As this goes to press, Game 5 is about to tip off between the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals.
The Celtics won Game 3 but lost Game 4, and while that’s not ideal for them the way taking a 3-1 lead back to San Francisco with them would’ve been (2016 aside, that’s pretty much an automatic win), it does put them into an absolutely critical Game 5. The winner of this series can afford to lose Game 6. The loser is going to have not one but two elimination games ahead of them if they’re to pull off the impossible.
But “impossible” is a big word. Y’all know how this works. Let’s go back to 1947 and look at every Game 5 in a tied Finals. Let’s also see if there’s a meaningful difference between the 2-2-1-1-1 format in use for most of history and the 2-3-2 format the league used between 1985 and 2014.
Let’s also see how many tied series were won by the favorite and how many were won by the underdog. The favorite, after all, gets two of the last three series games at home.
1952: Minneapolis Lakers Beat New York Knicks, Won Series in 7
The Knicks won Game 2 on the road. Minneapolis went into New York and took home court back. The series went chalk the rest of the way, and despite a Game 6 win by the Knicks, back in Minnesota, the Lakers won it all in Game 7.
Favorites now 1-0 when winning Game 5.
1954: Lakers Beat Syracuse Nationals, Won Series in 7
This time the Lakers were the series underdog, and despite losing the closeout Game 6 in Minneapolis, they were able to go back to Syracuse and beat the future Philadelphia 76ers in the crucial Game 7.
Underdogs now 1-0 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 2-0 overall in the series.
1955: Fort Wayne Pistons Beat Nationals, Lost Series in 7
This series was 2-3-2. The home team won every game. It remains the only time in NBA Finals history the home team held serve through all seven games of a series, and it shows that 2-3-2 makes Game 5 a different beast.
Dogs now 1-1 when winning Game 5. Overall, the Game 5 winner is now 2-1.
1957: Boston Celtics Beat St. Louis Hawks, Won Series in 7
Boston took home court back in Game 4, won Game 5 of the 2-2-1-1-1 series at home, and then took Game 7 at the Garden to shut down the Hawks and get the franchise’s first title.
Favorites 2-0 when winning Game 5. Overall, Game 5 winner is 3-1.
1958: Hawks Beat Celtics, Won Series in 6
Unlike the previous year, the Hawks took a 3-2 lead home this time, and when they won Game 6, that was all she wrote.
Dogs 2-1 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 4-1 overall.
1960: Celtics Beat Hawks, Won Series in 7
1957 all over again. It’s that simple. Boston took home court back in Game 3 this time rather than Game 4, but they then held it.
Favorites now 3-0 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 5-1 overall.
1962: Los Angeles Lakers Beat Celtics, Lost Series in 7
The Lakers took Game 5 in Boston. They then blew Game 6 in California and, when they got back to the East Coast, they made a game of it but ultimately fell 110-107 in Game 7.
Dogs 2-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 5-2 overall.
1968: Celtics Beat Lakers, Won Series in 6
The Celtics took Game 5 at home, then took care of business in Los Angeles to avoid having to play a Game 7 in Boston. Nothing wrong with a favorite leaving nothing to chance, right?
Favorites now a perfect 4-0 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 6-2 overall.
1969: Lakers Beat Celtics, Lost Series in 7
This came so close to being a repeat of 1955, with the home team winning each of the first six games.
But in Bill Russell‘s swan song, the Celtics pulled one more miracle out of the hat to overcome 42 points from Jerry West and 27 rebounds from Wilt Chamberlain and win 108-106. It was one of the greatest Game 7s in one of the greatest Finals in NBA history. And it’s the first L taken by the favorite after winning Game 5 of a tied series.
Favorites now 4-1 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 6-3 overall.
1970: Knicks Beat Lakers, Won Series in 7
The Knicks lost home-court in Game 2, got it back in Game 3, and never looked back. The Willis Reed Game was one for the history books.
Favorites now 5-1 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 7-3 overall.
1974: Celtics Beat Milwaukee Bucks, Won Series in 7
What a weird series. Boston won Game 3 at home to go up 2-1 in the series, then the road team won each of the next four games. Boston lost two games at the Garden. Milwaukee lost two games, including the closeout Game 7, in Wisconsin.
And the dogs are now 3-2 when winning Game 5 and the Game 5 winner is 8-3 overall. Starting to see a pattern here?
1976: Celtics Beat Phoenix Suns, Won Series in 6
The series went chalk for the first five games, then the Celtics went to Phoenix and finished their business by taking the first win for the road team in what happened to be the deciding game.
Favorites now 6-1 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 9-3 overall.
1977: Portland Trail Blazers Beat Philadelphia 76ers, Won Series in 6
The first four games went to the home team. Then the Blazers took Game 5 on the road, went back to Portland, and closed the series out on their home floor.
Dogs now 4-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 10-3 overall.
1978: Seattle SuperSonics Beat Washington Bullets, Lost Series in 7
Seattle took Game 5 at home. They lost Game 6 on the road. And then Wes Unseld and friends finally broke through and won the title that had eluded them in 1971 and ’75 and took Game 7 in the Emerald City 105-99.
Favorites now 6-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 10-4 overall.
1980: Lakers Beat 76ers, Won Series in 6
The Lakers set up an elimination game on the road in Philly for Game 6. Then Magic Johnson happened. One of the greatest performances in NBA Finals history got the favorites back in the W column after the events of two years prior.
