NBA Finals Don’t Start ’til the Road Team Wins, Tested (Part 2)

In Part 1 yesterday, we looked at the NBA Finals from 1991 to 2005 to determine what happens to a series when the road team wins a game and breaks serve. Because with the Milwaukee Bucks, as of this writing, down 2-0 in the 2021 Finals and headed back to Milwaukee on Sunday night, we know they’re going to have to beat the Phoenix Suns on the road at some point, but if they hold serve at home and win Game 5 back in Phoenix, what will it do to their overall chance to win the series?

For the first half of this sample, the favorite won all six series where they were the first team to win a road game, and they also regained home court advantage and won five out of the nine series that the road team broke serve in first, for an overall record of 11-4.

This suggests that simply by virtue of being the road team in Game 1, the Bucks were already facing odds of almost 3 to 1 against them no matter what they did, but let’s go through 15 years of more recent history to see if those numbers have changed much. We begin in 2006:

2006: Heat in 6

Once again, for those who missed it yesterday, the Finals followed a 2-3-2 format until 2014; the league went back to that from 2-2-1-1-1 in 1985, citing a desire to minimize cross-country travel.

Miami benefited from this format in Game 6 of the 2016 Finals; the home team won each of the first five games before the Heat, behind 36 points from Dwyane Wade, shot down Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs 95-92 for the franchise’s first championship.

That’s Favorites 5, Dogs 5 when the dog draws first blood.

2007: Spurs in 4

The Dark Ages weren’t quite over yet in 2007; Mike D’Antoni and the Suns had made a deep playoff run, but San Antonio won Game 3 by a count of just 75-72 before eking out an 83-82 win in Game 4 to complete the sweep.

LeBron James took a YMCA rec league team all the way to the Finals, and while getting swept isn’t exactly a sign of greatness, the guy took a team whose other starters were Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson, Sasha Pavlovic, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (with two starts from Larry Hughes in Gibson’s point guard spot as well) and played competitive basketball against Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker.

Funny how people forget that on social media when they’re all like “Michael Jordan never lost in the Finals.”

Anyway, Favorites 7, Dogs 0 when they grind the enemy into dust from the word go.

2008: Celtics in 6

There are two maxims we’ve seen take shape in this study. One is that even a favorite is best served by grabbing a road win to secure their position in a series; they’ve so far won every time when they’ve done so.

The other is that if you win a road game, don’t immediately choke away the advantage by losing your next home game. While that’s been more important for the dogs (plenty of Game 2 wins and Game 3 losses), the Celtics, who won Game 4 at Staples Center, came home for Game 6 up 3-2 in the series and just destroyed the Lakers 131-92 in a victory lap for Boston fans that was over at halftime.

8 Favorite serve breaks, 8 series wins. That’s the power of cementing your home-court advantage with a road win.

2009: Lakers in 5

This series demonstrated the idea that a gritty underdog, after losing Games 1 and 2 on the road, feeds off the energy of its crowd, wins Game 3, then gets their hopes and dreams crushed in Game 4 and loses in 5.

While the “loses in 5” thing happens more often in 2-2-1-1-1 series, where the favorite gets that Game 5 at home, while in a 2-3-2 series you’re more likely to get what happened in 2008, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers didn’t bother with such pleasantries, losing Game 3 before breaking serve in Game 4 and, just for good measure, smacking down the Orlando Magic 99-86 in Game 5 to get Kobe his first title without Shaquille O’Neal.

Favorites 9, Dogs 0 when the favorite breaks serve first.

2010: Lakers in 7

“While that’s been more important for the dogs (plenty of Game 2 wins and Game 3 losses)”…

Like this series. The Celtics won Game 2 on the road in Los Angeles 103-94, but the Lakers took back home court 91-84 in Game 3 and the road team didn’t win another game the rest of the way.

QED. And don’t tell me the Celtics lost Game 7 because Kendrick Perkins was injured. Who do you think he is, Shaq? There’s a whole other article on this site about how this series was a condemnation of Doc Rivers as a coach (you can read all about that here), and Game 7—the infamous “Kobe Goes 6-of-24 Game” that gets Bill Simmons’ knickers in a twist thinking about it—stands as the proof.

Point is, don’t blow Game 3 when you won Game 2 on the road, dogs. It won’t end well for you, and that’s Favorites 6, Dogs 5 in the ongoing tally.

2011: Mavs in 6

On the other hand, you could just win Game 6 after blowing Game 3. Dallas fell into the same trap that has befallen so many of the dogs on this list. They won Game 2 in Miami. They lost Game 3 at home, and both games were decided by just two points.

But up 3-2 back in Miami for that pivotal game, and demonstrating just how stupid it is to have a playoff format where a team can have home-court advantage and still have to win two elimination games, Dallas took the deciding game 105-95, got Dirk his championship, and just for good measure got the monkey off of the back of Jason Kidd, who’d been smacked down as a member of the New Jersey Nets in the darkest of the Dark Ages.

Favorites 6, Dogs 6. If you are to have any hope as an underdog, you’d better break serve first.

2012: Heat in 5

Incredibly, Miami was actually the dog in this series. LeBron and company went 46-20 in the lockout-shortened 2012 season and lucked into Derrick Rose blowing his ACL (and into Doc Rivers and his pathetic attempt to coach a team with three Hall of Famers plus Rajon Rondo in the conference finals) to get back to the championship round.

Oklahoma City had Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, won 47 out of 66, but ran into a Miami buzzsaw, lost Game 2 at home, and got utterly pantsed back in Miami.

Which once again shows for all the dogs out there. If you win Game 2, don’t blow Game 3. Miami didn’t, and they took care of business to win LeBron his first title in front of his adopted home fans.

