Home is Sweet in NBA’s Second Round
Hedo Turkoglu held the ball as time expired in Game 4 of the Magic-Pistons series. With four seconds left he drove to the left, created separation and tossed up an off-balance floater that came up short. Dwight Howard’s follow also missed. Two good looks. Two misses.
The buzzer sounded and the Pistons won the game, 90-89.
More telling, Detroit became the first team to win on the road in the second round of the 2008 playoffs. Through the first four games of each second round series, home teams are 15-1. After witnessing Turkoglu and Howard’s successive point-blank botches, one can only think how close it has come to a clean-home sweep thus far in the conference semifinals.
That one home “L”, endured by Orlando, enabled the Pistons to carry a comfy 3-1 series lead back to the Motor City. The other three series (Lakers-Jazz, Hornets-Spurs, Celtics-Cavs) are all knotted at home-cooked 2-2 splits.
Historically, it is very tough to come back from an 0-2 deficit — only 13 teams have done it; most recently Cleveland against Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. However, much is made of “momentum swings” in playoff series, and judging from the way Utah, San Antonio and Cleveland have played since going down 0-2, it is safe to say they all have the momentum on their side heading back on the road.
The Lakers, Hornets and Celtics each find themselves in the undesirable position of having squandered a 2-0 lead, and are currently having to answer questions about what went wrong and how they will be affected going forward. The pressure is on them, the perceived favorites.
Here’s where the “momentum swing” argument fails though: In all three of the even-steven matchups, teams have systematically dominated on their home court, and been undressed on the road.
The Lakers beat the Jazz twice at Staples Center, by an average of 10.5 points. They defended, ran the floor, and moved the ball with almost effortless fluidity. Games 3 and 4 in Salt Lake City? Not so much. While the Lakers lost a couple of close games (104-99 and 123-115 in OT), their ability to dictate the pace of the game–and more importantly, prevent Deron Williams from doing so–vanished.
They frequently played from behind, and in Game 4 when Kobe was in pain and trying to do too much, the only reason they forced overtime was because Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom went on simultaneous fourth-quarter tears (10 points a piece).
The Hornets-Spurs series (aka the “third quarter series”) has seen the home team win every game by double digits. Close games have turned into blowouts in the third quarters, with the Hornets holding a 65-35 advantage in third quarter scoring in New Orleans. The Spurs have returned the favor in San Antonio, running the Hornets of out Games 3 and 4 by an aggregate 59-41 in the third period. The games have turned so lopsided it hasn’t even been worth watching the fourth quarters in this series.
Finally, there are the Celtics and Cavs. Boston, the team that began the trend with its head-scratching futility on the road against the Hawks in round one, has ceased to regain the form that won it a league-best 31 games on the road in the regular season. After holding Cleveland to under 74 points in both games at TD Banknorth Garden, the Celtics gave up 108 and 88 at Quicken Loans Arena in Games 3 and 4.
They have been unflappable at home (Kevin Garnett took over Game 1 in the final 90 seconds), and have thoroughly flopped on the road. If there is a silver lining to the Celtics concerning home/road discrepancy, it’s that the other second round matchups combined have become a microcosm of the Celtics entire playoff run. Boston is 6-0 at home, and 0-5 on the road. Not including the Celtics-Cavs series, home teams are 11-1 in the second round.
A case study of these playoffs would indicate that home crowds in general have become louder and more rambunctious, that they have more decisively affected the outcomes of games than ever before. That is false. Just ask Lakers fans who inhabited the LA Forum during their run to four titles in the 80s. Or Celtics fans who deafened opponents in the Boston Garden over three decades and 16 NBA championships.
The real explanation for this peculiarity is parity. All the teams still standing are very good. None are great. The Spurs are the closest thing to a great team, but their most dominant days are behind them. Are they still capable of winning a title? Yes, but they will never again do it with the brutal efficiency of past Tim Duncan teams.
It may appear that the Spurs, along with the Jazz and Cavs, have it all going at the right time. Momentum can be deceiving, though. It obviously frustrates the Hornets, Lakers and Celtics, having given up 2-0 advantages — but they still understand they aren’t going anywhere until someone comes into their house and slams the door shut.