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

A study into jet lag reveals a potential factor in why the Celtics couldn't overcome the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
3 min read
Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, on court.

Jayson Tatum, of the Boston Celtics, looking a bit jet-laggy, perhaps.

Ezra Shaw/Getty

The Golden State Warriors are the NBA Champions. In Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, Steph Curry, the greatest shooter of all time, dominated the Celtics, putting up 32 points. But it wasn't just Steph. Horrible ball-handling and messy turnovers hurt the Celtics, too.

However, if a new study is to be believed, there may be another factor that played into the Celtics' woes. Scientists call it "desynchronosis." You know it as jet lag.

The research, conducted by a team of sleep scientists, analyzed 10 seasons and over 11,400 NBA games since 2011, finding jet lag is associated with impaired performance for NBA athletes. Interestingly, the jet lag seems to adversely affect teams traveling eastward, even if that's back home -- like the Boston Celtics had to do for Game 6. The research is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Physiology on June 16.

"Travelling eastward could be of particular concern to teams located on the east coast who have to travel back to play 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 went into some stats, too. Notably, they looked at the points differential and at rebounding, because it's described as an "effort or hustle play," and also the effective field goal percentage (eFG%), a metric that accounts for three-point shots being worth more than two-point shots in overall shot percentage. The points differential for teams traveling eastward, back home, was down (-1.29), and they also had a worse rebound differential (-1.29) and worse eFG% (-1.2) than teams that didn't travel or than away teams traveling eastward.

All in all, not great news if you're flying from, say, San Francisco to Boston.

So why not away teams traveling eastward? Why don't they feel these effects?

Lead author Josh Leota, a sleep scientist at Monash University, speculates that it could be due to differences in travel activity. "When travelling on the road, team management may be able to more easily mitigate jet lag effects by maintaining a structured schedule," he noted.

There is reason for some skepticism, however. 

First, the reduced chance of winning is only 6% and does not reach statistical significance in the research paper (but it's very close). There might be a trend toward eastbound teams losing, but it could also just be chance. That percentage would also be the equivalent of 2.47 fewer home wins, according to the paper.

And then the press release sent out by Monash on June 16 suggests that the Celtics might be unfairly impacted by NBA Finals scheduling, and that the old NBA Finals schedule of 2-3-2, where the first two and last two games are played at the home of the highest seed, might be better for minimizing jet lag than the current 2-2-1-1-1 format.

There's also a pretty significant caveat with the data: The study did not include playoff games. 

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

But we can't know that — that wasn't what the study looked at — and, even if it did, the amount 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 confounding factors. For instance, there's a home and away game imbalance because higher seeds play more home games, there's more rest between games and it's unique to play the same team four to seven times in a row. (Leota notes he is a Boston Celtics fan but wrote the paper when the Celtics were still under .500 and it's just a happy coincidence it was published ahead of Game 6.)

Scientists have long examined the effects of jet lag on athletes, and further research might begin to unravel why players unravel after eastward flights...

... but when it comes to the Finals, it could just be there's simply no science that can stop Steph Curry.