A strange thing happened last week, after Damian Lillard launched a 33-foot jumper that struck the back of the rim, bounced 18 feet into the air and then plunged like a guided missile straight down, swishing through the net for a tying basket with 1:29 left in the Portland Trail Blazers' game against the Dallas Mavericks.
Nothing. Nothing happened.
No cacophonous roar. No chorus of thunderous gasps. No camera pans across a sea of shocked or joyful faces, mouths agape, hands on cheeks, eyes wide. Just a smattering of exuberant whoops from Lillard's teammates on the Portland bench.
"Like any other shot, to be honest," Mavericks guard Seth Curry recalls, chuckling. "You could hear their bench get excited and scream. Our side of the court was quiet. It was no different than driving and making a layup."
Read that again. One of the wildest, most miraculous shots of this NBA season—heck, of any season—had all the impact of...a layup.
Such is life in the NBA bubble—a mystical, parallel dimension in which basketball proceeds without shrieking fans, gyrating dance teams or T-shirt cannons, without kiss cams or dance cams or mascots, without any sense of ambience whatsoever.
"It's a little eerie," says TNT's Ian Eagle, who called that Blazers-Mavericks game and whose boisterous reaction—"Ohhh-ho-hooo!!! REEE-diculous!!!"—was possibly the loudest in the building.
The coronavirus pandemic has removed fans from the equation and forced the NBA to create a literally and figuratively sterile environment at the Disney Wide World of Sports campus near Orlando, Florida.
So the playoffs that just began will come with the usual narratives—Can LeBron reclaim the throne? Can the Raptors repeat? Does Giannis have enough help?—and one colossal new curiosity.
What happens when there's no home-court advantage? When 20,000 screaming souls are erased from the picture? When there's no one there to cheer a player's successes and groan at his failures? When there are no boos or taunts or click-clacking thundersticks?
To borrow a Confucian query: What's the sound of zero hands clapping?
"It's very different," Rockets guard Eric Gordon says. "The fans bring a different energy, which we don't have. ... You gotta make and create your own energy."
The NBA has the widest home-court advantage among the major North American sports, with the home team winning 56-58 percent of all games in any given season. In the playoffs, it's even more stark, with the home team winning 65 percent of all games since 1984.
Determining why has long been a source of fascination for coaches, players, trainers, psychologists, economists, statisticians and, well, everyone else.
Brett Siegel @brettsiegel13
FINAL: Blazers 134 Mavericks 131 DAMIAN LILLARD WHAT A GAME!!! Lillard with 61 PTS (9-17 3PT) and 8 AST as he continues to dominate in Orlando! The Portland Trail Blazers now hold their own fate as they can clinch the 8-seed in the West with a win Thurs! https://t.co/jOUxVfCHDb
Is it the atmosphere—the palpable sense of moral support for the home team and hostility toward the visitors? Is it the comfort of a familiar locker room and court, "friendly rims" and sight lines? Is it physiological, with road teams disadvantaged by air travel, hotel beds, fatigue and time-zone leaps? Or is it less about the teams and more about the referees being subconsciously swayed by the environment, as some studies suggest?
"All of those things play into it," Curry says.
And now, none of those things will play into it.
No one is traveling. Everyone is in a hotel bed. Every bubble game is simultaneously "home" and "away," both familiar and foreign, but not distinctly advantageous to anyone, no matter how many bells and whistles the league creates to make the designated "home" team feel at home.
Up to 320 fans can "attend" bubble games via webcam, their ghostly likenesses beamed into virtual seats on the video boards around the court. (Their voices, however, cannot be heard. All crowd noise is prerecorded.) The "home" team also gets its own signage, pregame hype videos, warm-up music and in-game sound effects, to simulate the feel of its own arena. The public address announcer even skews his enthusiasm toward the designated home team.
So a Lakers "home" game includes recorded tracks from the Staples Center organist. A Pacers "home" game features the same screeching race-car effects that are played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. A home game for the Heat means a lot of reggaeton and Pitbull on the sound system, and a recording of PA guy Michael Baiamonte bellowing, "Dos minutos!" at the two-minute mark of every quarter. Rockets home games feature a lot of Travis Scott and Beyonce, both of whom are from Houston.
