As basketball fans and media members, we love to find patterns to make ourselves feel better about players and teams that we enjoy watching. It doesn’t matter what year it is; we all have biases in the basketball world. Whether it’s to prove a point you made throughout the season or just because you’re a super fan, you’ll hunt down every last iota of statistical information you can to make sure that you were right! It’s a bit annoying and heck, I’m usually one of those people scouring advanced stats for that kind of info.
The new narrative rolling around NBA Twitter, besides an incredibly loud MVP race conversation, is this idea of finishing a season “strong.” Apparently, to win the NBA title, you simply HAVE to close out a season in style. It’s never made sense to me either, so I decided to actually look and see if this is true.
Do you need to finish a season hot to win the NBA title? I’m keeping this strictly top-line, no pick-me advanced stats to fit a niche argument, no incredible deep dives into injuries, we’re keeping this in the win-loss column since apparently, that’s all that matters. All the records we’ll be looking at today are over the final 23 games or so from the All-Star break to the end of the season. Obviously, due to COVID and its effects on the schedule, we’ll have to be a bit flexible as we progress, but I think we all understand the context.
2018 Warriors: 14-10
2018 Cavaliers: 16-7
Let’s start with the last edition of the LeBron vs. Steph rivalry. The 2017-2018 Warriors were looked at as one of the best rosters ever assembled. Hell, their preseason championship odds were -187, an objectively hilarious thing to look at! They finished the season 14-10 and considering they finished the season 58-24, those 10 losses were a pretty massive chunk of their total season losses. They actually ended up finishing 2nd in the West despite having the best offense in the NBA averaging 113.5 PPG. (Side note, incredible that one of the best rosters ever averaged 113.5 PPG just 5 years ago and now the 2023 Celtics average 117.5 PPG and that is good for 4th! Basketball is fun.) The Dubs actually closed the season losing 3 of 4. I promised no DEEP dives on injuries, but yes, Steph Curry was injured to close the season. Good thing the Warriors still had KEVIN DURANT, KLAY THOMPSON, AND DRAYMOND GREEN. Goodness, what a roster. The Cavs were the opposite. Closed the season healthy and in style. They won 6 of 8 to close the year but finished 4th in the East at 50-32. Conclusion? How either of these teams closed didn’t really matter. The Warriors still swept the Cavs. Let’s jump to a year without an obscene super team.
2019 Warriors 16-9
2019 Raptors 15-8
Just kidding, one more super team. Both teams in the Finals closed the regular season well, but not in legendary fashion. Kawhi had really started to kick things into high gear, some of the box scores he was putting up down the stretch were incredible, I suggest the hardcore basketball fans go shuffle through Basketball Reference for a bit. The Warriors were fully healthy heading into the playoffs, their starting 5 of Steph-Klay-Durant-Draymond-Cousins was rolling until...they lost Games 2 and 5 to the 8-seed Clippers as Danilo Gallinari lit them up with 24 and 26 points respectively. Shout out to Lou Williams with 36 in Game 2 and 33 in Game 5 off the bench. Regular season momentum is great until the Italian Dream gets a hold of you, then all bets are off. On a serious note, this season is a good example of how different the playoffs are from the regular season. The Warriors were playing great until KD went down and then all of a sudden, how they closed the regular season didn’t mean anything. Heck, even the Raptors with their insanely hot end to the season, lost their first playoff game to the Orlando Magic! At home! Remember the D.J. Augustin game?! Anyway, we’re losing focus, let’s head to, gulp, the bubble.
2020 Lakers 2-5
2020 Heat: 3-5
I’m not going to spend a ton of time on this season for obvious reasons. It should be mentioned that the Lakers were on an absolute tear coming off the All-Star break before the world shut down. They were 8-2, #1 seed in the West, clearly the best team in basketball at the time, but they did kind of stink during those few weird bubble regular season games. The Heat were pretty mid in the regular season that year, they finished 44-29, so not a ton to take from anything this season. Damn you COVID.
2021 Bucks 14-9
2021 Suns: 16-7
Only asterisk on this season is the lack of an All-Star break, so I just took the last 23-24 games for each team. Again, as you can see, nothing really legendary going on here. The Bucks finished the season 46-26, good for 3rd in the East. Suns, 51-21, and 2nd in the West. Even in the playoffs, these teams weren’t necessarily the most dominant. The Bucks were 16-7 in the playoffs, Suns finished 14-8, almost a swap of their end-of-season records. What both teams definitely had in common were their stars dominating in the playoffs. Giannis-Middleton-Jrue was an incredible trio, especially when they hit the Finals. Same thing for Booker-Paul-Ayton, they were sensational in the series sweep against Denver in Round 2. Still, goes to show that while finishing strong is good, you have to flip that switch come playoff time or you’re going nowhere.
2022 Warriors 11-12
2022 Celtics 17-5
It should be mentioned, again, that Steph Curry missed the last 13 games of the season, but the Warriors went 6-7 in those games. Before that, they were 5-5 with him, so not a huge difference. On the other side, I don’t think I need to spend too long on CelticsBlog talking about how 2022 Celtics closed out the season. It was something truly special and carried into the playoffs quite well, but unfortunately, they got Steph Curry’d and that was that. This is a pretty obscene example, but sort of ironic Celtics fans have been up in arms about the team finishing the season, yet then one that beat them in the Finals last year finished last year 11-12. Got to love basketball.
Looking at all the data and the records above, I think we can safely say that while you’d obviously like to win as many games as possible to close out a season, it really doesn’t have a true impact on your postseason performance. If your superstar goes supernova, your regular season record doesn’t matter, they are going to get you to the very top. Whether it’s Kawhi, Steph, Giannis, whoever, they will get you to the promise land with a great playoff run. Tatum and Brown did it last season before falling to the PG legend, I think the same expectations apply. When the regular season ends and the playoffs start, your stars have to go up another level. Period.