We wanted a seven-game NBA Finals, but probability didn’t care

Akash Kataruka / Flickr

Akash Kataruka / Flickr

As NBA junkies, we have a way of acting like entitled brats sometimes, don’t we?

We slog through five months of ugly back-to-backs and Tuesday night Kings-Sixers games, and after thanklessly reaching the end of the marathon regular season, we start crowing about how we deserve the most action-packed playoffs and climactic Finals. And for a solid month and a half, it looks like we’ll get it – we witness two rounds filled to the brim with overtimes and buzzer-beaters, a third in which the game’s two best teams justly advance, and then the stage appears set for the ideal Finals between two legendary squads with great leaders and great coaches and legacies on the line. It seems perfect.

Perhaps too perfect.

We all told ourselves we were assured another seven-game classic – that these were the two best teams, and they both execute so flawlessly, and every game’s a coin flip, and as the old cliche goes, they would both trade blows like prizefighters until one delivered the final knockout punch.

Here’s the thing, though – that’s not how coin flips work. That’s not how basketball works at all, really. Whether or not we’re willing to admit it, sports are governed at all times by random chance, and random chance cares not for your desire to see a long series.

Let’s talk about probability a little bit. If you assume that these two teams are evenly matched and every game is a 50-50 shot (and few disagreed with that statement going in), then we can logically deduce the following:

1. Before any series can reach a Game 7, someone has to be ahead 3-2 first.

2. When a series goes into Game 6 with one team up 3-2, the team that’s leading has a 50-50 chance of winning, thus ending the series in six.

Therefore, even the most perfectly evenly matched series is no better than 50 percent to go seven games!

Oh boy, proofs are fun. Here, let’s try another one:

1. When any series reaches a Game 4, the closest it can possibly be is 2-1.

2. When a series goes into Game 4 with one team up 2-1, the team that’s leading has a 50-50 chance of winning, thus extending its lead to 3-1.

See, there it is! Numbers don’t lie (any more than ball do). Even with two teams that are equally formidable, perfect foils for one another, there’s at least a 50 percent chance that one of them will go up 3-1 on the other. Math!

(The only possible counterargument to all of this is if you believe the team that’s losing in a series has an inherently better chance of winning the next game – like if you believe they’re more “desperate” or they “want it more” or some such nonsense. But no one really thinks like that anymore, do they? It’s 2014.)

When you set aside the mumbo-jumbo about how “destined” two teams are for a seven-game series and actually break it down logically like this, it really makes you think about the nature of a postseason series and what “closeness” really means. Maybe two teams can match up really well but still fizzle out in five games? Maybe a matchup can be lopsided but still flukily find its way to Game 7?

Of course both of the above are true. That’s not only logically proven, it’s also exemplified many times over. How close and how thrilling were the Heat’s five games with their first Eastern Conference finals opponent of the LeBron era, the 2011 Bulls? How stupid and pointless were the Pacers’ seven games with the Hawks this year? Not every five-game series is a boring one, and not every seven-gamer is a thriller.

We all like to mythologize these sporting events and assign special meaning to every twist and turn, summing up what it tells us about the character and makeup and the storytelling arc of each team and player. But when you reduce the game to logic, it’s hard to believe in any of that stuff, isn’t it?

If the Spurs finish the deal and eliminate the Heat in this series, rendering LeBron James (gasp!) 2-3 in his five career Finals appearances, we’re all going to go back and assign all these revisionist reasons to Miami’s loss, giving us a chance to massively overreact. We’ll compare LeBron James to Michael Jordan (spoiler alert: not so favorably). We’ll consider that maybe Dwyane Wade is gassed. We’ll ridicule the supporting cast. We’ll blame Erik Spoelstra for not making enough adjustments after Game 3, and wonder if maybe he’s always been overrated.

Hell, we’ve already begun doing all that. And it’s kinda weird.

If you want to have those debates based on the overall merits of the players and coaches, that’s fine. But to launch into those hysterics solely based on results? This series is 3-1. So much craziness happens in basketball, and the difference between a series that’s 3-1 (blowout!) and 2-2 (nailbiter!) is one funny little bounce.

Both coaches in this series have talked about the nature of the even matchup – how you just want to keep the game close for three quarters, then execute well late and hope you get the lucky breaks. Those breaks might come in the form of a leg cramp, a free throw rimming out or a hot shooting streak. In any event, it’s pretty gosh-darned unpredictable what will happen. But yeah, sure – narratives.

We all went into these NBA Finals expecting one of the most epic series in league history. Two great teams, so many historical expectations – how could it be any less? Turns out the answer is: quite easily. To take a 2-1 series and blow it wide open instead of knotting it up, all it takes is one fortunate night. With all apologies to the legacies of Duncan and James and everyone else, it really is that fickle. Destiny is nothing, and the cruel spite of randomness is everything.

Evans Clinchy

  • UBK

    “The only possible counterargument to all of this is if you believe the team that’s losing in a series has an inherently better chance of winning the next game – like if you believe they’re more “desperate” or they “want it more” or some such nonsense”
    Or that being the home team has value and that alternates at the end of a series.