Yesterday, we took a look at every series that has gone seven games in the NBA playoffs since the league went to a best-of-seven format in 2003, trying to find a pattern in how winning Game 6 to stave off elimination worked out for the team that ultimately forced the Game 7.
In 29 such series between 2003 and 2012, the team that had Game 7 at home won it 22 times, so that’s the most important factor of all; having that winner-take-all game on your own floor is the strongest determinant of whether you’re going to win it.
Curiously, having Game 6 at home and blowing it wasn’t as devastating as it may have appeared; if the underdog blew that 3-2 advantage on their own floor, they were actually more likely to win Game 7 on the road; they’re 3-6 in Game 7 after losing Game 6 at home, while they’re only 4-14 (a .222 winning percentage as opposed to .333) when they win on their own floor to force that Game 7. Throw in two NBA Finals that were in the 2-3-2 format (that change wouldn’t come until 2014) and you’ve got that 22-7 total for the favorite.
Now then, let’s continue and remember, 2020 doesn’t count because of the COVID bubble putting all seven games on a neutral site.
First Round: Brooklyn won Game 6 on the road but lost Game 7 at home to Chicago.
The Bulls demonstrate what we were talking about at the top of the article. Going up 3-2 in Game 5 seems to be more important to the underdog than coming home down 3-2 and forcing a Game 7 on the other guy’s floor.
Dogs now 4-6 in Game 7 when losing Game 6 at home and 8-22 overall.
Eastern Conference Finals: Indiana beat Miami at home in Game 6 but lost Game 7.
And here’s the flip side of that coin. The real lesson here might be that a best-of-seven series gets decided after Game 5 most of the time. Go home down 3-2 and you’re already toast.
Dogs now 4-15 in Game 7 when winning Game 6 at home and 8-23 overall.
NBA Finals: Miami beat San Antonio at home in the last 2-3-2 Finals.
Someone at the league office finally figured out that having the favorite in a series come home down 3-2 needing to win two games at home is dumb. But it closes out our sample of such games with the underdog having lost all three times in Game 7. Sure, it tells us nothing about 2-2-1-1-1 series, but it does tell us about Game 7s and that’s what we’re after here.
Dogs now 8-24 overall in Game 7. Home court matters.
First Round: Dallas won Game 6 at home but couldn’t finish the 8 vs. 1 upset against San Antonio.
Don’t you just love a good upset scare? Or a first round that featured five Game 7s out of 8 series? 2014 was an awesome playoff year and the best first round of all time.
Fat lot of good that did the Mavs though. Good effort, but not good enough.
Dogs now 4-16 in Game 7 when winning Game 6 at home and 8-25 overall.
First Round: Oklahoma City beat Memphis on the road in Game 6 then closed it out at home.
The 7 seed Grizzlies blew their chance to oust the Thunder and, unlike so many dogs on the road in Game 7, couldn’t hold that 3-2 series lead they’d built in Game 5, instead bowing out.
Dogs now 4-7 when losing Game 6 at home and 8-26 overall.
First Round: Golden State won Game 6 at home but couldn’t close out the Clippers in Los Angeles.
And here’s the 6 seed taking the 3 seed to Game 7. Same result as Mavs-Spurs though. The Warriors fired Mark Jackson after this series and won three championships in five straight Finals appearances. If only they’d had Steve Kerr in 2014.
Dogs now 4-17 when winning Game 6 at home and 8-27 overall.
First Round: Indiana won Game 6 at Atlanta then closed the Hawks out at home.
The Pacers were the 1 seed in the East in 2014 but it was a team that melted down late in the season. The fact that they made the Eastern Conference Finals is a bit of a mystery, since they were a shell of their once-great selves by this point. Of course, once Paul George got hurt and missed nearly all of the 2015 season, that was it for Indiana in the NBA limelight in May.
Point is, the Hawks couldn’t get it done when they had a chance to win on their own floor and it cost them the series.
Dogs now 4-8 when losing Game 6 at home and 8-28 overall.
First Round: Brooklyn won Game 6 at home then upset Toronto in Game 7.
As bad as Game 7 has generally gone for the underdog no matter how they got there, Brooklyn at least proved that you do have to force a Game 7 to win a Game 7. The dogs had five chances to win a Game 7 on the road; the Nets were the only ones to actually pull it off as the 6 seed.
Dogs now 5-17 when winning Game 6 at home and 9-28 overall.
First Round: The Clippers beat San Antonio on the road in Game 6 then closed out the series at home.
There were two Game 7s in the 2015 playoffs. Clippers fans, you might want to avert your eyes for the next one. But at least you got there after winning in the first round.
Dogs now 4-9 when losing Game 6 at home and 9-29 overall.
Second Round: Houston won Game 6 on the road then closed out the Clippers at home in Game 7.
Playing the last 19 minutes or so of a potential series-clinching Game 6 with your hands firmly clasped around your neck is no way to make a conference finals. Nice job blowing it, Lob City. Indeed, the Clips blew a 3-1 lead in this series because they were coached by the ultimate playoff choke artist.
Dogs now 4-10 when losing Game 6 at home and 9-30 overall.
First Round: Indiana won Game 6 at home but lost Game 7 in Toronto.
The Pacers made a valiant effort to steal this series, but the Raptors, who had won Game 3 in Indiana to take home court back, held serve at home the rest of the way.
Dogs now 5-18 when winning Game 6 at home and 9-31 overall.
First Round: Miami won Game 6 on the road in Charlotte then closed the series at home.
This was the year the East turned into a giant fustercluck between the 3 and 6 seed thanks to a 4-way tie at 48-34.
Miami got home court in the first round thanks to winning the Southeast Division, as even though the NBA finally abolished the guaranteed top-four seed and started seeding by conference in 2016, they kept division winners for tiebreaker purposes.