But these superficial measures barely register for the players, who liken the bubble atmosphere to open runs at the local gym.
"There's no difference between a home and a road game," Rockets star James Harden says of the bubble. "The atmosphere is what it is."
And yet, curiously, the designated "home" team won 56 percent of the time during the recently concluded 88-game seeding schedule. That's too small a sample to be considered significant, but it does make one wonder: Perhaps virtual fans and a familiar soundtrack make a subconscious difference, after all?
"I don't know," Lakers guard Danny Green says, "but that is a weird dynamic."
That dynamic is not likely to change much in the coming weeks. NBA officials say they have no plans to introduce any new elements as the playoffs progress.
Teams that make the second round of the playoffs will get one modest boost, in the form of family members arriving on the Disney campus. At that point, each player can invite one guest to each game—i.e., up to 15 fans per team, or 30 total. The moral support will be nice, though it will still be a far cry from a packed TD Garden for a Game 7, or Oracle Arena in June.
How much that matters is not entirely clear. One prevailing theory is that removing the home advantage means talent will become an even greater factor in determining the winner. But talent has always ruled the NBA.
In the NBA, No. 1 seeds have won 67 of 72 first-round series (93 percent) since 1984. The No. 2 seeds have also won 67 of 72 first-round series in that span, while No. 3 seeds have won 75 percent of the time.
This isn't a league prone to upsets or surprises, especially in the first two rounds of playoffs.
When a top seed loses a game at home, it usually makes up for it with a road victory, as good teams do. And when a higher seed goes up 2-0 in a series, it's usually because it was the better team—which is how it earned the higher seed—and not simply because those games were at home.
The "advantage" so often referenced is really about Game 7—the series tiebreaker. There have been 135 in NBA history, 78.5 percent of them won by the home team. Any series that ends in six games or fewer is really about the disparity in talent, not the location of the games.
The Finals have gone to a seventh game only 19 times, with the home team winning 15 of them. But again, that might simply be because they were the better teams. Four of the last five NBA champions have clinched their titles on the road.
A dominant team doesn't need the home-court advantage at all. Golden State went 16-1 in winning the 2017 championship, its lone loss coming in Cleveland in Game 4 of the Finals. The 2001 Lakers also lost just once on their way to the title, dropping Game 1 of the Finals at home before crushing Philadelphia.
Still, if talent were the only factor, then top seeds would arguably sweep every series. They don't. The home-court edge is clearly a factor.
So what happens now, when no one ever has to board a flight, sleep in a strange bed or be subjected to the comic stylings of Drunken Hedge Fund Guy in the $1,000 baseline seats?
"I think what will happen maybe is that the better team will win more often in this environment," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni says. "They won't be [affected] by altitude, noise, crowd and all that stuff."
Which could mean that all historical trends are now moot. Going down 2-0 might not seem as daunting—even though a team leading 2-0 wins the series 93 percent of the time—since all the games now feel the same. Perhaps we'll even see the first-ever comeback from a 3-0 deficit.
Conventional wisdom about "playoff intensity" could also take a hit. Players say it's a different game. Younger players often struggle to adjust to it. But so much of that intensity comes from deafening crowds. In an antiseptic bubble, age might be irrelevant, allowing a younger team like Dallas—led by 21-year-old Luka Doncic—to shine.
Games in the bubble are so quiet at times that the participants can hear everything: players bantering, coaches barking instructions, referees conferring. Television broadcasts play up the canned crowd noise, but the experience in the arena "feels completely different," Curry says.
"It's a totally different feel when you're actually playing," Curry says. "It's just quiet, man. You can hear everybody talking and yelling. You don't get that as much on the TV side. And you kind of get the crowd noise more on TV than you do when you're playing, to be honest."
In general, the best home records in a given season correspond to the best teams—it's really about players, not fans. The only teams proved to have an inherent home advantage are the teams at altitude: Denver (5,280 feet) and Utah (4,226).
