As we’ve demonstrated repeatedly over the past few weeks here (just look at the last few articles on the home page of this here site for the many, many ways we’ve carved up 7-game series scenarios during these playoffs), if you are the underdog in the NBA Finals and you win Game 3 to go up 2-1, the absolute worst thing you can do for your cause is to go out there and hand home court back by losing Game 4.
Well…the Boston Celtics did exactly that Friday night, losing Game 4 to send the series back to San Francisco tied at 2 games apiece. The Warriors have Game 5 and Game 7 (if necessary) at home.
Are the Celtics toast already? Are the rest of these games a mere formality?
Well, for one thing, the Celtics have already spent 2022 completely breaking playoff history, so I’m not going to believe they’re eliminated until and unless Adam Silver hands the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Stephen Curry, who is for sure the Finals MVP so far and probably will remain so in any scenario in which the Warriors win this series.
But let’s set the rules here. Since 1947, we’re going to look at every dog that took a tied series home, won Game 3, then lost Game 4. Whether it’s 2-3-2 or 2-2-1-1-1 doesn’t matter, since the dog still has one home game left no matter what format you’re using.
1957: St. Louis Lost to Boston in 7.
Rookie Bill Russell, in the first of what would be four Finals in five years against the Hawks, saw his Celtics lose Game 1 in Boston 125-123, but despite the Hawks winning Game 3 to go up 2-1, the C’s won Game 4 and the series went chalk to the home team the rest of the way, ending with Boston’s first title on their home floor in Game 7.
As always, we’re keeping a running tally, so the dog starts out down 0-1.
1958: St. Louis Beat Boston in 6.
This time, the Hawks won Game 1, lost Game 4, but turned around and stole Game 5 at the Boston Garden and closed it out on their home floor in a 2-2-1-1-1 series. A fine blueprint, one the Celtics would do well to consider in 2022.
Dogs now even at 1-1.
1962: Los Angeles Lakers Lost to Boston in 7.
The Lakers, who had moved from Minneapolis in 1960 during a down time for the franchise, found themselves with their first winning season since 1955—weirdly, they’d gone to the ’59 Finals with a 33-39 regular-season record because the NBA Stone Age was bananas—and got a chance to rematch with the Celtics.
Trouble was, the Lakers wouldn’t get their first Finals win over their hated rival until 1985. Magic Johnson turned three years old in the summer of 1962.
The Lakers won Game 2 in Boston and Game 3 in Los Angeles, but they blew Game 4, and even though they won Game 5 to take the series lead back, they lost Game 6 at home and Game 7 on the road and that was that.
Weird series. But the point is, you gotta win Game 4.
Dogs now 1-2.
1974: Boston Beat Milwaukee in 7.
The ’74 Celtics started this series the same way the 2022 squad has so far. They won Game 1 on the road, took Game 3 at home to go up 2-1, then lost Game 4.
In 1974, the Celtics then won Game 5 on the road and despite blowing the closeout game at home in Game 6, they beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in Milwaukee to steal a championship, their first in the post-Russell era.
The dogs are 2-2 in series after losing Game 4…is this not so bad?
1984: Lakers Lost to Boston in 7.
The Lakers won Game 1 and Game 3. They lost Game 4. The series went chalk the rest of the way and Boston won the series at the Garden in Game 7. And Magic and friends would have to wait another year to topple the hated Celtics.
Dogs now 2-3 in series after blowing Game 4 when up 2-1.
1985: Lakers Beat Boston in 6.
This was the year the NBA went to a 2-3-2 format, a format they’d keep for nearly 30 years. The Lakers won Game 5 at home to go up 3-2, then beat the Celtics in Boston in Game 6 and finally beat Larry Bird in the Finals.
Dogs 3-3 after blowing Game 4.
2013: San Antonio Lost to Miami in 7.
The scenario we’re discussing here is a fairly rare one because of the circumstances under which it has to happen. A specific series of events leading to Game 4—a tied series, the home team winning Game 3, the road team winning Game 4—doesn’t happen every year.
But even though it waited 28 years, it did happen. And the Heat, who by all rights should’ve lost Game 6, instead stole it, setting up a Game 7 win at home that demonstrated to the Spurs that if they hadn’t choked away Game 4 by 16 points, they wouldn’t have had to worry about the hot hand of Ray Allen because the series would’ve been over in 6.
Dogs 3-4 after blowing Game 4.
2015: Cleveland Lost to Golden State in 6.
The Cavs took Game 2 in Oakland. They won Game 3 in Cleveland. Then they lost Game 4, got smacked in Game 6 for good measure, and lost the series.
Dogs 3-5 after blowing Game 4.
So What Have We Learned?
In NBA Finals history, the underdog (defined as the team playing Game 1 on the road) has taken a 2-1 series lead in Game 3 only to blow it in Game 4 eight times.
Five of those eight times, they’ve gone on to lose the series.
Still, that’s a .375 winning percentage for a team that doesn’t have home court advantage. Winning two out of three games when two of them are on the road against a team with a better regular-season record? That is itself difficult enough and you have well below a three-in-eight chance no matter how you got to Game 5.
How well below? Glad you asked. We’re going to talk about it tomorrow.
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!