The point of all this is that Miami got that Game 7 at home, and after beating Charlotte in Game 6, that was ultimately decisive.
Dogs now 4-11 when losing Game 6 at home (including five in a row) and 9-32 overall.
Second Round: Miami won Game 6 at home but lost Game 7 in Toronto.
The Raptors survived a second straight series when they had to come home for a winner-take-all game, but their 2 seed in the playoffs served them well. Sure, LeBron James and friends in Cleveland would have other ideas in the conference finals, but that’s later, this is now.
Dogs now 5-19 when winning Game 6 at home and 9-33 overall (yikes.)
Western Conference Finals: Oklahoma City lost Game 6 at home then completed their 3-1 collapse at Golden State.
The 3-1 gods giveth…
Dogs now 4-12 when losing Game 6 at home and 9-34 overall.
NBA Finals: Cleveland won Game 6 at home then finished their comeback at Golden State in Game 7.
…and the 3-1 gods taketh away. And since the Finals finally went to a 2-2-1-1-1 series format in 2014, this is now an apples-to-apples data point. Also, how about 2016 for potential greatest playoffs of all time? Five Game 7s and at least one series going the distance in every round including the Finals. Can’t get much better than that.
Dogs now 6-19 when winning Game 6 at home and 10-34 overall.
First Round: The Clippers won Game 6 in Utah but blew the series at home in Game 7.
It’s not a Doc Rivers-coached playoff team until they choke. I go on and on and on about this, but that’s because the guy keeps showing up whenever there’s a list of playoff collapses.
Dogs now 5-12 when losing Game 6 at home and 11-34 overall.
Second Round: Washington won Game 6 at home but lost Game 7 in Boston.
The dog, by definition, cannot win a series where the home team wins every game, and that’s what happened here. Four of the five playoff series since 2003 where the home team ran the table involved the Celtics playing Game 7 in Boston.
Dogs now 6-20 when winning Game 6 at home and 11-35 overall.
First Round: Indiana won Game 6 at home but lost Game 7 in Cleveland.
Go to hell, refs.
Dogs now 6-21 when winning Game 6 at home and 11-36 overall.
First Round: Milwaukee won Game 6 at home but lost Game 7 in Boston.
This is the fourth of those four home-team-runs-the-table series involving the Celtics mentioned a bit up the page here.
Dogs now 6-22 when winning Game 6 at home and 11-37 overall.
Western Conference Finals: Golden State won Game 6 at home then Houston forgot how to shoot.
This is the infamous “missed 27 3-pointers in a row” game. Live by the D’Antoni, die by the D’Antoni.
Dogs now 7-22 when winning Game 6 at home and 12-37 overall.
Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland won Game 6 at home then shocked Boston in Game 7.
The first six games went chalk. Then LeBron happened and the Cavs were in the Finals.
Dogs now 8-22 when winning Game 6 at home and 13-37 overall.
First Round: Denver lost Game 6 in San Antonio but closed out the series at home.
The Spurs’ last hurrah ended not with a bang but with a whimper a mile up. Denver in particular makes the most of their altitude.
Dogs now 8-23 when winning Game 6 at home and 13-38 overall.
Second Round: Portland won Game 6 at home then shocked Denver in Game 7.
What was I saying about Denver? Umm…never mind.
Dogs now 9-23 when winning Game 6 at home and 14-38 overall.
Second Round: Toronto lost Game 6 in Philadelphia but won Game 7 at home.
Dogs now 9-24 when winning Game 6 at home at 14-39 overall.
(remember, the COVID bubble doesn’t count.)
First Round: Clippers won Game 6 in Dallas then closed the series out at home.
The road team won each of the first six games. The Clippers came home and finally won something, winning the series.
Dogs now 5-13 when losing Game 6 at home and 14-40 overall.
Second Round: Milwaukee stayed alive by winning Game 6 at home then won Game 7 in Brooklyn.
The home team held serve for six games. Then the Bucks won on the road in their last chance to do so. This is the Newton’s Third Law equal and opposite reaction to the Clips-Mavs series.
Dogs now 10-24 when winning Game 6 at home and 15-40 overall…and for the first time, winning Game 6 confers a percentage advantage over losing it for the underdog. Funny how sample sizes shake out. But there’s one more data point…
Second Round: Atlanta lost Game 6 at home to Philadelphia but then closed the series out in a road Game 7.
It’s not a Doc Rivers-coached playoff team without a choke. When you’re getting outcoached by Nate McMillan in the playoffs, you really shouldn’t have a job.
Dogs finish 6-13 when losing Game 6 at home and 16-40 overall.
So What Have We Learned?
Well, the underdog is 6-13 in Game 7 when they lose Game 6 at home. This is the scenario Milwaukee faces in Boston tonight (as this goes to press, the two Game 7s in 2022 are later in the day.)
The dog winning on their own floor to force Game 7 is 10-24 in that situation, which is the scenario that the Dallas Mavericks face on the road in Phoenix.
And in 2-3-2 NBA Finals series, the home team won all 3 Game 7s between 2003 and 2013, bringing the overall total to 16-40.
So if this establishes a baseline, Milwaukee has a 31.6 percent chance to beat Boston, Dallas has a 29.4 percent chance to beat Phoenix, and any given team on the road in Game 7 has a 28.6 percent chance (again, thanks to those three outlier series.)
A .316 winning percentage in an 82-game season is 26-56. A .294 winning percentage is good for 24-58.
So in either case, the Celtics and Suns are both overwhelming favorites statistically. Now, the actual dynamic of each series, the matchups and injuries and everything else, well, old stats aren’t good for much on that front.
But on paper, the Bucks and Mavs have one heck of an uphill battle ahead of them.