Underdog Up 3-1: A Historical Perspective

Since 2003, in the first round of the playoffs the underdog has taken a 3-1 lead 19 times, and have gone on to win those series 17 times, for a massive 89% success rate. The high success rate should not be surprising, since taking a 3-1 lead is usually the result of being a stronger team in the matchup in spite of the lower seed. Sometimes the lower seeded team simply matches up well against their opponent. For this reason, we can confidently pick our remaining Thunder players and not worry about the what ifs of them coming back. It's still possible, but history suggests it's highly unlikely and a truly low odds bet with little chance to pay off.

Note: An underdog is defined as the team who does not have homecourt advantage. For example, the #4 seeded Utah Jazz in 2008 took a 3-1 series lead on the #5 seeded Houston Rockets. Utah is defined as an underdog in spite being technically seeded higher, as they did not have homecourt advantage.

Another interesting question is how many games these series last?

Of the 19 series with a 3-1 underdog lead, 13 of them ended in 6 games. This is the expected result. Both teams win their home games and series over. These were:
2014: #5 Portland over #4 Houston
2013: #6 Golden State over #3 Denver
2012: #8 Philadelphia over #1 Chicago
2012: #4 Boston over #5 Atlanta (Atlanta had homecourt)
2011: #5 Atlanta over #4 Boston
2011: #8 Memphis over #1 San Antonio
2010: #7 San Antonio over #2 Dallas
2010: #5 Utah over #4 Denver
2009: #5 Houston over #4 Portland
2008: #4 Utah over #5 Houston
2007: #6 New Jersey over #3 Toronto
2007: #8 Golden State over #1 Dallas
2003: #6 Boston over #3 Indiana

2 of the 19 series with a 3-1 underdog lead ended in 5 games. This means it's very rare for the team down 3-1 to bow out at home and lose the series on their court. They were:
2014: #5 Washington over #4 Chicago
2009: #6 Dallas over #3 San Antonio

2 of the 19 series with a 3-1 underdog lead had the underdog blow the 3-1 lead but still squeak out a win in 7 games. Winning a game 7 on the road is challenging, so they were very fortunate to do so. They were:
2013: #5 Chicago over #4 Brooklyn
2011: #5 LA Clippers over #4 Memphis

Note: Is any series lead ever safe with the Clippers?

Finally, 2 of the 19 series with a 3-1 underdog lead had the favourite come all the way back and win the series. It's been a while since this happened too.

The 2006 #2 seeded Phoenix Suns with Steve Nash trailed the #7 seeded LA Lakers 3-1 and pulled off the comeback to win in 7. They needed an overtime win on the road in Game 6 in order to pull it off. I remember watching that series, and it was so much fun.

In 2003, the #1 seeded Detroit Pistons came back from 3-1 down against the #8 seeded Orlando Magic and won in 7. Detroit would go all the way to the NBA Finals that season too.

This means the comeback is possible for the Thunder. But will they? I doubt it. Utah has looked like the much better team with their ball movement and team defense. Oklahoma City has been struggling to find an identity all season. Carmelo Anthony doesn't realize he's aged and needs to adjust his game. I feel confident with Utah. This might be one of the rare cases of a series being over in 5. However, Utah is 6 is historically the safest bet.


  1. Well written & well reported! I totally agree with Utah in 6 & wouldn't be surprised with Utah in 5.

    1. Halftime Utah 56 - 41 OKC.

      If they don’t change, it’s all over today

    2. It changed. It's all over on Friday instead. ;)

  2. I think Melo has agreed the last half of the season that he’ll spot and shoot, not back-to-the-basket nor create-your-own-shots. And that has been a factor in em being more cohesive at end of the season.

    What’s wrong this series is they don’t run plays. Especially in the 4th, it’s all give it to a star, isolation

    1. Interesting. I hadn't seen that Melo adjusted his game. I know during the first 30 games Melo was doing that. Perhaps I'm wrong on that one. I guess my most recent memory was Game 4 where Melo was just bricking everything.

    2. What. A. Game. I loved every second of watching that comeback unfold live (except Westy getting all that PRA when I had George). I honestly don't know who I'm rooting for to win the series; I guess Utah due to DTTF picks, but as an NBA fan I really don't know. Watching Westbrook is simply unreal.

    3. I am still confident in Utah to advance. And OKC will need to get Gobert into foul trouble again to win a game. All the comeback last night was when Gobert wasn't there to defend the paint


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