It’s a rule of thumb when predicting a playoff series, especially in the first round, that the underdog team will lose the first two on the road to the higher seed, win Game 3 at home thanks to a super-energized crowd and a sense of purpose, then order will be restored, the higher seed wins Game 4, and then they close it out in five back in front of their own fans.
But how true is that? Why not Game 4, trying to avoid the sweep? Or stealing one on the road then melting down at home and blowing the series?
In 2003, when the NBA went to a best-of-seven format for every playoff series, we got our first taste of this theory in action. There were no sweeps; one series went five games, as the 2-seed Sacramento Kings beat the 7-seed Utah Jazz in five games; it was notable for being the last series of John Stockton‘s career.
The Jazz won Game 3. One data point, one win.
Four series went five games in 2004. The 3-seed Pistons actually lost Game 2 at home before beating Milwaukee twice on the road and closing it out in Game 5 and eventually winning the championship.
The Lakers beat the Rockets in 5; Houston won Game 3.
Top seed Minnesota, in what was until 2018 their last playoff appearance, lost to Denver in Game 3; they won the series in five.
And the Kings beat the Mavericks in five, losing—you guessed it—on the road in Game 3.
So that’s five first-round series, four Game 3 wins for the underdog.
Fast forward to 2005. Three first-round series went the magic five games.
In the East, the Pistons disposed of Philadelphia in the first round; Philly won Game 3 at home.
Out west, the Spurs beat the Nuggets in five; they actually lost Game 1, getting put on the back foot at home, before pulling it together, winning the next four games, and eventually winning the 2005 NBA Finals.
And Seattle bounced Sacramento from the playoffs in five games, the lone win for the Kings being…Game 3. See a pattern developing?
Eight first-round series. Losers in five were nonetheless 6-2 in Game 3 scenarios.
On to 2006, where Milwaukee beat Detroit in Game 3…and lost the other four games.
Meanwhile, out West, one of the weirdest lower seed “upsets” happened; back in those days, division winners were guaranteed the top three seeds, so the Nuggets, who won the Northwest Division with a 44-38 record, got that 3 seed.
But home court was determined by record, so the sixth-seeded Clippers got to host Game 1. They won the series in five…and the Nuggets won Game 3 at home. Division seeding was dumb.
Total games: 10. Total record for the underdog in Game 3: 8-2.
Two series went five games in 2007.
The Suns beat the Lakers in five, losing Game 3 as Kobe Bryant scored 45 points on his home floor.
And the Spurs beat the Nuggets in five, and just like two years before, they lost Game 1 at home, swept them from that point onward, and won the championship.
Total games: 12. Total underdog record in Game 3: 9-3.
Three series went five in 2008.
The Magic beat Toronto in five; Game 3 was in Canada, and Game 3 went to the squad from the Great White North.
New Orleans beat Dallas in five, losing to the Mavs in—surprise!—Game 3.
The Spurs, meanwhile, jumped out to a 3-0 lead and couldn’t complete the sweep; Phoenix won Game 4 before San Antonio closed it out at home.
Total games: 15. Underdog record: 11-4.
Three series went five in 2009, and anyone else notice that these seem to happen a lot more in the Western Conference?
The Mavericks put up a weird one; they actually beat the Spurs in five, becoming the first road team to win two out of three on their opponent’s home floor. So the underdog won Game 3, all right…they also won Games 1, 4, and 5. It counts.
The Nuggets beat the Hornets in five; Chris Paul and friends were able to get a win on their home floor in the Big Easy in Game 3. Unlike Dallas, they lost Games 1, 4, and 5…and also Game 2.
And the eventual champion Lakers beat Utah in five…a series in which the Jazz won Game 3.
Total games: 18. Underdog record: 14-4.
Onward to 2010, and surprise, surprise, the five-game series were in the East this time.
Boston beat Miami in five, becoming the second team on this list to miss out on a sweep on the road by losing Game 4.
Cleveland, meanwhile, lost Game 3 in Milwaukee but won the other four, which set up a collision course with the Celtics that would lead to LeBron James‘ “Decision” when the season was over.
Total games: 20. Underdog record: 15-5.
As the 2011 playoffs got underway amid talk of an impending lockout, once again the East got the lion’s share of five-game series, drawing two out of three:
Chicago beat Indiana in five, losing out on the sweep by dropping Game 4. The Pacers would be back, however; young rookie Paul George would see to that.
Likewise, LeBron and the Heat charged through their first-round series with Philadelphia, similarly losing out on the sweep before winning the series at home.
Total games: 22. Underdog record: 15-7.
In 2012, after a 66-game condensed regular season, the playoffs tipped off, and for the third straight year, the East had the five-game fun in the first round come playoff time:
The Pacers lost Game 1 to Orlando at home before recovering and winning the rest of the games, ultimately chasing Dwight Howard out of Disney World and Stan Van Gundy onto the unemployment line.
The Heat, meanwhile, for the second straight year, nearly pulled off a sweep before dropping Game 4, this time to the Knicks.
The dogs are on a losing streak in Game 3…
Total games: 24. Underdog record: 15-9.
There were no five-game series at all in 2013’s opening round; this was in part because the Heat actually swept someone, beating the Bucks in four.
There may have been five Game 7s played in 2014, the Greatest First Round in NBA History (and arguably the greatest postseason period), but there was one five-game series.
Again it was in the East, and this was a real oddball. The Wizards won twice in Chicago, lost Game 3 at home, held serve in Game 4, then went to 3-0 on their opponent’s floor in a 75-69 ugly slog of a game to close the series out.
The underdogs just can’t catch a break in Game 3 during this decade…
Total games: 25. Underdog record: 15-10.
2015 saw the rise of Stephen Curry and the Warriors, and it also saw a decade-wide continuing trend…
The Rockets beat Dallas in the first round, and again it was the missed sweep. For the fifth time in eight series in the 2010s, it was Game 4 that went to the dog.
Then Portland made it six out of nine, winning Game 4 in a five-game series loss against the Grizzlies.
Total games: 27. Underdog record: 15-12.
Two series went five games in 2016, and…
Houston won Game 3 against Golden State after the Warriors had gone 73-9 in the regular season; it was the first time since 2010 that the dog in a five-game series won Game 3.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, won Game 2 on the road, becoming only the second team in the seven-game first-round era and the first since 2004 to lose a series in five after winning Game 2 on the road.
Total games: 29. Underdog record: 16-13.
In 2017, there was one playoff series to go five in the first round; Houston beat Oklahoma City in five, but Russell Westbrook and company won Game 3 at home.
Still, that’s 30 playoff series since the first round went to best-of-seven where the series went five games.
In 17 of those 30, the home team won Game 3. In one case it was the lone win in a series the underdog won. In another case, the home team lost Game 3 after winning two on the road. But the other 15—fully half—of those times, the underdog lost two on the road, won one at home, then bowed out of the series.
In fact, only five favorites who won the series in five games lost one at home in either of the first two games. They are 51-5 in such cases.
So if you predict a series will go five, predict that the losing team will win Game 3 at home. You’ll be right nearly 60 percent of the time.