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Sizing up the importance of home-court advantage

December 29, 2010 | 12:39 pm


With the Lakers appearing in dire straits, Coach Phil Jackson stood in the hallway of AT&T Arena arguing that it's too early to evaluate how the current disarray would affect playoff seedings.

The Lakers (21-10) have played 31 regular-season games and have 51 more to go. Early-season records aren't always an accurate indicator on how things will turn out. And the Lakers have experienced plenty of regular-season struggles in the past three seasons only to turn things around and secure NBA Finals berths.

"I think the players understand that it's a long process and the idea is to come into the playoffs in the best shape you can come in as a team," Jackson told reporters. "Now, maybe we're not capable of coming in as well as we'd like to, but you want to have home-court advantage in the first round and get your game going in a situation that's a playoff for you. We're still 50 games away from that kind of a scenario. It's a long ways to go."

Fair enough. It's way too early to add the qualifier that if the playoffs ended today, the Lakers would play as a fourth seed against Oklahoma City (21-11), setting themselves up for a possible semifinals matchup with San Antonio and a conference finals series with Dallas (24-6) or Utah (21-10). And that's assuming the Lakers advance that far. But it isn't too early to outline how important the Lakers should weigh home-court advantage. After all, Jackson's revelation to reporters prior to the Lakers' 97-82 loss Tuesday at San Antonio that he'd like the team to at least have home-court advantage for the first round falls well short of the team's expectations in wanting to win out the Western Conference.

Below, I explain why it's critical that the Lakers have home-court advantage.

One only has to look at the Lakers' past three playoff performances to know how important having home-court advantage is. The Lakers managed to overcome a 3-2 deficit to the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals by winning Game 6 and Game 7 on their home floor. That included overcoming a 13-point deficit in Game 7 before a partisan crowd at Staples Center.

Go back to the 2008 NBA Finals and you have the Lakers trying to overcome a 3-2 deficit, only to suffer an embarrassing and series-closing 131-92 Game 6 loss. Obviously the makeup of both those teams was different, what with the Lakers having Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum proving at least healthy enough to play. But having the seventh and deciding game at Staples Center certainly helped the Lakers' cause. Without discounting Artest's Game 7 heroics, Kobe Bryant's ability to compensate on the glass after suffering a poor shooting night, and clutch shots from Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic, I remain unsure about the Lakers' chances to replicate what they did that night at Staples Center in TD Garden for one simple reason. What made the Lakers-Celtics Finals matchup compelling was that it  was hard to predict whether a pattern in a specific game would carry over because both teams countered each other's strengths so well. In a series that was defined by both squads trying to take advantage of any slight edge, overcoming a 13-point deficit in front of a contentious Boston crowd wouldn't be impossible, but it would be darn near close to that.

The Lakers didn't experience such an issue in the 2009 Finals, breezing past the Orlando Magic in five games. But what about the semifinals? They needed all of seven games to put away a pesky and relentless Houston team that was missing Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. That's not to say the Lakers would've lost Game 7 in Houston, but it would have been much more difficult.

Some may counter that Cleveland's early playoff exits the past two seasons after holding the league's best record shows the idea of having home-court advantage is misguided. I understand that sentiment, and it's a reason why I argued that the Lakers shouldn't pursue breaking the Chicago Bulls' 72-win regular season record set in the 1995-96 season (hey, if the Lakers win out the rest of the season, they'll at least tie it!). The Lakers also shouldn't remain fixated on the conference standings so much as playing good basketball, since it could create a mindset that losing a home playoff game means they already lost the series. They had lost home-court advantage, after all, in playoff matchups in 2009 against Houston and Denver only to reclaim it back with a road victory. 

But the Lakers' significant downplaying of games and bored approach hasn't helped them so far this season. Acknowledging that having home-court advantage would provide a dangled carrot to a team that's struggling to get excited for midseason games, no matter the opponent. And if playoff history means anything, as detailed recently by ESPN Los Angeles' Brian Kamenetzky, having home-court advantage will help offset any additional postseason challenges. The Lakers are currently seeing firsthand how difficult it is to three-peat. No use making it harder than it already is. 

-- Mark Medina

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Photo: Kobe Bryant and his Lakers teammates begin to celebrate their 83-79 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times