Whistling Home  
May 16, 2008
The level of dominance by home teams in the second round playoffs has been astounding. As of the time of this writing, only one game has been won by a road team (Detroit winning game 4 in Orlando). In the Western Conference, home teams are a remarkable 11-0. What has caused this dominance? The normal, easy answers include energy from the home crowd, being able to stay at home, and playing in a familiar setting. After all, the concept of home court advantage has been around almost as long as sports themselves and there is some truth to most rational home court theories. But 11-0 in the incredibly balanced and tough West? The Boston Celtics, dominant against the weak Eastern Conference during the regular season, a combined 0-5 on the road against a sub par Atlanta team and the mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers? Something is seriously amiss, something beyond the normal home court advantage. That something is the refereeing.

Let’s look at the real playoffs, located in the Western Conference. The San Antonio – New Orleans series has seen virtually every game follow the same script. The two teams are roughly even for a half and then the home team dominates the third quarter and wins going away. How have these unanswerable runs been possible? Home cooked refereeing. The home teams have been allowed a lot more leeway in how physical they are allowed to play and are given the benefit of the doubt when referees decide whether an act was good, hard-nosed defense or a foul. The road teams haven’t been so lucky. The statistics show only a modest difference in fouls per game (the road team is called for a little over 5% more fouls per game than the home team so far in the series) but a significant difference in free throw attempts per game. The home team takes about 22 free throws a game and the road team takes about 17. The home team takes about 26% more free throws than the road team in the average game. The road team has taken more free throws than the home team in only one of six games. These are two well coached teams and San Antonio oozes championship experience; surely the teams aren’t alternating who is aggressive and who attacks the rim based on where the game is played. Why is it that Tim Duncan getting his defender to bite on a pump fake and leaning under to get a shot off and draw contact considered a good up and under move leading to either two free throws or a three point play opportunity in San Antonio but called a clean block by the airborne defender in New Orleans?

Even more egregious is Utah’s series against Los Angeles. In this series, the road team is called for an average of 30 fouls a game while the home team is only called for 24.4, meaning that the road team gets called for about 23% more fouls than the home team in the average game. In only one of five games has the home team been called for more fouls than the road team. The free throw disparity is even more striking, with the average game having a roughly 41 to 27 free throw attempt advantage for the home team. The home team takes 50 percent (FIFTY PERCENT!) more free throws than the road team.

At the ends of a close game teams will start to foul intentionally and send the other team to the free throw line to extend the game. This could explain some of the disparity in free throws but not nearly all of it. The Spurs and Hornets have blown each other out repeatedly, and there is no end of game intentional fouling in a 20 point game unless early 90s Don Nelson is involved. The games between Utah and LA have been closer but have featured such enormous disparities in free throw attempts that even without looking back at the play by play it seems very unlikely that these end of game fouls would cause a 14 free throw a game difference.

The Western Conference features two series with evenly matched teams. No team is at a major talent or coaching disadvantage. This makes refereeing pivotal. The borderline calls all swinging toward one team make that team the aggressor and put the other team on its heals, usually causing the former to win and the latter to plan for next game. The whistles have favored the home teams consistently and the home teams have dominated. It doesn’t take Tim Donaghy to see that the referees have really made a difference in the playoffs.

Let Him Score

Because I can’t write a short article, here’s a bonus second part.

I still haven’t figured out why teams bother to consistently double team great players. A truly great player is one that not only can dominate on their own but consistently raises the play of his teammates. There have been very, very few great players who were not good (or better) passers. Why allow them to not only score on you but to get their teammates easy shots as well?

For the most part, these great players will get theirs (in terms of points) regardless of what defensive strategy the opponent goes with. You may be able to limit them to somewhat below their average or force them to shoot a lower percentage than usual, but in the end you will rarely shut down a great player. They’ll get some garbage baskets, they’ll get to the free throw line more, they’ll just hit tougher shots. One way or another, they’re going to score. But if you double team them, they will also pick you apart passing the ball.

