Saturday, May 17, 2008

Home Cooked

At this point, the Celtics might as well go ahead and win their 17th NBA championship without winning a single road playoff game. This would give their title a historical significance it would not otherwise possess. Weird significance, but so what?

Home court advantage is a well-known phenomenon, and we need not examine it in detail here. Just imagine trying to do any mundane task, mowing the lawn, say, with 20,000 loonies shouting either encouragement or abuse. Under which circumstances would you expect to do a quicker, better job? Nor is the fact referees succumb to this influence a shocker. For reference, see Frank Drebin calling ball and strikes in "The Naked Gun."

Howsomeever, in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, the score stands home teams 21-visitors 2. That's more than an anomaly. So is the fact the Celtics, the team with the best regular season record, which by definition means they had to win many road games, has yet to win a single playoff game held beyond spitting distance of Causeway Street. Really. If tomorrow's game seven was to be moved to the U-Mass Boston gym, the betting line would make the Cavs five point favorites.

So what is happening? Here's a guess. The remaining teams in the playoffs aren't doing so well on the road because of their own natures and makeup. Or, to be blunt, they're not winning road games because they're not able to do it.

Some of the playoff clubs aren't winning road games because, well, they're not good enough. We can put the now-departed Jazz, Hawks, and Magic in that category. Also the Cavs. They ain't winning tomorrow. I heard the ESPN babblers talk about how Lebron could win a game seven singlehanded at the Garden. No. I grew up watching rooting for Wilt Chamberlain, a slightly more dominant offensive force than James, and I saw Michael Jordan set the all-time playoff scoring record at the Garden in a game his team lost, and that's just not the way basketball works.

This leaves teams that are plenty good enough to win road games, but so far in the second round, or in the Celtics' case any round, have yet to do so. Here matters get subtler. Winning on the road in the playoffs is difficult even if you are good enough. It requires a tremendous amount of mental energy and strength, along with what the sociologists call "group cohesion." The ability to actually derive pleasure and fulfillment from 20,000 people hating your guts with all their might is an unusual trait. What made the Celtics-Lakers wars of the '80s so much fun was that both squads had it and then some.

Young teams like the Hornets have trouble winning road games against equals because they have yet to form the required group cohesion. Old teams like the Spurs have trouble because they are running out of the group mental energy necessary. The Celtics? Well, in some ways, they have the worst of both worlds.

Boston is built around three veterans, Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, along with an energetic core of youthful supporters. They are not overall an old team. But they are a new one. Group cohesion is still forming. As anyone past the age of six knows, the regular season does not truly bond a team. Only the playoffs can do that.

It is the destiny of these Celtics of the present that they will be compared to Celtics of the past. It's the price of belonging to a historically great franchise. The Celts of the '80s were constantly compared to the Russell gang by old-timers. Can't be helped.

The 2008 Celtics most remind me of the 1979-1980 club, the team of Larry Bird's rookie year, which didn't have Parish and McHale, but did have Dave Cowens, Pete Maravich, and Cedric Maxwell. It had an astonishing regular season turnaround and the NBA's best-regular season record. It couldn't beat the 76ers on the road in the playoffs, and didn't win a title.

NOTE: Analogies are not predictions. I compare those two teams to show how group cohesion takes time to build, not to forecast Boston's destiny. There is no team remaining in the 2008 playoffs that is 75 percent as good as the 1980 76ers or 1980 Lakers.

PS: Has Doc Rivers ever been to a playoff game? He's SURPRISED that a superstar like James got the benefit of a bad call at home in crunch time? Remember the old referee's rule. In case of tie, call goes to the man with the biggest shoe contract.


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