Favorites now 7-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 11-4 overall.
1981: Celtics Beat Houston Rockets, Won Series in 6
Boston lost home court in Game 2. They got it back in Game 3. And then, after going up 3-2 with a win at the Garden, Larry Bird and friends launched Houston into outer space and beat them in Game 6.
Houston went 40-42 in the 1981 regular season. It would’ve been a choke job for the ages if the Celtics couldn’t beat them.
Favorites now 8-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 12-4 overall. 16 of 35 of the first Finals were tied after 4 games, a nice testament to a tendency for the Finals to be competitive.
1984: Celtics Beat Lakers, Won Series in 7
The Lakers took Game 1 in Boston. The Celtics took home court back in Game 4. And it went chalk the rest of the way.
Favorites now 9-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 13-4 overall.
1985: Lakers Beat Celtics, Won Series in 6
And here’s why the dog needs to step it up in Game 5. This was the first of 30 straight 2-3-2 series, and the Lakers took the 3-2 series lead back to Boston, where they then won the series in six.
Dogs now 5-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now an amazing 14-4 overall.
1988: Detroit Pistons Beat Lakers, Lost Series in 7
Welcome to the flip side of the 2-3-2 format. Detroit won Game 5 to go up 3-2, but the Lakers had both Games 6 and 7 at the Great Western Forum and won them to take the title.
Dogs now 5-3 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 14-5 overall.
1992: Chicago Bulls Beat Trail Blazers, Won Series in 6
In a 2-3-2 series, if you’re the favorite, you can take an elimination game home with you by winning Game 5 on the road. It’s a twist you don’t see in 2-2-1-1-1 series, but Michael Jordan and friends won the games on the schedule and closed it out in Chicago.
Favorites now 10-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 15-5 overall.
1994: Knicks Beat Rockets, Lost Series in 7
Again. 2-3-2 series. The dog can go up 3-2, but they’re out of home games at that point. Houston won Games 6 and 7 at home and took the series.
Dogs now 5-4 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 15-6 overall.
1997: Bulls Beat Jazz, Won Series in 6
As seen five years prior. The Bulls took Game 5 on the road, and taking the series lead home to Chicago put them in the same position the dog is usually in come Game 6. It’s easier to win a home game, after all.
Favorites now 11-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 16-6 overall. 22 of 51 Finals have been tied after 4 so far, a 43.1 percent clip.
2003: San Antonio Spurs Beat New Jersey Nets, Won Series in 6
The Nets stole home court in Game 2. The Spurs stole it back in Game 3, then won Game 5 in the swamp to bring a 3-2 lead back to Texas and close it out in 6.
Favorites now 12-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 17-6 overall.
2005: Spurs Beat Pistons, Won Series in 7
Taking a 3-2 lead home from a 2-3-2 series Game 5 means you can lose a game at home and still win the series.
The Spurs won in Game 7 to do exactly that.
Favorites now 13-2 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 18-6 overall.
2006: Miami Heat Beat Dallas Mavericks, Won Series in 6
The Heat did what the dog must do in a 2-3-2 format. They had three games at home and won all three of them, setting up a Game 6 win on the road that got Dwyane Wade his pre-LeBron James collaboration title and secured his legacy in his own right.
Dogs now 6-4 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 19-6 overall.
2010: Celtics Beat Lakers, Lost Series in 7
Once again, you don’t want to run out of home games without winning the series. This is the dog’s problem.
The Celtics took a 3-2 lead back to Los Angeles, but home court advantage is a heck of a drug.
Dogs now 6-5 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 19-7 overall.
2011: Mavericks Beat Heat, Won Series in 6
Take a 3-2 lead back to the other guy’s building and don’t leave it to chance. That’s a theme we see a lot in the 2-3-2 era, and Dallas followed that script to Dirk Nowitzki and company’s only ring.
Dogs now 7-5 when winning Game 5. Game 5 winner now 20-7 overall.
2013: Spurs Beat Heat, Lost Series in 7
The 2010 problem revisited. You can only cut this cake so many ways before someone’s not getting any frosting.
Dogs now 7-6 when winning Game 5—and they’re just 3-5 in 2-3-2 format series and 4-1 in 2-2-1-1-1 series. Game 5 winner now 20-8 overall.
2015: Golden State Warriors Beat Cleveland Cavaliers, Won Series in 6
Back to 2-2-1-1-1, and back to the dog doing the job when they win Game 5 on the road.
Dogs now 8-6 when winning Game 5. 5-1 in 2-2-1-1-1 series. Game 5 winner now 21-8 overall.
2021: Bucks Beat Suns, Won Series in 6
And again. What we’re noticing here is that if you’re the dog and you’re not out of home games after winning Game 5, you have a much better chance of winning the series than if you’ve already shot your wad and the other guys have two shots at home to beat you.
Dogs now 9-6 when winning Game 5. They’re 6-1 in 2-2-1-1-1 series. Games 5 winner now 22-8 overall, a .733 winning percentage.
So What Have We Learned?
Well, for one thing, the Celtics aren’t facing 60 percent odds in their favor if they win Game 5. They’re facing a 6-1 shot in their favor. Golden State needs to win Game 5.
Then again, when the favorite wins Game 5, they’re 13-2 in the series overall, and weirdly, it hasn’t happened since 2005.
But to answer the question of “how important is Game 5”? There’s a two word answer: