Will Fatigue Impact the Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals?

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Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Jayson Tatum.

Sep 15, 2020, 05:30 PM EDT
  • The Boston Celtics needed beat a tough opponent in seven games to make the Eastern Conference finals.
  • Raheem Palmer digs into the decades of betting data to see if that puts the Celtics at a disadvantage against the Heat in Game 1 and for the series.

As we approach the Eastern Conference and Western Conference finals, one thing comes to mind: the NBA Playoffs are a war of attrition.

In three of the past five NBA Finals, we’ve seen injuries play a significant role in influencing the outcome — Kevin Durant’s torn achilles, Klay Thompson’s torn ACL, Stephen Curry’s MCL sprain, Kyrie Irving’s fractured knee cap, and Kevin Love’s shoulder.

Much is made about how these injuries affect the outcome of playoff series, but we rarely speak on the impact of fatigue on the next series.

Would the Golden State Warriors have blown a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals if they weren’t coming off a grueling seven game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder?

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The Cleveland Cavaliers went into the NBA Finals after playing a series where they had +15.5 point differential, defeating the Raptors by a combined 64 points in Games 5 and 6. The Warriors spent the final four games of the 2016 Western Conference finals fighting for their playoff lives. It’s a different level of stress and intensity.

You could pose a similar question about the 2014-15 Los Angeles Clippers, who blew a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets. In the preceding series, they defeated the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series that came down to the final possession.

Now in 2020, the Boston Celtics come off a seven game series against the Toronto Raptors in which their starters played heavy minutes in Games 6 and 7. The Clippers or Denver Nuggets will have the same issue entering the West finals. How will this impact them going forward?

I went through the past 32 years of data to see how teams performed in their next series after winning Game 7. I was particularly interested in how teams performed in both Game 1 and if they went onto win their respective series. Teams that win Game 7 are 32-45 (41%) straight up in Game 1 of the following series.

In the 77 Game 1s featuring teams who won Game 7 of their previous playoff series, those teams have been outscored by a total of 324 points for an average point differential of -4.05 points.

Teams that win Game 7 have a 32-44 (42%) record in the following series. Should the Clippers close out their playoff series against the Nuggets, this will be 32-45 (41%).

There have been seven playoff series over this span in which two teams have faced each other with both teams coming off a Game 7. The higher seed has won all of them with the exception of the 2006 series between the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. The Mavericks finished with a better record but had a lower seed due to them not winning the Southwest Division.

  • 1992: Chicago Bulls (1) def. Cleveland Cavaliers (3)
  • 1994: Houston Rockets (2) def. Utah Jazz (5)
  • 2001: Philadelphia 76ers (1) def. Milwaukee Bucks (2)
  • 2006: Dallas Mavericks (4) def. Phoenix Suns (2)
  • 2014: Oklahoma City Thunder (2) def. Los Angeles Clippers (3)
  • 2016: Toronto Raptors (2) def. Miami Heat (3)
  • 2018: Golden State Warriors (2) def. Cleveland Cavaliers (4)

If you were to blindly bet against those 77 teams that a Game 7 to lose their following playoff series, you’d be up $645 dollars (not a great return on investment, but something to note). If you were to blindly bet those same 77 teams to win their following playoff series, you’d be down $350 dollars.

Shocking upsets can and will happen, so make sure you’re not playing any angle blindly. In 2009, the Orlando Magic won a seven game series against the Celtics, had one day of rest and then disposed of the LeBron James and the top-seeded Cavaliers in six games. They were +550 underdogs, according to data from Sports Odds History.

The Raptors lost Game 1 of their 2019 playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks before eventually winning the series. Toronto held a 83-76 fourth quarter lead before running out of gas and being outscored 32-17 to close the game.

The Celtics haven’t played since Friday, but the three teams on the list above that had the most rest after playing in a seven game series all lost in Game 1, despite the rest (Phoenix Suns in 1993, Chicago Bulls in 1998, Cavaliers in 2018).

Be sure to consider the fatigue factor before you wager on Celtics vs. Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, or the winner of Nuggets-Clippers when they advance to face the Lakers.

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