When the road team steals home-court advantage in the first two games of an NBA playoff series, they are too often undone by losing Game 3 on their home floor.
If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because you’ve probably read the two-part series on this site about whether “the series starts when the road team wins a game” in the NBA Finals, in which the trendline has overwhelmingly seen the underdog give home court back in Game 3 and go on to lose the series. Doesn’t matter whether it was the old 2-3-2 Finals format or the more recent return to 2-2-1-1-1, the same pattern that has been part and parcel of earlier playoff rounds.
But What About the Rest of the Playoffs?
Let’s go back to 2013, the first year after the 2012 lockout, and look at every series that went to the underdog’s home arena for Game 3 and see how that underdog did both in that pivotal game and in the series itself. Then we can see whether the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors are, as this goes to press, in danger of losing their entire playoff run in one fell swoop on an early Saturday in May.
And because this is going to get real long real fast since the road team often steals a game, we’re going to divide this into two parts over the weekend and either brighten the day of or pour cold water on fans of the Bucks and Dubs come Sunday. That’s right, it’s TWO Pace and Space articles (OK, one two-parter) in one weekend! My day job has eaten my life, guys.
We’re not going to count 2020. All those games were neutral-site and home-court advantage wasn’t a factor.
Again, we’re purely interested in Game 3 of a tied series here. There are plenty of other fun chokes to examine, and we’ll look at those next week as they relate to Game 5, especially if the Dallas Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers hold serve in Game 4 of their series. One thing at a time.
First Round Game 3: Golden State 110, Denver 108
The Warriors eked out a win at home after winning Game 2 in Denver, and the rest of this series involved the home team holding serve.
RESULT: Warriors in 6.
First Round Game 3: Bulls 79, Nets 76
Chicago was in the middle of its post-Derrick Rose injury run of playoff appearances that would finally come to an end in 2016 when Chicago went 42-40 but finished ninth in the East.
In this series, the Bulls faced a Brooklyn squad that would acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the coming offseason in one of the most disastrous trades in NBA history, a trade that would propel the Celtics to three Eastern Conference Finals in four years between 2017 and 2020 and might very well land Boston back in the ECF this year to make it 4-for-6.
Chicago took Game 2 in Brooklyn. They held serve at home in Game 3. And despite losing a potential series-clinching Game 6 at home, they went back to Brooklyn for Game 7 and pulled the upset to earn a date with LeBron James and the Miami Heat in Round 2.
RESULT: Bulls in 7. So that’s 2-0 for series where the dog wins Game 3. We’ll keep a running tally like we did in that Finals piece and compare notes at the end.
Second Round Game 3: Spurs 102, Warriors 92
Turnabout was fair play for the Warriors, as this time they came home for Game 3 against San Antonio after winning Game 2. This time, however, the Spurs won the game on the road and would go on to win another road game in Game 6 to take the series.
RESULT: Spurs in 6. 0-1 if the dog loses Game 3.
Second Round Game 3: Grizzlies 87, Thunder 81
Memphis stole home court in Game 2 against an Oklahoma City squad that lost Russell Westbrook to the dirty play of Patrick Beverley in the first round. They then won Game 3 at home and sent the Thunder packing and slammed shut the 1 seed Oklahoma City’s title window for good.
RESULT: Grizzlies in 5. Dogs are a perfect 3-0 when they hold serve in Game 3.
Second Round Game 3: Heat 104, Bulls 94.
Chicago won Game 1. It would be the only game of the entire series that they won. Like the Finals the previous year, Miami responded to losing the opener by ripping off four straight. Sorry, Bulls fans, I know you’ve got to be wondering “what if” about that Derrick Rose injury in 2012 right about now.
RESULT: Heat in 5. Dogs 0-2 when they lose Game 3.
Second Round Game 3: Pacers 82, Knicks 71
Indiana took Carmelo Anthony and friends out behind the woodshed in Game 3, ensuring that they wouldn’t give away their hard-won advantage from winning Game 1. Three games, all home-team wins, later, and the series was over and so was the Knicks’ brief window of not being the laughingstock franchise of the league, which with only rare exceptions they’ve been since Patrick Ewing left.
