This dispiriting stat makes Game 2 a must-win for the Cavaliers

Donovan Mitchell and J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images
Donovan Mitchell and J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images /

The Cleveland Cavaliers host the New York Knicks tonight in a precarious position. After losing to the Knicks on Saturday night in Game 1, a hard-fought 101-97 battle, the Cavaliers enter Game 2 facing the possibility of going down 0-2 in the series.

On the surface, that’s mathematically daunting enough. Losing the first two games of a series means that you have to win four of the last five to advance. There is still time, and that’s very possible, but it’s a much more difficult proposition than simply winning four of seven.

NBA history suggests the Cavaliers have to win tonight in Game 2

Let’s put some historical meat to that math. Not counting the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets from this season, 442 times in NBA history a team has gone down 0-2 in a playoff series. That includes both best-of-seven series and shorter best-of-five contests from earlier in league history.

Of those 442 series, a team going down 0-2 has gone on to lose the series 410 times, or 92.8 percent of the time, per That’s certainly not an encouraging statistic for the Cavaliers. In all of NBA history, a team has come back from a 2-0 deficit just 32 times.

Yet Cleveland fans certainly remember a time they went down 2-0 and came back in a playoff series: the 2016 NBA Finals. Unfortunately, there was one important detail that differs from the present and makes tonight’s game even more vital.

In 2016, the Cavaliers lost the first two games of the series on the road. The Golden State Warriors won at home, and then the Cavs got to head home to try and get back into the series. In fact, of those 32 playoff series where a team came back from a 2-0 deficit, 26 of them saw the home team win the first two and then the comeback team got to play Game 3 in their home arena.

If the Cavaliers lose tonight, however, they will be facing a 2-0 deficit and have lost both games at home. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in NBA history, so the Cavs would have to win Game 3 on the road, and then probably Game 4 to have a decent shot at winning the series.

Only six times in NBA history has a team pulled off that feat:

  • 2021 Clippers over Mavericks
  • 2017 Celtics over Bulls
  • 2005 Mavericks over Rockets
  • 1994 Rockets over Suns
  • 1969 Lakers over Warriors

The 1994 Rockets won the title, and the 1969 Lakers went to the NBA Finals. Going down 2-0 at home can happen to even really good teams. But putting yourself in that position makes for a nearly impossible task digging yourself back out.

That makes tonight nearly a must-win for the Cavaliers. It’s getting late early for the Cavs, who are looking to win their first series without LeBron James in 30 years. They have the firepower, they might be getting the injury luck back on their side, and they will play Game 2 at home. Win and they’re right back in the series.

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Lose, and history has them as ultimate long shots to move on. That isn’t as dangerous a prospect for this young Cavaliers group as it would be for other teams, as they are getting their first taste of the playoffs, but it would be a disappointing end all the same.