As the old cliche in the NBA goes: The series doesn’t start until the home team loses.
The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in a must-win scenario entering Game 3 of the NBA Finals as the series shifts to the Midwest for two pivotal games. The Bucks lost Games 1 and 2 to the Phoenix Suns by double digits despite the herculean effort of their star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Now that it finds itself in a two-game hole, Milwaukee is in desperation mode with the series essentially on the line since no team in NBA postseason history has been able to overcome an 0-3 deficit in the postseason in 143 series (only three teams have even made it to seven games in that situation).
So how have teams historically performed in this spot? We took a look at data from Bet Labs to find out.
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Betting teams down 0-2 in the first half is a trend that holds true regardless of the postseason round.
Raheem Palmer wrote about this trend and others ahead of the playoffs and pointed out one of the key factors at play is motivation:
The logic is simple, no team has overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game playoff series in NBA history and thus the sense of urgency teams feel when down 0-2 means they’re playing harder than the opposing team.
Historically, teams entering a Game 3 on a losing streak of two or more games are 80-37-1 ATS in the first half at home and this season those teams are 2-4-1.
The return on investment for this trend is highest in the Conference Finals, but it’s still high in the NBA Finals, as well with a 6-3 record since 2005.
Even in the NBA bubble last season, the Miami Heat responded early in the first half after getting blown off the floor in the first two quarters by the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 and 2. Motivation is impossible to quantify, but there is no substitution for pressure and the Finals typically feature the two teams who deal with pressure situations well.
Good Teams Win, Most Don’t Cover
One of the drawbacks of playing your absolute hardest early in the game is that it’s difficult to sustain over the course of 48 minutes. In the Finals, both teams are elite, so while a road team may find itself down at halftime, that doesn’t mean they are out (remember, the teams on the road are up 2-0 for a reason).
According to our Bet Labs database, teams down 0-2 are 6-3 straight up (SU) in Game 3. Five of the teams that covered the first half of Game 3 in our database (’06 Heat, ’08 Lakers, ’09 Magic, ’16 Cavaliers, ’20 Heat) won the game outright.
However, only two of those teams actually covered the spread and overall, teams in this situation are just 3-6 against spread (ATS) dating back to 2005.
What This Means for the Bucks and Suns
As of this writing, the Bucks line for the first half is between -2.5 and -3.5 depending on the book. They are 4-point favorites across the board after opening at -3.5.
The Bucks are 6-0-2 ATS at home in the first half this postseason, which is the best mark of any team in these playoffs. Per NBA Advanced Stats, the Bucks have the best Net Rating (+22.8) in the first half when playing at home this postseason — the next closest team (Utah Jazz) was +13.5.
Over a full game, the Bucks are 5-3 ATS at home in the playoffs — a solid mark — but the Suns are 6-2 ATS on the road and are the most profitable team in that spot.
Based on the historical and postseason trends, it seems likely that the Bucks come out strong in the first half and end up in a dogfight down the stretch. As far as the rest of the series, the Bucks are facing an uphill battle if they hope to win the series. Only four of the 35 teams that have fallen behind 0-2 in the NBA Finals have come back to win.
If the Bucks hope to become the fifth, it begins in Game 3.