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 by 31 points, Gregg Popovich should have put the Spurs on a plane and taken his team back home to San Antonio to regroup. 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 a difference in the NBA Finals. 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; 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 here 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 rolled in the first two games in San Antonio. Home court in the NBA means too much to jump to conclusions. Pistons 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. In fact, in the World Series teams with the home-field advantage are just 57-44, while NBA teams with home-court advantage in the Finals are 40-18 and NFL teams with home-field advantage are 51-13 since 1990.
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 Spurs player 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 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. The two things a crowd does is boost the home team and take energy away from the visiting team. It sucks the energy right out of you sometimes. You don't get nearly as tired playing at home when you've got that boost."
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.
Nobody in a Pistons uniform is a bad enough man to walk into San Antonio's gym knowing he can dominate the game, and nobody in a Spurs uniform (not even Duncan) is a bad enough man to walk into The Palace and own the joint.
So a 2-2 series was entirely predictable.
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. Chuck Daly, the coach of the old Pistons, was courtside Thursday night and was quick to point out that this team has gone to great lengths to market itself 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 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.
"And these fans sensed before Game 3," Michigan native Magic Johnson said, "that their team could get beat. It's true. Good players to role players need home. Those players feel more comfortable at home. They're more likely to know their favorite spots on the floor at home. They're thinking, 'If I get [the ball] right here.' No, the great players don't need that. I loved to play on the road. Kareem would get that look in his eye on the road some nights. But you have to look at the teams involved."
Many of the shots the Pistons have made in Games 3 and 4, the passes they've completed, the precision with which they've executed at both ends of the floor, they won't be able to pull off in San Antonio. Same goes for the Spurs here. The Pistons scored more points in six quarters in Detroit than in eight quarters in San Antonio.
As inept as the Spurs have been here, they're likely to go back to San Antonio and pick up where they left off. Problem is, they'll probably be down, 3-2. "The longer they're here," a Hall of Fame coach said of the Spurs having to stick around in Detroit Friday, Saturday and Sunday, "the more deflated they get."