Dogs 7, Favorites 6.

2013: Heat in 7

San Antonio drew first blood in Game 1 and absolutely stomped the Heat 113-77 in Game 3 back in San Antonio.

But Miami bounced back to win Game 4 109-93, took care of business in two games back at home, and put the cherry on the 2-3-2 sundae by again showing the world how dumb it is to have a series format where a team with home court advantage can do everything right and still have to win two games with their backs against the wall. That’s hardly an advantage at all, but then again, the underdog that wins a road game has just coin-flip odds of winning the series.

Favorites 7, Dogs 7, and in the 2-3-2 era (since 1991, anyway) that makes the favorites 16-7 overall.

Onward to the beauty of Game 6 on the road, as…

2014: Spurs in 5

Miami won Game 2 on the road. They blew Game 3 at home. Then, for fun, they blew Game 4 at home as well, and the Spurs went back home, took advantage of the new format, and won Duncan his fifth ring in front of the San Antonio faithful.

Don’t blow Game 3, dogs. Just don’t. It doesn’t end well. Favorites 8, Dogs 7 when the dog bites first.

2015: Warriors in 6

Cleveland won Game 2. They actually won Game 3! Great for them!

Except they lost Game 4 to drop home-court again, lost Game 5 to fall behind 3-2, and then, in the first Game 6 on the road since 1984 (when the Celtics lost to the Lakers to tie a series they’d ultimately clinch back at the Boston Garden in Game 7), the Warriors ensured they wouldn’t follow in Larry Bird‘s footsteps, instead rubbing it in the nose of the city of Cleveland and celebrating a title at Quicken Loans Arena instead.

Favorites 9, Dogs 7, and interestingly the sixth straight year where a road team broke serve—and they lost four of them.

2016: Cavs in 7

This is the exception that proves the rule, the blown 3-1 lead, the “Golden State won Game 4 in Cleveland and had two games at home to put an end to things…”

Except Cleveland won Game 5 when LeBron morphed into Magic Johnson in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, won Game 6 went full Magic again with 41 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists, and then won one of the greatest games in NBA history in Game 7, the game that ensured not only the immortality of LeBron and Kyrie Irving, but of Mike Breen as well.

Favorites 9, Dogs 1. Gives new meaning to the term “nine times out of ten…”

2017: Warriors in 5

Nine times out of ten, the Warriors end up with Kevin Durant, apparently.

The Dubs won Game 3 in Cleveland after winning the first two on the road, and this time, despite 41 points from LeBron in Game 5, Golden State just overpowered the Cavs and ground them into a fine powder to be snorted by Silicon Valley tech bros off the floor of Oracle Arena.

(don’t get me started about tech bros. Or if you do, hold the phone at arm’s length from your ear.)

Anyway, Favorites 10, Dogs 1. When a tame dog bites you, sometimes you just gotta make Korean soup out of it.

2018: Warriors in 4

LeBron had his worst supporting cast since 2007. J.R. Smith spawned a million Twitter memes in Game 1 (a game, oh by the way, where LeBron scored 51 points.)

And just like that, you learn that when the favorite breaks an undefeated stretch that had gone back 20-plus years, only decisive and downright angry redemption will do.

Favorites 11, Dogs 1, and you get to thinking that if Phoenix wins either game in Milwaukee, this series in 2021 is over, right?

2019: Raptors in 6

See, here’s the thing when you’re a dog. It’s bad enough to drop Game 3 after winning Game 2 on the road—as the Warriors did in this series.

But losing all 3 of your home games? Look, I get it. Kevin Durant was out with a ruptured Achilles, and the whole team looked like what it was, the last gasp of a five-consecutive-Finals dynasty that had finally run out of juice.

But you won two games on the road. That should’ve meant something.

Instead, the Raptors won three road games in the same series to get Kyle Lowry and the people of Canada some redemption after years of being LeBron’s stepping stone. Kawhi Leonard got out of Tim Duncan’s shadow. And the Warriors dynasty was kaput.

Favorites 10, Dogs 7 when the dog draws first blood, and what a crazy series this was.

And finally, we get some gone-batty soup, as…

2020: Lakers in 6

This series wasn’t weird at first. The Lakers won the first two, the Heat won Game 3, the Lakers won Game 4 “on the road” (never mind that whole coronavirus bubble thing making the entire Finals a monolithic tournament on a single floor at Disney World), Miami won Game 5 “on the road”, and then the Lakers won Game 6 “on the road.”

This wasn’t that much weirder than 2019, which had fans and travel and everything sports is supposed to have when a global pandemic isn’t messing everything up, and the road team won five out those six games.

Even in a bubble, rules are rules, and the Lakers held serve at home, drew first blood on the road, and won the series like the basketball gods intended.

The Final Tally

So in the last 30 years, the home team has won the first road game 13 times; they’ve won 12 of them, and the 13th was, for all you triskaidekaphobes out there, the biggest choke job in NBA history and one of the biggest chokes in all of sports—not quite baseball’s 2004 Yankees, but right up there.

And when the underdog draws first blood, they win just 41.2 percent of the time, which is 34-48 over the course of an 82-game regular season, the kind of record that won’t get you into the playoffs at all.

Overall, the team with home court advantage wins in the Finals (since 1991, anyway) 73.3 percent of the time (for perspective, that winning percentage would make you 60-22 in an 82-game season and probably get you home court in the Finals).

Milwaukee was probably doomed from the moment the Suns put up the better regular-season record.

But if Phoenix wins either Game 3 or 4, unless a truly unlikely collapse happens, this series is over.

Good luck, Bucks. You’ll need it.

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