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John Schuhmann

Home-court is an advantage ... especially in the Playoffs

By John Schuhmann,
Posted Apr 17 2009 11:06AM

So how important is home-court advantage in the Playoffs anyway?

It probably depends on who you ask. The teams with home-court advantage will tell you it's important, because they have the best fans in the league. The teams without it will tell you that it's not that important, because they believe that they can win in any building on any night.

It seemed like home-court advantage was pretty important last year. The Celtics and Lakers, the two top seeds, combined to go 23-2 at home during the 2008 Playoffs. Boston's only loss at the Garden came in Game 2 of the conference finals against Detroit, and the Lakers only loss at Staples Center came in Game 4 of The Finals.

As a whole, the 16 teams in last year's Playoffs were 64-22 at home. That winning percentage of 0.744 was the highest for any postseason of the last 18 years.

Of course, the home team won every game in the Celtics' first two series last year. But only one other time in the last 10 years has the home team won every game of a seven-game series. That came in 2004, when the Heat beat the Hornets in the first round. Dwyane Wade won the first game of that series, the first playoff game of his career, with a game-winning jumper with 1.3 seconds to go.

Looking at the 10 seasons prior to this one, the numbers aren't nearly as in favor of the home team as they were last year. But they do show that it is harder to win in your opponent's gym in the postseason than it is in the regular season.

Home Team, 1998-99 through 2007-08
Ind. Games W L Pct.
Reg. Season 7021 4569 .606
Postseason 513 278 .649
Game 7* 26 10 .722
*Includes deciding Game 5s in the first round through 2002

The above numbers are for individual games. But what about the series as a whole?

Team w/ home-court advantage, 1999-2008
Series W L Pct.
First round 65 15 .813
Conf. semis 32 8 .800
Conf. finals 10 10 .500
The Finals 8 2 .800
Total 115 35 .767

The team with home-court advantage wins more than three out of every four series in the postseason. That shouldn't be surprising, because in order to gain home-court advantage, you have to have a better record. So the team that starts the series at home is essentially the better team going in.

Note that we're not talking about seeds here. It's possible to be the higher seed in a series, but not have home-court advantage.

Stealing a game
Home Teams, first three rounds 1999 through 2008
Game 1 104 36 .743
Game 2 107 33 .764
Game 3 78 62 .557
Game 4 66 66 .500
Game 5 77 24 .762
Game 6 30 31 .492
Game 7 16 7 .696
Home Adv. 370 166 .690
Other 174 159 .523

Interestingly, in the last 10 years, the team without home-court advantage has been more likely to steal Game 7 than Game 1, 2, or 5. So if a series goes to seven games and the road team has yet to break through, don't count them out.

The team with home-court advantage is most likely to win Game 6 on the road. More on that later.

The Finals
Home Teams, 1986 through 2008
W L Pct.
Game 1 18 6 .750
Game 2 16 8 .667
Game 3 12 12 .500
Game 4 12 12 .500
Game 5 10 10 .500
Game 6 10 5 .667
Game 7 3 0 1.000
Home Adv. 47 19 .712
Other team 34 34 .500

We see that the team with home-court advantage in The Finals has a distinct advantage. In the 24 years since the league switched to the 2-3-2 format, only six teams have won the championship when beginning The Finals on the road. The last to do it was the 2006 Miami Heat, who lost Games 1 and 2 in Dallas, but swept the next four.

Closing Time

A postseason winning percentage of .649 for the home team translates to two games out of six. So the average seven-game series over the last 10 years has had each team win one game away from home and the team with home-court advantage winning in six games.

Of course, for them to win in six, unless we're talking about The Finals, they would need to close the series out on the other team's floor. And as we saw above, that's more likely to happen than them winning Games 3 or 4.

When we're making postseason predictions, we often assume that the winning team will close out the series on their own floor. So, if we believe that the team with home-court advantage will win, unless we're talking about The Finals, we predict them to do it in five or seven games. If we believe the other team will win, we predict them to do it in six.

But in reality, a team isn't really more likely to close a series out on their home floor. Of the 150 teams that have won postseason series in the last 10 years, only 77 of them finished the series at home. The other 73 did it on the road.

So feel free to predict Lakers in four, the Heat in five, or the Celtics in six.

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