When the NBA Playoffs roll around basketball attention spans are stretched to their yearly maximums. Usually one, maybe two, series hold particular personal interest and in the rest you’re just hoping for something interesting and exciting to happen. But for fans of teams with high hopes of advancing there is also the tractor-beam pull of a series between potential next-round opponents. What do you root for in a playoff matchup, just one hop North or South in the bracket, one that has future implications for the advancement of your own team? What types of results give your chosen team an edge?
As a Pacers fan, this issue is a whole lot more real this season. For the first time in a long time, the Pacers are not just in the playoffs but appear to have a realistic chance at advancing past the First Round. Obviously I’d prefer to see the Knicks advance as they’d be a more reasonable opponent for the Pacers, but that certainly doesn’t seem likely. I don’t particularly care for the Heat or the Knicks, and don’t particularly enjoy watching either team play basketball. So with realistic expectations that the Heal will ultimately advance, what events between here and there would be best for Indiana?
I’m not evil enough to root for injuries, so I usually apply my powerful psychic-fan-mojo to hoping that companion series is as stretched, competitive and physically exhausting as possible. But is there really a connection between how many games a series goes, and the outcome of subsequent series?
I looked at the data going back as far as the 2003 Playoffs, the first season in which First Round series were changed to the best-of-seven format. I looked at the results of each series in the Conference Semi-Finals, Conference Finals and the NBA Finals, and calculating correlations between those results and how many games had been played in the previous series. Here’s what I found:
- Over the entire data-set, the correlation between the results of any series and the number of games played in the preceeding series was -0.115. This means that teams that played more games were slightly more likely to lose their next series, however that correlation is certainly small enough to be the product of random events.
- In the Conference Semi-Finals, the correlation between the result and the number of games played in the First Round by each team was -0.232. Again the team that had played more games was less likely to win, but not often enough for us to point to a definitive pattern.
- In the Conference Finals, the correlation between the results and the total number of games played in the first two rounds was 0.056; indicating that there was essentially no connection.
- In the NBA Finals, the correlation between the results and the total number of games played in the previous three rounds was 0.221. This was the most bizarre result, with the team that had played more playoff games agains their own conference actually being slightly more likely to win the Finals. However we’re looking at a sample size of exactly nine seasons, and a very small correlation, which means this could be just a random blip.
I was hoping to find some comfort in the numbers, something that said with a calming degree of certainty that events taking place on an entirely separate basketball court might give the Pacers’ a better chance of advancing. But it looks like there’s not a realistic place right now for me to channel my excess voodoo. I guess I’ll have to back to storing it in mason jars in the basement, hopefully to be unleashed for a head-to-head matchup with the Heat in Round Two.