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Road Teams Find The Edge In NBA Playoffs


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Look, I think this whole show is great but I really look forward to saying, time for sports. Auntie Em, there's no place like home, there's no place like home except in the NBA playoffs. And remember when Kentucky lost the college basketball championship game? Got ready to lose most of its one-and-done freshmen players to the pros? What were we thinking? NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Morning, Tom.


SIMON: Hi, there. Look, two surprise teams so far in the NBA playoffs, the first round, the Washington Wizards and the Portland Trailblazers. They had the chance last night to take control of their first round series, but they played at home. Couldn't put them away, could they? What's going on?

GOLDMAN: I am speaking to you from Portland. Yeah, Washington fell to Chicago 100-97. The Blazers lost to Houston 121-116...

SIMON: Mike Dunleavy like, drained, I think, a dozen three-pointers, if I'm not mistaken.

GOLDMAN: At least, yeah. And the Blazers lost to Houston 121 to 116 in overtime - not to move on to Portland too quickly here. What's going on? Strange and spreading malady in these playoffs, Scott. Road teams are winning at a stunning rate. In the first week of the postseason, road teams won 12 of the 22 games. Now remember, teams are clawing for much of the regular season - clawing to win games in order to give them the home-court advantage in the playoffs.

The psychology of playing in front of your own cheering fans, the comfort and routine of home - it's supposed to make winning in the postseason more likely. So far, not the case.

SIMON: And why not?

GOLDMAN: Well, we're finding out there's a lot more parity in the NBA than we realized. We're seeing lower-seeded teams beating higher-seeded teams regularly. It's very reminiscent of the recent March Madness tournament in college basketball - wide open. And the psychology of home-court advantage may change in the playoffs because, you know, each game in a series is so important. The pressure really is on for home teams to win in the postseason, to hold serve.

Last night, Portland, playing in front of its raucus, loyal crowd missed all four of its long-range jump shots in overtime after hitting a bunch earlier in the game. Pressure? Well, pressure can tighten muscles and can wreak havoc on long-range shooting.

SIMON: And I - look, I'll just say I, you know, I traveled with the Chicago Bulls a few years ago while writing a book. A lot of those guys prefer to play on the roads 'cause they said they didn't have to worry about arranging tickets for their third-grader's teacher - you know? - or driving their Land Rover through rush-hour traffic from the suburbs to get to the game. They can isolate and concentrate on the road.

GOLDMAN: Absolutely.

SIMON: Look, next season the NBA's going to have to wait around for the Harrison twins - aren't they? - from the University of Kentucky? They announced they're coming back. What's going on - they want to stay in school? What'll they learn there?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Some actually do. It's ironic, isn't it, for Kentucky head coach John Calipari to - the man who's mastered the one-and-done phenomenon. He's so used to recruiting top high school players, grooming them for a year and then saying goodbye. But along with the Harrisons, four other key players from the team that lost the title game just this month, players who could have left, decided not to.

And in the meantime, Calipari has recruited another bunch of amazing high schoolers. So not only is Kentucky already the absolute preseason favorite for next year, it'll be a real challenge for Coach Cal to find enough playing time for his surplus of amazing talent.

SIMON: And Tom, we lost Earl Morrall this week, maybe the greatest sub of all time, wasn't he?

GOLDMAN: A hero to benchwarmers everywhere. He played 21 years for six NFL teams, started many games during his career but remembered most as a backup for a couple of NFL greats. He filled in for an injured Johnny Unitas in the 1971 Super Bowl and led the Colts to victory. Next year, playing for Miami, he filled in for Bob Griese and helped lead the Dolphins to a perfect season - the only one in history.

SIMON: Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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