How many sports pregame shows have you watched in your life?
If you’re the kind of sports nut that I am, the number is certainly too high to count. And if you’re also like me, in general, you can’t remember a single thing from any of them. They are, without a doubt, a necessity, yet they don’t seem to leave the viewer with any everlasting memories. Of course, that’s what the actual game is for.
There is, however, for my friends and I, a single pregame show that we will never forget.
Early 2010s. NBA Playoffs. 2–2–1–1–1 format. Home and favored team hosting game 5 up 3–1 with the opportunity to close out the series.
In the pregame show before that game, Magic Johnson was pontificating about the importance of the home team to win the game that night.
“You have to win tonight,” he said. “Game 6 is of course on the road, and anything can happen in game 7.” And then he uttered the phrase that my friends and I have repeated at least a hundred times since that night, “You can’t afford to risk it.”
Immediately after it came out of his mouth, my roommates and I all looked at each other and started laughing.
In a way, Magic Johnson had just suggested the team had the ability to control which games they won. And that winning either game 6 or 7 was a proposition far beyond the risk tolerance of the organization, therefore they better use the resources at their disposal to win now.
It seemed obvious! Of course, they should try and win that game. But, more importantly, shouldn’t they try and win every game? Isn’t each game worth one in a quest to get to four wins?
From that day forward, I resolved to disprove sportscasters’ complete obsession with game 5 or for that matter any individual game in a series vs. another.
Alas, things like day jobs and life got in the way. And I never got around to doing the analysis. That is, until Bob Costas lit a fire under my ass. In episode 10 of The Last Dance as a preview for game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Bulls and the Jazz, he offers up this as a preview…
“Should the Jazz win tonight and force a game 7 then it would be worth noting that very few teams have ever won a seventh game on the road in the Finals. Utah would have a slight edge it would seem in that scenario. So if the Bulls want to bring the hammer down, game 6 is the time to do it.”
There it was again. The idea that winning this game is more important than winning another game.
Combined with a quarantined lifestyle, the time had finally come to prove that these claims were hogwash.
Let us start out with some very simple facts.
- In a best-of-seven series, a team must win four games to ultimately be the victor
- The team can win any four games
The first NBA Finals series was in 1950 with the Minneapolis Lakers defeating the Syracuse Nationals in 6 games. The Finals have been contested every year since then, and it has always been a best-of-seven series.
The question that I set out to answer is what is the correlation between winning a specific game (first through seventh) and ultimately winning the series.
Let’s start with the easy part.
There have been 19 NBA Finals to require seven games to declare a champion. In all 19 of these examples, the winner of the seventh game has been the winner of the series. (This hopefully is a particularly obvious fact to you.)
Therefore, the seventh game has a 100% correlation with likelihood to win the series.
But what about the other six games? Is any game as important as announcers want you to believe?
Of course not.
Here’s how the numbers look for the 70 NBA Finals (1950–2019) on a game by game basis:
At face value, it would appear that the most important game to win after the seventh game would be the sixth game. And after the sixth game, it seems that it’s the first game. In fact, according to the NBA Finals data, game 5 is the second least important game to win in order to win the series.
Now, of course this does not make any sense either. The fact of the matter is that each game, other than the seventh, is equally important to winning the series. It just happens that when you look at data with N=70, you’re going to see a lot of noise.
To help mitigate this issue, I am going to go ahead and add all the other best-of-seven playoffs in NBA history. That brings the total number of series contested to 538:
Here you see that ostensibly game 5 becomes the second most important game other than game 7. But once again, all the games are basically worth the same. (You do get to see at this scale a bit of home court advantage presence as the better team is likely on the road in game 3 & 4, driving down the likelihood that the series winner wins those games.)
What about series that at some point have 3–1 win count, similar to the series count so aptly called out by Magic Johnson on that fateful night?
Here’s the data for the 247 NBA playoff series that ever had a 3–1 series score:
Take that Magic! Game 5, here, shows as the second least important game.
And then here’s the data for the 207 NBA playoff series that ever had a 2–2 series score:
Finally here you see Game 5 show it’s highest importance, but this of course makes sense. Any time that you have a tied series, the game that breaks the tie is going to end up being the most important as it’s very unlikely for any team to be able to come back. Remember how Game 1 is the most important looking across all the series? Well, it’s a tie breaking game. Game 7 is obviously a tie-breaking game.
What about series that are 1–1 before game 3? Here are the stats for the 232 NBA series that have ever been tied 1–1:
Voila! Game 3 becomes the most important after game 7!
As you can see, looking at any game in the NBA and claiming that it’s more important than another is as Joe Biden would say, a bunch of malarkey. It couldn’t be true on the surface of the statement, and of course the data backs that up.
Of course, basketball isn’t the only professional sport in America that plays seven game series.
Here’s the data for the 96 best-of-seven World Series that have occurred since 1923:
Similarly, it seems to be true that there’s not a more important game than any other. In fact, who would have thought that game 4 would be at the top?
And the data once you add in the best-of-seven League Championship Series:
Same thing. No actual pattern for which game is most important after game 7.
Here’s the data for the 80 best-of-seven Stanley Cup Finals that have occurred since 1939:
And the data once you add in the other best-of-seven series in NHL history:
Each step of the way, you see that each game is worth basically the same. But especially you can see that game 5 isn’t anything like it’s cracked up to be.
Furthermore, I am presenting all three sports as a combined dataset in the instance to approach a more statistically significant answer. You may believe that the sports are different enough that combining them isn’t a particularly helpful exercise, but in my opinion each team is trying to win each game so it seems reasonable that they are of the same ilk.
All games. N = 1398
In the end, it’s pretty clear that each game is worth basically the same. Yes, games 3 & 4 seem to be least important, but once again that’s almost certainly due to the “worse” team being at home for those games traditionally.
I’m looking at you Magic and Bob and Charles and the rest of you analysts out there now and in the years to come. Game 5 is just another game. They’re all just worth one.
Eli Robinson is an amateur SABR-metrician in New York City, NY. He has admittedly never competed in a seven game series of anything except for beer pong and Super Smash Brothers. Media inquiries or I’m happy to share the underlying data set at firstname.lastname@example.org.