Yesterday, we took a look at every series that went back to the underdog’s home arena tied 1-1 in order to determine whether Game 3 would, functionally, ultimately decide the series.
What we mostly learned is that having home court advantage in the playoffs is so overpowering that even losing a game on their home floor doesn’t often stop the favorite. When the underdog wins Game 3 at home, they’re still only 6-11 when it comes to winning the actual series, a 29-53 pace over an 82-game season.
When they lose?
Only one team, the 2016 Thunder in their second-round series with San Antonio, went on to win the series after going down 2-1 at home in Game 3. The other 10 teams to face that fate all lost the series, either in 7 because the home team held serve the rest of the way or sooner than that when they managed to either get wrecked in 5 after losing Game 4 or else in the worst way possible, losing a survival Game 6 at home.
On the bright side, fans of the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors who are reading this can take a measure of heart from their teams both winning Game 3 on their respective home floors Saturday night, because it’s far better to be on a 29-53 pace than on a 7-75 pace in terms of a full season. The situation’s dire, sure, but you’re four times better off than you otherwise would’ve been, and that’s the first part of the battle won. Just don’t choke away Game 4, and if you do win Game 4, don’t blow a 3-1 lead. That would just be embarrassing, especially if you’re the Warriors.
But let’s finish looking at the data.
2013-16 gave us a nice 28-series sample size, but we can do better, and for fans of the Bucks and Dubs, you’ll know far better what your chances are after we’re done here.
We’ll be looking at 2017-21 in full along with the first round of the 2022 playoffs, but we will be omitting 2020 because home court meant nothing in the COVID bubble where all the games were played on a neutral site.
First Round Game 3: Clippers 111, Jazz 106
A lot of these exceptions so far seem to have been Doc Rivers chokes. I rag on the guy in the playoffs all the time, but he has earned every bit of his reputation as a playoff choker coach.
This is another example of that. The Jazz won Game 1 in Los Angeles, seemed to blow their advantage in Game 3, and even lost what should’ve been a series-clinching Game 6 at home after taking the edge back with a road win in Game 5.
Then Game 7 happened. The Clips Doc’d themselves and the Jazz moved on 104-91 behind 26 points from Gordon Hayward, who earned a big free agent deal in Boston that offseason.
RESULT: Jazz in 7, Dogs now 2-10 when losing Game 3 at home.
First Round Game 3: Bucks 104, Raptors 77
Too bad they didn’t win another game.
RESULT: Raptors in 6, Dogs 6-12 when winning Game 3.
Second Round Game 3: Spurs 103, Rockets 92
The world may never know just how the rest of the 2017 playoffs would’ve gone had not Zaza Pachulia taken out Kawhi Leonard with the basketball equivalent of an NFL chop block during the conference finals.
But the fact that the Spurs got there in the first place was due to avenging a 27-point loss at home in Game 1 with a double-digit Game 3 win that would ultimately set up a complete demolition of the Rockets in Houston in Game 6, a game the Spurs won 114-75 to move on to face the Warriors.
RESULT: Spurs in 6, Dogs 2-11 when losing Game 3.
Funny how there were only three series that went back to the dog tied at a game apiece. Most series went chalk; a weird series in Round 1 featured the Bulls winning both of the first two games in Boston before losing all three of their home games plus Game 5 in Boston to lose the series in six games. That one doesn’t count in this sample, but it is noteworthy that a dog lost Game 3 even up 2-0 and lost the series. Don’t lose Game 3, dogs. Just don’t.
Plus, there were all those sweeps in 2017, five of them to be exact. Losing Game 3 when you’re already down 2-0 is a whole other level of disaster. Luckily for the Sixers and Mavericks, at least they didn’t suffer that fate this year.
First Round Game 3: Jazz 115, Thunder 102
This was a fairly standard series insofar as the dog won Game 2 on the road, the home team won all the other games, and the series ended in 6. That’s how you do it if you’re the dog.
RESULT: Jazz in 6, Dogs 7-12 when winning Game 3.
I wanted to mention this because it’s a curious case in its own right; the Pelicans won the first two games on the road on the way to a sweep. What a bananas series. Too bad New Orleans would get shredded by the Dubs in the next round.
First Round Game 3: 76ers 128, Heat 108
Miami broke serve in Game 2 and somehow managed to lose the series in five games thanks to not only dropping Game 3 at home but Game 4 as well. Philly took the series home and did the thing with their third of four double-digit wins in the series.
RESULT: Sixers in 5, Dogs 2-12 when losing Game 3 and 9-24 overall.
First Round Game 3: Pacers 92, Cavaliers 90
Go to hell, refs.
RESULT: Cavs in 7, Dogs 7-13 when winning Game 3 and 9-25 overall.
