I’m going to make this short and sweet. Over the next several weeks, you’ll hear several smart people talk about how critical Game 5 is of a 7-game series. After all, in a series that’s tied 2-2, the team who wins Game 5 takes commanding control of the series. But that is precisely why I think Game 4 is actually more important than Game 5. The outcome of Game 4 determines the importance of Game 5.
Let’s rewind to the 2008 NBA Finals to illustrate this point. Boston had taken a 2-1 series edge over Los Angeles, with Game 4 being played in LA. The Lakers jumped out to a huge 24-point lead in the first quarter, and it looked like the series was going to draw even, but Boston slowly mounted a comeback and ultimately won Game 4. The teams played a meaningless Game 5 before the Celtics routed the Lakers in Game 6 on the way to the championship. Had the Lakers held on to win Game 4, it would have changed the complexion of the series entirely. Instead, they faced the daunting challenge of coming back from a 3-1 deficit, something that has only been done eight times in NBA history.
As I said before, the outcome of Game 4 determines the importance of Game 5. The “swing game” only matters if the series is tied heading into it. However, Game 4’s vitality is not nearly as contingent on the previous game since the vast majority of series will wind up with one team holding a 2-1 advantage. The winner of Game 4 will either deliver the death-blow, or make it a much more interesting series (as the Lakers can attest). Thus, Game 4 is the most critical game of a series, and not Game 5.