How important is home advantage in the NBA Finals?

With Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks all competing for a place in the NBA Finals this season, we assess the importance of home advantage in the biggest series in basketball.

Both teams have home advantage on their side at some point in any round of the play-offs, with the NBA Finals no different to that.

However, the team with the stronger record during the regular season has the dual advantage of playing their first two games at home – and therefore potentially gaining a strong foothold in the series by claiming a 2-0 lead – as well as potentially having an additional home game in the deciding seventh game should it be required.

As such, eyebrows were raised when the Los Angeles Clippers – who are 13.00 in Betway’s NBA odds to win the championship this season – rested several key starters such as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for their final two matches of the regular season. 

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Similarly to when Gareth Southgate rested important players for England’s final group game against Belgium at the 2018 World Cup in football, the theory was that their primary objective was already complete and they may as well attempt to gain an easier pathway to the final.

In England’s case this meant evading Brazil and France in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively; for the Clippers, it resulted in them avoiding defending champions Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the play-offs.

Both coaches would argue that these were fine chess moves befitting of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, with England reaching their first World Cup semi-final in almost 30 years and the Clippers currently competing in the Conference Final for the first time in their 37-year history.

However, the Clippers’ strategy came with risk: by weakening their regular season record, they potentially ceded home advantage in the Finals, which can be all-important. 

As they have discovered in their current series against Phoenix Suns, who hold a 2-0 lead at the time of writing after winning their opening two home games, the greater the stakes, the more crucial home advantage can prove to be.

This is certainly the case now that the sport has escaped the lockdown-inflicted NBA Bubble of last season. Home wins during last year’s regular season fell from 57% to 54%, but raucous home support is clearly making a difference now that they are back.

We recently saw this with the Clippers’ dramatic first-round victory against Utah Jazz, with Game 7 being the first time that the home team won during the entire series.

In the Finals, this advantage only becomes stronger, with home wins increasing from the regular season rate of 57% to 61%, and 70% of teams with home advantage winning the overall series. 

Clearly, both starting and finishing at home makes a significant difference to a team’s chances of winning, with 75% of home teams winning Game 1 and 79% winning the decisive Game 7 if it reaches that stage.

It should be mitigated that the home team is generally likely to be the stronger team in any case given that their regular season record was superior, but these figures are unquestionably stark nonetheless.

Indeed, when the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Finals, they became the first team to win Game 7 away from home in 38 years.

It took LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in the form of their careers – individual skill and mentality is always the driving factor behind success in any sport after all – to win that day.

After all, 15 of 19 deciding games in Finals history have been won by the home team, with the change of format in 2014 further restoring the home team’s advantage.

Between 1985 and 2013, a 2-3-2 format was used, meaning the home team had to play three consecutive away games in the middle of the series. As such, the home team won only 66% of Finals’ series, compared to 71% before the change.

In 2014, though, the format was restored to 2-2-1-1-1. The aforementioned sensational Cavaliers’ triumph five years ago is the only time the away team has won the series since, with the home team going 6-1.

This year, it will be the winners of the Clippers versus the Suns from the Western Conference who will have home advantage up their sleeveless vest-tops in the Finals, with their regular season records both superior to the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference.

While tactics, teamwork, quality, fitness et al will all be driving factors in determining which team follows in the Lakers’ footsteps from last season by winning the Finals, the significance of home advantage should clearly not be underestimated.

With a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Final, the Phoenix Suns may well represent value at 2.00 to win the NBA Finals for the first time in their history.

 

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