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Which Game in a Seven-Game Playoff Series Is the Best?

Luckily, we’re guaranteed to have a pair of them in the conference finals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here’s the question: Which game in a seven-game series is the best?

Here’s the hint: It’s not Game 7, and that might feel weird to read, but it’s true.

Here’s the answer:

Seventh Place: Game 1

Really, the whole appeal of the playoffs is that teams eventually get eliminated. And Game 1s are fun enough, and the road team winning a Game 1 is always a nice little pinch of spice to the series stew. But there’s always way too much time left in the series after a Game 1 for any Game 1 to ever feel truly consequential. That’s why it has to finish in last place here.

(That’s not to say that there is never a time when a Game 1 can feel that way. For example, if a team is favored by a lot to win a series and then it loses Game 1 in such a fashion that you watch it and say, “Hold on a second. These guys might actually blow this,” then Game 1 can feel big and like it has—or had—high stakes. It usually doesn’t feel that way until after the fact, though, which, if anything, serves to make Game 2 feel bigger, not Game 1.)

(Take the 67-win Mavericks, who lost Game 1 to the eighth-seeded Warriors in 2007. It was a combination of a lot of things, though, that made it feel that way. For example, the Mavericks fell apart in the 2006 Finals, and so for all of the 2007 season they were talking about how nothing mattered but the playoffs, and then they went out there and dropped Game 1 and all of a sudden there was an almost indescribable amount of pressure on them to win Game 2. For another example, Don Nelson was coaching the Warriors, and he’d had a less-than-great end to his tenure as coach of the Mavericks, and he definitely was hoping to fuck up the Mavericks’ title run in the most embarrassing way possible that year. For another another example, Dirk Nowitzki had been a total demon during the season, and it was clear he was going to win the MVP trophy that year, and this was still back when they would give out the trophy during the playoffs, and so everyone immediately started talking about how awkward it was going to be for him to receive an MVP trophy after his team had gotten karate-kicked out of the playoffs in the first round. For another another another example, to that point there had never been an instance of a no. 1 seed losing to a no. 8 seed in a seven-game series, and that’s not the kind of history anyone wants to be a part of. And for another another another another example, the coach of the Mavericks [Avery Johnson] made an adjustment to his starting lineup before the series even started, and so when that happened there were a number of people who were talking about how the Mavericks were already nervous about losing, making it the rare instance when a Game 1 had very real, very clear, very high stakes.)

Sixth Place: Game 4

The very best-case scenario for a Game 4 is that it ends with the series being tied 2-2. And a series that’s tied 2-2 is a very good thing, because that sets up a mammoth Game 5 (more on this in a moment). HOWEVER, again: That’s only the very best-case scenario. That’s literally as good as it can possibly get. Anything short of that is an absolute disaster. Because let’s say that a team is down 2-1 going into Game 4 and then it loses Game 4. That means a team is now down 3-1, and a team being down 3-1 is a team that is, in nearly all instances, total and complete mush.

Or let’s say that a team is down 3-0 going into Game 4. That’s even worse. Because in that instance, the team trailing 3-0 is either going to lose and be swept (and having no basketball to look forward to is always the worst possible thing), or the team trailing 3-0 is going to win and force a Game 5, but it’s a 3-1 Game 5, which, as was just mentioned, is very toothless.

Fifth Place: Game 3

There are two reasons Game 3 is good, but also two reasons Game 3 might be bad, which is why it can’t finish any higher than fifth place:

  • Good: If the series is tied 1-1, that means the team without home-court advantage managed to steal it away by winning one of the first two games of the series on the road. And if the team that wasn’t supposed to have home-court advantage now has home-court advantage, that means all they have to do to win the series is just win every home game, which (obviously) begins by winning Game 3. They’ll be trying extremely hard to win that game. (Bad: The flip side of that is the team that started out with home-court advantage knows they have to win only one game on the road, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Game 3 or Game 4 or Game 6, meaning they’ll try to win, but you’re not guaranteed a maximum-intensity effort like you would from a team that has only one shot at a thing, rather than three shots at the thing.)
  • Good: If the series is 2-0, then the team that’s losing the series is basically playing an unofficial elimination game, what with the whole “No Team That’s Ever Gone Down 3-0 in an NBA Series Has Ever Comeback to Win It” thing. And if they think they have a legitimate shot at winning the series, then Game 3 is going to be their best, most maximum, most intense effort. Likewise, if a team is up 2-0 and feels like the other team is still a threat, it’ll also try very hard to win Game 3, because it’ll know that if they win it, then the series is effectively over. (Bad: The flip side to that is if a team that’s down 2-0 knows it doesn’t have a shot to win the series, then it phones it in early and Game 3 becomes a total and utter bore and chore.)

