NBA Finals Don’t Start ’til the Road Team Wins, Tested (Part 1)

The Phoenix Suns held serve at home to win the first two games of the 2021 NBA Finals, but if the Milwaukee Bucks are able to do the same, we’ll be looking in a week or so at a tied series, 2-2, with what will basically become a best-of-three for all the marbles.

On the other hand, if the Suns win one out of two, then the complexion of Game 5 changes completely, with the home team poised to win it all on their own floor and with the consequences of a loss far reduced as they’ll still have a home Game 7 even if they lose another one on the road.

A sweep, of course, would moot this whole discussion.

This scenario is so common thanks to the general effect of home-field advantage in the playoffs in any sport that you may have heard the adage “the series doesn’t start until the road team wins a game.”

So let’s look at the NBA Finals since 1991, a sample of 30 best-of-seven playoff series (the current Finals, of course, is still ongoing, so the jury’s out), and see (a) when the road team won, (b) whether the road team breaking serve won the series and in how many games, and (c) if that team was the underdog or the favorite, to see if Phoenix winning Game 3 or 4 means certain doom for the Bucks.

I suspect that even with a rather infamous road win in 2016 setting up a 3-1 lead, we’re going to get what we expect to see from this data set, but I’m saying that before looking it up and recording it and I’ve been wrong (and pleasantly surprised) before.

1991: Bulls in 5

The Lakers actually won Game 1 of this series. In Magic Johnson‘s last year before HIV cut his career short, Michael Jordan and the Bulls were up against the wall after losing 93-91.

The Bulls, however, not only won Game 2 at home to even the series, but they then went on the road and won three straight in Los Angeles (the 2-3-2 format having been changed to 2-2-1-1-1 only in 2014). If it hadn’t been for that 2-point LA win in the opener, this would’ve been a sweep, and what’s more, the Bulls won those four games by an average of 12.8 a game.

1992: Bulls in 6

Again, the road team grabbed one early; Portland won Game 2 to avenge their absolute humiliation in the series opener (a 122-89 Bulls win best known for Michael Jordan’s famous shrug of his shoulders after hitting his sixth 3-pointer in the first half on his way to 39 points.) The Bulls, however, took two in Portland, came back home up 3-2 in the series, and closed it out with 33 points from His Airness in the final game.

So far, that’s two cases of the home team losing home-court advantage…and getting it back without even needing a Game 7.

1993: Bulls in 6

This was a weird series because the Suns actually had home court. Not only that, but the road team won five of the six games; only a Bulls win in Game 4 at home broke the string of making home court advantage look like a complete lie.

But we didn’t ask how underdogs who won a road game won the series. We only asked if they did, and now it’s Favorites 2, Dogs 1 when the dog wins the first road game.

1994: Rockets in 7

This series was much more traditionally what you’d expect from the dog winning a game on the road in a 7-game series.

The Knicks won Game 2 in Houston; the Rockets won Game 3 in New York. The home team won the other five games, and by squandering their advantage in that Game 3, the Knicks blew the best chance they had at winning the series (they could’ve won in 5) and instead took a 3-2 lead on the road, where so many dogs in every sport ever to use the 2-3-2 format have dropped those two games. The 1994 Finals were no different, and it’s Favorites 3, Dogs 1 when the dog draws first blood.

1995: Rockets in 4

Or, y’know, the dog could just bite the favorite in the throat, sever the favorite’s jugular vein, and win by a fatality.

Nick Anderson, we hardly knew ye. 3-2.

1996: Bulls in 6

Believe it or not, for all the narrative talk at the time about how Seattle boldly held off a sweep to make a series of it and “push the Bulls to a Game 6”—and sure, George Karl taking his head out of his arse and putting Gary Payton on Michael Jordan to hold MJ to under 24 points per game the rest of the way after the Sonics went down 3-0 was a big factor—on paper, this was a pretty vanilla “favorite in 6” series.

