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Can the Magic Go Undefeated In the Playoffs?

Posted by Neil Paine on May 7, 2010

The concept of a Fo'-Fo'-Fo' was immortalized by Moses Malone before the 1983 postseason, but while the Sixers stormed through the playoffs on the back of Malone's brilliant performance (.260 WS/48), Philly actually went 4-5-4, losing once to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. 18 years later, the L.A. Lakers looked as dominant as any playoff team ever has, but after going 3-4-4 to reach the Finals, a Game 1 loss  -- ironically enough, to the Sixers -- derailed their hope of an undefeated playoff run. And so it has been that in all of NBA history, no team has ever swept the entire playoffs without a single defeat.

The only team with a chance to obliterate that piece of trivia in the 2010 playoffs are the Orlando Magic, 6-0 thus far after another big win over the Atlanta Hawks, a team that seems totally incapable of matching up with the Magic for 48 minutes. Right now, the Magic are 10 wins away from the 4-4-4-4 dream... What are the odds that they'll pull it off?

Well, first, what are the odds they sweep the Hawks? With the next two games coming in Atlanta, we can use this formula to assess the chances of a 0.720 WPct team beating a 0.646 one twice in a row on the road, given the league's home-court-advantage of 0.594 in 2010:

p(Home win) = ((Hometeam%) * (1 - Roadteam%) * HCA)/((Hometeam%) * (1 - Roadteam%) * HCA +(1 - Hometeam%) * (Roadteam%) * (1 - HCA))

For Orlando-Atlanta, this establishes the Magic's chances of winning 1 road game as 48.9%, meaning their odds of sweeping Atlanta are 0.489^2 = 23.9% at the moment. Their possible opponents in the Eastern Conference Finals are Cleveland and Boston; right now Cleveland has a 73.3% chance of winning the series, and Boston has a 26.7% chance. If they play Cleveland, Orlando would have a 4.5% probability of sweeping; if they play Boston, the probability is a more reasonable 13.9%. Combining these two facts, we see that Orlando has a 0.239*((0.733*0.045)+(0.267*0.139)) = 1.7% chance of replicating the 2001 Lakers' feat by going 4-4-4 through the Conference Finals.

Now, who would they play when they got to the NBA Finals? Out West, Phoenix has an 85.5% chance of advancing past San Antonio, and the Lakers have an 85.8% chance of beating Utah. If Phoenix played L.A., the Lakers would have a 61.8% chance of winning; if L.A. played San Antonio, they'd have a 72% chance of winning; if Phoenix played Utah, the Suns would have a 55.9% chance of winning; if Utah played San Antonio, the Jazz would have a 61.3% chance of winning. So we have these possible results:

  • Lakers face Suns in WCF (73.3%), Lakers win (61.8%) --> 0.733*0.618 = 45.3%
  • Lakers face Suns in WCF (73.3%), Suns win (38.2%) --> 0.733*0.382 = 28%
  • Lakers face Spurs in WCF (12.4%), Lakers win (72%) --> 0.124*0.72 = 8.9%
  • Lakers face Spurs in WCF (12.4%), Spurs win (28%) --> 0.124*0.28 = 3.5%
  • Jazz face Suns in WCF (12.1%), Suns win (55.9%) --> 0.121*0.559 = 6.8%
  • Jazz face Suns in WCF (12.1%), Jazz win (44.1%) --> 0.121*0.441 = 5.4%
  • Jazz face Spurs in WCF (2.1%), Jazz win (61.3%) --> 0.021*0.613 = 1.3%
  • Jazz face Spurs in WCF (2.1%), Spurs win (38.7%) --> 0.021*0.387 = 0.8%

From these, you can derive that L.A. has a 54.3% chance of making the Finals, Phoenix has a 34.8% chance, Utah has a 6.6% chance, and San Antonio has a 4.3% chance.

