Win Or Go Home? When Facing Elimination, Most NBA Teams Do The Latter, Study Finds

HERZLIYA, Israel — Down 3-0 in the postseason, NBA teams tend to “choke” when their backs are against the wall and the season is on the line. Basketball fans have observed as much for decades, but academic research has remained silent on the issue — until now. A new statistical analysis has come to finally set the record straight: clubs facing playoff elimination do, by and large, wilt in elimination games.

Researchers at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel recently analyzed individual statlines gleaned from nearly 2,000 NBA postseason games, hoping to better understand how players performed when their season hung in the balance. On this mildly divisive matter, the researchers went against the grain, predicting that any added pressure would bring out the best in players.

NBA basketball
A new statistical analysis has come to finally set the record straight: NBA teams facing playoff elimination do, by and large, wilt in elimination games.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers crafted a comprehensive mathematical model that accounted for many inputs, including win probability and location of the elimination game. As it turns out, the researchers’ initial hunch was off by a not-so-insignificant margin.

A home team that won 65 percent of its home games during the postseason, their model showed, only won about 55 percent of its games when facing elimination. This same home team, however, would win 74 percent of its games if its opponent was on the brink of elimination.

These findings represent a step forward in two respects: prior research had failed to reach a consensus on how performance was affected by pressure, and few studies had approached the topic from a real-world perspective.

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While the exact causes of underperformance in high-pressure situations remain unknown, managers, in any field, can use the findings to minimize stress in the workplace, the researchers emphasize.

“The results from our analysis are relevant to the workforce and many other domains,” explains Dr. Yair Galily, the study’s lead author, in a statement. “We suggest that leaders and managers should refrain from deliberately building high-pressure environments to try to enhance performance in their subordinates. They should adopt the ‘just do it and enjoy’ path.”

Galily et al. published their findings June 12, 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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