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Posted: Friday May 16, 2008 11:58AM; Updated: Friday May 16, 2008 2:41PM
Steve Aschburner Steve Aschburner >
INSIDE THE NBA

Road to nowhere in NBA playoffs (cont.)

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"It takes a different mental approach to win on the road,'' Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said by telephone Thursday. "You've almost got to like going on the road. You've almost got to like staying in a hotel, flying to those other cities, playing in the other teams' arenas. You've got to like getting out of your comfort zone -- and most players today, most people, don't like getting out of their comfort zones.''

Mitchell talked about great players such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas "embracing'' the challenge of spoiling a home crowd's night by beating its favorite team. But then, we see those Hall of Famers in hindsight, their accomplishments done, their reputations secure, their legends growing. Snap back to now.

"We've got so many young stars in this league right now,'' Mitchell said. "They're still learning how to win on the road. It's not a physical thing. It's not the different arenas. It's just the whole thing of going on the road and feeling like you can win. That's what you get from a veteran team.

"If the Spurs win in San Antonio,'' he said before the Spurs did just that Thursday night, "you've got to think they'll feel like they can win Game 7 in New Orleans.''

But, but, but ... that savvy crew of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich has been just as susceptible to road woes as anyone lately.

"Well, then it's a mystery,'' Mitchell said.

Fred Hoiberg, assistant general manager of the Timberwolves, was on Indiana and Minnesota teams that went deep into the playoffs and had other thoughts on the trend.

"When you have a sellout crowd, the noise ... and I think the noisemakers are louder in our game, the P.A. systems, the music and all that,'' Hoiberg said. "The veteran teams can usually stop the bleeding, while younger teams have more trouble with it. But right now, you're seeing all the teams -- San Antonio is as veteran a group of guys as you have, winning NBA championships, and you saw how New Orleans' home court affected them the other night.

"It's such an emotional game. When the crowd gets into it, it can really swing momentum. When they got it going in the third quarter in New Orleans the other night, it seemed to give that team confidence. The crowd got into it and San Antonio had a heck of a time just scoring a basket.''

One theory mentioned lately is that the evenness of teams, in quality and competitiveness, has allowed home-court advantage to define more series. Since there aren't one or two dominant teams kicking butt on whatever court they take, intangibles like this can play, and are playing, a bigger role.

Again, that's just a theory. And again, it might not really matter, once one team or another packs the Larry O'Brien trophy away for the summer. So what if they don't have to stuff it in their carry-on luggage?

"People talk about how Boston has struggled on the road, but they've earned the right,'' Hoiberg said. "As long as they continue to play well at home, they're going to win a championship. That's what it comes down to. That's what the regular season was for them. If they protect their home court, they're going to win the whole thing.''

Won't they take a lot of grief in the meantime, though? C'mon, a 16-12 championship record?

"Who cares?'' the Wolves' exec said. "Anyway, I think it would take them winning just one game on the road to give them confidence they can do it. They won, what, 75 percent of their road games during the year?''

That is the potential silver lining in this, of course. If home-court advantage continues to mean more and more in the NBA playoffs, it might crank up the value teams place on securing it, bringing heightened intensity to those doggy January and February games across the league.

Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His new book, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins, can be ordered here.

 
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