RESULT: Pacers in 6, Dogs 4-0 when they hold serve.
East Finals Game 3: Heat 114, Pacers 96
The Game 3 gods giveth, and the Game 3 gods taketh away. Indiana won Game 1. They lost Game 3. The home team won the other five games, and that meant that Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, LeBron, and the rest of the Heat got to take home a second title one round later.
RESULT: Heat in 7. Dogs 0-3 when they lose Game 3. There’s a pattern developing here…
NBA Finals Game 3: Spurs 113, Heat 77.
The Spurs should’ve won this series. They choked away Game 6 in Miami, a game that they win 95 percent or more of the time given the score and the situation with two minutes left.
Of course, if they hadn’t dropped Game 4 after taking a 2-1 series lead and doing what the dog is supposed to do in a seven-game series, they’d have won the series in 5 and ended the discussion entirely.
Man, I thought I felt bad for Bulls fans…at least the Spurs would get their revenge a year later.
RESULT: Heat in 7, and the dogs’ winning streak ends as they drop to 4-1 when winning Game 3.
First Round Game 3: Mavericks 109, Spurs 108
The road to redemption for San Antonio started with a chance to do unto Dallas what Miami had done unto them.
The Mavs won Game 3 after winning Game 1, but San Antonio turned around, won Game 4 to tie the series, then enjoyed the fruits of home court to win the series in 7 games.
RESULT: Spurs in 7. Dogs now 4-2 when winning Game 3.
First Round Game 3: Grizzlies 98, Thunder 95
What happens when home court is ultimately meaningless? This series, part of the greatest first round in NBA history, happens.
Memphis won Game 2 on the road. They held serve at home to go up 2-1. They even won Game 5 on the road for good measure.
Trouble was, they barfed up Games 4 and 6 on their home floor, and the Thunder finally took care of business at home in Game 7.
Yeah, you gotta win Game 3, but you don’t then turn around and choke away your other home games! You only get three of them!
RESULT: Thunder in 7. Dogs 4-3 when holding Game 3 serve. Yikes.
First Round Game 3: Clippers 98, Warriors 96.
The Warriors, winners on the road in Game 1, choked this one away the old-fashioned way. They lost Game 3, the home team won all the other games, and the Clips won the series in 7.
RESULT: Clippers in 7. Dogs still winless at 0-4 when losing Game 3…and just 4-7 overall in tied series, showing off that yes, home court matters in the playoffs.
First Round Game 3: Hawks 98, Pacers 85
Atlanta screwed this up the same way Memphis screwed up their series. It’s even worse in this case because the Hawks were an 8 seed trying to upset a Pacers team that had imploded after trading away Danny Granger and looking like a shadow of the juggernaut they were earlier in the season to become that 1 seed in the first place.
Trouble was, despite winning Game 1 on the road and even taking Game 5, the Hawks lost Games 4 and 6 and fell in Game 7 in Indianapolis to blow the chance at an upset. Disgraceful. But hey, I’m a Pacers fan, not like I’m going to complain about it.
RESULT: Pacers in 7. Dogs 4-4 when holding serve in Game 3.
First Round Game 3: Nets 102, Raptors 98
Brooklyn took the long way to get this series. They won Game 1 on the road, held serve in Game 3, choked away home court in Game 4, then beat Toronto by a single point, 104-103, in Canada in Game 7 to redeem themselves. Just a bananas series all around, but they won Game 3 and won the series and that’s what ultimately matters here.
RESULT: Nets in 7. Dogs back in the win column at 5-4 when holding serve.
Second Round Game 3: Thunder 118, Clippers 112
When you’re playing against a Doc Rivers-coached team, you can pretty much count on them to hand you an opportunity in the playoffs, and in this case, it was the opportunity not only to steal back home court after losing Game 1, but even to hand a bitter pill to Clippers fans in Game 6, which Oklahoma City won on the road to take the series away from Lob City for good.
