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Home is where the playoff wins are

It's funny how the common perception of the NBA is that the regular season drags on too long, with too many interchangeable and meaningless games, while the playoffs are the place where, y'know, amazing happens.

Look at it more closely, though, and you might feel completely opposite: In the postseason, the outcomes of games and series are highly predictable. And it's some fiercely contested regular-season contests, such as the one Wednesday night between the Celtics and the Magic in Orlando, that make them that way.

The prelude to the Celts-Magic game was all about locale and scheduling of a possible series between the East's No. 2 and No. 3 teams, should they meet in the conference semifinals. Also Wednesday, the Nets-Cavaliers game packed lofty implications beyond a preview of one possible No. 1 vs. No. 8 clash -- it was the first of eight remaining home games for Cleveland, which began the night 32-1 at Quicken Loans Arena with hopes of matching the league's all-time best home record of 40-1 set by Boston in the 1985-86 season.

If the Nets didn't stop the Cavaliers, and the Timberwolves, Mavericks, Pistons, Spurs or Wizards don't spoil things first, the Celtics will get a chance to preserve their franchise's mark on April 12 in Cleveland. Meanwhile, the 57-13 Cavaliers have an eye on the 56-14 Lakers for the best record overall. And, natch, more home-court advantage for a possible NBA Finals meeting.

Empirically, this stuff matters. A lot. Teams with the home-court edge win NBA playoff series at a 77.2 percent clip, based on the results of the 373 matchups since 1984. That's better than house odds in Vegas, better than the league's free-throw percentage. It's notably better than the current regular-season stats, too, in which home teams have won 60.2 percent of the time (637 victories in 1,058 games so far).

And while it's one thing for first-round teams starting at home to win 78.2 percent of their series -- the gaps between the first and eighth, or second and seventh, seeds should be considerable -- it's quite another for the pattern to hold in subsequent, presumably more balanced rounds. Seventy-nine of the 100 conference semifinals -- in other words, 79 percent -- have gone toward the team with more home games at its disposal, along with 70 percent (35 of 50) of conference finals. In the Finals, it's 19 of 25, or 76 percent.

Last spring, the home team won 57 of 75 postseason games (76 percent), and the teams with the home court won 13 of the 15 series. The veteran-laden Celtics became somewhat notorious, going 13-1 at home against Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit and the Lakers but a wimpy 3-9 on the road en route to the franchise's 17th title.

That all strikes me as, well, a bit much. We like to think that championships are earned, on the court, by the participants (and an occasional erratic referee); that through talent, preparation, strategies, sacrifices and even good luck, somewhere along the line, winning flows toward those who work hardest for it. Personally, I don't like the idea that championships can be dictated by bad flight itineraries, tainted room service, some joker pulling a hotel fire alarm at 2 a.m., Red Auerbach's notoriously cold showers and sweltering visitors' locker rooms, bombastic in-arena emcees, the escalating war of game-ops theatrics, boisterous fans or even LeBron's or Kobe's or Dwight's or KG's opportunity to sleep in their own beds.

But the numbers scream otherwise. And for fans, maybe it's a good thing if the elite teams play their best and their hardest now, knowing how much it will matter later.

"It feels like we've been playing the playoffs for an entire month, because every game means everything,'' Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas told the Akron Beacon Journal. ''We've been trying to hold onto the Eastern Conference and also to the best record [in the NBA]. You can't allow any slippage.''

It was just a few weeks ago that President Barack Obama went business-casual to sit in a Jack Nicholson-style seat at the Verizon Center, catching a Bulls-Wizards game with a couple hundred of his sunglasses-wearing friends. So it was a little surprising to see that the nation's First Hoops Fan took a shot at the NBA while filling out his bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament.

Contrary to his opinion of college football's method of determining champions, Obama likes the 65-team system of March Madness just fine. "This is it. This is it," he said during an ESPN taping. "You know, you don't want to start ... letting it be like the NBA. People who are sub-.500 get into the playoffs. There's something wrong with that."

It must have been executive privilege that no one noted that his favorite team from Chicago is the biggest culprit of that, currently eighth in the East with a 34-38 record heading into Wednesday's action.

Why should any Minnesotan consider buying a season ticket next season to watch the Timberwolves? We like NBA hoops. We like NBA athletes. We have no faith that the franchise is being properly run.-- Izzy, Hastings, Minn.

Well, Izzy, the way the Twin Cities economy is headed -- unemployment in Minnesota jumped to 8.1 percent in February, highest rate in 25 years -- maybe your boss will cover a Wolves bet for you. Remember, team owner Glen Taylor has promised a full refund to any early ticket buyer who loses his or her job in 2009. Oh, you want something more positive? The Wolves have three good-to-very-good pieces in place: Jefferson, Randy Foye and Kevin Love. They have a couple others -- Ryan Gomes, Mike Miller -- who would be solid parts on a playoff team. They need a legit point guard, if Foye can't do it, and defensive size up front. But that's not really answering your question either. Running the franchise is what seems least likely to change. Kevin McHale has been bumped from the front office to the bench, but whoever Taylor hires as next GM -- whether it's an outsider or Fred Hoiberg (how come these nice-guy guards from the Bulls like Steve Kerr and John Paxson kept getting these jobs?) -- will be dealing with a hands-on owner.

