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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

For Openers: The Significance of Game 1

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 5/7/07; it has been updated to include statistics from all rounds of the 2007 NBA Playoffs

Playoff games are often called "pivotal," a term that is used to describe any playoff contest other than game one or game seven: game seven is obviously the decisive game, while game one can hardly be considered "pivotal"--or can it? As Yogi Berra might say, it can get late early in a playoff series. There have been 363 NBA playoff series in a seven game format and the winner of game one has captured 285 (78.5%) of those series.

The relative importance of winning game one has held constant for quite some time. From 1983-84 to 2001-02, the NBA used the five game format in the first round and the seven game format in the next three rounds, meaning that each of those seasons included seven series that employed the seven game format (just to be clear: this does not mean that all of these series lasted seven games, merely that they were best out of seven as opposed to best out of five). In 1983-84, four of the seven teams that won the first game went on to win the series. After that, in 14 of the next 18 years the game one winner won at least six of the seven series each season; in the other four seasons, the game one winner prevailed five out of seven times. In 2002-03, the NBA lengthened the first round series to seven games, increasing the total to 15 seven game series each season. For three straight years, 11 of 15 game one winners went on to win the series; in 2005-06, the number was 10 and this year 12 game one winners ultimately captured the series.

It should be added that the team that enjoyed home court advantage has won 274 (75.5%) of the 363 NBA playoff series in the seven game format. That indicates that most of the teams that win game ones are home teams. Why is home court advantage so pronounced in the NBA? After all, unlike many football or baseball games, NBA games are not played outside, so weather conditions are not a factor. Home court advantage in the NBA consists of familiarity with court conditions, including the visual background behind the rims (a significant factor for shooters and something that varies greatly from one arena to another), not having to deal with any hassles associated with traveling and, obviously, the emotional boost provided by thousands of cheering fans. Also, the team that has home court advantage had the better regular season record, which no doubt contributes to the success ratio of home teams in game ones.

The trend of game one winners advancing roughly three fourths of the time held up perfectly in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, with six of the eight game one winners ultimately moving on to the second round. The two exceptions were the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz. The Spurs, a veteran laden team that ultimately won the championship, dropped game one to the Denver Nuggets before reeling off four straight victories, repeating what they did to Denver in the 2005 playoffs. Utah’s series with Houston was very evenly matched, with the home team winning the first six games until the Jazz pulled off a rare game seven road win. That series was the only one in the first round that went against both historical trends: Utah won the series despite not having home court advantage and losing game one.

The team with home court advantage prevailed in five of the eight first round series this year. In addition to Utah, Golden State and New Jersey both won without having home court advantage. The experienced Nets beat a young, promising Toronto squad, while Golden State pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in NBA history by eliminating the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks. That series set a lot of records but perhaps the only "traditional" thing about it is that the team that won the first game went on to win the series.

Form continued to hold in the later rounds of the 2007 playoffs, as six out of seven game one winners won the series and five out of seven teams that enjoyed home court advantage ultimately prevailed. Only one series violated both "rules": Cleveland lost game one in Detroit but came back to beat the Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is the second year in a row that Detroit lost in the Eastern Conference Finals despite having home court advantage.

In the 2005-06 playoffs, not only did game one winners take the series 10 out of 15 times, but the team that had home court advantage prevailed in 12 series. Miami and Dallas, the two eventual NBA Finalists, accounted for four of the five series during which the game one winner did not capture the series and each of the three occasions in which home court advantage did not prove decisive. The only other "odd" series was the New Jersey-Indiana matchup in the first round. Vince Carter and Jason Kidd combined to shoot 14-44 from the field as Indiana snuck away with a 90-88 game one win in New Jersey. The Nets bounced back to win game two at home, split two games in Indiana and then closed out the series with a home win in game five and a road victory in game six.

The Nets also figured in a second instance that went against form in 2006: they cruised by Miami 100-88 in Miami in game one in the conference semifinals but then lost four straight games. What happened to the Nets? Richard Jefferson sprained his ankle in game one and, even though the Nets held on to win, he was not the same for the rest of the series, taking away an important weapon from New Jersey, who also lost the services of key reserve Cliff Robinson due to a drug related suspension. Robinson was not putting up big numbers but he was a versatile and important member of the Nets’ rotation, a player who forced Shaquille O’Neal to leave the paint and guard him on the perimeter, opening up driving lanes for other Nets.

Miami went against the odds two more times during the 2006 title run: the Heat defeated the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals even though Detroit had home court advantage and then they beat the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals despite losing the first two games and not having home court advantage. Dallas also went against the odds on a couple occasions in 2006: the Mavericks lost game one to both San Antonio and Phoenix but ultimately won those series in seven and six games respectively. Dallas enjoyed home court advantage against Phoenix and won four of the next five games after losing the series opener; the Mavericks navigated a much more treacherous path against the Spurs, ultimately needing an overtime win on the road in game seven to advance to the next round.

It is not surprising that Miami and Dallas, the two NBA Finalists in 2006, accounted for four of the five series that year that were not taken by game one winners and all three of the series that were not won by the owner of home court advantage; while winning game one and/or having home court advantage are usually good predictors of success, there are several recent examples of one or both of those things not being the case in the Conference Finals. In both the 2004 and 2005 Western Conference Finals, the road team captured game one and parlayed that victory into a series win and a trip to the NBA Finals. In the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit lost game one on the road to Indiana but prevailed in six games and the Spurs did the same thing versus the Mavericks in the 2003 Western Conference Finals. The Nets won game one of the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals at Detroit and went on to sweep the Pistons.

The overall success of game one winners through NBA playoff history brings to mind Damon Runyon’s famous quip: "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—but that is the way to bet." In the NBA playoffs, a seven game series is not decided after one game, but that is the way to bet.

One and Done: Game One Winners Generally Advance

Yr./7-gm. series/# won by game 1 winner/# won by team with HCA*


10 Year...117...89...90

Overall Totals...363...285...274
(since 1946-47)...78.5%...75.5%

*Home Court Advantage

posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM



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