Tonight's game got me thinking about the minor debate over what constitutes a "must-win" game. Theoretically, only a game which will result in elimination for the losing team is a "must-win". But theory is banal.
Most people consider it a must win if a team goes down 2-0, based on the historical proposition that no team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit. A mediocre team would certainly do well to avoid a 3-1 deficit to a superior team with home court advantage.
So, what is a "must-win"? Does tonight's game qualify as a "must-win" for either team?
It would be useful to start with a number. 85 is a number. Moreover, it is a mentally significant number for basketball fans.
A free throw shooter who shoots better than 85% from the line is said to be a lock. A team that wins more than 85% of it's games is known as the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
A team that faces an 85% chance of losing a series has no easily digestible number to cling to. Their team is not a 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 underdog. More like a 6 to 1, but not quite.
If you told a fan that his team had a 15% chance of winning a series, they would feel the urge to become drunk and/or surly. It's a depressing stat, in the way a 20% chance is not. 20% is Mendoza, it's a puncher's chance. 15% is Gerald Laird, it's the survival rate for the Ebola virus.
So, does the losing team have a better than 15% chance of winning this series?
The Lakers certainly do. They have home court advantage, which gives them a better than 25% shot at taking the last two.
Boston's scenario is a bit more tricky. While it is true that there is only a small discrepancy between their road and home performance, they still have a less than 25% shot at winning the last two games based on home court alone.
Further, as mentioned in a previous post, the Celtics have slowed down as each of these series has progressed, to the tune of 4.1 points. If you give the Lakers just half of the three point advantage which ought to accure to the home team, this predicts a 5.6 point spread between the two.
Applying the point spread would make the Lakers a 2 to 1 favorite to win each game, and thus an 89% favorite to take the series, should they win tonight.
Must Boston win? Theoretically, no. But for Celtics fans, this should certainly feel like a must win.