When You Stop And Think About It, NBA Playoff Road Teams Shouldn't Lose As Much As They Do
It'd be safe to say that the second round of these 2008 NBA Playoffs have been dominated by the home team. Home teams are 15-1, the Magic being the only team to lose on their home court (barely).
For whatever reason, everyone seems to expect this. When you're this deep in the playoffs, you win when you're at home, try and steal one on the road. I even once heard Doug Collins say that he considered a road win to be equal to 1.5 wins, whatever the hell that means.
But the question is why is this happening? Why is a team like New Orleans blowing San Antonio out for two games at home and then suddenly losing on the road? Why can't Boston win on the road period? And what happened to that dominant Lakers squad in Utah? Hell, what's happened to every team when they hit the road?
Certainly teams make adjustments (except Boston because of Doc Rivers), but we're usually just told "It's tough playing on the road against a good team." However, when you stop and think about that rationally, that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's because basketball is probably the sport where playing at home would matter the least. How so? Well Let's take a look at what NBA experts commonly throw out at as things that make playing on the road difficult.
1. You're not staying at home. This argument would work if you were playing in some low-level minor league and had to stay in a Motel 6 or worse. But in the NBA, guys are staying at the Four Seasons.
2. The flights wear you down. Amazed this is still sometimes used as an argument, considering in the playoffs teams play by conferences, and never travel particularly far. At most, players are on a three hour flight in a cushy jet. In addition to all this, during the playoffs the only time one team is traveling and the other one isn't is before the opening game.
3. The time delay. This makes some sense during the regular season, makes little sense in the playoffs. Max you're changing time zones by no more than two hours until potentially the Finals.
4. Schedule. This makes a lot of sense for the regular season, but not in the playoffs since both teams are on the same schedule and never play back-to-back nights.
5. You don't feel comfortable on an away court (excluding the crowd factor). There's some rationale for this, but not much. In the NBA, all courts are essentially identical. You're not going from Astroturf to grass like in the NFL, or suddenly playing with the Green Monster behind you after having just played in a spacious outfield. One argument is that arenas have different backgrounds behind the basket. But ask any NBA player what he's staring at when he shoots, and it's the rim, not some advertisement in the background.
6. The crowd factor. This is an argument that rationally doesn't make a lot of sense whether you're talking about the visiting team or home team. We'll take the visiting team first. The visiting team isn't a group of college kids playing their first game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Most have logged significant time in the NBA and they've faced hostile crowds before. Also, considering they're pros, their focus isn't on the crowd anyway, but on the court. Any player that gets rattled by a crowd yelling when he shoots a jumper shouldn't be in the NBA.
The flip side is the home team somehow plays better because they're in front of their own crowd. There's some truth that the home team could be looser to a degree playing in front of their own crowd, but then again, they could also be too tight if they feel they have to meet the crowd's expectations. Basically, the home team's athletes face the same issue as the ones on the visiting team. Any athlete whose performance is somehow significantly tied to a crowd isn't a pro athlete. The whole point of being a professional is that you're consistently good, regardless of the scenario. If a crowd is somehow significantly affecting your play, forget it, you're not on the floor.
7. The refs. There's long been a conspiracy theory that NBA refs are influenced by home team fans. They may be influenced by Stern, but in terms of dealing with a crowd, they're just the same as NBA players. They're pros. If they were significantly influenced by a crowd, they wouldn't be an NBA ref. Besides, NBA refs have been torture-tested even more than players, so the amount of abuse they can take is overwhelming. More often than not, criticisms of refs (by players and fans) are based on one's rooting interests in a game, however minor. Any borderline call immediately makes it seem as if the ref is favoring one side over the other, when in fact that's anything but the case. There's a reason why the NBA is the only institution that deems its refs to be objective. Because they're the only ones that look at them objectively.
So what's the conclusion? It seems to be that players are psychologically drilled to believe that playing on the road is tougher than it is at home, especially during the playoffs. It's almost like Pavlov's dogs. Turn on the light, make the dogs slobber. Put the Celtics on the road, they can't win.
It's not that Cleveland's crowd is the key difference, or that it's making Cleveland play any better, it's that Boston has the preconceived notion that the game will be tougher than it otherwise should be.
Think about it. If you're drilled your whole life by people like Collins and experts and coaches who say playing on the road is hard, then it's going to seem to hard.
But the truth is, it really isn't.