A quick history lesson — in 2003, the NBA toyed with the first round of the playoffs, extending all the series from a best of five to a best of seven. Since then, there have been a whole host of Game Sevens played in the first round (although this year marked a high point), and there are some interesting things to be drawn from the shift. For example, only one team since the switch that’s been pushed to seven games, the 2008 Boston Celtics, has gone on to win the championship. You can check out a neat little visualization of that here, courtesy of the always-awesome Dubly.com, home to sports visualizer Andy Bergmann.
In case you’re allergic to hyperlinks, here’s how it breaks down: The Celtics won their first round matchup, against the Atlanta Hawks, 4-3. Four other champions, the ’03 Spurs, the ’06 Heat, the ’10 Lakers, and the ’11 Mavericks, have gone to Game Six in the first round, while the 2012 Miami Heat, who swept the Milwaukee Bucks, are the only championship team to close their first round without a loss — all the other championship teams won in five games. Is that it? Of course not!
According to Nate Silver of the ESPN-backed FiveThirtyEight, “teams that swept their first-round series won their second-round series 76 percent of the time. Teams that needed five games to beat their first-round opponent won the next series 60 percent of the time. But those teams that needed six games to win the first round won the second round only 34 percent of the time, and those that took the full seven games did just 36 percent of the time.”
While it might be tempting to assume that this is just a case of numbers following common sense (as in of course teams that do better in the first round do better in the second, they’re better teams), there’s a little more to it than that. Even if you limit the selection to the just the top two seeds, which should be the four best teams in the league that year, the results are pretty similar — the sweepers won the second round 94 percent of the time, the five-gamers won 77 percent, and the rest only made it to the Finals 62 percent of the time, per Silver. Essentially, the more rest a team gets, the better chance they’ve got at continuing on into the postseason.
The math is so staggering, apparently, that Silver doesn’t even want to publish it in the main article, saying, “The effects are so pronounced that I don’t quite trust them; a number of other studies have documented the importance of rest to NBA teams, but they haven’t shown quite so large a magnitude.” He did, however, provide them separately. Back to those in a minute.
Using the Simple Rating System for each team, Silver determined a system for how each team should fare in the post-season by comparing the margins of victory to their regular season SRS and whether or not the team had home court advantage (which has been proven to have an effect on referees, who are not immune to the power of peer pressure, at least not when it comes from thousands of screaming fans). What that means for the second round? We’ve got you covered.
In the East, the Pacers are just barely favorites to beat the Wizards (54 percent favorites), while the Heat are staggering 95 percent favorites — a big difference compared to their regular season SRS, which would put them at the 88 percent, a number that doesn’t seem unreasonable given the team’s manhandling of Brooklyn in the early going. Out West, The Spurs have a 69 percent chance to beat the Trail Blazers, despite the fact that San Antonio went to seven games against Dallas and Portland finished off the Houston Rockets in six. Lastly, The Clippers have a 52 percent chance to close over Oklahoma, according to Silver’s model.
And those original numbers? The ones determined simply with the first-round stats? The ones that weren’t safe to stand behind? From his post, “Washington, 65 percent likely to beat Indiana (!!); San Antonio, 60 percent against Portland; Miami, 99 percent (!) against Brooklyn; Los Angeles, 52 percent against Oklahoma City.” Parenthetical emphasis his.