Last week, we took a look at how often teams win the series when they draw first blood on the road. Favorites, as in “the team that gets Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 7 at home”, almost always win—if it hadn’t been for Golden State in 2016, that record would be flawless going back to at least 1991. Underdogs only win 41.2 percent of the time (again, since 1991), but since they only get three home games, they’re up against the wall from the moment Game 1 tips off.
Last night (July 17), the Milwaukee Bucks won Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals, beating the Phoenix Suns in Phoenix to take a 3-2 series lead back to Milwaukee with a chance to win the title after going down 0-2 to start the show.
Which means we’ll see another data point for “dog wins first”…but more importantly, we have an unbroken streak of someone winning at least one game on the road in a 7-game series in the Finals. The home team hasn’t held serve since at least 1991.
If you’re like me (and since you clicked on the headline, you’re probably at least a little like me), you’re wondering “has the home team ever won all 7 games of a Finals?”
Well, I’m going to answer not only that question, but by going back to 2003, the first year the first round went to best-of-seven, we’ll see (a) what percentage of playoff series go 7 games, and (b) just how rare it is for those 7-game series to have both teams hold serve and the home team outlast their opponent and take full advantage of home court.
Has the Home Team Ever Won All 7 Finals Games?
Let’s go all the way back to 1947. Here’s a list of series that have gone 7:
1951 (Rochester Royals beat New York Knicks)
1952 (Minneapolis Lakers beat Knicks)
1954 (Lakers beat Syracuse Nationals)
1955 (Nationals beat Fort Wayne Pistons)
1957 (Boston Celtics beat St. Louis Hawks)
1960 (Celtics beat Hawks)
1962 (Celtics beat Los Angeles Lakers)
1966 (Celtics beat Lakers)
1969 (Celtics beat Lakers)
1970 (Knicks beat Lakers)
1974 (Celtics beat Bucks)
1978 (Washington Bullets beat Seattle SuperSonics)
1984 (Celtics beat Lakers)
1988 (Lakers beat Detroit Pistons)
1994 (Houston Rockets beat Knicks)
2005 (San Antonio Spurs beat Pistons)
2010 (Lakers beat Celtics)
2013 (Miami Heat beat Spurs)
2016 (Cleveland Cavaliers beat Golden State Warriors)
So that’s just 19 out of 74 series that have gone 7 games. If you’re getting a Game 7 in the Finals, cherish it, because it happens about as often as leap years or presidential elections. Sometimes they happen in clusters (five in seven years in the 1950s); other times they disappear (an 11-year interval between 7-game Finals between 1994 and 2005.)
How many of those 19 series featured the home team winning every game?
The 1955 Syracuse Nationals (led by Dolph Schayes, pictured at the top of the article) won all four of their games in Syracuse; the Pistons won their three games in Fort Wayne.
That’s it. 75 years, including this year, of NBA history; only once, 66 years ago, the Finals went chalk for the home team.
What About the Rest of the Playoffs?
But let’s run those numbers one more time, this time including all of the playoffs in the last 18 years.
There have been 284 playoff series completed since 2003. The Finals are still ongoing, so we don’t know if they’ll go 7 yet, but out of the remaining 284 series:
- 59 have gone 7 games
- The most 7-game series in one playoffs happened in 2014 and then again in 2016—five of them.
- All five of those Game 7s in 2014 happened in the first round, the greatest first round of the playoffs in NBA history.
- There has been at least one 7-game series every year.
In 2020, there was a 7-game series where the road team won all 7 games; the Celtics and the Toronto Raptors featured no home-court advantage.
But since all 7 games were on a neutral site (the coronavirus bubble), we can throw that series out as an example of home-court advantage or lack thereof.
Likewise, the “home team” won all 7 games of the Rockets’ first-round win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but neither team was playing in front of their own fans on their own floor. All the games were on a neutral site.
I’m including them purely on a technicality and to underline just how weird the 2020 bubble was in terms of breaking stats.
With that out of the way, here’s the list of series that have gone 7 and featured the home team winning all 7. I’m including the seeds to see if there are any patterns to be found:
2018 East First Round: #2 Celtics beat #7 Bucks
2017 East Semis: #1 Celtics beat #4 Washington Wizards
2008 East Semis: #1 Celtics beat #4 Cavaliers
2008 East First Round: #1 Celtics beat #8 Atlanta Hawks
2004 East First Round: #4 Heat beat #5 New Orleans Hornets
So that’s five series that have gone 7 games and featured the home team winning all 7. What’s more, they all happened in the first two rounds, and what’s crazy is that the Celtics were the winning team in four out of those five series.
The moral of the story is that (go ahead and gloat, Bostonians) the Celtics have amazing fans that make Boston a nightmare city to play in during the playoffs.
Well that, or Doc Rivers really is a terrible coach because he had one of the greatest rosters in NBA history in 2008 and didn’t win his first road game in the playoffs until the conference finals. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: A bowl of oatmeal could’ve coached that 2008 Celtics team to a title.
The home team winning all 7 games in a 7-game series is exceedingly rare. Not only do they have to hold serve on their own floor, which is not unusual, but the road team has to hold serve on theirs.
It’s only happened once in the NBA Finals, all the way back in 1955, and in 284 completed series since the first round went best-of-seven in 2003, only five series have featured true home-court advantage.
Which means that when a best-of-seven series tips off in the NBA, there’s less than a 2 percent chance it will go the distance without the road team making it interesting by winning at least one game.
Now that it’s happened in 2021, it’s up to the Phoenix Suns to win one on the road themselves.
Either Chris Paul will permanently exit the debate of “best player never to win it all” or Giannis Antetokounmpo will split the difference between Michael Jordan (who won a title in his seventh year in the league) and LeBron James (who won his in his ninth) and win his first ring in his eighth pro season.
Either way, it’ll be a fun Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7.