One Strange Reason Why the Boston Celtics May Have Lost NBA Finals Game 6

The Golden State Warriors are the NBA champions. In Game 6 of Thursday’s NBA Finals, all-time shooter Steph Curry dominated the Celtics by 32 points. But it wasn’t just Steph. Terrible ball handling and messy turnovers also hurt the Celtics.

However, if a new study is to be believed, there could be another factor that contributed to the Celtics’ woes. Scientists call it “desynchronosis”. You know it as jet lag.

Conducted by a team of sleep scientists, the study analyzed 10 seasons and over 11,400 NBA games since 2011 and found that jet lag is associated with impaired performance in NBA athletes. Interestingly, the jetlag seems to be affecting teams traveling east back home — as the Boston Celtics had to do in Game 6. The research results were published June 16 in the open-access journal Frontiers in Physiology.

“Eastbound travel could be of particular importance for East Coast teams who need to travel back to home games and do not have adequate recovery times,” noted Elise Facer-Childs, a sleep scientist at Monash University in Australia, in a press release.

The researchers also touched on some statistics. Specifically, the team looked at point difference and rebounding, as it’s described as “effort or rush,” as well as effective field goal percentage (eFG%), a metric that accounts for 3-point shots being worth more than 2 -Score shots in total shot percentage. The point differential for teams traveling east, back home, was lower (-1.29) and they also had worse rebound differential (-1.29) and eFG% (-1.2) than teams that who did not travel, or away teams who travel east.

All in all, not good news if you’re traveling from San Francisco to Boston, for example.

So why not a way Teams Travel East? Why don’t they feel these effects?

Lead author Josh Leota, a sleep scientist at Monash University, speculates that this may be due to differences in travel activity. “When traveling by road, team management may be able to mitigate jet lag more easily by following a structured schedule,” he notes.

However, there is reason for some skepticism.

First, the reduced chance of winning is only 6% and does not reach statistical significance (but very close) in the research paper. There could be a trend of eastbound teams losing, but it could also just be coincidence. According to the newspaper, this percentage would also correspond to 2.47 fewer home wins.

And then the press release sent out by Monash on June 16 suggests that the Celtics may be unduly influenced by NBA Finals scheduling and the old NBA Finals schedule of 2-3-2, where the first two and the final two games being played home to the highest seed, might be better suited to minimizing jet lag than the current 2-2-1-1-1 format.

There’s one fairly significant caveat with the data, though: The study didn’t include playoff games.

It may not be that scientific, but having watched a lot of basketball in my life, I can tell you that the level of play during the playoffs and finals is much higher than during regular season games. It takes a lot more effort and the players really have to put in the effort. You might even imagine that looking at the finals data, there might be a more significant trend in things like the difference in rebound.

But we can’t know that — that wasn’t what the study examined — and even if it were, the number of NBA Finals games is a far smaller sample size, making it harder to draw conclusions.

The reason for this, according to Leota, is that there are some potential confounders. For example, there is an imbalance between home and away games because higher seeded players play more home games, there are more breaks between games and it is unique to play the same team 4-7 times in a row. (Josh notes that he’s a Boston Celtics fan, but wrote the paper when the Celtics were still under .500 wins, and it’s just a happy coincidence that it was published before Game 6.)

Scientists have long studied the effects of jet lag on athletes, and further research may begin to unravel why players get freaked out after flights east…

…but when it comes to the finale, it might just be that there’s just no science that can stop Steph Curry.

Updated at 5:45 PM PT: Added comments from Josh Leota
Updated 8:30pm PT: Updated language after winning the GSW Finals.

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