The NBA Playoffs: Home Court & Holding Serve

by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz

Overheard in the hours before Game 3 of the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoff series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards: “Game 3 is the wake. Game 4 is the funeral.”

The author of that quote was intimating that he thought the Wizards, down two games to none in a best-of-seven series, had very little chance of coming back. His point may have had more to do with the Wizards’ terrible performance in their Game 2 loss than the mere fact that they faced a two-game deficit, but either way, they went out and proved him wrong, pasting Cleveland 108-72. At the same time, the Toronto Raptors were reviving their postseason hopes, defeating the Orlando Magic 108-94 to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

“But wait!” you say. “It’s really hard for a team to come back from a 2-0 deficit.” And the statistics seem to back that up: Coming into this postsesason, 26 teams had fallen behind 2-0 in the opening round of the NBA playoffs since the league switched to a seven-game series’ in 2003. Only three had gone on to win the series.

The fate of teams who fall behind 2-0 was and is of particular concern this year, because in the eight opening round playoff series, only Detroit and Philadelphia split the first two games. The other seven series seemed all but decided to many observers. But there’s reason to believe that Washington and Toronto weren’t just delaying the inevitable Thursday night, no matter what the stats say.

To understand why, it’s important to understand two things about how the NBA playoffs are structured:

1) The qualifying teams in each conference are seeded 1 through 8 based on regular-season record, and matched up so that the team with the best record plays the team with the worst record, the second-best record plays the second-worst record, and so on;

2) The team with the better record hosts games 1, 2, 5, and 7, meaning they get four home games to their opponents’ three. This is what is known as “home court advantage.”

Of those 26 teams that took 2-0 first-round leads from 2003 to 2007, all but one of them – the 2005 Houston Rockets – were the better-seeded team. (Ironically, those Rockets were one of the three teams to blow a 2-0 series lead.) In other words, using the admittedly imperfect metric of regular season record, all but one of the teams that won the first two games of a first-round playoff series was better than their opponent. So it’s not terribly surprising that the vast majority of them went on to win.

With that in mind, then, the picture doesn’t really look much bleaker for six of the seven teams that trailed after two games than it did for them at the beginning of the playoffs (Houston, despite a dramatic 94-92 win late Thursday night over the Utah Jazz, is the exception, as the team dropped its first two games of that series at home). A team heading into a seven-game playoff series without the homecourt advantage has a goal that is simple, but hard to attain: Hold serve by winning all three games at home, and steal one victory on the road. All that has happened for these teams is that they’ve lost half their opportunities to win that crucial road game. It hurts their chances some, but not enough to completely write them off. If you thought before the playoffs that Washington and Toronto – and the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, and Atlanta Hawks – had the ability to win their first-round series, there’s little reason to change that opinion now.

(Television Viewing Advisory: The NBA playoffs resume tonight, Friday, April 25, with three games. Detroit and Philadelphia get things started at 7 p.m. EDT on ESPN2; New Orleans and Dallas tip off at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN; and Phoenix and San Antonio follow that one on ESPN, getting started at approximately 10:30 p.m. EDT.)

*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about college basketball.

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