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Clippers, Celtics fall victim to bizarre bubble home-court quirk

NBA Insider
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After losing to the Miami Heat in five games, Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked why the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t play like a No. 1 seed in the bubble. This was a Bucks team that went an NBA-best 53-12 before the league shutdown and just 8-10 after it. What was that about?

At first, the reigning MVP was stumped. 

“I don’t know,” Giannis said. “But if I had to answer …”

It was interesting to see where Antetokounmpo would go from there. Maybe he’d point to point guard Eric Bledsoe being in and out of the lineup or to his own absences, both from suspension and injury. Maybe it’d be something about how the four-month layoff messed up the Bucks’ mojo.

Antetokounmpo went in a different direction.

“Having no crowd … obviously, it affects (us),” he said. “We have a young team, the bench mob feeds themselves through the energy of the crowd. Obviously, being here playing in front of 20 people, it probably affected us a little bit. But at the end of the day, every team went through that. It wasn’t just us, but maybe it affected us a little bit more.”

Heckle Giannis all you want for this comment, but he’s onto something. Before the bubble, the Bucks were 28-3 at home before and 25-9 on the road. Not quite Philadelphia wild, but still, home cooking tasted mighty fine in Milwaukee. 

In the bubble, the Bucks won just four of their 10 “home” games and got sent home well before the NBA Finals.

 

But if you zoom out, the picture gets even whackier. Look at the Los Angeles Clippers, who were freaking 7.5-point favorites going into Game 7 and became the second team to drop a Game 7 “at home” in the last week. Look at the Boston Celtics, who haven’t won a home game in nearly a month. What we’re seeing at Disney World is absolutely bananas.

In the conference semifinals, capped off by the Clippers’ utter collapse, the home team went just 5-19 (.208), losing each game on average by 3.5 points. Five and 19! At one point, the home team lost nine straight games. Yes, the home team -- the one with virtual fans plastered on giant screens and home-curated audio recordings that blare from the speakers.

Antetokounmpo and LeBron James won’t be on the same side of things often, but on this issue, they’re simpatico. In the seeding games, LeBron bemoaned the loss of home crowds and asked reporters, “Clinching the one seed, is there an advantage here?”

The numbers say the answer to James’ question is a resounding “no.” The home-court advantage has swung the other way. Overall, home teams have lost more than they’ve won in these playoffs. 

What is going on in Buena Vista, Florida? Is this just a fluke or should James and the Lakers be terrified right now? Let’s dive in.

How bad is it?

You don’t need to tell the Celtics about the lack of home-court advantage in the bubble. In the series against Toronto, the home team lost Games 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. Yes, the “road” team won every single game in the series. 

If that sounds like a rare occurrence, that’s because it is. The home team losing all seven games in a series has never been done before in any seven-game series in the history of the NBA playoffs. You can sift through over 600 series and you won’t find a single other instance of what we just witnessed.

The cold streak didn’t end there, of course. The Celtics lost to the “visiting” Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, losing by three points in overtime. If the Celtics drop Game 2, they will have gone a month without winning a home game.

And that brings us to the Clippers. I don’t know what Vegas was thinking here. The Clippers were favored by 7.5 points in this game despite home-court advantage going poof over the last month. Game 7s, by their very nature, are typically projected to be tight affairs. 

But Vegas wasn’t seeing it that way. According to Rotoworld’s EDGE betting tool (subscription required), the Denver Nuggets were the biggest longshot in a Game 7 since the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were also 7.5-point underdogs against Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals. 

 

Except the 2016 Warriors were playing in front of, you know, 20,000 screaming fans at the Oracle. The Clippers were playing in front of dozens of reporters and league staff sitting quietly. Vegas is implying that the Clippers would have been 10.5-point favorites in a true home Game 7, which is absurd. 

“Vegas still doesn’t know how to handle the bubble,” said one Eastern Conference GM.

Sure enough, the 7.5-point-underdog Nuggets won by 15 on Tuesday night, becoming the first team in NBA history to win six straight games facing elimination. (Seriously, how were the Nuggets a 7.5-point underdog in a neutral Game 7?)

In normal playoff circumstances, Denver’s magical run probably doesn’t happen. Not even close. In the past five years of conference semifinals, the home team has gone 70-42 (.625) with an average margin of victory of 4.3 points. Again, the home team in the second round saw an average scoring margin of minus-3.5. Even in a bubble format with no crowds, that’s still mind-boggling. 

How’d we get here?

This wasn’t supposed to happen. For weeks, the NBA’s competition committee deliberated about how to handle the fan-less environment and the possibility of neutralized home-court advantage. After much discussion, there weren’t any substantial tweaks like added possessions or an opponent draft (long live the playoff draft!). Largely silent virtual fans should do the trick, teams hoped.