RESULT: Thunder in 6. Dogs 0-5 when they can’t take care of business in that pivotal Game 3.
Second Round Game 3: Pacers 85, Wizards 63
63 points. Wow. Are we sure John Wall was as good as everyone thought he was?
The wacky part of this series was the fact that the road team won five games. The only team to win at home? The Pacers, in Game 2, and that was enough to put this one on ice.
RESULT: Pacers in 6 and Dogs 0-6, still winless when they lose Game 3.
East Finals Game 3: Heat 99, Pacers 87
This one was the opposite of the Wizards series. The home team won five out of the six contests. The difference? Miami won Game 2 in Indiana. That did the trick.
RESULT: Heat in 6. Dogs 6-4 when they win Game 3 at home.
NBA Finals Game 3: Spurs 111, Heat 92
Everyone remembers Game 1 for the air conditioning failing in the arena and LeBron cramping up on the sideline, like that was somehow the reason the Heat lost the series.
News flash. Losing Game 1 on the road in the NBA Finals isn’t unusual and it certainly isn’t series-clinching. Indeed, Miami won Game 2 to tie the series and take it home for Game 3.
Which they then lost. Then they lost Game 4. And then they went to San Antonio and lost Game 5.
So yeah…wasn’t LeBron’s leg cramp, guys.
RESULT: Spurs in 5. Dogs still winless in seven tries, 0-7 when losing Game 3 at home.
First Round Game 3: Spurs 100, Clippers 73
Look, doesn’t anyone learn from this stuff? San Antonio didn’t just win Game 3. They kicked the Clippers’ butts all over the arena in Game 3. That put them up 2-1 in the series after winning Game 2 as well, but losing Games 4 and 6 at home defeats the whole value of winning Game 3.
RESULT: Clippers in 6. Dogs just 6-5 when holding serve and 6-12 overall in series tied after Game 2. Home court is, indeed, an advantage!
Second Round Game 3: Clippers 124, Rockets 99
This is the series everyone remembers as the series that cemented Doc Rivers’ reputation as a playoff-choke coach. The Clips went up 3-1 after winning Game 4 and led Game 6 89-70 with two minutes left in the third quarter.
They lost Game 6 by 12 points, and it was only 12 and not 15 because Chris Paul made a meaningless 3-pointer right before the buzzer. The Clippers scored just four points between the 7:38 mark of the fourth and that CP3 toss.
It never helps to have Doc as your coach in a playoff series no matter what happens in Game 3. A bowl of oatmeal could’ve coached the ’08 Celtics to a title, and under Doc, Boston needed 26 of a possible 28 games just to win that chip. They nearly choked out in the first round against an 8-seed Hawks team. Never forget this.
RESULT: Rockets in 7. Dogs 6-6 when holding serve. Doc terrible in playoffs; he even lost a 7-game series to a team coached by Nate McMillan (against Atlanta in the 2021 second round.)
Second Round Game 3: Grizzlies 99, Warriors 89
And again, here’s Memphis demonstrating that going up 2-1 in a series isn’t worth much if you then choke away Games 4 and 6 on your home floor, this time to a Dubs squad that was on its way to a five-year run for the history books. Sure, Memphis won Game 2. They should’ve taken care of business in this series. But they didn’t, and the rest is very literally history.
RESULT: Warriors in 6, Dogs 6-7 when holding serve and an atrocious 6-14 overall when taking a tied series home with them.
Second Round Game 3: Bulls 99, Cavaliers 96
And here’s Golden State’s foil for four of those five Finals. And here’s another demonstration of premature jocularity after going up 2-1. Chicago lost Games 4 and 6 at home and lost the series. Second verse, same as the first.
RESULT: Cavaliers in 6. Dogs 6-8 when winning Game 3 and 2-8 in their last 10.
