It is an NBA axiom that teams play better at home, especially
under the increased pressure of the playoffs. But no team in this
postseason is quite as bipolar as the Dallas Mavericks, who went
a franchise-record 36-5 at American Airlines Center and 16-25 on
the road during the regular season. So even after the Mavs
(predictably) dropped the first two games of their first-round
series against the Kings in Sacramento--shooting a combined 38.6%
in Games 1 and 2--they took to their home court last Saturday for
Game 3 exuding Trumpesque confidence. As Metallica's Enter
Sandman thumped through the arena and the P.A. announcer roared,
"Whooose hooouuse is it?" the Dallas players nodded to each other
like mobsters about to perform a hit--which they then did.
They raced to a 13-3 lead, playing with an enthusiasm exemplified
by a dunk from hops-deficient forward Antoine Walker, who throws
down only on holidays and other special occasions. Buoyed by the
pulsating crowd of 20,580, the Mavericks rolled to 104-79 win.
Afterward they said they expected the series to go seven games,
while the worried-looking Kings coach, Rick Adelman, felt the
need to remind his players that they held a 2-1 advantage.
Perhaps sometime before Game 4 on Monday, Adelman sneaked his
team into American Airlines Center and made like Norman Dale, the
coach in Hoosiers who had his small-town players measure the
distance between the free throw line and rim of a big-city arena
to reassure them about the immutability of court dimensions. Or
perhaps that's what Dallas coach Don Nelson should have done, as
his team, which led the league in free throw shooting, hit only
20 of 33 from the line in a 94-92 loss.That left the Mavs in the
unenviable position of having to take two games at Arco to
advance to the second round.
Really, though, the Mavericks should have seen this desperate
situation coming. Even if they had won their three home games,
they still would have needed at least one road victory. Which
means that sooner or later they would have had to answer the
question: How can the same 12 players--some of them All-Stars--be
nearly invincible in one building and merely mediocre in all
others? Assistant coach Donn Nelson launches into a lengthy
disquisition on team chemistry and fan support but finishes by
saying, "There are a lot of things in life that you don't know
why they are, they just are."
Certainly there is historical precedent for the Mavs' dual
nature. In the last four years NBA teams went 49-11 at home in
the playoffs. The 1997-98 Bulls were the last team without home
court advantage to win the Finals, largely because Michael Jordan
was one of those rare players who thrived in a hostile setting.
This postseason, through Monday, the home team had won 19 of 30
games, including improbably lopsided Game 3 victories by the
Denver Nuggets over the Minnesota Timberwolves (a No. 8 seed over
a No. 1) and the Houston Rockets over the Los Angeles Lakers (No.
7 over No. 2).
No series, however, illustrates the strange power of the home
court better than the Mavs-Kings playoff. After the Mavs' Game 3
victory, Don Nelson was asked whether his team had played better
because it was at home or the Kings had played worse because they
were on the road. Nelson thought for a moment. "I couldn't tell
you," he said. "It's like the thermos. You put hot in it, and it
stays hot. You put cold in it, and it stays cold. How do it
Nellie will have to keep a fire lit under his team if it's to
steal two wins in Sacramento. The Mavericks' regular-season
accuracy at home (48.0%) and on the road (43.9%) shows the impact
that environment has on players. "You have more energy at home,"
says Kings forward Chris Webber, "and more unity." The Kings, who
were a respectable 21-20 on the road this season, went 34-7 at
home, due in large part to the boisterous fans at Arco Arena,
where the atmosphere on game nights suggests a religious revival
combined with a wet T-shirt contest at a county fair.
The crowd at American Airlines Center isn't quite as loud--the
cowbell-clanging fans at Arco are closer to the court, and there
are few corporations in Sacramento to fill the prime seats with
sedate execs--but Mavericks rooters don't lack for enthusiasm.
Saturday night marked the 112th straight sellout in Dallas, and
as usual the Mavs' fans cheered with gusto, led by the team's
vociferous owner-mascot, Mark Cuban, who, in addition to rooting
madly, ordered up the noise! graphic on the overhead monitor with
hand signals from his seat.
It makes sense that rabid fans (and an equally rabid owner) would
inspire young players to perform with more confidence at home,
and that those same players would suffer from the absence of
their boosters on the road. But on this count Dallas again
confounds. While eighth-year swingman Michael Finley was 8 for 25
from the floor in Games 1 and 2, the coolest Mav under pressure
was rookie Marquis Daniels. In Game 2 Daniels, who wasn't even
drafted coming out of Auburn last spring, scored 16 points,
pulled down 11 rebounds and calmly nailed two free throws with
the score close in the final minute. The droopy-lidded, 6'6"
rookie exudes serenity; not since Sam Perkins has a clutch
performer appeared so somnambulant. "I could talk about him all
day," said Don Nelson. "He's a neat kid."
Neat is nice, but it won't get you into the second round. Short
of flying the entire American Airlines crowd to enemy arenas--an
idea Cuban has probably considered--the Mavs are at a loss for
how to take their home act on the road. Daniels does offer one
solution. "All those shots we're missing on the road," he says,
"we just need to hit them."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BIG D-LIRIUM The fans lifted Josh Howard (opposite, swatting) inGame 3, but the Kings silenced them all two nights later.