As the NBA playoffs march onward, fans and analysts alike are hard at work, breaking down film, stat crunching, and theorizing to find a way to predict the outcomes of each series. The eternal question: will the lower seed be able to steal a game on the higher seed’s home court?. Teams battle for 82 games not just to earn a good draw, but to play that critical extra contest in front of a friendly crowd.
As of the writing of this article, home teams are a combined 36-11 in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. That is a ridiculously convincing number. Often the higher seed, which is supposed to be the better team, plays more home games than the lower seed and that skews the numbers. But the lower seeds this year have combined to go 15-6 on their own home floors this year, calling into question the power of seeding alone. Playing at home is an advantage, and there is very little question that the advantage is substantial. But why?
As a former player at the Division 1 college level and as a 8-year hooper at the professional level, I would say, with little hesitation, that home court advantage is a real thing. The games are different. The feeling in the games are different.
One of the biggest reasons is comfort. This applies to an incalculable amount of different aspects. It doesn’t start with the game or the warm up. It begins as early as the night before when you lay down in your own bed...the same bed you are accustomed to sleeping in, on your own pillow, under your own blankets, next to the person you always sleep with.
As an athlete, we often times stayed in top of the line hotels, traveled in buses that had beds in them, and ate better than anything I could possibly cook. But as great as the travel amenities are, they differ from what is most comfortable. Even traveling under ideal conditions will never be ideal. Travel times vary, as does the available food selection, as do the surroundings. There can’t be any consistency.
Pregame routines are far more predictable at home than on the road. Personally, I wouldn't say I’m a superstitious guy (maybe I’m a little “stitious”) but I did approach every game day with a plan that I felt put me in the best frame of mind mentally, and best condition physically, to have success. I knew at what time I needed to nap, what I wanted to eat, when I ate, where I went on walks to, things of that nature. I liked to show up to the game before everyone else, I drove in my own car and had my music playing which I usually sang out loud to. From the moment the warmups started, everything I did was exactly what I wanted to do, and when I wanted to do to put me in the best form of me.
That is not always an option on the road. You travel on a plane or bus with your team, you eat with your team when and where they plan it, and you are limited to how you can spend your time. Nothing, no matter how beautiful the scenery or how soft the sheets are, they’re not routine. Familiarity leads to better focus and confidence, which in turn are linked to better performance.
To add to that, when the game starts, There is an obvious advantage to playing in the gym that you are most familiar with. The lights and colors are the same, the sound from the crowd is what you expect it to be, the baskets are the ones you have shot a million shots on, you know the floor to the last floor board, the benches are the same, and the distractions of the unknown are little to none. One of the most powerful and helpful messages in sports movie history came from Billy Chapel, played by Kevin Costner, in the movie “For Love of the Game”. In the film, Chapel finds his focus only after clearing the mechanisms. At home, athletes have far fewer mechanisms to clear.
One of the most obvious differences between a home and road game is the crowd support. I’ve played with thousands of different athletes that come from different cultures, different parts of the world, different levels, and age groups, yet not one has ever hinted that they disliked the home crowd cheering for them. Never have I heard of a player getting uncomfortable because the audience had his or her back. Every player draws strength from the home crowd in some magnitude.
The same cannot be said about the opposite. Some players thrive in opposing gyms, it’s true, but most players don’t. Entire teams don’t absorb positive energy from the negativity of an away crowd like they do hearing screams of encouragement from their home crowd. Fans have a distinct impact on the momentum of a basketball game. Every player on the court can feel it, but only the home team is able to use it as an advantage.
Fans can also affect referees. Most refs do their best to stay impartial, but deep down, every ref knows that a close calls only go two ways. One way will be met with applause and cheers, while a call the other way runs the risk of meeting harsh, unkind words and boos. Even a good ref may have every intention of remaining unbiased, but human nature inevitably makes it easier for a ref to give the home team a close call. Feeling some love is better than giving a 50-50 call to the away team and enduring a bombardment of insults.
None of these factors are going to have much of an impact on the game by themselves, but together, they add up to tilt the odds. Winning on the road is difficult because the visiting squad starts at a disadvantage. It’ll never be enough to overcome huge gaps in talent or execution, but it’ll always matter in one way or another.