The Bulls won the first two games at home, took one out of three on the road (Game 3), then won Game 6. Both sides of the infamous “the stats tell the whole story” vs. “you need to watch the games” debate can argue that the ’96 Finals proves their point. Let’s just say there’s a good reason Karl never won a title as a coach and his teams tended to grossly underachieve in the playoffs.

1997: Bulls in 6

If you want to see a prime example of the purest expression of the saying in the headline, this is your series. The Bulls and Jazz held serve for four games before Chicago completely seized the narrative by gutting out a 2-point win on the road in Game 5. And while the Jazz were far from dead men walking as the series shifted to the Windy City for Game 6, Jordan’s 39 points helped close out the series as for the second straight year, the favorite grabbed one on the road and took care of business once they got back for Game 6.

1998: Bulls in 6

Chicago won Game 2 on the road in Utah to even the series, then utterly humiliated the Jazz 96-54 in Game 3, the most putrid offensive performance by a team in the Finals in the shot clock era. This whole series, played as it was at a sluggish 82.0 pace, would portend the brutally boring basketball of the Dark Ages to come.

But the Jazz, who should’ve been eliminated in Chicago, stole Game 5 83-81, getting their chance to flip the script and take the “home team comes back down 3-2 and closes it out on their own floor” story to its conclusion.

Ask Bryon Russell what happened next. Favorites 3, Dogs 3 when the dog wins a road game first.

1999: Spurs in 5

Home court held for three games. The Spurs then won Game 4 and eked out a 78-77 (again, barf, the Dark Ages were atrocious and don’t let anyone tell you different) win at Madison Square Garden in Game 5 to take the series.

Favorites are now 3-0 when holding serve before taking the fight to the enemy on the road.

2000: Lakers in 6

Favorite wins one on the road. Game 4, in this instance, and then the Lakers went home to Los Angeles for Game 6, Shaquille O’Neal scored 41, and he and Kobe Bryant had their first ring. Easy as you like it, and that’s 4-for-4 for the favorites.

2001: Lakers in 5

Allen Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue in Game 1. The Lakers then stepped on the Sixers’ throats in the ensuing four games, winning all three games in Philly in the process.

Any questions?

Oh, yeah, favorites didn’t blow a 3-1 series lead at least. They lead the dogs 4-3 now when the dog wins on the road first.

2002: Lakers in 4

Favorites win at home. Favorites win on the road. Eastern Conference achieves Peak Joke Status (this was the same year the Celtics beat the Pistons 66-64 in Game 3 of the East semis, the worst playoff game of the shot-clock era.)

And favorites go to 5-0 when breaking the dog’s serve.

2003: Spurs in 6

The Nets learned the same lesson in this series that the Knicks did nine years earlier. Namely, if you manage to win Game 2 on the road and steal home-court advantage, you’d best not squander that advantage by losing Game 3 at home.

The Spurs then won Game 5 in New Jersey as well for good measure before coming home and closing the Nets out in Texas. Sorry Jason Kidd, maybe try moving to Dallas?

Favorites 5, Dogs 3.

2004: Pistons in 5

If you take a tied series home, handle your business.

The Pistons won Game 1 in LA, the Lakers tied it up, and the Pistons never let the series go back to California, winning all three of their home games and wrapping up the series. Textbook.

Favorites 5, Dogs 4.

2005: Spurs in 7

This series is our first example of how the 2-3-2 playoff format strongly favors the favorites as long as they don’t lose in 5 (as the Lakers did the previous year.)

When you lose Game 6 at home, it doesn’t break your rhythm to have to travel with thoughts of the loss lingering in your mind. The players, coaches, and fans all know that Game 7 is coming, it’s in the favorite’s building, and the slate’s clean. It’s harder to keep up the momentum of a win in a Game 6 when only one team has that road wear on it.

And so the Spurs, who earned the right to drop one by winning Game 5 in Detroit, won Game 7 81-74 and took the title. Favorites 6, Dogs 0 when the favorites win first, and oh by the way 11-4 overall, giving a rather strong boost to the importance of home court in the Finals in any instance.

15 down, 15 to go. And because this is getting long, the second half’s available here.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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