How demoralizing is a blowout loss in the playoffs?
Sports media has a fascination with "demoralizing losses" or blowout losses that also have some sort of psychological or physical carryover effect into the next game. The Golden State Warriors were thrashed by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night in Game 3 of their playoff series, losing by 28 points. A large question is whether or not Golden State will bounce back from this loss?
Based on playoff performances over the last 40 years, teams do not perform any worse or any better after a blowout loss. Or, unfortunately for sports media cliches, there is no such thing as a demoralizing loss.
Since 1976, there have been 96 blowout losses in the playoffs. There have been 47 games after playoff blowouts that ended up being losses and 49 games after blowouts that ended up being wins. That's about as even of a split as there could possibly be. If there were some sort of demoralizing effect, you would assume there would be more losses after blowouts than wins.
Perhaps there is no effect on win percentage but maybe on overall performance? The average blowout loss is a 31-point loss whereas the average point differential is 0. The average point differential for the subsequent game is 0.365 points, with a deviation of 11 points. If there were to be a demoralizing effect on performance, there should be a negative point differential with a deviation containing a range of all negative numbers (indicating the majority of games are both losses and performing below the typical playoff performance).
When isolating each team, there are only six teams that have recorded more than four blowout losses. The Los Angeles Lakers are the team with the greatest amount of blowouts in the playoffs (12), which is not surprising as they also have the most playoff appearances all-time (60). Interestingly enough, the team with the second most playoff appearances, the Boston Celtics (53), have only been handed three playoff blowouts.
Some teams fare worse than others after a playoff blowout loss. San Antonio Spurs average -4.6 points on the subsequent game. The Phoenix Suns, however, average +6.2 points on games following blowouts. The common trends throughout most teams: they perform better on their next game and their next game is decided within 11 points.
Playoffs are still measured in wins, not performance, and some teams do seem to perform worse than others. The Atlanta Hawks have lost 5 of 6 games following a blowout playoff loss. In contrast, the Houston Rockets have won 5 of 7 games following a blowout. Try not to be fooled by some teams that seem to have 100% or 0% win records after a blowout, many of these teams have only had one blowout playoff loss.
Is there a way to predict when a blowout loss is about to occur? For example, it would be reasonable to assume blowout losses would occur more frequently in a losing streak. However, in the playoffs, 2 out of 3 blowouts occur after a win. So a win, like when Golden State blew out OKC in Game 2 of the WCF, did not necessarily indicate "momentum" but rather had a high probability of a blowout loss incurring in the subsequent game.
For the Spurs, a majority of their blowout losses occur after losing at least one game already. The Lakers tend to be more surprised by blowout losses, as only two blowouts were preceded by losses. The Warriors? One of three of their blowouts happened after a loss, not including the blowout from Game 3. The Thunder? Three of five of their blowouts happened after a win -- Game 4 of this series to be determined.