Posted Mar 15 2010 11:15AM
Everything changes in the playoffs, from the schedule and frequency of games to the preparation and, certainly, the stakes. Most of all, the intensity changes, both within the ranks of the teams involved and in the stands, the fans' passions stoked by pricey, harder-to-get tickets and the win-or-go-home edginess of it all.
Road games thus become more desperate. Arenas grow hostile to the visitors, who already might be feeling stale from longer hotel stays and, as any series drags on, repeated flights. That's why the list of legitimate championship contenders in any given postseason syncs up pretty well with the list of successful road teams from that particular regular season.
Consider: In NBA playoff history, road teams traditionally lose two out of every three times they take the floor. Specifically and cumulatively, they are 1,048-2,052, a .338 winning percentage. In the Finals, where even the weaker team is usually pretty darn good, the pace is .378 (135-222).
Consider too: Over the past 25 years, the NBA champions with the worst road records were 2006 Miami (21-20) and 2005 San Antonio (21-20). Right there, that doesn't bode well for the playoff-bound teams that are hovering at .500 in away games: Atlanta (16-16) and San Antonio (15-15). It figures to be a bigger issue for those postseason aspirants that are under water when they travel, from Phoenix (16-17) down to Toronto (10-23) and Charlotte (10-23). Also in that sub-.500 road mix: Miami (15-18) and Milwaukee (13-20).
Much of this is self-evident. Superior teams win more, period, both at home and on the road. Inferior teams, even among the playoff qualifiers, struggle more regardless of site.
So if you want to gauge the legitimacy of a club's championship dreams, it often doesn't matter where you take their pulse; the beat's the same wherever they are.
"No big difference between on the road and at home," Manu Ginobili said Friday, after the Spurs evened their road record by winning at Minnesota. "We've been very ... unstable, I would say. Not playing consistently both on the road and at home. That steadiness that we found years ago, where we knew we were going to play good and not commit turnovers and play good D, we don't have it this year."
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich didn't even accept the premise that road games provide a keener insight into a team's strengths and flaws.
"I never thought so," Popovich said. "Most of the time, I thought we played better on the road than we did at home. Sometimes there are more pressures at home than on the road. Less distractions on the road. At home, teams sometimes have a tendency to almost try too hard. Lose their composure because they want to win so badly. Forget about the system, forget about each other."
Still, the Spurs are 24-10 at home, the West's fifth-best home record, which is two spots higher than San Antonio currently sits in the conference standings. Granted, only 2 1/2 games separate the No. 4 seed, Utah, from the final four in the West, but unless the Spurs -- and only the Spurs -- are able to close that gap, they will find themselves in the rare position of playing from a lower berth. That means more road games, right from the get-go.
"That's very difficult," Tim Duncan said. "I'm not used to that either. But we'll play from wherever we're at ... Hopefully we can scare [a higher seed]. Come in and steal some games early and get a series."
Hopefully. Steal. Get a series. Those aren't words or phrases typically associated with a championship-caliber team. Those teams tend to dominate at home and win with regularity on the road. They don't hope or steal. They just go and get.
Boston is a good example. When the Celtics won the 2008 title, they went 31-10 on the road, matching the 2000 Lakers for the best road mark among NBA champions since the Michael Jordan-era Bulls. And this season, despite their many injuries and current slot at No. 4 in the East, they have been better away (22-12) than they have been in Boston (19-12). For all the banners in the rafters, this hasn't been a banner season at the Garden.
Former Celtics assistant Dave Wohl can't explain the unexpected number of home losses in Boston, but he does know why the Celtics travel so well. "Championship-level teams really talk about winning on the road," said Wohl, now on Kurt Rambis' staff in Minnesota. "That becomes something in the development of that team. They learn to be consistent with their preparation, same as home games, and make it just another game. A lot of teams enjoy the road because they like taking the crowd out of it, they like the challenge. That usually reveals something about the competitive nature of a championship team."
Said Rambis, the longtime Lakers player and assistant coach: "Coaches of good teams actually like being on the road. Sometimes teams can get too comfortable at home. I know with the Lakers, we'd have a tremendously long homestand [before] the Grammys, I believe, being there [at Staples Center], and you'd be like, 'Please, let's go out on the road' just to get guys to focus more and be more attentive to the nuances that will make them a better team."
And those teams, even vying for the playoffs, that haven't developed a knack for navigating the road?
"With teams at the other end of the spectrum," Wohl said, "they're usually young, they're learning, they haven't played that much together. The road to a lot of the guys is a new thing anyway -- they haven't played like this in college. That makes it tougher for younger teams to play on the road."
Which brings us to Milwaukee. At least as impressive as the Bucks' six consecutive victories is their 8-2 mark on the road since Feb. 5. The host teams haven't all been the toughest (Knicks twice, Heat twice -- once without Dwyane Wade -- Nets, Pacers, Pistons, Wizards), but given where Milwaukee is on its learning curve, this latest road spurt can help immensely later. And maybe even this spring.
"It shows a team's togetherness, because you're really out there by yourself on the road," Rambis said. "The support system isn't there. Whether guys connect well is revealed on the road. Whether they know how to play off each other, and understand how to play with a road mentality -- sometimes you can't play at the same pace on the road that you can at home. Knowing that things are going to go against you, so you have to play with more precision and be more accurate in what you're doing offensively and defensively. Good teams understand that, because it's a much more difficult environment."
That's life on the road. Even more so once the playoffs start.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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