Four out of the eight home teams lost Game 1 in the first weekend of the 2023 NBA playoffs, which is an usually high number. Historically, 73% of higher-seeded teams have won the opening game of a seven game series.
While those favored teams that are down 0-1 will feel the desperation of needing to take Game 2 to avoid losing both home games, they don’t need to panic. In fact, that desperation factor may improve their chances. In NBA history, home teams that lose Game 1 win the next game 77% of the time, whereas home teams that win Game 1 win just 74% of Game 2s.
Those two numbers are unsurprisingly very similar, since the 82-game regular season that determines home-court advantage is a much larger sample than one game of a series. The data, however, indicate that the added motivation of trailing in the series is enough to tip the scales slightly, which is a remarkable statistic. If anything, intuition says that it would be the other way around: teams that just won a game should be more likely to win again.
In recent years, the desperation effect has been even more pronounced. Home teams that lost Game 1 in the 2021 or 2022 playoffs were 10-1 in Game 2 with six of those wins by margins of 16 points or more.
There seems to be an even greater do-or-die mentality at play for home teams in Game 3. Lower-seeded teams that are down 0-2 win 57% of Game 3s at home, whereas lower-seeded teams that successfully stole one of the first two games on the road win only 52% of Game 3s.
This phenomenon can likely be explained by the extra intensity with which a team plays when its back is against the wall, and coaching approaches may also factor in. The team ahead in a series might be more inclined to stick with whatever strategy that got them the lead, regardless of its merit. The losing team, conversely, may be more inclined to make adjustments, to which their opponents are unable to counter during the subsequent game.
The Phoenix Suns, for instance, who play the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night down 0-1 in the series, have some simple changes sitting on the table. The team should be more prepared to box out Russell Westbrook, who caught the Suns by surprise on Sunday night and grabbed five offensive rebounds. Coach Monty Williams could also attempt to slow down Kawhi Leonard by giving more minutes to Josh Okogie, a good defender who started every game after the All-Star break but played just seven minutes in Game 1 because of a size mismatch concern.
“It’s a long series,” Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant said to the media after Game 1. “We know that anything can happen in the playoffs. We’re guaranteed to play another game, so we just got to go back to the drawing board.”