It is an NBA axiom that teams play better at home, especially under the increased pressure of the playoffs. But no team in this postseason is quite as bipolar as the Dallas Mavericks, who went a franchise-record 36-5 at American Airlines Center and 16-25 on the road during the regular season. So even after the Mavs (predictably) dropped the first two games of their first-round series against the Kings in Sacramento—shooting a combined 38.6% in Games 1 and 2—they took to their home court last Saturday for Game 3 exuding Trumpesque confidence. As Metallica's Enter Sandman thumped through the arena and the P.A. announcer roared, "Whooose hooouuse is it?" the Dallas players nodded to each other like mobsters about to perform a hit—which they then did.
They raced to a 13-3 lead, playing with an enthusiasm exemplified by a dunk from hops-deficient forward Antoine Walker, who throws down only on holidays and other special occasions. Buoyed by the pulsating crowd of 20,580, the Mavericks rolled to 104-79 win. Afterward they said they expected the series to go seven games, while the worried-looking Kings coach, Rick Adelman, felt the need to remind his players that they held a 2-1 advantage.
Perhaps sometime before Game 4 on Monday, Adelman sneaked his team into American Airlines Center and made like Norman Dale, the coach in Hoosiers who had his small-town players measure the distance between the free throw line and rim of a big-city arena to reassure them about the immutability of court dimensions. Or perhaps that's what Dallas coach Don Nelson should have done, as his team, which led the league in free throw shooting, hit only 20 of 33 from the line in a 94-92 loss. That left the Mavs in the unenviable position of having to take two games at Arco to advance to the second round.
Really, though, the Mavericks should have seen this desperate situation coming. Even if they had won their three home games, they still would have needed at least one road victory. Which means that sooner or later they would have had to answer the question: How can the same 12 players-some of them All-Stars—be nearly invincible in one building and merely mediocre in all others? Assistant coach Donn Nelson launches into a lengthy disquisition on team chemistry and fan support but finishes by saying, "There are a lot of things in life that you don't know why they are, they just are."
Certainly there is historical precedent for the Mavs' dual nature. In the last four years NBA teams went 49-11 at home in the playoffs. The 1997-98 Bulls were the last team without home court advantage to win the Finals, largely because Michael Jordan was one of those rare players who thrived in a hostile setting. This postseason, through Monday, the home team had won 19 of 30 games, including improbably lopsided Game 3 victories by the Denver Nuggets over the Minnesota Timberwolves (a No. 8 seed over a No. 1) and the Houston Rockets over the Los Angeles Lakers (No. 7 over No. 2).
No series, however, illustrates the strange power of the home court better than the Mavs-Kings playoff. After the Mavs' Game 3 victory, Don Nelson was asked whether his team had played better because it was at home or the Kings had played worse because they were on the road. Nelson thought for a moment. "I couldn't tell you," he said. "It's like the thermos. You put hot in it, and it stays hot. You put cold in it, and it stays cold. How do it know?"
Nellie will have to keep a fire lit under his team if it's to steal two wins in Sacramento. The Mavericks' regular-season accuracy at home (48.0%) and on the road (43.9%) shows the impact that environment has on players. "You have more energy at home," says Kings forward Chris Webber, "and more unity." The Kings, who were a respectable 21-20 on the road this season, went 34-7 at home, due in large part to the boisterous fans at Arco Arena, where the atmosphere on game nights suggests a religious revival combined with a wet T-shirt contest at a county fair.
The crowd at American Airlines Center isn't quite as loud—the cowbell-clanging fans at Arco are closer to the court, and there are few corporations in Sacramento to fill the prime seats with sedate execs—but Mavericks rooters don't lack for enthusiasm. Saturday night marked the 112th straight sellout in Dallas, and as usual the Mavs' fans cheered with gusto, led by the team's vociferous owner-mascot, Mark Cuban, who, in addition to rooting madly, ordered up the NOISE! graphic on the overhead monitor with hand signals from his seat.
It makes sense that rabid fans (and an equally rabid owner) would inspire young players to perform with more confidence at home, and that those same players would suffer from the absence of their boosters on the road. But on this count Dallas again confounds. While eighth-year swingman Michael Finley was 8 for 25 from the floor in Games 1 and 2, the coolest Mav under pressure was rookie Marquis Daniels. In Game 2 Daniels, who wasn't even drafted coming out of Auburn last spring, scored 16 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and calmly nailed two free throws with the score close in the final minute. The droopy-lidded, 6'6" rookie exudes serenity; not since Sam Perkins has a clutch performer appeared so somnambulant. "I could talk about him all day," said Don Nelson. "He's a neat kid."
Neat is nice, but it won't get you into the second round. Short of flying the entire American Airlines crowd to enemy arenas—an idea Cuban has probably considered-the Mavs are at a loss for how to take their home act on the road. Daniels does offer one solution. "All those shots we're missing on the road," he says, "we just need to hit them."