Second Round Game 3: Wizards 103, Hawks 101
Three in a row. Atlanta won Games 4 and 6 in Washington. They avenged a Game 1 defeat and took the series on the other guys’ floor. What’s more, the dogs went up 2-1 in all four second-round series…and the dogs lost all four of those series after going a combined 1-7 (only the Clippers’ Game 4 win kept the dogs from going 0-8) in all their other home games.
RESULT: Hawks in 6. Dogs 6-9 (not nice) when winning Game 3 and 6-16 overall in series tied after Game 2. Doesn’t look good for the Bucks and Sixers right now in 2022…
NBA Finals Game 3: Cavaliers 96, Warriors 91
Sure, what’s one more, this time in the Finals? Cleveland won Game 2 on the road. They won Game 3 at home. And then they lost Games 4 and 6 in Cleveland to hand Stephen Curry and friends the franchise’s first title since 1975.
LeBron would be back though.
RESULT: Warriors in 6. Dogs 6-10 when winning Game 3, 0-6 in 2015 alone, and 6-17 overall in series tied after Game 2.
First Round Game 3: Thunder 131, Mavericks 102
Dallas won Game 2. It was the only game they would go on to win. A blip in a five-game series is less about choking and more about poking the bear, and that’s all the Mavs did here.
RESULT: Thunder in 5. Dogs still winless when losing Game 3 at home, now 0-8. Interestingly, this means the underdog is 16-8 overall in Game 3 of a tied series. Too bad they’re 6-18 in the actual series.
First Round Game 3: Raptors 101, Pacers 85
Indiana won Game 1. They blew Game 3. The home team won out in the rest of the series and we learned…again…why home court advantage matters in the playoffs. Frank Vogel, we hardly knew ye.
RESULT: Raptors in 7. Dogs 0-9 when losing Game 3 at home.
Second Round Game 3: Spurs 100, Thunder 96
Oklahoma City spent most of 2016 turning the conventional wisdom on its head, apparently. Because we’ve seen plenty of examples of teams winning Game 3 and then choking away Games 4 and 6.
This was the equal and opposite reaction. Oklahoma City won Games 4 and 6 at home. They also won Game 5 in San Antonio, taking two out of three overall (including Game 2 to tie the series) on the road.
That’s right…for the first time in this sample, the dog lost Game 3 and still won the series. Too bad the Thunder would run into another statistical unlikelihood one round later…
RESULT: Thunder in 6. Dogs finally on the board, 1-9 when losing Game 3 at home but still 7-19 overall, a horrific 22-60 82-game pace.
Second Round Game 3: Raptors 95, Heat 91
Miami won Game 1, lost Game 3, and the home team held serve in the rest of the series.
Unfortunately for the Heat, they were the 3 seed and the Raptors were the 2 seed. Don’t blow Game 3 at home, dogs. Just don’t. Because as we just demonstrated one game ago, you’ll lose literally nine times out of ten.
RESULT: Raptors in 7, surviving another Game 1 loss in the process in the same playoffs. Dogs 1-10 when losing at home, 7-20 overall.
West Finals Game 3: Thunder 133, Warriors 105
Something something 3-1 lead, something something Kevin Durant…
We all know this one. Or maybe we did and everyone forgot about it one round later. That is, however, not part of our sample here because the Warriors won Games 1 and 2 at home; the series was tied just once, at 3-3.
Either way, the Thunder won Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead, choked away a clinching Game 5 on the road, a Game 6 at home, and finally a Game 7 in Oakland, and that was that for Durant’s tenure on the prairies.
RESULT: Warriors in 7. Dogs just 6-11 when winning Game 3 at home and 7-21 overall.
So What Have We Learned?
Well, so far we’ve learned that not only is the underdog pretty much boned if they lose Game 3, they’re probably boned even if they steal one of the first two games on the other team’s home floor to begin with.
Home court matters in the playoffs. That’s what we’ve really learned here. But let’s hammer home the rest of the lesson tomorrow as we look at 2017 through ’22, not counting the COVID bubble, and get a final tally for the underdog’s odds.