Fourth Place: Game 2

Certainty is important when you’re sorting through discussions like these. You want as many variables as possible to be pinned down before you say that THIS THING is better than THAT THING, because otherwise there’s no rigor behind the statement, and if there’s no rigor behind the statement then what’s even the point? That’s part of the reason that Game 2 finishes higher than Game 4 here. Because one of the things that you know is going to be true 100 percent of the time when a playoff series arrives at Game 2 is that one of the teams will be winning the series 1-0, and one of the teams will be losing the series 1-0.

And what makes Game 2 finish higher than Game 1 (which also has the “You Know What the Series Score Will Be With Absolute Certainty Before the Game Starts” component) is you also know that both teams know that if the 1-0 team goes up 2-0, then the team trailing 1-0 (now the team trailing 2-0) is fucked.* That being the case, it’s just way more intense than Game 1s tend to feel.

*This year’s Warriors-Rockets series is a perfect example of that. After the Warriors went up 1-0, mostly everyone was like, “Well, if the Rockets don’t get Game 2 then this shit is a wrap.” And that was true. For as good as Houston has proved itself to be this year, asking the team to beat the Warriors four times in five games would’ve been no less ridiculous than asking a pile of rocks to learn how to play the saxophone.

Third Place: Game 5

The downside of a Game 5 is, as was mentioned above, there’s a chance that the series is 3-1 when you get there. But that really falls back more to why Game 4s are inferior, because if a team loses Game 4 and then goes down 3-1, everything feels very bleak that night and the next day. But prior to Game 5 starting, something great can happen: There’ll be a moment when someone will say something like, “You know, this series really should be tied 2-2. We can beat this team. These games have all been close. And let me tell you something: Don’t let us win Game 5, because if we win Game 5 and push the series to Game 6, then all the pressure is off of us and back on them. Anything can happen after that. Anything.” And that very specific kind of feeling—that hope that ruination of an enemy is suddenly within your grasp—is wildly intoxicating. (The most obvious example would be the Cavs winning Game 5 against the Warriors in the 2016 Finals after falling behind in the series 3-1.)

And that’s just talking about if a series is at 3-1 when it gets to Game 5.

If a series is at 2-2 when it gets to Game 5, particularly if it’s during the later rounds of the playoffs, then forget about it. Game 5 automatically becomes a top-tier, extremely deadly, potential legend-making event. (Some great Game 5s when a series was tied 2-2: LeBron scoring 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points against Detroit to win Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, Robert Horry going bonkers in the 2005 Finals to put the Spurs up 3-2 against the Pistons, Jordan’s Flu Game in the 1997 Finals against the Jazz, Bird stealing the inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas to snatch Game 5 of the 1987 conference finals away from the Pistons, and the triple-overtime Game 5 from the 1976 Finals between the Suns and Celtics, often referred to as the Greatest Game Ever Played.)

(Game 5s have been bad for Detroit, it seems.)

(The only reason Game 5 doesn’t finish in the top two is because it’s the only game in the top three that can be played without threat of elimination.)

Second Place: Game 7

Everything you know about Game 7s is true, and everything you believe about Game 7s is true. They are fiercely contested, and are of the highest drama, and present the opportunity for displays of true and real and monumental greatness. The Willis Reed moment happened in a Game 7. Kobe’s alley-oop to Shaq happened in a Game 7. Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins swung at each other’s heads with fire swords in a Game 7. James Worthy, who’d never even been selected to the All-NBA first, second, or third team to that point in his career, hung a triple-double on the Pistons in a Game 7 and instantly became “Big Game James.” LeBron had the Block in a Game 7. On and on, and on and on. It’s clearly and absolutely and definitely special.

But the biggest part of what makes a Game 7 so incredible—the fact it’s the only game in a playoff series where both teams are up for elimination—is why it has to finish second here. Because, assuming we’re talking about the final round of the playoffs here, there is no scenario, or situation, or circumstance where a Game 7 ends and there is still basketball to be played. Basketball is over as soon as that last Game 7 is over. Which is why the best game in a seven-game series is …

First Place: Game 6

Similar to what was mentioned in the Game 2 section, there are a number certainties when you get to a Game 6, each of which is fantastic. To wit: Every Game 6 means that the series is set at 3-2. That means every Game 6 is an elimination game for one of the teams. That means one of the teams (the team down) is going to do everything it possibly can to force a Game 7, but also one of the teams (the team up) is going to do (basically) everything it possibly can to avoid a Game 7. Because anything can happen in a Game 7. That means both teams treat Game 6 like it’s an elimination game. That means, at least philosophically, a Game 6 is identical to a Game 7. And the only real difference is that—and this is all-caps GIGANTIC—the only real difference is that a Game 7 carries with it the inevitability of the end of basketball, but a Game 6 carries with it the possibility for a Game 7. And that’s the one thing that a Game 7 can never offer. Game 6 is the best game in a seven-game series.