Okay, we're almost there... If the Magic face L.A., there's a 7.3% chance they'll sweep; vs. Phoenix there's a 9.9% chance; vs. Utah there's a 10.8% chance; and against San Antonio there's a 13.9% chance. This means the Magic have a ((0.073*0.54) + (0.099*0.348) + (0.108*0.066) + (0.139*0.043)) = 8.7% chance of sweeping whoever they meet in the Finals, assuming they make it.

You can combine all of the probabilities in this post like this:

  • Magic sweep Hawks (23.9%) * Magic sweep ECF (7%) * Magic sweep Finals (8.7%) = 0.146% chance of going 4-4-4-4

That means that if you present Orlando with the situation they're in right now 1,000 times, they don't go Fo-Fo-Fo-Fo 999 times. But there is one chance that they do... Will the Magic take that chance?

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15 Responses to “Can the Magic Go Undefeated In the Playoffs?”

  1. someone with a brain Says:

    the stupidest post ive ever seen. you cant plug numbers in and get a solution like that. and to even try is absurd. favorable matchups injuries and referees are just some of the factors you have completely missed.

  2. Luke Says:

    If Orlando sweeps either the Cavs or Celtics AND either the Lakers or Suns (or possibly the Jazz I suppose), then I'm going to go out on a limb and say they're one of the top 5, maybe top 3, greatest teams of all time. It won't happen, but still... And I have to imagine it would also improve Vince Carter's Hall of Fame chances by quite a bit, much to the horror of all Canadians and many other basketball fans everywhere.

    And a quick correction: The 2001 Lakers went 3-4-4 to get to the Finals. The first round was still best of five then.

  3. Ian Says:

    Not sure why there are hostile comments about this. In any case, I think Orlando loses one in Atlanta.

  4. Neil Paine Says:

    Thanks for the correction, Luke, I fixed it. And yeah, I have no idea why that dude was hostile, this is pretty basic probability theory.

  5. Mike G Says:

    Meh.. I always hate when stats from the PAST are cited when predicting a team's CURRENT path.

    It has absolutely no outcome on what will happen what some other team did either earlier this year or even years ago.

    This is mathematical and fun and all that,
    but the ones that really drive me nuts are when somebody will mention something like "All-Time Team A is X-X when having such-and-such lead in a series"...As if the 1979 Lakers have any bearing on what the 2010 edition would do. Its just commentators searching for something to talk about.

    You can only analyze on a game to game basis in my opinion. Past trends are just that, trends, and from the past. Nothing to do with right now.

  6. Brian Says:

    My numerological Waterloo was College Algebra so I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm positive you're right that The Magic have a 1 out of 1000 chance of going undefeated. Nobody's ever done it and there have been dozens of teams that have been more dominant than the Magic -- that would be my argument. I'd say the only way it could happen is if Cleveland wins against Boston only to have LBJ's elbow freeze up in the Finals and then have something similar happen to Kobe and the Lakers

    Now then, as for your use of the word ironic -- It is not ironic that the Sixers stoppped the Lakers bid to go Fo' fo' fo'. That is coincidence, which is not necessarily irony. Irony would be more like if the Lakers came within a hair of achieving their goal, only to succumb to injuries because they overextended themselves and lose the final four games. Or let's say the Sixers were an eighth seed who upset a team that everyone thought would foil the Laker's bid -- then that would be irony

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    I was using it in the Alanis Morissette sense.

  8. Mikey Says:

    Mehhh, this is garbage....the lakers would beat Orlando in the finals again if they met.

  9. Downpuppy Says:

    After last night, it must be up to about 1/600, eh?

  10. Downpuppy Says:

    erm - 1/330 - shoulda read the post

  11. David Says:

    What value do you use for HCA?

  12. Neil Paine Says:

    0.594.

  13. Mike G Says:

    I did not submit the post above, from another "Mike G".
    I never say "meh".

    I'm surprised another person can use the exact same name here.
    Is there a 'space' or other distinction?

  14. kerem Says:

    almost 1% now!

  15. Neil Paine Says:

    Well, that's it, Fo'-Fo'-Fo'-Fo' is dead for at least another year.