Revenge Theory

Will last year's Finals play into this year's rematch?
by June 04, 2014

Revenge is a dish best served.

The temperature of the revenge doesn’t matter nearly as much as the revenge itself. That’s what’s most important. When you’re able to exact some kind of retribution for a past event, especially one that left a particularly salty taste on your tongue, it’s a remarkably satisfying feeling.

It’s one part accomplishment and two parts satisfaction.

In fact, some of the world’s greatest stories are based purely on that subject. And, most of the time, the stories of revenge are built out of extreme anguish and take years upon years before the vengeful subject is able to finally bask in the sunshine of their ultimate victory.

And bask they do. For a victory that comes on the heels of an impossible defeat feels that much warmer. Instead of an evening in June at the Hollywood Bowl you get something closer to mid-afternoon lounging in the Arrakis desert. For in sports, and many times in life, the greatest victories are founded upon the most heartbreaking of defeats.

So why is that? And how does that come about?

Like many other things in sports, it’s both immeasurable and unmeasurable. It is something so large and vast that everybody understands it, but in an increasingly analytic world it’s something that you can’t put down on paper. These days we seek an answer for everything in numbers. If the numbers are unable to tell the story we want them to tell, we simply make up new statistics that take more factors into account. More and more things are traced back to these stats and analytics than simply left up in the air and regarded as unexplainable.

There was once a time when a player simply had “it” and that made them great. “It” was what allowed players to step up in key situations and perform at their best when it mattered most. It was the reason Reggie Jackson was Mr. October. It was the reason that you wanted Larry Bird to have the ball when the Celtics needed a big shot or why Joe Montana would put together a touchdown drive whenever the 49ers were on the verge of elimination. But since the days of Touchdown Joe and Larry Legend, stats have filled in the holes we initially dubbed intangibles.

In 2014, everything can be measured. And everything is.

But I’m still not convinced.

There’s something that we see a lot of in sports but never really take time to fully examine. Something that happens on a surprisingly regular basis but remains one thing that we never really fully analyze. And, at least in my opinion, the reason for that is simply because there isn’t a way to analyze it. At least not mathematically.

But I’m going to try to do it anyways. It’s called Revenge Theory.

Just how big of a role does Revenge Theory come into play in the sports universe? How big of an extra motivation is provided by a team looking to overcome a previous defeat? Does it matter a lot? A little? Is it the difference between two teams that are so close in nearly every aspect that it’s impossible to determine a favorite? Can the added adrenaline and motivation that was sparked by previous heartbreak actually translate into an on-court boost that leads to victory?

If so, it’s certainly not something that we can measure. But it’s something we can take a closer look at.

For the second time in as many years the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat are in the NBA Finals. Last season’s seven-game thriller came down to an incredible three-pointer from Ray Allen that sparked a Game 6 victory for Miami and ultimately sent the Spurs home two nights later with their first Finals defeat in the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era.

But you already knew that.

What we don’t know is how big of an impact that series will have on the one set to begin on Thursday night in San Antonio. How much does that still sting San Antonio? How much will that fuel them when both teams have reached the limits of their efforts and abilities over the next two weeks? When both the Heat and Spurs are gasping for air late in a crucial game, will the Spurs look back at that defeat and be able to gain the extra additional step they’ll need to dethrone Miami?

Some Spurs players are using last season’s loss as added motivation in Act II. Upon reaching the Finals after dispatching Oklahoma City last week in the Western Conference Finals, Tim Duncan told reporters, “we’ll do it this time.”

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Revenge games happen all over sports. And they happen a lot.

So how does the team that lost the previous time generally fare in the rematch? Let’s do some digging.

The Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders played in the Stanley Cup Final in 1983 and again in 1984. In ’83 the Islanders won Lord Stanley’s Cup in a clean sweep. The following season the Oilers nearly returned the favor, defeating New York in five games, only one of which was within three goals.

In 1986 the Montreal Canadiens beat the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Final four games to one. In 1989, they met again and the Flames won in six. In 2008, the Detroit Red Wings knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Cup. The following year, Pittsburgh stole it right back from them.

We see revenge in football, too, of course. The New England Patriots defeated the New York Giants in Week 16 of the 2007 season to move to 16-0. A month later the Giants knocked the undefeated Patriots from their throne, winning Super Bowl XVII. The team credited what they learned from their regular season matchup when asked how they were able to beat the unbeatable.

In fact, the Giants went on a revenge tour that entire postseason, also defeating the Dallas Cowboys (who beat them twice in the regular season) and the Green Bay Packers, who trounced New York 35-13 in Week 2.

