The Siren Song
Posted by Zach Lowe on Dec 17, 2009
I’m not proud of it, but I have felt the temptation twice this week. First on Monday night while watching the Pacers stay close at Orlando, then again tonight when I flipped to the Sixers-Cavs game and found Philly ahead by a point as the 3rd quarter wound down.
As hard as I tried to steer my mind away from the image (“Think unsexy thoughts! Think unsexy thoughts!”), a picture of a bikini-clad Mila Kunis the NBA standings kept popping into my head.
And then I thought it: “You know, if the Cavs lose tonight, the Celtics will be four games ahead of them in the loss column. That’s a nice head start toward home court advantage…”
No! I told myself I would not do this, that I would not get sucked into the race for home court. That foul, foul temptress. She winks at you in December, and all of a sudden you’re scoreboard watching and your team’s coach is playing stars 40-plus minutes in January against Memphis. And then in June, one of your mortal enemies steals her away after Game 1, and she walks off in his arms with nothing but an empty shrug for you.
But this year I wouldn’t care. Not with this team. This isn’t 2008, when a C’s team dealing with the pressure of unprecedented expectations needed home court—needed it so badly, in fact, that they became the first team since the 2004 Heat to need wins in all four home games to clinch a seven-game series.
This team is older, tougher and more brittle. Finish 10 games behind Orlando and Cleveland and slide in to the 3rd seed—anything is fine as long as the team is healthy in May.
And yet here I am, already thinking about it.
What is wrong with me? Does home court matter this much? And should the Celtics go for it?
There is a lot of superficial evidence that home court matters a lot in the playoffs, though it may matter a bit less in the later rounds. John Schuhmann did some nice research on home-court advantage before the playoffs last season, and found that from 1999-2008, home teams won about 64.9 percent of post-season games compared to 60.6 percent in the regular season.
Steve Aschburner, writing in March for Sports Illustrated, found that teams with home-court advantage have won 77.2 percent of all playoff series since 1984—and that the series winning percentage didn’t change much from round to round.
Of course, the teams with home court advantage are better, so these numbers don’t tell us anything surprising. For every piece of evidence that seems to show home court advantage is crucial (the 2008 Celtics), someone can find you evidence that reveals its supposed late-round meaninglessness (Orlando over Cleveland, 2009).
Schuhmann did find one interesting piece of evidence that may show it’s not worth it to kill yourself pursuing home-court advantage: Since 1999, teams with home court in the conference finals have won 11 series and lost 11—a 50/50 split.
This would seem to show that home court loses some of its importance once the talent gap between the teams drops to near zero.
But then we see that the trend reverses itself in the NBA Finals, where the home-court team is 9-2 in those same 11 seasons.
I put more weight on the 11-11 conference finals stat than on the 9-2 NBA Finals record. The latter is tainted by the fact that the West has been so much better than the East since 1999; in that span, the Western team in the Finals had home court in all but one season (’08), and they went 8-2 in the Finals (exceptions: Miami over Dallas in ’06, Detroit over LA in ’04).
Another big reason why it’s far too early to think about home court: The Celtics have played the 2nd-easiest schedule in the league based on current team records, and the back half of their schedule is far tougher than the front half. Of the team’s 13 games against the Lakers, Cavs, Magic, Spurs and Nuggets, nine come after the halfway point.
Ten of their 18 back-t0-backs come in the second half of the season. Thirteen of their 19 road games against teams that won at least two-thirds of their home games last season come after Game #41.
So we shouldn’t expect the C’s to keep winning at their current rate.
And Doc Rivers is playing this perfectly. Ray Allen sat from the 10:22 mark until the 3:47 mark in the 4th quarter of a toss-up game at Memphis Monday night. Kevin Garnett sat the first 6:55 of the 4th quarter against the Wizards last week; Ray Allen sat from from the 11:07 mark to the 5:05 in the same game.
This is not the way you coach if you care deeply about winning home court advantage, about winning every single game now so that you can have Game 1 and Game 7 at home against Cleveland or Orlando later.
This is the way you coach if you care about the team growing as whole throughout the first 82 games and being healthy and prepared when it comes time to win the next 16.
But damn, the thought of being healthy and earning home court is really appealing.
Can we have our cake and eat it, too? Or is it best to ignore the NBA standings link for the rest of the season ?