Look at the Cavs. Besides Lebron James, they don’t have anyone who can consistently create their own shot. Ilgauskas is 7’3 and can use that to get some shots, but otherwise the cupboard is pretty bare. Yet teams continue to consistently throw 2 or 3 defenders at James on every play. James is happy to feed the shooters who surround him. Once a shooter gets some open looks and makes a few baskets, they become much more dangerous. Last year, Daniel Gibson finished off Detroit in the conference finals, but it all started with Gibson getting wide open catch and shoot jumpers courtesy of Detroit’s entire defensive focus being on James. You can beat Cleveland when James scores 35. It’s much harder to beat Cleveland when Gibson scores 25, West adds 18, and so on. James will get his regardless. But why let the other players score at will?

Look at the Spurs – Hornets series again. The refereeing changes mimicking the changes in locale are important, but so too are the teams’ defensive choices. In the first two games, the Spurs tried to stop Chris Paul. They put defensive stopper Bruce Bowen on Paul and set the defense to shut down Paul. Unfortunately for San Antonio, Paul is already a great player (as evidenced by finishing 2nd in the MVP voting in a very strong year for the NBA) and he not only scored despite the added defensive attention but also got his teammates very involved. New Orleans routed the San Antonio in the first two games and made the Spurs look very old. Then the Spurs changed tactics. Suddenly they cared more about preventing Peja Stojakovic from getting open threes and Tyson Chandler from getting alley-oop dunks and cared less about how much Paul was scoring. The Spurs won three of four since, with the one loss being a game where David West had a career night with a very strong individual effort from a good but not great player. Conversely, New Orleans continues to double team Tim Duncan regularly and since fighting off a 103 degree fever, Duncan has picked apart the Hornets’ defense. Suddenly, Oberto was getting open layups and guys like Manu Ginobili, Michael Finley, and Bowen were getting clean looks at threes. Why not let Duncan go one on one and score 30 or 35? Isn’t that better than watching Ime Udoka railing threes like a drunk guy having a career night at the local bar’s pop-a-shot?

The best example for years has been Kobe Bryant. He is as unstoppable an individual offensive player as there is in the NBA. Yet he is not always a great player because he is not always a willing passer. He seems to often lose confidence in his teammates and never in himself (the latter for good reason). Los Angeles is a much better team when he is moving the ball and getting teammates involved. When he goes on scoring binges, teammates just start watching him and stop moving and running the offense. Perhaps it’s out of awe, perhaps out of frustration, but regardless his one man shows kill LA’s offensive flow. And because most players’ defense feeds off of what’s happening for them offensively, Bryant’s Laker teammates become more lax on defense as a result of not seeing the ball for two quarters except for the occasional inbounds play (and even then only because the NBA doesn’t allow players to throw an inbounds pass to themselves off the basket support).

There are nights where Bryant’s individual brilliance wins games. But in the playoffs those nights are rare. Teams win championships. For evidence of this, look back at Michael Jordan’s playoff breakout game. He scored 63 points against Boston one night. Larry Bird was quoted as saying that it wasn’t Michael Jordan playing bur rather, “g-d disguised as Michael Jordan.” Jordan’s Bulls lost that game. If I were a coach, my strategy against LA would be to make Bryant work for his baskets but to stay on shooters at all times. Do not let Fisher get open catch and shoot threes. Do not let Odom or Gasol get open shots near the rim. Unless LA wants to have a player taking open jumpers outside that player’s comfort range, I would allow Bryant to score 40 if it meant that the rest of his teammates would have trouble matching that 40. Holding Bryant to 30 points while his teammates add 75 seems less optimal.

This is not to say that you should never double team. If nothing else, it’s good to occasionally change defenses to keep the other team off balance. Consistent double teams are at issue here, especially when the double teams come so frequently that the player knows that the double is coming and where it is coming from. Double teaming as a change of pace is fine. Double teaming to keep the ball out of a certain player’s hands in an end of quarter situation is fine. Double teaming a great player who will find your weakness (and with 3 men guarding 4, there will be a weakness, especially as the playoffs advance and only good teams with good coaches are likely to be left) and exploit it to get teammates high quality shots seems to be a strategy that should be reserved for coaches who would rather lose in a traditional way than increase the chance of winning but risk being questioned as to why they allowed one great player to beat them by scoring so many points.

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