Four seasons later, the Patriots and Giants met in the Super Bowl again. This time the theory fell short, though, as the Giants hung on for a four-point Super Bowl W. Similarly, Dallas knocked off the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII (I won’t share the score just in case any children are reading this) and again the following year, though the game was much closer the second time around.

New England defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship in 2012 due to a botched field goal by Ravens’ kicker Billy Cundiff. Baltimore, fueled by the loss, came back the following season and dispatched New England, in Foxboro no less, to advance to the Super Bowl. Following the win, Baltimore QB Joe Flacco mentioned how coming up short the season before fueled them to victory when given the second chance.

Just last season, New England put together a torrid second-half comeback during a regular season game to beat the Broncos. It was a gut-wrenching loss for Denver, and one that they admitted stuck with them the rest of the season. And, when the teams met again in the AFC Championship Game, Denver blew past New England with relative ease.

But it’s not just professional football where we’ve seen Revenge Theory in action over the last few seasons. In 2011, down in SEC football country, the LSU Tigers beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 9-6 in the regular season matchup that was dubbed the “Game of the Century.” The teams faced off again later that season for the BCS National Championship. Feeding off their only defeat of the season, Alabama blasted LSU 21-0.

Revenge Tide.

Baseball’s best rivalry—the Sox vs. the Yanks—has seen revenge strike, too. In 2003 they played one another in the American League Championship Series. It was a hard-fought series that went seven games and ultimately ended when Aaron Boone (who?) hit a walk-off homer into the Bronx night. But, 12 months later, Boston returned the favor in historic fashion, coming back from down 0-3 in the series to win the ’04 ALCS in seven games, leading them to their first World Series appearance since 1986, and their first championship since 1918.

But what about basketball? How does Revenge Theory play out on the hardwood? After all, when compared to football, hockey and baseball, basketball has an incredibly different spirit animal. It’s played with far less people on each side (compared to the NFL and MLB, at least), making individuals that much more important. You also don’t have the luxury of watching the opponent’s best player sit on the sideline for half the game like football, and you can’t just throw four balls to the opposing slugger to stash him on first base while you take your chances with a lesser player.

That being said, let’s examine some of the more recent examples where Revenge Theory came into play, and how it impacted the outcome of a particular series.

  • Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat: NBA Finals, 2006 (DAL) & 2011 (MIA)
  • Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics: NBA Finals, 2008 (BOS) & 2010 (LAL)
  • Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Detroit Pistons: Eastern Conference Playoffs, 2006 (DET) & 2007 (CLE)
  • Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons: NBA Finals, 1988 (LAL) & 1989 (DET)
  • Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons: Eastern Conference Finals, 1990 (DET) & 1991 (CHI)
  • Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics: NBA Finals, 1984 (BOS) & 1985 (LAL)
  • Los Angeles Lakers vs. Philadelphia 76ers: NBA Finals, 1982 (LAL) & 1983 (PHI)
  • Seattle Super Sonics vs. Washington Bullets: NBA Finals, 1978 (WAS) & 1979 (SEA)

Now, obviously I’ve omitted the cases where my theory doesn’t come into play. But that doesn’t mean I’ve ignored those cases. The fact remains that it’s much more rare for a team to win both times than a split—but there are examples of where that has happened. Most notably you have the Chicago Bulls sweeping the Utah Jazz in the Finals in 1997 and 1998, and the Celtics dominance of the Lakers in the 1960s. Otherwise, at least in the NBA Finals, nearly every time we’ve seen a rematch the team that fell the first time avenged the loss and emerged victorious when given a second chance.

It’s possible that all I’ve really uncovered here is the widespread knowledge that it’s hard to beat a professional team, regardless of sports, multiple times. The athletes that do this for a living understand what it takes to adapt and adjust against certain opponents—especially the athletes that have reached these championship-level games or series. So maybe Revenge Theory is nothing more than the standard competition we see every night in multiple sports all over the world.

But what the hell fun is that?

Perhaps Revenge Theory is more than just a pit in an athlete’s stomach. Perhaps the correlation can be drawn to indicate that previous heartbreak can help motivate to future success against the same team. Perhaps I’m just trying to explain something that doesn’t need explaining. Perhaps I’ve wasted everybody’s time.

Maybe in the end it’s not the motivation from a previous defeat that plays a big role but simply what each team managed to learn from the initial contest(s). Success in sports is often due to adjustments made by players and coaches. The ability to recognize what the opponent is doing and adapting around it can result in winning or losing. Especially in sports where victory is determined by who wins four out of seven games. After all, that would make much more sense to the individuals that need concrete, statistical evidence to support every victory or defeat. To them, Revenge Theory is nothing more than the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy, an object fantastic in nature that is created to make something much less exciting jump off the page.

But, again, what the hell fun is that?