Things don't look good for the Dallas Mavericks, and I'm not just talking about the fact that Jason Terry got suspended for Game 6. History is against them too. I know, I know...only eight teams have ever come back from a 3-1 deficit. Below I'll list those eight series, home team vs. road team, with the winning team shown in red bold face:
1. Boston vs. Philadelphia 1968 Eastern Division finals
2. LA Lakers vs. Phoenix 1970 Western Division semifinals
3. Washington vs. San Antonio 1979 Eastern Conference finals
4. Boston vs. Philadelphia 1981 Eastern Conference finals
5. Phoenix vs. Houston 1995 Western Conference semifinals
6. Miami vs. New York 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals
7. Detroit vs. Orlando 2003 Eastern Conference first round
8. Phoenix vs. LA Lakers 2006 Western Conference first round

Notice a pattern? First off, half of the comebacks have happened in the last 11 seasons...which means that a comeback from 3-1 is relatively more common than it was during the NBA's first 48 seasons. But that's secondary. The most important aspect of this pattern is that, of the eight comebacks, seven of them were accomplished by the team that originally had the home court advantage. In this case, that would be the Spurs.

I've personally watched five of the eight series. The key component seems to be winning Game 5. In his 1989 autobiography, Drive, Larry Bird repeatedly stressed the importance of winning the fifth game of a seven game series. "Game 5 is a crucial game," Larry said. "The team that wins game usually ends up winning the series." And while there are certainly many examples in which the team that won game five didn't win the series, it's obviously happened in every 3-1 comeback (if it hadn't, there would have been no comebacks).

The common component in these games seems to be that both teams are very evenly matched. I think that, once a team returns home for Game 6 after having been up 3-1, all the pressure is on them to win that game. After all, winning a Game 7 on the road may be even more unusual than coming back from being down 3-1 (although I don't have the exact numbers on that). The mental strain of feeling as though Game 6 is your last chance to win is more than all but a few very mentally tough teams can withstand.

So the Mavericks are facing some tough questions. Can they win Game 6 without Jason Terry, their quarterback, their second-best player, and probably the MVP (so far) of this series? And if they don't, are they good enough, and tough enough, to win Game 7 on the road, against a San Antonio team that rarely loses at home...and has the undisputed edge in elimination game experience? The answers to these questions will be very, very interesting.
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Awesome post. Kudos on the research.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I think you are right about the pressure of winning game 6 at home, but about the bird quote you are missing the point. I believe he said that not because of something mystical about the 5th game, but because after the 5th game one team, for sure, is only one victory from advancing to the next round, and the other faces elimination games. one way to get this staight is to find out how many teams came from 3-1 deficits (very few) and 3-2 deficits and compare with those that got the 3rd victory first and won the series in the end.
since you ask i guess that the team that had game 7 at home won in more than 80% of the times...
great blog...