This is not The Academic Study Jones so I am not entirely sure how to introduce these relevant NBA study findings, other than to say that they are interesting. So here you go.
From a University of Chicago study, by way of the Freakonomics blog:
The results were clear. Effort increased dramatically only for people who believed they were slightly behind in the competition. What’s more, we found a similar effect when we analyzed real-world field data from 60,000 basketball games, including 18,000 NBA games. The relationship between the score and the likelihood of winning was fairly linear. For every two points a team was ahead, its chances of winning increased by about 7%—except for this major discontinuity right in the middle. Teams that were down by one point at halftime were more likely to win than teams that were ahead by one point at halftime. They won as much as 8% more often than they would have if the relationship had stayed linear.
If I’m reading this right — and I think I am — NBA teams should stop trying at the end of the first half if they are winning, just so they can be down by one going in to the half. That might sound very tricky, but NBA teams have complicated schemes for everything, so I am sure they will be able to figure this out. Anything to get an extra 8 percent chance of winning is worth it.
One worry is that when this study circulates around NBA locker rooms, which I am sure that it will, teams that are winning by a single point near the end of the half will just continually pass the ball to the other team in order to trick them in to taking that one-point lead that dooms them to defeat. This could go on for hours, just teams passing the ball back and forth, trying not to be the team leading going in to the half. Sure, it’d be hilarious the first 50 times, but after that it’d get old.