No place like home

Steve Kerr

In 16 playoff games of the NBA's four conference semifinal matchups, the home team has won 14 times. Only the Sacramento Kings and the Minnesota Timberwolves have broken through on the other's home floor – once apiece.

Why is it so much easier to control your home floor in the playoffs? Why do teams who look so overmatched on the road – the Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, and even the Los Angeles Lakers – return home and dominate? It's a question that has no tangible answer. There's no formula that can be calculated to explain it.

When it comes down to it, home teams in the playoffs – especially after the weaker ones are eliminated in the first round – ride the emotion of their fans and play with a sense of desperation that becomes a potent force.

One theory as to why home teams fare well is that players enjoy the comforts of sleeping in their own beds, driving their cars to the games and having their families around them.

When I was with the Bulls in the 1997 finals, the Utah Jazz came to Chicago for Games 1 and 2 and failed to register under assumed names at their hotel. On the morning of the first game, a local Chicago disc jockey decided it would be a good idea to give the Utah players wake-up calls – at 5 a.m. Whether lack of sleep was a factor or not, we won those two games at the United Center.

When we flew to Utah for the middle three games of the series, we were prepared for payback. Every player had an alias – I think I was Ruben Kincaid, the band manager from my favorite TV show as a kid, "The Partridge Family."

But the Jazz fans were one step ahead of us. Ruben Kincaid and the rest of the Bulls were startled out of our slumber at 5 a.m. by a marching band just outside our hotel windows. The Jazz won the next two games to even up the series. Coincidence? Of course it was.

No player on either team blamed early wake-up calls and marching bands for losing road games. But at the same time, it sure was nice to sleep comfortably in our beds when we returned to Chicago for Game 6, which we won to clinch the championship.

The big factor at home in the playoffs is momentum. When you have the best eight teams in the league playing against each other, there's not a huge difference in talent.

So when a team is at home, desperate for a win, and with its crowd going crazy, it tends to be quicker to rebounds and loose balls. Those extra hustle plays usually lead to fast breaks, offensive rebounds, easy baskets and free throws, which of course feed a frenzied crowd.

Then it becomes imperative for the road team to maintain its cool and weather the storm. In Game 4 of the New Jersey Nets-Detroit Pistons series on Tuesday night, the Nets took control of the contest midway through the second quarter when they forced four consecutive Detroit turnovers.

The fourth straight was an offensive foul called on Richard Hamilton, who then drew a technical foul after firing the ball across the court in anger. The Continental Airlines Arena crowd went absolutely crazy, and the beleaguered Pistons sulked over to their bench. The game was over.

That's why a young team like the Heat can be so good at home – they've won 18 in a row at home, including six straight in the playoffs. But they have played so poorly on the road. At American Airlines Arena, Miami uses its quickness to beat teams to the ball and make plays. But away from home, the Heat don't make energy-driven runs or have the maturity to maintain their poise, weather the storm and stay in the game.

The best road playoff teams combine great defense, experience and a star player who can get to the foul line. The only two that qualify right now are the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Spurs make stops when they have to, and they can always go to Tim Duncan in the halfcourt. Even though he's not a great foul shooter, each trip to the line is one less fast break for the opposing home team desperate to get its crowd involved.

The Lakers have stepped up their defense in the postseason and have two guys – Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal – who can get to the line and quiet the crowd.

The question is: Will either team break through on the other's home floor? We'll see.

But just in case, I would advise both teams to watch out for renegade DJs and runaway marching bands.