As of this writing, the Boston Celtics are trailing the Golden States Warriors 3-2 in a best-of-seven game series in the NBA Finals. People have pointed to many reasons why that might be the case, including: the Celtics are too tired after being pushed to the brink of elimination by the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat; Marcus Smart gets in too much trouble; Steph Curry may be a god; the warriors invented some kind of magic spell for the third quarter; and so forth.
Regardless of the reason, the league agrees the Celtics will lose Game 6 tonight and the Warriors are on the verge of winning their fourth championship since 2015.
Not that Celtics fans need another reason to complain, but their team may have been disadvantaged from the start – just by sheer geography. On Thursday, a group of Australian researchers published a new study in Boundaries in Physiology on the impact of jet lag on NBA performance, with the result that This is why the Boston Celtics may play worse than the Warriors.
Why? It’s simple: you lose time traveling east. As a result, East Coast teams have less time to recover to play home games — effectively negating the perceived benefits of playing on your own home court.
“Eastbound journeys – where the finish time is after the start time – require the athlete to shorten their day,” said Elise Facer-Childs, a researcher at Monash University in Melbourne and lead author of the new study, in a press release. “Athletes often have difficulty falling asleep at an earlier bedtime, leading to sleep loss and subsequent potential impairment of next-day physiological performance and motivation.”
The researchers collated data from the 10 regular seasons from 2011 to 2021. They found that eastbound travel-induced jet lag was associated with poorer game performance for teams returning to home games, including about a 6 percent reduced chance of winning, a reduced point spread (the gap between points scored and points allowed) of 1, 29 points and a reduced rebound differential of 1.29 rebounds. The performance of these teams only got worse as the number of time zones traveled east increased.
Additionally, westbound jet lag didn’t have the same impact on teams heading west back home, presumably because they gained hours as part of the trip. Western teams also did not suffer the same degree of performance degradation when traveling east for away games.
Finally, the researchers suggest that the NBA should develop a new strategy for game scheduling to mitigate this impact and give Eastern Conference teams more time to recover from travel. When that’s not possible, teams may need to find their own ways to limit their players’ jet lag stress.
Admittedly, the new study didn’t include data on player performance in the playoffs, and the researchers concede that the high stakes of the playoffs mean teams may already be conducting rigorous preparation to give players a chance to compete recover.
Still, the new study is sure to spark debate as to why there is such a power imbalance between the Eastern and Western conferences in the NBA. If you see Boston playing poorly tonight and you refuse to believe that the Warriors are simply the better team, now you can tell all your friends it’s the jet lag. (As is usual in sports discourse, they will surely listen to you calmly and with an open mind.)