SAN FRANCISCO -- In the NBA playoffs, it is said that the toughest game to win is the closeout game, when a team has a chance to clinch a series.
Apparently, the same is true for Emirates Team New Zealand in the 34th America's Cup.
Oracle Team USA won Race 16 on Monday for its fifth victory in a row, enabling the American team to stay alive in what is becoming one of the most dramatic and improbable comebacks in sports history. New Zealand has lost five consecutive "closeout races," unable to score the solitary triumph it needs to take the Cup back to Auckland.
It has been nearly a week since New Zealand won Race 11 to take a seemingly insurmountable 8-1 series lead. Now it's 8-6 on the scoreboard and 8-8 on the water. Two of Oracle's victories were taken away because of a penalty issued for cheating in last year's America's Cup World Series warm-up event.
Even with Oracle rolling, New Zealand skipper Dean Barker prefers his team's situation.
"We still wouldn't trade positions," he said. "We'd rather be on match point."
Race 16 began 30 minutes late while organizers waited for the wind to build. That pushed Race 17 to Tuesday because it could not start before the 2:40 p.m. deadline.
In Monday's race, New Zealand had port entry and entered the starting box first, which had been an advantage during this regatta. The boats got to the starting line evenly, with the Kiwis in the leeward position, as they had planned. But from the windward position, Oracle had the speed to go the long way around and roll over the top of New Zealand and make the left-hander around Mark 1 with a five-second lead.
On the downwind Leg 2, the Americans stretched the advantage to 13 seconds at Gate 2. The teams engaged in a good tacking duel heading upwind on Leg 3, and, as it did in Race 15 on Sunday, Oracle made an extra tack just before Gate 3 in order to hit the top mark and take advantage of the wind heading downwind on Leg 4.
But unlike Sunday, the wind was consistent on Leg 4, allowing Oracle to stay in front of New Zealand and play it conservatively.
"The wind was much more stable, although it was quite light," Oracle tactician Ben Ainslie said. "That enabled us to be able to put the race in a holding pattern. We didn't have to worry about such big holes and wind shifts. It was a slightly less stressful day at the back of the boat."
The Americans hit the fourth mark with a 21-second lead and won by 33 seconds.
Oracle seems to have hit its stride once Ainslie, who is actually a skipper, became comfortable in the tactician's role after John Kostecki was taken off the boat.
"When you have someone back there who can steer the boat as well, it's incredibly powerful," Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. "He was steering one of our other AC72s. It's fantastic having another helmsman on board. You can talk about things. He knows the modes of the boat. There are certain maneuvers where he gets involved. He knows exactly what you're thinking."
Now, Oracle is on the verge of sending the America's Cup into overtime. With a victory in Race 17 on Tuesday, the best-of-17 series will need a Race 18 -- and possibly Race 19 if Oracle gets a Tuesday sweep. That's because the two-point penalty forces Oracle to win 11 races to defend the Cup.
New Zealand can finish off the series in 17 races if it can win Tuesday's opener. Despite losing the start, the Kiwis sailed a bit better Monday than they did Sunday.
"Getting around Mark 1 in front, that's obviously something we haven't done as well as we could in the last few races," Barker said. "Yesterday we didn't sail well downwind. We did a better job today and kept it close."
Tuesday will be Day 18 of this America's Cup, extending the record set Monday. It will also be Day 6 since New Zealand put itself at match point.
"We're just focused on winning another race," Barker said.
34TH AMERICA'S CUP
Emirates Team New Zealand 8 points,
Oracle Team USA 6 points
Best-of-17 series or first team to 9 points
Tuesday: Races 17 and 18*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. 1 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and COZI-TV
Wednesday: Race 19*, 1:15 p.m. 1 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
* -- if necessary
NOTE: Because of penalties, Oracle Team USA began the America's Cup with minus-2 points, meaning it would need to win 11 races to retain the America's Cup. New Zealand needs to win nine.
COZI-TV can be found on Comcast Channel 186 and over the air on Digital Channel 11.2.
Races 17 and 18*, 1:15 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. 1 p.m. NBC Sports Network, COZI-TV