If home is where the heart is, it's also where the heartless can be, as the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets have made abundantly clear this season. After three games of the NBA championship series, the two best home-court teams in a home-team league had both held serve. The Celtics, who are an NBA record 49-1 at home this season, playoffs included, and the Rockets, who are 44-5, play the kind of ball that makes the home-court edge as sharp as a butcher's knife. "Welcome to the Houston Summit!" crowed forward Robert Reid after he and the Rockets defended their turf Sunday, leaving the championship series at two games to one, Boston.
Of all the things the Celtics have done this season, perhaps the most extraordinary, given the unreasonable demands of the NBA's 82-game schedule, has been to win every home game except for a 121-103 loss to Portland in Boston Garden on Dec. 6. That breaks down to 37 regular-season victories in the Garden, three more in Hartford and another nine in the playoffs. It seems appropriate that the only team to beat them at home goes by the name of Trail Blazers.
The Rockets' ledger in Houston has been only slightly less impressive. The rafters of the 11-year-old Summit are relatively bare: Only two retired uniform numbers hang alongside three measly banners. The banners are of the conference-and divisional-championship variety, the kind the Celts don't have any room for. But the Houston crowd gets down with the best of them.
For its part, Boston's fabled Garden is loaded with character, and characters, too. "In Boston, whatever motivational lift you get from a crowd is magnified because the fans are so close to the court," says Dr. Bruce Ogilvie, a sports psychologist. "They almost wrap their arms around you."
Yet according to a study by another sports psychologist, Dr. John Silva of the University of North Carolina, a crowd influences a game more by its distracting effect on the visitors than by how it roots, roots, roots for the home team. This may help explain a phenomenon that the Rockets' Reid calls the Boston Garden Knucklehead Factor. "There's always some guy in the front row yelling 'Youse guys suck,' " Reid said last week. "And instead of playing to win the game, you play to shut that guy up."
With their outsized success at home this season, including Garden-variety blowouts in Games 1 and 2 against the Rockets, the Celtics have earned a place alongside sport's most dominant home teams. It is a dynastic cast. The University of Kentucky won 129 straight home basketball games from 1943 to 1955. The Miami Dolphins of the early '70s took 27 straight in the Orange Bowl, and the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens went unbeaten over 38 straight home games.
Pro basketball teams playing at home enjoy the greatest advantage. Over the NBA regular season just past, hosts had a league wide winning percentage of .654. Studies show that home cookin' becomes progressively less pungent as one moves from pro hoops to hockey to college football, pro football and finally baseball, in which a home team is only 5% more likely to win in its own stadium.
NBA travel is particularly grueling. (Check the odds on a team—any team—playing its third road game in four nights.) Referees suffer the fans' influence subconsciously. (As unlikely as the Rockets were to win in Boston last week, their chances were further diminished when they failed to draw either Jake O'Donnell or Earl Strom, officials who are known throughout the league as the most stouthearted in the face of a partisan crowd.)
As Rocket guard Lewis Lloyd said after Houston squeezed out its 106-104 home win in Game 3: "As far as the confidence factor is concerned, if you can keep everybody up, it should never go down."
But the Rockets have a tough road to travel—back to Boston on Sunday, if the series lasts that long. After all, the Rockets cannot become the NBA champions unless they beat the Celtics, at least once, in Boston Garden.