Believe it or not, the hard part is already over for the Boston Celtics. In NBA history, 150 teams have built a 3-0 lead in a seven-game series. Of those 150 teams, 136 won in five games or less. It means that more than 90% of the teams that have 3-0 deficits going into the 2023 Eastern Conference finals have been eliminated sooner than the Celtics. Historically speaking, teams trailing 3-0 almost never make it to 3-2.
But a 3-2 deficit for the Celtics is nothing new. They did it in the last one against the Philadelphia 76ers. This was the year before the Milwaukee Bucks did it. A 3-0 deficit is NBA history, but a 3-2 deficit is the longest game in the NBA. Throughout NBA history, there have been 342 series in which a team has lost 3-2, and 55 of those teams have won the series. That’s a 16.1% win rate. The number isn’t huge by any means, but it’s not the historic 0% deficit that Boston achieved four days ago. Vegas gives Boston a much better chance of 16.1%. At Caesars Sportsbook, the current Celtics have a plus-118 streak to win the series. The involved odds are 45.87%.
At worst, the Celtics have a chance to make history. Or? This is a coin toss. That notion challenges eight decades of NBA history, so we’re digging into the teams to come back with near-impossible upsets and see what chance the Celtics have and reach the NBA Finals for a second straight season.
They lost six games
NBA history has seen 11 teams take a 3-0 lead into a 4-2 series. Those parts, in chronological order, are:
- 2022 Toronto Raptors, who lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.
- 2015 Milwaukee Bucks, who lost to the Chicago Bulls in the first round.
- In 2013, the Houston Rockets lost to the Thunder for the first time in Oklahoma City.
- In 2013, the Boston Celtics lost to the New York Knicks in the first round.
- 2010 Orlando Magic, who lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
- 2007 Chicago Bulls, who lost in the second round to the Detroit Pistons.
- The 2000 Philadelphia 76ers, who lost in the second round to the Indiana Pacers.
- 1996 Seattle Supersonics, who lost to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
- 1962 Detroit Pistons, who lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
- The 1949 Washington Capitols, who lost to the Minneapolis Lakers in the NBA Finals.
- 1947 The Washington Capitals lost to the Chicago Stags in the semifinals.
Let’s go straight to those last three teams as we played in a completely different NBA. The other team has played in the last three decades. So what are our communities? The two are pretty big, and they make sense: only two of the eight streaks came in the last two rounds, and only one of the eight teams that fell behind 3-0 was a top seed. All this is logical. Typically, the streak is more likely to be close later in the games when the teams that have been eliminated are eliminated, and the team with the better regular season record is more likely to build that 3-lead.
So how do those teams that have built their 3-0 leads stumble? In most cases, we can point to one isolated explanation. Joel Embiid tore a ligament in his thumb during Philadelphia’s Game 3 win over Toronto in 2022. Patrick Beverley’s ugly play ended in 2013 when Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus in Game 2 of that Thunder Rockets series. In 2013, the Knicks played Game 4 against Boston without their second leading scorer, JR Smith, who was suspended for a Game 3 fight with Jason Terry. He returned for Game 5, but went 3-for-14. The 1996 Sonics brilliantly canceled out their defense going into Game 4 of the Finals against the Bulls, allowing Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton to falter to guard Michael Jordan. If they had done it from the beginning, they could have won the series.
In other cases, the turnaround, and in fact the entire series, just came down to a few rebounds. The 2010 Eastern Conference Finals were a perfect example of this. Games 1, 2, and 4 are decided by four points or less, with the four teams having won. The two teams have been relatively close all season, but Boston’s team rose up early in the series and late in the series against Orlando. On a similar note: fortune has thrown many covered teams. The 2000 Pacers came up from deep in Games 4 and 5 against the 76ers after leading the league in 3-point percentage each during the regular season. Sometimes they just need to cool down.
But generally speaking, a 3-0 team over a lower seed is usually enough to build enough to win one of their next three games, even with another offensive system.
