Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

June 20, 2012

On Coming Back from a 3-1 Deficit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:32 am

Over the next two days, get ready to here this stat about a bazillion times: In NBA Finals history, no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win. In fact, teams behind 3-1 are 0-30 all-time in the Finals. Let’s discuss why that stat isn’t quite as straightforward as it appears.

First, I’m not really sure what’s special about the Finals in terms of coming back from down 3-1. If anything, the 2-3-2 format should help a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder given the conventional wisdom that it’s more difficult for the lower-seeded team to win all three home games when they’re played consecutively. If the Miami Heat closes the series out in Game 5, that will mark just the third time in the 2-3-2 era a team has won all three home games, that having previously happened in 2004 (Detroit) and 2006 (Miami).
If we look at the entire playoffs, eight teams have come back from 3-1, most recently in 2006 when the Phoenix Suns rallied against the L.A. Lakers. Those aren’t good odds–it’s happened 4.2 percent of the time–but they’re a lot better than zero.

Returning to the 0-30 stat, it’s easy to see that many of those series aren’t really applicable here. Naturally, most of the time the higher-seeded team takes the 3-1 lead. Not only were those teams likely favored entering the series, they also had two home games remaining, an enormous advantage. If we limit the sample to lower-seeded teams up 3-1, it shrinks to eight NBA Finals, just three of them since the switch to a 2-3-2 format in 1985.

Beyond that, we also know that this series has been competitive despite the Miami Heat’s commanding lead. Each of the last three games has been decided in the closing moments; the most lopsided win in the Finals was Oklahoma City’s 11-point Game 1 victory. The Heat’s advantage over the course of the series is just five points. Of the past eight times the lower-seeded team has taken a 3-1, just one was more competitive–the 1948 BAA Finals, before the advent of the NBA, when the Baltimore Bullets won three consecutive games by margins of three, two and two to take a 3-1 lead. Back home, the Philadelphia Warriors won to force Game 6 before the Bullets won on their home court.

If you’re looking for a slightly more contemporary comparison to this series, the 1993 NBA Finals are the best option. Then, the Chicago Bulls won the first two games in Phoenix and split the first two back at Chicago Stadium to go up 3-1 with a +9 differential. The Suns won Game 5 on the road, then had the lead late in Game 6 with a chance to play the deciding game at home before John Paxson happened.

Look, I’m not saying the Thunder is going to come back. Even expanding beyond the Finals, the long odds speak for themselves. Still, I’d be careful when shoveling dirt on a team that just won four consecutive games against what we thought was the best team in the NBA. All it takes is a win Thursday for Oklahoma City to reclaim home-court advantage in this series, and anything could happen back at Chesapeake Arena. Write the Thunder off at your peril.

You can contact Kevin at Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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