Across the league, road teams shoot about 1 percent worse than they do at home, and are called for one more foul. That amounts to roughly a three-point disadvantage per game. But foul shooting, turnovers and nearly every other measurement remain generally consistent.
The home-team winning percentage in the NBA had hovered in the 58-60 percent range but has been declining over the last seven or eight years, to the current 56-58 percent. Some of that could be attributed to schedule reform, with the league reducing the number of back-to-backs and providing teams more rest between games.
Even still, league officials contend the home edge has been overstated, noting that road teams are often playing the second night of back-to-backs, against rested home teams. In those cases, it's the schedule, not the location, that's driving the loss.
The home team's winning percentage drops 5 points (to about 53 percent) in instances when the home team played the night before and the road team did not, according to league officials. Conversely, if the home team was rested and the road team was not, the home team's winning percentage increases by 5 percentage points, to 63 percent.
Every study seems to reach a different conclusion.
A 2007 analysis from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania determined that fatigue by the road team was "an important contributor" (though not a "dominant factor") in the NBA's home-court advantage.
The book Scorecasting, published in 2011, dismissed fatigue almost entirely, along with any effects of crowd noise on teams. In fact, the authors determined it's the referees, not the players, who are subconsciously affected by the environment.
"This isn't the refs trying to cater to the crowds," says Scorecasting co-author Tobias Moskowitz, a professor of finance and economics at Yale University. "This is really a subconscious bias. It's a natural tendency as a human to want to relieve that social pressure from 20,000 screaming fans."
It's true that roaring crowds pump up the players, Moskowitz says, but not necessarily to the benefit of the home team. "They pump up the players on both sides," he says. "Adrenaline is the real effect."
League officials dispute the notion that referees are influenced by crowds. Perhaps these fanless playoff games will provide a test case to settle the debate.
"I think the home-court advantage is going to go way down," Moskowitz says. "What we found was that the fans tend to influence the referees, especially on the close calls; and without the fans there ... I suspect what you'll see is the calls being much more even and less biased toward the home team."
Some analysts have posited that the neutral site might be an equalizer—that lesser teams will stand a better chance if, say, they don't have to play at Milwaukee (where the Bucks were 30-5), or visit the Clippers (27-9).
But if D'Antoni is right, the best teams might be even more dominant in the stripped-down bubble games. That would mean shorter series across the board, and likely more sweeps.
Put another way: If the only way to defeat LeBron James and Anthony Davis is to wear them down with long flights and time-zone changes, then no one stands a chance in this environment.
Brian Levenson, a mental-performance coach who works with NBA players and wrote his master's thesis on home-court advantage, believes performance often comes down to a simple concept: aggression.
"I would say the players I interviewed felt the crowd was the biggest factor," Levenson says. But the home/road element was more complicated.
One veteran who routinely thrived in road games told Levenson: "On the road, I'm more aggressive. I've got the green light. I don't worry about my family or my friends, or people asking for tickets, or my contract and living up to my contract." Yet another player spoke of that same confidence in reference to home games, saying the presence of family and friends and a supportive crowd made him more aggressive.
All of which suggests that confidence and performance have more to do with how a player interprets his surroundings—and not the surroundings themselves.
"I think confidence comes from the way we talk to ourself and the dialogue we have with ourself," Levenson said.
Some stars relish the chance to silence hostile fans. Think Reggie Miller at Madison Square Garden in the 1990s, or Kobe Bryant in Sacramento in the early 2000s, or Lillard, well, anywhere.
It even applies to some role players like Curry. His three highest-scoring games, and nine of his top 13, have come on the road. His career scoring average and shooting percentage are slightly higher on the road, too.
"I miss the fans and miss the energy in the arena, the cheers and the crowd," Curry says of the bubble games. "I even miss people just yelling at me. I miss being able to quiet a fan that's just talking to me throughout the game."
Silencing "haters" is so embedded in the player psyche that Lillard, seconds after the Blazers wrapped up their victory over the Mavericks last week, turned toward the sideline and yelled, "Put some respect on my fucking name!"
Technically, it was a Dallas home game. But there was no one there except the scorekeepers, a few reporters and the virtual fans, who couldn't actually hear him.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.
Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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