They lost seven games
We’ve seen far fewer teams from 3-0 deficits take a winner-takes-all game. That has only happened three times in NBA history;
Again, let’s skip what happened in the 1950s to look at two more recent examples. Here we continue the trends that we covered earlier. Both the 2003 Blazers and 1994 Nuggets attempted a comeback in the first two rounds, both as the lowest seed. That last thing is critical. It means that the Blazers and Nuggets only need to win on the road once in Games 4, 5 and 6. That made his task much more manageable. Both lost Game 7 on the road, which is the norm in the NBA, with home teams winning nearly 80% of all matchups.
The 2003 series between the Blazers and Mavericks was remarkably simple once you look at the score. The team that made the most three-point games went 1-6. The Mavericks managed to buck this trend in Game 7 by hitting just seven long-range shots to Portland’s nine, but the Blazers fired a ridiculous 26 of 63 shots against Dallas’ offensive defense inside the arc to lose the game. The Blazers actually led Game 7 in the fourth quarter, but lost the final score by 14 points because three Dallas players were injured. Nick Van Exel, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki combined to score 31 points in 11 minutes to seal the Mavericks’ drive.
The Jazz-Nuggets series is a little more similar than the 2010 Magic-Celtics matchup. Games 3, 4 and 6 (all three games played in Denver) were decided by one possession. Utah won the first. Denver won the next two. Again, Game 7 came down to the stars. Karl Malone scored 13 points more than anyone on the floor as the Jazz won 10 at home. John Stockton also suffered a thigh bruise in Utah’s first-round win over San Antonio, but played in all seven games.
So again we have matchups that hit two of our key trends. The 2003 series focused on variation archery. The 1994 series came down to two close games. So what is going on with the Celtics and the Heat?
Why Boston can make history
The Celtics now have a chance to buck the trend here. Of the 10 postseason teams that went from 3-0 to 3-2, only one (the 2010 Magic) was a top seed. The Celtics are the top seed. If they can win Game 6 on the road Saturday, two nights later they will become the first team in NBA history to come from a 3-0 deficit to host Game 7.
Each person has their own course of action, so that only the strong have the chance to do it. The Celtics have a better record on the road this season (5-3) than at home (5-5). During the regular season, Miami’s home record (27-14) was barely better than Boston’s road record (25-16). The Celtics had a better net rating on the road (plus-3.3) than the Heat at home (plus-1.1). All of this suggests that while the Heat may be at home for Game 6, their lead is going to be minimal. The Celtics on the road and at home are quite similar in quality to the teams.
These regular season numbers are not entirely accurate. The Tides are a completely different team now. Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo are out. Emerging point guard Gabe Vincent missed Game 5 and his status for Game 6 is uncertain due to a sprained ankle. The Celtics also have injuries, such as a torn tendon in Malcolm Brogdon’s arm, but Boston appears to have accommodated more minutes and shots on Mark Smart and Derrick White.
Similarly, it would be surprising if Jaylen Brown performed with any pain afterward. it seems about minor elbow injury followed a fumble in Game 1. He didn’t exceed 17 points in games 2-4, and instead shot just 2-for-19 from deep. In Game 5, however, he scored 21 points and made three of five 3-point attempts.
Variation in 3-point shooting is one of the main themes of the Miami era. The Heat made 27th three-pointers in the NBA during the regular season, making just 34.4% of their shots. They went on to make 45% of their shots in the first round upset of the Bucks, and shot just under 48% in Games 1-3 against the Celtics. Boston, for its part, is sixth in the NBA in 3-point percentage during the regular season, making 37.7% of its shots. But in Games 1-3, they made 29.2% of their 3-pointers. This is especially important in this series because the Celtics made the second most 3-pointers in the NBA during the regular season, but attempted six fewer shots in the restricted area. Their entire offense is based on three s.
Extreme variation is built into today’s basketball. Diet shooters lean so heavily toward 3-pointers that many streaks just come down to which team warms up on straight nights. Ultimately, trying to predict whether the Heat or Celtics will be in Games 6 and/or 7 is going to be futile. But the regression conditions are on the line in this series. Both teams are starting to play more for themselves in the regular season, and in the first six months of the season, the Celtics have been the better team. If they can save two more games, they will have a chance to make NBA history.