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OKC Thunder: Data shows five-game playoff series is better for upsets

A couple of days ago, we ran a story on potential NBA playoff modifications. If the playoffs are condensed, perhaps to shorter first-round series, would it benefit a team like the Thunder, which potentially could be a first-round underdog? You can read that story here.

It’s a good question. When the NBA season was suspended, the Thunder was in fifth place in the Western Conference, a game behind the fourth-place Jazz, so a 4-5 OKC-Utah matchup would have no real underdog. That’s a virtual tossup series.

Even if the Thunder was the sixth seed, it wouldn’t likely be a big underdog if the opponent was Denver. OKC is 2-1/2 games behind the Nuggets. But if the Thunder should fall to seventh, it would be a sizable underdog against likely the Clippers – OKC is four games behind Los Angeles.

The theory goes that underdogs have a better chance in a shortened series. And that makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it? The NCAA Tournament is full of upsets, and it’s a batch of one-game series. If Duke plays Mercer in the best-of-seven, Mercer’s not advancing. Maryland-Baltimore County is not beating Virginia four times.

The chances of Bucknell beating Kansas twice in a three-game series are remote. The chances of Bucknell beating Kansas four times in a seven-game series are astronomical. So we sort of get it.

The chances of the Thunder beating the Clippers in a best-of-three? Long. Best-of-five? Longer. Best-of-seven? Longest.

But it got me to thinking. Were NBA playoff upsets more prevalent when playoff series were shorter? The NBA began going to a best-of-seven format in the first round. That’s 17 seasons worth of data.

So I looked at the last 17 playoffs and the 17 playoffs before that, which were conducted with a first round best-of-five format.

Rather than go off seeding, I went off record. I found all the playoff series that matched opponents with at least a five-game differential in the standings. If the 52-win Nuggets beat the 54-win Jazz in the first round, is that really a big upset? No. An upset, sure, because Utah would have homecourt advantage. But not a big upset. I thought five wins was a large enough difference to matter, and most of the matchups in the study featured a far greater difference than five victories.

So here’s what I found. From the 1986 playoffs through the 2002 playoffs, the NBA staged 108 series that matched teams with at least a five-game difference in wins. Of those 108, 16 resulted in upsets. That’s 14.8 percent.

From the 2003 playoffs through now, the NBA staged 97 series with at least a five-game difference in wins. Of those 97, eight resulted in upsets. That’s an 8.2 percent chance.

So it seems clear that underdogs had a better chance with a shorter series.

Next, I looked at the upsets themselves. Was there a difference in the quality of the upset? Were there more major upsets in the five-game series compared to the seven-game series?

Under the five-game format, six of the 16 upsets were by teams that had at least 10 fewer wins.

Notable among that group: the 1998 Knickerbockers went 43-39 but upset the 55-27 Heat; the 1995 Rockets went 47-35 but upset the 60-22 Jazz and went on to their second straight NBA title; the 1994 Nuggets went 42-40 but upset the 63-19 SuperSonics (Dikembe Mutombo!); and the 1991 Warriors went 44-38 but upset the 55-27 Spurs.

In the eight upsets during the seven-game format of first-round series, four were by teams that had at least 10 fewer wins than their opponents.

Notable among that group: the 2007 Warriors, who went 42-40 and beat the 67-15 Mavericks; the 2011 Grizzlies, who went 46-36 and upset the 61-21 Spurs; and the 2012 76ers, who went 35-31 in that lockout-shortened season but upset the 50-16 Bulls, thanks in part to the Derrick Rose knee injury.

Those are some massive upsets in the seven-game era. So taking down the mighty remains possible. But it appears that the five-game series gives the underdog a better chance.

Related Photos
The ball goes past Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) over LA's Patrick Beverley (21) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

The ball goes past Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) over LA's Patrick Beverley (21) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-a71e77d6a3d0e53a79fc024cc1284237.jpg" alt="Photo - The ball goes past Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) over LA's Patrick Beverley (21) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]" title="The ball goes past Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) over LA's Patrick Beverley (21) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]"><figcaption>The ball goes past Oklahoma City's Steven Adams (12) over LA's Patrick Beverley (21) during an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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