How a Crowd Can Swing an NBA Playoff Game

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How a Crowd Can Swing an NBA Playoff Game
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
The Golden State Warriors' crowd is as excellent as ever.

There's not a lot of hard data on how a crowd can affect an NBA playoff game. There are no studies showing how much a crowd contributes to a huge run or a key defensive stop in the fourth quarter. But they matter—a lot.

Every single team in the league this year won significantly more games at home than they did on the road. Some of that can be attributed to rest and familiar surroundings, but a lot of it comes down to playing in front of tens of thousands of rabid, ear-splitting fans.

And if home crowds are that important in the regular season, you can only imagine the impact they have in the playoffs, where every game means that much more.

Crowds obviously don't win games—players do. But playoff crowds can absolutely give their team a boost and help to swing a game. That's done in several ways, starting with...

 

Adrenaline

Kevin Garnett on the Boston Celtics' playoff crowd, according to ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg:

This damn crowd here sparks you. It doesn't take much here, man.

But when speaking about this crowd, it's like plugging in, man. You're enthused for 48 minutes on, from tip on. So I can't see the difference between minute from minute. I feel like every minute I look up I see my family, I see people yelling, I see the drunk fat guy.

I can't decipher. I'm telling you, I can't decipher one from the other. This crowd is ridiculous. I love it.

You often hear expressions about how certain players or teams feed off a crowd, and while it might sound a bit strange, it's basically the truth. Garnett hit it on the head. Loud playoff crowds spark players and give them an almost inexplicable boost that can't be found in anything else.

Heck, you can see it in Garnett himself all the time, with the best example probably being Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals (when Garnett and the Celtics clinched the title at home over the Los Angeles Lakers). After a lackluster few road games from Garnett, people were starting to wonder if he was banged up or just plain worn out. Whatever it was, he clearly didn't look the same.

So what happened? Garnett had a monster Game 6, putting up 26 points and 14 rebounds in the clincher, and causing ESPN's Bill Simmons to later write:

Now we know the answer -- if the season wore him down, then Tuesday night's crowd gave him one last energy boost, like 18,000 people were pouring a giant Red Bull down his throat.

Home crowds push players and teams to new heights. You see it especially when a home team struggles to score for a while. They start looking frustrated—sluggish on defense and miserable in the half court. The fans just sit there waiting for something, anything to get them going. And when the team finally gets that dunk or three-pointer...pandemonium.

Just check out this 8-0 run that the Oklahoma City Thunder had against the Lakers in Game 3 of their 2010 first-round series.

One bucket. That's all it took for the crowd to go crazy. And all of a sudden, the Thunder were flying around on defense, contesting everything, sealing up every passing lane and racing down the court every chance they got.

That 8-0 run—a run that was propped up by the crowd—swung the game. The Thunder couldn't have won Game 3 without that run or that crowd. That's just the truth.

 

The Refs

No, referees don't come into games looking to favor certain teams. They don't care about a game's outcome. But they are human, and that means they're susceptible to certain social pressures. Basically, loud crowds can help to dictate a referee's foul calls.

That sounds pretty obvious, but in this case at least, there's actually data to back that thought up. Tobias J. Moskowitz, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, gave a talk at the Sloan Sports Conference a few years ago called “The Real Reasons Behind the Home Field Advantage.”

Moskowitz found that large home crowds had a huge effect on referee decisions when it came to subjective calls, as seen via MITVideo:

In the NBA, you look at loose ball fouls, offensive fouls and traveling—these ambiguous calls—they greatly go the home team's way in the most-attended games and not as much in the least attended games. 

Nick Laham/Getty Images
Like it or not, officials tend to side with the home team.

This effect is remarkably significant and goes to prove what NBA fans have known for just about forever. Home favoritism is a real thing. In a fast-paced sport like basketball, there are a lot of times that the refs just aren't sure about a call. And according to Moskowitz, they tend to side with a noisy crowd (you can see more details at slideshare.net).

You can't really blame the refs for it (you've probably never had to be objective about a decision that may lead to 50,000 random strangers wanting to murder you), but the bias is there. And it's game-changing.

 

Intimidation

This is exclusive to playoff games. There are times when teams simply aren't prepared for an opposing crowd, and they get rattled. It's rare—only the best crowds have an effect like this. The best and most recent example is the 2007 “We Believe” Golden State Warriors, who smoked the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks, 4-2, in their first-round series, thanks, in part, to their crowd.

The “We Believe” crowd has become legendary, a part of basketball myth at this point. And they deserve that. As good as the current Warriors' crowd has been (and they've been awesome), the '07 fans were even better.

This year's Warriors crowd has been pretty loud.

The Dallas Mavericks were a 67-win juggernaut that rolled through the regular season with league MVP Dirk Nowitzki at the helm. They were a favorite to go all the way. And then the Warriors happened.

If the Mavs were unprepared for the Warriors' toughness, speed and smallball, they were equally as unprepared for Oracle Arena. When they heard that crowd in Game 3, they melted. There's no other way to put it. They wanted no part of the Warriors. The series might as well have ended right then and there.

ESPN's Bill Simmons later wrote:

I don't believe the 2007 Dallas Mavericks have the collective heart to prevail in Oakland, not with the Warriors' fans smelling blood and providing one of the all-time electric/rabid/emotional/crazed atmospheres in recent sports history.

As good as they were in Game 3 and Game 4, the fans will be better tonight. They will rise to the occasion. They will. I am convinced. They have been waiting for a night like this for 30 long years. Literally.

And that proved to be true. The Mavs were blown out in Game 6, losing 111-86, and losing their three games at Oracle by a combined 45 points. Only Game 4 (a four-point Warriors win) was even remotely close.

Again, this is pretty rare. But when it happens, the series is pretty much decided.

 

Role Players

Superstars usually show up no matter where they are. That's part of their job descriptions. It's the role players whose performance can be swung by a home crowd. Sometimes, a really great playoff crowd can fuel a role player (or even just a non-superstar) and bring out the best in them.

Look at what happened a few weeks ago, when the Chicago Bulls' Nate Robinson scored 23 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets. Robinson's always fed off the crowd for his biggest performances, and this was his biggest.

After Robinson made a few jumpers, the Chicago crowd got into it, and all of a sudden, Robinson couldn't miss. He was unstoppable. This is an all-time playoff moment, something that we'll remember 50 years from now. And it doesn't happen in Brooklyn. Not a chance. Robinson needed the Chicago crowd.

Another example? Brandon Roy's Game 4 against the Mavericks two years ago. The Rose Garden might as well have been a time machine for Roy. The crowd took him to a different place. Every stepback jumper, every little scoop shot made them roar that much louder.

And after Roy's and-one three-pointer, you just knew. The Portland Trail Blazers weren't going to lose—not that game. Roy and the crowd wouldn't let them. If you think that happens anywhere but the Rose Garden with that specific crowd, you're nuts. The crowd helped win that game.

This has happened dozens of times in the past—older fans might remember "The Sleepy Floyd game,” for example. These aren't lone incidents. And any time a role player or fringe All-Star gives an all-time performance, it tends to swing most games.

 

Conclusion

Playoff crowds matter—at least the good ones do. They pump up players, influence refs and sometimes intimidate visitors. It's been done countless times in the past and even a few times this year. And with any luck, we'll see a crowd swing a few more games before these playoffs are over.

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