Home is where the playoff wins are
Teams with home-court edge win more than 75 percent of playoff series
Cavs and Celtics have not lost to the other at home in 15 games
Timmberwolves may have brighter future than record suggests
It's funny how the common perception of the NBA is that the regular season drags on too long, with too many interchangeable and meaningless games, while the playoffs are the place where, y'know, amazing happens.
Look at it more closely, though, and you might feel completely opposite: In the postseason, the outcomes of games and series are highly predictable. And it's some fiercely contested regular-season contests, such as the one Wednesday night between the Celtics and the Magic in Orlando, that make them that way.
The prelude to the Celts-Magic game was all about locale and scheduling of a possible series between the East's No. 2 and No. 3 teams, should they meet in the conference semifinals. Also Wednesday, the Nets-Cavaliers game packed lofty implications beyond a preview of one possible No. 1 vs. No. 8 clash -- it was the first of eight remaining home games for Cleveland, which began the night 32-1 at Quicken Loans Arena with hopes of matching the league's all-time best home record of 40-1 set by Boston in the 1985-86 season.
If the Nets didn't stop the Cavaliers, and the Timberwolves, Mavericks, Pistons, Spurs or Wizards don't spoil things first, the Celtics will get a chance to preserve their franchise's mark on April 12 in Cleveland. Meanwhile, the 57-13 Cavaliers have an eye on the 56-14 Lakers for the best record overall. And, natch, more home-court advantage for a possible NBA Finals meeting.
Empirically, this stuff matters. A lot. Teams with the home-court edge win NBA playoff series at a 77.2 percent clip, based on the results of the 373 matchups since 1984. That's better than house odds in Vegas, better than the league's free-throw percentage. It's notably better than the current regular-season stats, too, in which home teams have won 60.2 percent of the time (637 victories in 1,058 games so far).
And while it's one thing for first-round teams starting at home to win 78.2 percent of their series -- the gaps between the first and eighth, or second and seventh, seeds should be considerable -- it's quite another for the pattern to hold in subsequent, presumably more balanced rounds. Seventy-nine of the 100 conference semifinals -- in other words, 79 percent -- have gone toward the team with more home games at its disposal, along with 70 percent (35 of 50) of conference finals. In the Finals, it's 19 of 25, or 76 percent.
Last spring, the home team won 57 of 75 postseason games (76 percent), and the teams with the home court won 13 of the 15 series. The veteran-laden Celtics became somewhat notorious, going 13-1 at home against Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit and the Lakers but a wimpy 3-9 on the road en route to the franchise's 17th title.
That all strikes me as, well, a bit much. We like to think that championships are earned, on the court, by the participants (and an occasional erratic referee); that through talent, preparation, strategies, sacrifices and even good luck, somewhere along the line, winning flows toward those who work hardest for it. Personally, I don't like the idea that championships can be dictated by bad flight itineraries, tainted room service, some joker pulling a hotel fire alarm at 2 a.m., Red Auerbach's notoriously cold showers and sweltering visitors' locker rooms, bombastic in-arena emcees, the escalating war of game-ops theatrics, boisterous fans or even LeBron's or Kobe's or Dwight's or KG's opportunity to sleep in their own beds.
But the numbers scream otherwise. And for fans, maybe it's a good thing if the elite teams play their best and their hardest now, knowing how much it will matter later.
"It feels like we've been playing the playoffs for an entire month, because every game means everything,'' Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas told the Akron Beacon Journal. ''We've been trying to hold onto the Eastern Conference and also to the best record [in the NBA]. You can't allow any slippage.''
The hometown discount
It was just a few weeks ago that President Barack Obama went business-casual to sit in a Jack Nicholson-style seat at the Verizon Center, catching a Bulls-Wizards game with a couple hundred of his sunglasses-wearing friends. So it was a little surprising to see that the nation's First Hoops Fan took a shot at the NBA while filling out his bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament.
Contrary to his opinion of college football's method of determining champions, Obama likes the 65-team system of March Madness just fine. "This is it. This is it," he said during an ESPN taping. "You know, you don't want to start ... letting it be like the NBA. People who are sub-.500 get into the playoffs. There's something wrong with that."
It must have been executive privilege that no one noted that his favorite team from Chicago is the biggest culprit of that, currently eighth in the East with a 34-38 record heading into Wednesday's action.
From the mailbag
Why should any Minnesotan consider buying a season ticket next season to watch the Timberwolves? We like NBA hoops. We like NBA athletes. We have no faith that the franchise is being properly run.
Well, Izzy, the way the Twin Cities economy is headed -- unemployment in Minnesota jumped to 8.1 percent in February, highest rate in 25 years -- maybe your boss will cover a Wolves bet for you. Remember, team owner Glen Taylor has promised a full refund to any early ticket buyer who loses his or her job in 2009. Oh, you want something more positive? The Wolves have three good-to-very-good pieces in place: Jefferson, Randy Foye and Kevin Love. They have a couple others -- Ryan Gomes, Mike Miller -- who would be solid parts on a playoff team. They need a legit point guard, if Foye can't do it, and defensive size up front. But that's not really answering your question either. Running the franchise is what seems least likely to change. Kevin McHale has been bumped from the front office to the bench, but whoever Taylor hires as next GM -- whether it's an outsider or Fred Hoiberg (how come these nice-guy guards from the Bulls like Steve Kerr and John Paxson kept getting these jobs?) -- will be dealing with a hands-on owner.
Good article on the premature "aging'' of NBA players who went pro right out of high school, but you could also put Isiah Thomas on the list -- he was a one-and-done player as well. One could also say that by staying a full four years in college you put just as much stress on your body. You mention Ralph Sampson, but Bill Walton comes to mind, too. These players looked worn out when they arrived in the league and their short, injury-prone careers might reflect this.
I only included Sampson as a comparison for Dwight Howard, in terms of length of career. Sampson was a pretty famous player who made it to the Finals and the All-Star Game and seemed to be around for quite a while -- and yet he actually played fewer games than Howard already has. Thomas spent two seasons at Indiana, actually, and was 32 when he was forced by injury into retirement. A number of readers pointed out that I ignored college workload on players when wondering about the heavier minutes logged by the preps-to-pros guys such as Howard, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. But to me, there's no comparison in how grueling and punishing the pro game and lifestyle is. There is a reason that even the four-year college guys pancake in January or February of their rookie NBA seasons, hitting the infamous "wall." Thomas played 63 games at Indiana. Walton played in 87 for UCLA across four years. In the NBA, a rookie in the rotation for a playoff team might easily play in 100 in nine months. Factor in the back-to-backs and the constant reminders that -- regardless of the size of their paychecks -- this now is their job and not some sis-boom-bah "fun," and I see the NBA game as way more draining on these fellas.
Maybe swapping four years at the back ends of their careers for an earlier start is smart. Maybe their bodies are quicker to heal at ages 18-22 than at ages 32-36. I know my sample size was puny, by scientific standards, and my hypothesis, or hypotenuse, or whatever might have been flawed. My main point was that we're about to see some big NBA stars looking and playing older -- and missing games entirely -- than we've come to expect from more traditional arrivals.
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