Friday, May 9, 2008

The Anatomy Of A Playoff Series

All day on Thursday I was looking forward to sitting down and watching Game 3 between the Spurs and Hornets. There are so many reasons to watch it! Chris Paul vs. Tony Parker. The Hornets were up 2-0. The Spurs and Hornets are both likable teams with likable coaches and likable fan bases. It was a key game in the series that would prove if the Hornets really were 20 points better (as they were in Games 1 and 2) or if they were just holding serve. It was a 2nd round playoff game.

Early in the first quarter I realized that I didn't care at all. Maybe it was the unwatchable colors (all white crowd, white Spurs and fluorescent yellow Hornets). Maybe it was that somewhere deep inside I knew that The Office was coming on later. Or maybe it was just boring. Why should I spend 2 hours of my life watching the teams size one another up for the fourth quarter when I can just watch the fourth quarter?

If I rooted strongly for one of these teams, of course my reaction would be different, but it led me to thinking about how playoff series work, thus:

The Anatomy of a Playoff Series

The following is the result of a painstaking research project (at least 10 minutes this morning) into the way NBA and NHL series stack up. A Major League Baseball series is a totally different animal because the starting pitcher changes a team's identity completely from game to game. Additionally, Baseball uses a 2-3-2 format while the NBA and NHL use 2-2-1-1-1. This also does not refer to MLS series because of two things: it is soccer and I couldn't care less, and their playoff format is a disaster (winning games doesn't matter...they just add up your goals totals).

Home court advantage is statistically about the same in the NBA as it is in the NHL despite certain rules in hockey that favor the home team (frozen puck substitutions and face-offs). In both sports, home teams win about 64% of the time. Numerically, being at home equates to 3.7 points in the NBA and about .4 goals in the NHL. Realistically, almost entirely psychological - a bed is a bed, a crowd is a crowd, a net is a net. In football and baseball, being at home means infinitely more.

Also note: the score never matters in the next game. There is no telling what effect a blowout or buzzer beater or quadruple overtime game will have on individual players or teams, if any. It could always be positive (win or lose), if could always be negative (win or lose), and it could always not play a role. And there are an infinite amount of other variable that can throw all what you are about to read out the window. It ain't science, folks.

Game 1: Sizing Them Up
This is mostly a statement game. Expect lots of rough play as teams try to show one another who is going to be the more physically dominating team. Coaches won't show their strategic hands too much. As long as the home team wins (whether by 50 or 1), the game doesn't really matter at all though. If the road team wins, it changes everything as home court/ice shifts.

Game 2: Settling In
In a sense, this may be one of the most crucial games of a series, but it is so early it is often overlooked. If the home team goes up 2-0, it may seem statistically irrelevant since they just held serve. But NBA teams with 2-0 leads at home go on to win nearly 70% of the time. If the road team goes up 2-0, that stat is likely much higher. If the series is split 1-1, it favors the underdog since they gain home court/ice. This shift becomes more important as the playoffs wear on since a 1-seed should be able to travel to an 8-seed's home and win. A 1 vs. a 2 is a different story.

Game 3: New Crowd
With the underdogs getting their first taste of home cooking, game 3 is a crucial one for them. You have to win game 3 at home. If either team goes up 3-0, it's over. One baseball team, two hockey teams and 1 basketball team have ever comes back to win. It ain't gonna happen. If the favorite goes up 2-1, they are on serve and the favorites hold a huge advantage still. If the underdog goes up 2-1, it is also a huge advantage, unless they lost game 3 at home. Regardless, unless it is 3-0, I am still betting on the favorite to pull it out.

Game 4: No More Flukes
The teams now know everything there is to know about each other and while any one guy can go nuts on any given night, the coaches now know what to game-plan for. Being the favorite or underdog, and holding home court or not does not matter if you go up 3-1; the series is yours. If it is the favorite up 3-1, they go home to close it out, and have two freebies before the pressure is on them in game 7 at home. If it is the underdog up 3-1, they get one freebie on the road before the pressure shifts and they have to win at home (and they have to win game 6 in this case). If it is tied 2-2, bet on the favorite, even if they just lost two games in-a-row.

Game 5: Taking Control
If the favorite is up 3-2, it is over. They get one chance to win pressure-free on the road and the road is no longer foreign to them (see Game 6). If the underdog goes up 3-2, they know they must win game 6. But in either case, knowing that you just need one win is a huge psychological advantage...for now. Game five will feel like the heaviest game because of the fear of losing and having your back against the wall (or being out 4-1, of course).

Game 6: No Such Thing As Home Court/Ice
The visitors have been in that building twice the week before and know their routine - the hotels, the restaurants, what the crowd will be like, what the sight-lines are like. There is no surprise in it. The better team will win. There is something to be said for a team down 3-2 playing with desperation, but if the team up 3-2 is prepared, that won't matter. An underdog up 3-2 must win this game or they will lose on the road in Game 7 and they know it. A favorite up 3-2 may not get up for Game 6, and the underdog must jump all over them. Also interesting is the idea that the favorite has been in their own homes, in their own beds for at least 60% of the time during the series. You would think this gives them an extra advantage in game 6 when the underdog has been traveling more frequently and could be more tired (although this shouldn't matter at this point!).

Game 7: For All the Marbles
Throw out the stats (except one). Regular season records don't matter. Scoring differentials don't matter. Who won in what city doesn't matter. All that matters is that the favorite is at home and in a Game 7, being at home matters again. Again, the advantage diminishes with each successive series, but even in the NBA Finals or Stanley Cup Finals, if the players think they have the advantage in Game 7 - they do, and if players think they are at a disadvantage - they are.

In all sports, pressure is in the minds of the players. In basketball and hockey, the home court/ice advantage is almost all in the minds of the players. That is not to say they are not real, because believing you are at an advantage gives you an advantage. But with pressure and home court/ice, it is all how you respond. If a team like the 07-08 Jazz thinks they can't be beaten at home, maybe they can't. And if a team like the 07 Giants thinks they can't lose on the road, maybe they can't (although again, in football the advantage is far clearer and more measurable). Ultimately, being at home or on the road is only as valuable as how confident it makes the players.

I also took no account of momentum here, because there is no telling what any certain win, play, call, injury, etc. will do to a player's or team's confidence. Just look at the '04 Red Sox. They had been crushed in game 3 by the Yankees and had every reason to fold up the tents. Then Dave Roberts stole second and it sparked the greatest turnaround in sports history over the next week (and over the next four years, as it were). Of course, had Roberts been picked off of second on the next play - there goes the momentum!

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