Second Round Game 3: Rockets 113, Jazz 92
Utah won Game 2 on the road and only made James Harden, Chris Paul, and friends angry. Houston got their foot on Utah’s throat in Game 3 and stomped their windpipes in by winning all four games by double digits.
RESULT: Rockets in 5, Dogs 2-13 when losing Game 3 and 9-26 overall.
West Finals Game 3: Warriors 126, Rockets 85
Winning Game 3 by 41 points shows just how the “dog” label hardly seemed to matter when applied to the Warriors. Houston went 65-17 in the regular season that year, but forgetting how to shoot on your home floor in Game 7 has a funny habit of mooting great regular seasons, something they know a thing or two about in the Bay Area after 2016…
RESULT: Warriors in 7, Dogs 8-13 when winning Game 3 and 10-26 overall.
First Round Game 3: Warriors 132, Clippers 105
The road team won five of the six games in this series. The Clippers lost all three games on their home floor, so even though they won Games 2 and 5 in Oakland, it didn’t matter a lick in the end. Once again, if you’re coaching against Doc Rivers in the playoffs, especially if you’re the better team (a 1-8 matchup), it’s a forgone conclusion.
RESULT: Warriors in 6, Dogs 2-14 when losing Game 3 and 10-27 overall.
First Round Game 3: Spurs 118, Nuggets 108
San Antonio seized the home court in Game 1. The difference here is that they choked it away in Game 4 instead of Game 3, and that was the last chance they’d get. Home team held serve the rest of the way and there’s your lot.
RESULT: Nuggets in 7, Dogs 8-14 when winning Game 3 and 10-28 overall.
First Round Game 3: Raptors 98, Magic 93
The Magic won Game 1. Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and coach Nick Nurse said “awww, isn’t that cute, they think they can beat us” and won the next four including both games in Florida.
RESULT: Raptors in 5, Dogs 2-15 when losing Game 3 and 10-29 overall.
First Round Game 3: 76ers 131, Nets 115
And now we have the other actor in place on the stage for the greatest Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA playoff history. Brooklyn won Game 1, Philly chuckled, and then the crushing began.
RESULT: Sixers in 5, Dogs 2-16 when losing Game 3 and 10-30 overall, just about bang on a 20-62 82-game pace that would win you the lottery a significant percentage of the time if that was your actual regular-season record.
Second Round Game 3: Trail Blazers 140, Nuggets 137
Portland won Game 2 and choked away Game 4. They staved off elimination in Game 6 and then went into the rarefied air of the Mile High City and trailed by as many as 17 in the first half.
RESULT: Blazers in 7, Dogs 9-14 when winning Game 3 and 11-30 (OK, fine, a 22-60 82-game pace, have it your way) overall.
Second Round Game 3: 76ers 116, Raptors 95
Philadelphia should’ve won this series. They should’ve survived four bounces on the rim. They should’ve celebrated a 90-89 Game 7 victory and moved on to face Milwaukee for all the Eastern Conference marbles and a shot at the glory the Process had promised them against an injury-hobbled Golden State team about to lose their greatest mercenary for good and their possible Hall of Fame shooting guard for over a year…
…but then the shot went down, Canada went crazy, and Philly cemented their reputation as a team that had suffered through the deepest circles of NBA Hell only to emerge as a consistent second-round playoff out (we’ll see what happens when Miami gets through with them in 2022, but I’m not betting my money on Joel Embiid.)
RESULT: Raptors in all 48 minutes of Game 7 plus an untimed several seconds of everyone holding their breath. Dogs 9-15 when winning Game 3 and 11-31 overall.
Second Round Game 3: Bucks 123, Celtics 116
Boston won Game 1 in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and coach Mike Budenholzer said “aww, isn’t that cute, they think they can beat us” and won the next four including both games in Massachusetts.
Really, it’s a Mad Lib at this point.
RESULT: Bucks in 5, Dogs 2-17 when losing Game 3 and 11-32 overall.
NBA Finals Game 3: Raptors 123, Warriors 109
Golden State made a series of it in Game 2, but injuries were the ultimate decider of a series that featured the road team winning five of the six contests. The only downside to this is that the Raptors had to celebrate in Oakland instead of Toronto when they won the title. Would’ve been nice to have the Great White North present at the initial party.
RESULT: Raptors in 6, Dogs 2-18 when losing Game 3 and 11-33 overall.
(Again, remember, 2020 doesn’t count because there were no home games for anyone. Stupid virus.)
First Round Game 3: Jazz 121, Grizzlies 111
RESULT: Jazz in 5, Dogs 2-19 when losing Game 3 and 11-34 overall.
First Round Game 3: Lakers 109, Suns 95
The narrative was there after Game 3. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the defending champion Lakers were going to pull a ’95 Rockets and ride a low playoff seed back to the title—a 7 rather than a 6, but same story.
