Commentary

Spurs have momentum on their side, but little else

Originally Published: May 13, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

San Antonio SpursChris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe Spurs like the fact that the series is tied at 2-2, but they won't enjoy these less favorable numbers.
NEW ORLEANS -- The San Antonio Spurs are feeling pretty good right now. They're the defending champs. They've got two straight wins. They've got the momentum.

And, I would argue, they've got a lot of commentators leaning too far in their direction now. I've heard some go so far as to declare the series over in favor of San Antonio.

So let's do a quick quiz.

What would you say is the likelihood of San Antonio's winning the series? Most of you would probably give an answer somewhere around 50 percent. I suppose a few of you might go as high as 80 or 90 percent. Even a Hornets fan might tell you 30 or 40 percent.

So it might shock you to learn what the historical data says. Depending on what aspect of history you wish to emphasize most, the Spurs' chances come in somewhere between 0 and 17.5 percent.

Huh? How can this be? Let's take a look.

For starters, we can look at the history of teams that won Games 3 and 4 after dropping the first two games in a best-of-seven series. You'd think since they'd won two straight games and turned it into a best-of-3, they'd have had a pretty good shot. You'd also be wrong.

Since the NBA-ABA merger, the "road" team has won the series only 17.5 percent of the time in best-of-7s when the home team won the first four games -- seven out of 40. Five of them came in the past four years, which tricks us into thinking it's more common than it really is: In the two decades prior, it happened only twice.

If you go by history, in fact, the odds of the Spurs, Cavs and Jazz winning their series are actually slightly worse now than they were when the series began.

In conference semifinals, the team with home-court advantage wins 79.2 percent of the time. But in best-of-7s in which the home team wins the first four games, that number improves to 82.5 percent.

How can that be? It's simple, really: The team without home-court advantage has four shots to steal a game in the other team's building. When the series is tied 2-2, the "road" team has effectively squandered half its chances at getting the needed road win.

Of course, the glass-half-full approach is that Cleveland, Utah and San Antonio all tripled their odds (approximately) of winning with their past two home-court wins. As most of you have heard repeatedly during these playoffs, teams that drop the first two games of a best-of-seven series end up losing 94 percent of the time. Certainly, winning Games 3 and 4 was preferable to the alternative.

But the historical data also shows how important it is to get at least a split in the first two, and none of those teams pulled it off.

[+] EnlargeChris Paul
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Spurs beating the Hornets two more times is still a stretch.

In San Antonio's case, the story gets worse. Two other indicators also point against them even more harshly than the 17.5 percent figure above.

First, every team to came back from 2-0 down except one has something in common -- namely, it played at least one competitive game on the other team's home court. Of the 13 teams to rally from down 2-0, 12 had at least one loss that was by 10 points or less. Yes, even Miami in 2006.

The Spurs, on the other hand, got waxed in their first two, falling by 18 and 19. Only one team -- the "heart of a champion" Rockets in 1995 -- has survived a worse beating. That year Houston lost the first two games against Phoenix by 22 and 24 before rallying to win the final three games. It will comfort Spurs fans, at least, to know that those Rockets were also a defending champion.

Additionally, both San Antonio and Utah have one more negative indicator to consider.

All seven teams that won the series after losing the first two had something in common: a positive point margin after Game 4. The Jazz (-8) and Spurs (-6) don't, even with San Antonio's Game 4 blowout of the Hornets. Believe it nor, no team in that situation has won a series since the merger, going a combined 0-for-21.

The odds improve a bit for Cleveland, according to NBA history. Teams that trailed 2-0 but had outscored the opposition through four games won the series seven times . . . but lost it on 12 other occasions, for a 36.8 percent success rate. Even teams who are an impressive +10 or better, as Cleveland is, are only 4-6.

OK, you might think, but if the Spurs take Game 5 tonight, then it's definitely over, right?

Wrong.

History says even a win in Game 5 doesn't make the Spurs, Cavs or Jazz odds-on favorites. Teams in their situation that win Game 5 prevail in the series less than half the time.

Five teams have won the series after losing the first two on the road and winning the next three ... but another six won Game 5 on the road and then punted the series anyway by dropping the final two (Cleveland against Detroit in 2006, New Jersey against Detroit in 2004, Charlotte against Milwaukee in 2001, Indiana against New York in 1994, Atlanta against Boston in 1988 and Phoenix against Seattle in 1979).

That 5-of-11 changes to 6-of-13 if you include the two NBA Finalists who won their third road game, a Game 6 (Detroit and Miami in '05 and '06), but the conclusion stays the same -- a success rate of slightly less than 50 percent.

Finally, let me throw in one more interesting item. Given the Spurs' veteran status, their considerable playoff experience, and their total dismantling of the Hornets in Game 4, a common sentiment has been, "We've seen them do this before." But we haven't seen them do exactly this. The Duncan-era Spurs have never won a series after going down 2-0. In fact they've never won after being down 2-1, or trailing at any point after the second game.

Of course, probability does not equal destiny. Some team is going to win a series when it has split the first four, it has a negative point margin and the home team has won every game. That's why play these games on the court instead of just going by my probability models. But it hasn't happened the first 21 times.

For encouragement, Spurs fans can look to the 1995 Rockets, who overcame even more daunting odds. That club dropped the first two on the road, had a negative point margin after four games, and was down 3-1 rather than being tied 2-2.

But we tend to remember the exceptions and forget the rule-followers, and there have been a whole lot more series that followed the rule. As a result, the odds for the Cavs, Jazz and Spurs heading into Game 5 are a lot weaker than most observers suspect, with history casting a particularly harsh glare on San Antonio's chances. While some want to play the momentum card and put these teams into the conference finals, if they follow history, they probably won't survive another week.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.