It’s no surprise that the Oklahoma City Thunder are underdogs heading into Monday’s Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. Having failed to come through on their first two chances to close out their series with the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder are back in the Bay Area in an attempt to reach their first NBA Finals since their maiden voyage in 2012.
By any measure, the Thunder will need to overcome the odds. FiveThirtyEight’s model pegs the Thunder’s chances of winning Game 7 at 32 percent, while ESPN’s Basketball Power Index has them at 30 percent.
The consensus Vegas odds, meanwhile, are even less charitable to Oklahoma City, for understandable reasons: They involve humans. After adjusting for the vig, the initial Thunder moneyline implied that they had just a 19 percent chance of pulling out a series-decider in Oakland. That number continues to rise, and it’s hit 26 percent, but it’s still below the expectations of empirically derived models.
One reason why that might be the case is that the models don’t have eyes to see what happened to the Thunder in Game 6. The box score says the Thunder lost by seven at home on Saturday, but that fails to tell the story we all saw: Oklahoma City collapsed during the final few minutes of the game, with its offense crumbling into a writhing mass of hero-ball and turnovers. The Thunder led for the vast majority of the contest and had a 90 percent win expectancy with five minutes to go, only to fall to pieces during what might end up being Kevin Durant‘s final home game in Oklahoma City.
The flip side of that, of course, is that an algorithm might very well be right to treat OKC’s loss in Game 6 as one of many data points. The Thunder lost a game they probably should have won, but how many Oklahoma City fans would have been delighted before this series if you told them they would get to see a Game 7? Doesn’t what Russell Westbrook & Co. did to the Warriors in Games 3 and 4 — or even the vast majority of Game 6 — count as much as what happened during the final few disastrous minutes of Saturday’s loss?
I wanted to figure out if there’s some truth to the idea that teams that blow a lead late with a chance to close out a series in Game 6 are too emotionally distraught or exhausted to win the ensuing Game 7. Obviously, we can’t do that by looking at the single-elimination playoffs of football. Hockey goal-by-goal data doesn’t stretch back far enough, as far as I can tell, for inclusion. I did go back, though, and look at every seven-game baseball and basketball series through 1970 to try and find similar Game 6s to the one the Thunder lost.
The most recent comparable loss doesn’t bode well for Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s team. The San Antonio Spurs famously blew a 10-point lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter to the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, with Heat shooting guard Ray Allen tying the game with a 3-pointer at the end of regulation before the Heat won in overtime. The good news for Oklahoma City, I suppose, is that the famously steady Spurs were able to compete; they took a four-point lead in that overtime before losing, and then they led the Heat by one after three quarters in Game 7 before Miami pulled away late.
A similar story exists from the most famous Game 6 loss in modern sports history, the Bill Buckner Game between the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. With the Red Sox blowing a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning by virtue of Buckner’s error, you would have forgiven the perennially unlucky Red Sox for capitulating the following night, when Game 7 was scheduled. Boston was arguably aided by a rainout, which gave them a full day of rest to distance themselves from the disastrous loss, just as the Thunder have had before Monday night’s game. The Red Sox promptly went up 3-0 in the second inning of Game 7 and held the same lead through the fifth inning before blowing another lead and losing 8-5.
The sort of emotional burnout we’re imagining has happened before. Think about the previous year’s World Series in 1985, when a blown call by umpire Don Denkinger in the ninth inning started the Kansas City Royals’ rally, turning the St Louis Cardinals’ 1-0 lead into a crushing 2-1 loss. The following day, the Cardinals trailed 5-0 by the end of the third inning and lost 11-0, with Joaquin Andujar and manager Whitey Herzog both ejected from the game. The Cardinals were a veteran team that had won the World Series three years prior, but St. Louis seemed emotionally exhausted by the circumstances of its Game 6 defeat and didn’t show up for the series finale.
Games like that, though, are few and far between. Even if teams that blow famous Game 6s lose Game 7, they show up. After the 2003 Chicago Cubs lost the Steve Bartman game, they went down 3-0 in the first inning of Game 7 of the NLCS against the Florida Marlins. They could have given in, but they fought back and went up 5-3 before eventually losing. The same is true for the 2011 Texas Rangers, who lost Game 6 of the World Series to the Cardinals after being one strike away with a two-run lead in both the ninth and 10th innings. They went up 2-0 again early in Game 7 before giving away their lead away.
And, thankfully for Thunder fans, there are examples of teams that blew leads late in Game 6 coming back to win Game 7. The classic example in baseball is the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, who lost to a Carlton Fisk home run in extra innings against the Red Sox in Game 6 of the World Series after leading 6-3 in the eighth inning. Cincinnati was down 3-0 after five innings of Game 7 but still managed to come back and win 4-3 in Boston.
There are a few similar cases in basketball, and many of them involve Boston’s basketball team. During Game 6 of the 1984 NBA Finals, the Celtics had an 11-point lead over the Los Angeles Lakers with 4 minutes, 58 seconds remaining in the third quarter but were outscored by 22 points the rest of the way, losing by 11. They promptly went back home and beat the Lakers 111-102 in Game 7.
With a 3-1 series lead over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, the 76ers lost to the Celtics by 29 points in Game 5 before blowing a three-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 6, scoring just 11 points in the final quarter of an 88-75 loss. Having blown a 3-1 series lead against the Celtics the previous year, you could have written off the Sixers as they traveled to the Boston Garden for Game 7. Instead, they got excellent shooting nights from Erving and Andrew Toney and won comfortably 120-106.
You can find other examples of teams roaring back to win Game 7 or meekly falling apart, depending on your definition of what a crushing Game 6 loss might be.
This isn’t intended to be exhaustive but instead instructive. As fans (and writers), we often suffer from recency bias and want to weave the most compelling story out of the most recent data we have. After Game 4, it was that the Warriors were gassed by their record-setting regular season and weren’t healthy enough to compete with Oklahoma City’s stunning athleticism. Now, it’s that the Thunder can’t close. Oklahoma City fans are heartbroken by what’s happened over the past two games, so we assume that the players are, too.
And while Durant and Westbrook might be upset over blowing their 3-1 lead, the truth is that once Game 7 starts, that all goes away. The story will become whatever the outcome dictates. If the Warriors get out to a big lead early and win comfortably, as many expect, the story will be that they ripped Oklahoma City’s hearts out in Game 6 and the Thunder never recovered.
And if the Thunder do the same thing, we’ll hear about how the Warriors emotionally exhausted themselves with that Game 6 comeback and had nothing left in the tank. And if it’s a close game, we’ll ignore both of those stories and talk about whoever comes up with the game’s biggest shot or most memorable mistake.
History doesn’t tell us that the Thunder are likely to pull the upset, but it also doesn’t tell us that the Warriors are going to run them off of the floor because of what happened Saturday night. It tells us that we have no idea about what’s going to happen — that the Thunder’s offensive movement and the Warriors’ lineup decisions and the variance of incredible shooters are more important than the emotional toll of a tough playoff loss. That’s promising for both Thunder fans and neutrals looking for a great Game 7 tonight.