Good article on the premature "aging'' of NBA players who went pro right out of high school, but you could also put Isiah Thomas on the list -- he was a one-and-done player as well. One could also say that by staying a full four years in college you put just as much stress on your body. You mention Ralph Sampson, but Bill Walton comes to mind, too. These players looked worn out when they arrived in the league and their short, injury-prone careers might reflect this.-- David, Centerville, Texas

I only included Sampson as a comparison for Dwight Howard, in terms of length of career. Sampson was a pretty famous player who made it to the Finals and the All-Star Game and seemed to be around for quite a while -- and yet he actually played fewer games than Howard already has. Thomas spent two seasons at Indiana, actually, and was 32 when he was forced by injury into retirement. A number of readers pointed out that I ignored college workload on players when wondering about the heavier minutes logged by the preps-to-pros guys such as Howard, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. But to me, there's no comparison in how grueling and punishing the pro game and lifestyle is. There is a reason that even the four-year college guys pancake in January or February of their rookie NBA seasons, hitting the infamous "wall." Thomas played 63 games at Indiana. Walton played in 87 for UCLA across four years. In the NBA, a rookie in the rotation for a playoff team might easily play in 100 in nine months. Factor in the back-to-backs and the constant reminders that -- regardless of the size of their paychecks -- this now is their job and not some sis-boom-bah "fun," and I see the NBA game as way more draining on these fellas.

Maybe swapping four years at the back ends of their careers for an earlier start is smart. Maybe their bodies are quicker to heal at ages 18-22 than at ages 32-36. I know my sample size was puny, by scientific standards, and my hypothesis, or hypotenuse, or whatever might have been flawed. My main point was that we're about to see some big NBA stars looking and playing older -- and missing games entirely -- than we've come to expect from more traditional arrivals.

I appreciate the fact that you recognized Dwyane Wade's long odds against being named MVP. D-Wade's season is similar to Kobe Bryant's from a couple of years ago, when the award went to someone else. Kobe's team just didn't win enough that year. Plus, the Heat would not be a playoff team in the West.-- Jarvis, Aliso Viejo, Calif.

That's a pretty good parallel, Jarvis. In 2005-06, Bryant led the NBA in scoring at 35.4 points per game. He also averaged 5.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and was ninth in steals at 1.84. But the Lakers went 45-37, finishing third in the Pacific and sixth in the West. Steve Nash, the MVP, boosted his scoring from 15.5 to 18.8 while his assists dipped from 11.5 to 10.5. He shot 51.2 percent overall, 44 percent from the arc, and that was enough for the voters, despite the Suns' drop from 62 victories to 54. Me, I voted for Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki that year, based on the Mavericks' franchise-tying 60-22 record.

What about Latrell Sprewell's "I've got my family to feed" when he turned the contract extension down? I'd say that is probably the most remembered basketball quote.-- Matt, London, Ontario, Calif.

Actually, in the column on quotable NBA people, my praise of Shaquille O'Neal was based more on his willingness and attempts to say colorful things, rather than the wit, irony or pithiness of whatever he has said. Or, for that matter, the lack of taste, class and tact sometimes shown in his unedited brain-to-mouth remarks. But I was remiss in rounding up some of the league's most famous statements. Here are four that readers passed along, plus a personal favorite I neglected:

-- Latrell Sprewell: "I've got my family to feed."

I was there that day, in the gym after practice, when Sprewell hissed the line that would hang his career. It was a simple, out-of-touch comment by a pro athlete reacting to what he saw as a sizeable pay reduction -- from $14.6 million for the 2004-05 season to a three-year offer from Minnesota worth $21 million. It was the beginning of the end for both that Wolves team, which failed to repeat as Western Conference finalists and hasn't made the playoffs since, and for Sprewell. An incredible slasher, a coachable player on the court and a team leader when he didn't feel threatened as, I dunno, a businessman or something, Sprewell never played again after April 2005.

-- Darryl Dawkins: "The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam-I-Am-Jam."

OK, so it's more of a label than a quote, but the NBA's all-time man-child (and king of the hyphen) deserves some mention here. He was an entertainer first, player second, and his masterwork came after he smashed the first of two backboards during the 1979-80 season. This one came at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium, sending a shower of glass shards down on the Kings' Bill Robinzine. Then Dawkins did it three weeks later at home at the Philadelphia Spectrum, this time ripping the rim -- bolts and all -- right out of the glass. His other dunk names were famous -- the Go-rilla, the Dunk You Very Much, the Yo Mama and the In Your Face Disgrace -- and Double D's legacy was intact. Basketball changed rules for guys like George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but it changed its equipment -- unveiling the collapsible rim -- because of Dawkins.

-- Rudy Tomjanovich: "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."

The Houston Rockets had a bumpier ride in 1994-95, their status as NBA defending champs not helping as they plummeted from 58 to 47 victories and faced the postseason as a constant underdog, starting each series on the road. San Antonio and Utah both had won 60 or more, and Orlando -- with Shaq and Penny Hardaway -- was the dominant team in the East. But the Rockets beat Utah in five games, Phoenix in seven and San Antonio in six before sweeping the Magic for a second straight championship. Hence, Rudy T's famous quote.

-- Larry Bird: "Who's coming in second?"

This comment, made by Bird upon entering the locker room prior to the 1987 Three-Point Contest at All-Star weekend and surveying the other participants, is so good that, even if Bird hadn't said it, he should have. It perfectly summed up his extreme confidence, burning competitive drive and brutal gamesmanship.

-- Dick Motta: "The opera isn't over till the fat lady sings."

Somehow, it doesn't seem right that the most amusing quote in NBA history gets credited to the wrong guy. Motta, then coaching the Washington franchise, was actually the person who popularized the comment. But it was San Antonio sportswriter Dan Cook, who also worked Spurs broadcasts, who said it before Motta during the Bullets-Spurs clash in the 1978 Eastern Conference semifinals. San Antonio trailed 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, but forced a sixth game. The quote came in handy when Washington trailed Seattle in the Finals 3-2 before taking Games 6 and 7. Still the franchise's only NBA title, it came in a seventh game, on the road.

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