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'Hot hand' exists and it is a robust phenomenon, researchers say

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, basketball fans who are busily watching the NCAA tournament around this time know the concept of the hot hand.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Yeah, it's when a player scores...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: LeBron - a healthy three.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's down.

MARTINEZ: ...And scores...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, get out of his way.

MARTINEZ: ...And keeps on scoring.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's good. He's as hot as a blowtorch.

INSKEEP: OK, so is the hot hand - as hot as a blowtorch - just a perception, or are there data to support it?

KONSTANTINOS PELECHRINIS: The hot hand exists, and it's a robust phenomenon.

MARTINEZ: That's Konstantinos Pelechrinis. He teaches computer science at the University of Pittsburgh, and he's studied the hot hand. He and his research partner crunched the numbers on more than 150 NBA players during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

PELECHRINIS: You can see specific players having it consistently during games, but overall, as a league, you cannot say that every player is going to have that.

INSKEEP: ...Because hot streaks are not that common. He found 30 players who pretty much defined the hot hand, with Kemba Walker and Jordan Hill leading the league. But even then, the effect doesn't work like a power-up in a video game.

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MARTINEZ: In the case of Walker and Hill, for instance, it only boosted their chances of making their next shot by 7%. And it's also possible that the primary cause is more about strategy.

PELECHRINIS: Hot hand is not necessarily someone getting into the zone. It's finding a mismatch and going after that mismatch three or four times in a row until the opponent decides to change the strategy.

MARTINEZ: So when you hear a broadcaster talk about how a player has the hot hand and they keep feeding that player the ball - which is called a heat check, by the way - it may be less about luck and more by design.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.