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How Big is Home Court Advantage in the Playoffs?


Since home court advantage for the Clippers is on the line in tonight's game in New York, the question of how important that advantage is understandably being debated in the comments of the game preview.

I haven't put a lot of effort into this -- I'm sure there are thorough-going studies out there that someone can dig up. But just off the top of my head, consider this:

Home court advantage, if it is going to matter, would seem to indicate that a series goes to seven games. The obvious impact would be if the team with the home court advantage wins game seven, and the indisputable evidence of the advantage would be if the home team wins all seven games.

In last season's NBA playoffs, in 15 playoff series, one of them went to seven games. In that series, the Thunder had home court advantage and did win game seven. However, each team also managed to win one game on the other's court in the course of the series. In fact, Memphis won game one in Oklahoma City, effectively stealing home court advantage in the first game, but the Thunder still won the series.

Two seasons ago, in 15 playoff series, one went to seven games. Once again, the home team did win game seven, and once again the teams each managed to win one of the other's home floor. In this series, Atlanta won game seven at home, BUT Milwaukee was up 3-2 with a chance to close out the series on their home court in game six and failed to do so.

The season before that, a whopping four out of 15 series went to seven games, and of those four, in one case the road team won game seven. The season before that, three series went the distance, and the road team won one of those three game sevens.

Does home court advantage matter in the playoffs? Sure, it matters some. In four years of playoff series, in nine game sevens, the home team is 7-2. But bear in mind that the home team is playing at home because they had the better regular season record, so they are supposed to win those games. And while 7-2 seems impressive, turn it around and look at it the other way. In 60 playoff series over four seasons, 51 of them never reached a game seven. The better team won the series before it reached seven games, which effectively means that home court advantage was not a factor.

It's much more important to be the better team than it is to have home court advantage. When the Clippers and the Grizzlies meet in the playoffs next week, it's fairly certain that the better team will win, regardless of where game seven is played.

[Note by Steve Perrin, 04/25/12 12:03 PM PDT ] Since this keeps coming up, I wanted to add it here. Don't get too hung up on regular season road records, which can be misleading. There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs and both teams have the same travel schedule. (Actually, there might be some back-to-backs this year with the condensed season, I'm not sure. But the point is that both teams have the same schedule.) The home court advantage in the NBA is real, make no mistake, but the largest part of that advantage during the regular season derives from travel, and there are no "schedule losses" in the post season. With the schedule and travel removed as factors, the home court advantage is down to the home crowd and sleeping in your own bed.

There are very real and concrete reasons that home court advantage is a less significant factor in the post season.