (more on that later), this series—which is deadlocked at 2-2 heading into Thursday's Game 5—may be all but over already.
Based on a review of ABC's broadcasts of the first three games of these Finals, The Wall Street Journal logged every moment when two teammates could be seen touching each other on camera, whether it was a high-five, a hug, a chest pat or a butt slap. The results couldn't be more definitive.
The Mavericks, with 250 slaps, hugs, taps or bumps, are almost twice as touchy-feely as the Heat, who had only 134 instances of televised contact. In those three games, the Mavericks were 82% more likely to high five.
The concept of "chemistry" on a sports team has become the stuff of cliché over the years. Nobody seems to have the same definition for what it is, or what produces it. But last fall, three researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, took a serious look at one of the most obvious signs of camaraderie on a team—touching.
The study, which was titled "Tactile Communication, Cooperation and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA," was authored by Michael W. Kraus, Cassy Huang and Dacher Keltner. After reviewing broadcasts of games from the 2008-09 season, they concluded that good teams tend to be much more hands-on than bad ones. Teams whose players touched the most often were more cooperative, played better and won more games, they said.
While there's no evidence that an NBA team can touch its way to victory, the two touchiest teams in the study, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, finished the season with two of the NBA's top three records.
"I remember when we started doing the coding, we were watching a Golden State Warriors game," Kraus said. "They were pretty bad that year, and just watching them and their negative body language—I mean, we weren't seeing any touching at all even in the first quarter. We immediately thought, 'This is going to work.'"
No player over the three games collected more high fives than Mavs forward Tyson Chandler (90). He was followed closely by teammates Nowitzki (88), Shawn Marion (69) and Jason Kidd (69). "It's all about positive reinforcement," Mavs reserve Brian Cardinal said. "And we've got a bunch of guys who really get along."
James led the Heat with a mere 41 high fives. But the touchiest Miami player might be veteran forward Juwan Howard, who averaged 38 high fives per 48 minutes, good for the highest rate on the Heat.