Early on, the league’s conservative efforts looked prescient. Home teams got off to a promising start, going 25-17 (.595) in the first round of the playoffs, but the home-court stylings were barely noticeable. Before one bubble game, Toronto coach Nick Nurse asked reporters, “Who’s home tonight, anyway? Us?”

John Hammond, the Orlando Magic’s general manager, quipped, “We’re going to be 30 minutes away from home but we might as well be in Los Angeles.”

Whatever edge home court gave teams early on, it has evaporated into the Central Florida air. Over the last 18 games, the home team is a ghastly 3-15. 

Joked one Western Conference general manager: “So much for the impact of virtual fans.”

Look at how home-court has dissipated into a sea of red as the playoffs have progressed.

That’s a bloodbath. In 67 postseason games, the home team is just 30-37 (.448). If it holds, it will be by far the lowest home-court win percentage since the NBA went to a 16-team playoff format in 1984. Before the bubble, every postseason saw its home teams fare better than .500, but this year, the home team is seven games under .500. 

Stathead.com

In football, the home team is usually spotted three points by Vegas. On a per-game basis, it’s similar in the NBA. In the previous five postseasons, home teams in the playoffs won games by an average of 4.5 poins. On a per-game basis this postseason, the NBA that home-team edge dropped to just 0.4 points per game (You can thank the Clippers 54-point win over the Mavericks for the positive ledger, by the way). 

 

The home-court edge in the playoffs has never dipped below two points on a per-game basis over the entire postseason, until now.

Perhaps we’re thinking about this the wrong way. It might not be so much about home-court advantage being lost so much as it is the road disadvantage being scrubbed away. In a typical postseason series, the road team would have to deal with an unfamiliar bed, new hotel surroundings and time away from family. 

In the bubble, the unfamiliar bed is familiar. The new hotel surroundings got old quickly. At this point, everyone’s homesick. Actually, homesick is a good way to describe the league’s current condition.

What does this mean going forward?

James knows the flip of home-court advantage first-hand. The Lakers are 8-2 in the playoff bubble, but their only two losses came as the home team. The lack of home court is certifiably bad news for James, who at age-35 played in 67 of his team’s 71 games and grinded through all but two back-to-back sets throughout the season. 

And for what? He almost certainly won’t win MVP, and it’s worth wondering if he’ll win the title with the Lakers’ home-court advantage out the window.

James usually feasts in front of the home crowd (remember his “I ain’t playing” quote from back in March?). Entering this postseason, James’ teams were 94-27 (.777) at home in the playoffs compared to just 62-56 (.525) on the road. Now, that appears to be neutralized. The silver lining is that the Lakers won’t have to worry about Milwaukee’s No. 1 overall seed in a possible Finals matchup anymore.

While we’re talking about silver linings, we have to mention the Heat losing the last two seeding games in the bubble, because, in retrospect, it’s the ultimate mastermind move.

Here’s what happened. After clinching a spot in the No. 4-No. 5 matchup by beating the Indiana Pacers on August 10, the Heat decided to sit their best players in the second half of their next game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Miraculously, they blew a 22-point lead to lose by one. In their regular season finale against Indiana, the Heat again rested their best guys for most of the game and basically gave it away, cementing their “road” status in that first-round matchup.

Look, I’m not saying Pat Riley knew how this was all going to play out, but here is what transpired after strategically dropping those two games: the 44-29 Heat moved up to 20th in the draft logjam while the 44-28 Thunder and 45-28 Pacers slid back to pick 21st and 25th respectively. (Actually,  Philadelphia will take OKC’s pick as a result of the 2016 Jerami Grant trade and Milwaukee will pick in Indiana’s place as a result of last summer’s Malcolm Brogdon trade. The point stands.). 

 

And then the Heat swept the Pacers. 

Again, I’m not saying Riley knew home court didn’t mean squat and he’d win the draft logjam in one fell swoop, but I’m not not saying it.

Weird stuff is happening in the bubble. Tuesday marked the first time in NBA history that the Eastern Conference final didn’t feature a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, in no small part due to the lack of home court. The fifth-seeded Heat can pull this off and so can Denver. Even though the Nuggets don’t have the Mile High air to run teams out of the gym, they’re taking advantage of the flattened playing field and could very much win the whole damn thing. 

The wonky environment is also why I don’t think Doc Rivers should be fired. If Game 7 happened in L.A.? Maybe then we could have that conversation, but look, a No. 3 seed beat a No. 2 seed on a neutral court in seven games. I’m not handing Rivers a pink-slip over that. You have to build a 3-1 lead in order to blow a 3-1 lead. As pathetic as the Clippers looked in Game 7, Rivers should get a bubble free-pass, especially since Denver got blasted by 29 in their only game in ClipperLand this season.

Four months off. Neutral setting. Everything is on the table. Denver-Miami in the Finals led by guys picked 30th (Jimmy Butler) and 41st (Nikola Jokic) on draft night? As if 2020 wasn’t crazy enough. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for the latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.