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COMMENTARY

Feeling at Home in Finals

June 19, 2005|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The only thing we can conclude four games into the NBA Finals is that home court is everything. Both the Spurs and Pistons have been great at home, rotten on the road, and there's no rational reason to think that will change in this series.

After being trampled here Thursday night in Game 4, Gregg Popovich should have put the Spurs on a plane and taken his team back home to San Antonio. As is, the Spurs have to live in Detroit three more days knowing they're spooked by playing here. The reality is the Pistons, after their 102-71 victory, are ahead, 2-2, going into Sunday's Game 5.

In Game 4, the visitors were timid, sloppy and played with no apparent sense of urgency. And the Pistons, darting and bouncing around like a 6-year-old on a sugar high, were happy to wear their butts out.

Yes, a change of venue can make that big of a difference in the NBA playoffs. The momentum swing created by going from Texas to Michigan is undeniable. Just look at what's happened through four games. In San Antonio, the Spurs won by an average of 18 points and put on an offensive clinic. But in Detroit, they couldn't find an open shot. In San Antonio, the Pistons missed at least a dozen layups or unobstructed shots from three feet or fewer. But back at home, they've played so confidently that offensively challenged Ben Wallace is hitting rainbow 15-footers. You can book Game 7 of this series right now.

It was silly to presume this series would be quick and easy just because the Spurs won the first two games in San Antonio. Home court in the NBA means too much to jump to conclusions. Piston Coach Larry Brown says you can conclude nothing until somebody loses at home in the NBA. Home field in baseball is often negated by great pitching. Similarly, playing at home in the Stanley Cup playoffs is often rendered virtually meaningless by a hot goaltender.

But in the NFL and NBA, playing at home can be everything. The weather alone can provide a decided advantage in the NFL playoffs. Basketball's home-court advantage isn't so obvious, but it's just as real. Only in the NBA are fans inches away from the action. As former Spur Sean Elliott said before Game 4, "They're not only closer than the fans in other sports, they're connected in a way the others aren't. In football, you can't hear a guy 10 feet away screaming things at you. In basketball, you can. It'll take a guy out of his game and he'll lose focus." Sure enough there are several shots from Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio of Detroit's Rasheed Wallace looking back in the stands at a Spurs' fan heckling him.

"It doesn't affect the really good to great players as much as the role players and younger guys," Elliott said. "Beno Udrih [the San Antonio rookie guard] has played really well for us, but the other night playing in here he looked frazzled. He made turnovers and really didn't play the same as he did at home. Guys do lose focus.

Jack Ramsay, the Hall of Fame coach turned broadcaster, doesn't disagree with Elliott on what happens to the bench players in these games. "Your main guys aren't affected," he said. "But your lesser guys, the role players and guys who don't get many minutes, play better at home. The great players like to get away, in fact. They enjoy shutting up the home crowd and consider it one of the greatest experiences. Bill Walton used to say to me, 'Anybody can play at home; the real guys play on the road.' I could tell Bird loved being in opposing arenas, and of course we all remember how incredibly Michael Jordan played on the road in championship situations."

But this series doesn't have any of those all-time greats. We may look back and find Tim Duncan makes the list, but nobody in this series besides Robert Horry has the game or enough of a history of making dramatic shots to relish playing on the road. You wouldn't dare call the Spurs' or Pistons' regulars "lesser players" because so many of them have already been instrumental in winning championships. But they really are closer to role players than megastars around whom franchises are built.

The Palace is an incredibly difficult place to play ... more difficult, in fact, than it was back when the Bad Boy Pistons won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. As coach of the old Pistons, Chuck Daly, pointed out at courtside before the game, the club went to great lengths to market the team to a younger audience and cut ticket prices to bring in real fans. The result was that many a corporate fat cat lost his seat to a face-painting, jersey-wearing screamer.

It's loud here, confrontational, rowdy, and it was that way before the notorious brawl of Nov. 19 between the fans and the Indiana Pacers.

Remember, the Pistons are the only team in the 21-year history of the 2-3-2 NBA Finals format to win the middle three games at home, when they swept the Lakers here last year. Magic, Bird, Jordan, their teams never did it. The Palace is now the loudest arena in the East, and nearly as advantageous as Arco Arena is for the Sacramento Kings.

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