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Do teams really play worse in the second game of back to back games
by Herb Ilk

I'm sure everyone has seen this stat at some point during the NBA season. Some televised game will show a graphic displaying a team's record in the second game of back to back games on consecutive days. The announcer will invariably comment on how tough it is to win the second game and he will probably even attribute this to fatigue. It's clear from the graphic that the team has a worse record in that second game than their overall record, but are they really losing more often than normal As you are about to see, this is clearly a case of someone not looking at the entire picture before drawing a conclusion on a misleading statistic.

One thing that is never mentioned when showing the second game record is that 65% of all second games are played on the road. This is because NBA teams almost never play home/home back to back games on consecutive days. In fact, it has only happened on 23 occassions since the beginning of the 2001 season. That's just 2.5% of all back to back sets. You'll see from the table below that the most common back to back set is the road/road set.

Back to Back Set % of Occur.
home/road 32.0
road/home 28.3
road/road 37.2
home/home 2.5

This table shows that the majority of second games, 69% to be exact, are played on the road and every NBA team plays worse on the road than they do at home. Over the same time span, the road team has won just 40% of all NBA games. So based on this, the average NBA team with a .500 overall record will probably only have a .470 win percentage in the second game of back to back games simply because most of those games are on the road and no other reason.

But we need to look even further. We need to see what the winning percentages are for each set of a back to back. The following table shows those numbers.

Back to Back Set Win %
home/road 37.3
road/home 60.5
road/road 32.9
home/home 52.2

As we can see, teams playing at home in the second game of a back to back set win at almost the exact same rate that they do during all of their home games. But teams playing that second game on the road do act a little different. Teams playing the back end of a home/road set tend to play slightly worse (37.3% vs. 40%) but its not much of a difference and may be attributed to a low sample size. On the other hand, teams playing the second game of a road/road set do have a much more difficult time. This may be the only instance where a "fatigue" factor actually comes into play, or it may just be that road trips are a grind mentally.

In any case, the only time when an NBA team will play a little worse is in the second game of a back to back set when both of those games come on the road. Since that scenario is also the most common, it will have the greatest effect on the second game record of back to back games, and consequently the second game win percentage for an average NBA team will be around 45%.

In the end, NBA teams really don't play any worse in the second game of back to back sets, but it appears that they do because the majority of those games are on the road. So the next time you hear that announcer mention the "fatigue" factor for a team playing in the second game of a back to back set, you can just shake your head, hit the mute button, and enjoy the rest of the game.