Then Chris Paul and friends went bonkers and won out. The Lakers threw a Molotov cocktail into the dumpster outside the cryptocurrency scam downtown and have been warming themselves in the glow of that dumpster fire ever since.
RESULT: Suns in 6, Dogs 9-16 when winning Game 3 and 11-35 overall.
First Round Game 3: Nuggets 120, Trail Blazers 115
Portland won Game 1 on the road, but going 1-2 on your home floor in a playoff series is a fine way to lose a series. Denver got some revenge for 2019 and moved on.
RESULT: Nuggets in 6, Dogs 2-20 when losing Game 3 and 11-36 overall.
First Round Game 3: Hawks 105, Knicks 94
Nate McMillan won his first playoff series as a coach since 2005 (and his second of only three playoff series in his entire coaching career) by beating one of the few NBA coaches who is worse than he is, namely the Knicks’ Tom Thibodeau.
Atlanta lost Game 2 on the road, and it was the only game they lost all series.
RESULT: Hawks in 5, Dogs 10-16 when winning Game 3 and 12-36 overall.
Second Round Game 3: 76ers 127, Hawks 111
What’s worse than losing two games on your home floor in a playoff series? How about losing three games on your home floor?
The Sixers lost Games 1, 5, and 7 against Atlanta. Despite winning Games 3 and 6 on the road, a favorite lost a playoff series.
This was McMillan’s third playoff series win as a coach, and as in the previous round, it was made possible by coaching against one of the few NBA coaches who is worse than he is. Nice job choking away the series, Doc Rivers.
RESULT: Hawks in 7, Dogs 3-20 when losing Game 3 and 13-36 overall.
East Finals Game 3: Bucks 113, Hawks 102
Finally McMillan met his match. The Bucks had a bit of an uneven ride, losing Game 1, but they took home court back in Game 3 and then rubbed a bit of salt in the wound by winning Game 6 on the road as well to close out the series.
RESULT: Bucks in 6, Dogs 3-21 when losing Game 3 and 13-37 overall. A .260 winning percentage, or 21-61 per 82. This is stabilizing a bit.
We’ve got data from the first round, let’s plug it into the sample, shall we?
First Round Game 3: Suns 114, Pelicans 111
Phoenix survived a scare in this series, and would go on to win Game 6 on the road as well to close this one out.
RESULT: Suns in 6, Dogs 3-22 when losing Game 3 and 13-38 overall.
First Round Game 3: Grizzlies 104, Timberwolves 95
Same beat, different drummer. Memphis went back home for Game 5 tied at two games apiece but didn’t have to wait for Game 7 to finish the job, doing it instead in Minnesota.
RESULT: Grizzlies in 6, Dogs 3-23 when losing Game 3 and 13-39 overall.
First Round Game 3: Mavericks 126, Jazz 118
That’s three series that went six games but were over when the buzzer sounded to end Game 3. All of them followed the same pattern with the favorite winning on the dog’s floor.
RESULT: Mavs in 6, Dogs 3-24 when losing Game 3 and 13-40 overall. Back down to a 20-62 82-game pace, for what that’s worth.
First Round Game 3: Bucks 111, Bulls 81
That 30-point margin was a harbinger of things to come, as the Bucks won Game 4 on the road by 24 points (119-95) before clinching at home 106-90. Getting scared straight in Game 2 only meant the Bucks engaged Murder Mode and beat Chicago by a combined 70 points in three games. Better luck next time, Bulls.
RESULT: Bucks in 5, Dogs 3-25 (!) when losing Game 3 and 13-41 overall.
So What Have We Learned?
Well, now we have the definitive data set for the past decade, not counting the COVID bubble or the lockout year in 2012.
Since 2013, underdogs have brought a 1-1 series back home 54 times. They’ve lost 41 of those 54 series, for a winning percentage of just .241, which in an 82-game regular season would net you a 20-62 record (19.74 wins per 82 games, rounded.)
When the dog wins Game 3, as the Bucks and Warriors did in their second-round series, those odds improve. In those situations, the dog is 10-16, a .385 winning percentage, or 32-50 (31.53 wins) per 82 games. That’s bad—it would’ve been good for 13th in the East and 12th in the West, outside the play-in tournament—but it’s a lot better than losing.
Because when the dog loses Game 3, the series is effectively over. The underdog has gone just 3-25 after losing Game 3, a wretched .107 winning percentage that would get you a 9-73 record (8.78 wins), which would be tied for the worst 82-game record in NBA history (the ’73 Sixers are the only other team to fail to win 10 games given 82 attempts; the ’12 Bobcats have the worst winning percentage, but that was a lockout-shortened season in which they went 7-59.)
Take heart, Bucks and Warriors fans. You’re four times as likely now as you would have been if you’d lost to win your playoff series, and you’re twice as likely to win the series as you were after Game 2.
Just don’t choke away Game 4.