The 6th/12th/7th/10th man

From my brief and unspectacular run as a sportswriter, I can think of one certifiably transcendent hometown crowd—the angry, bitter, vengeful group that greeted Vince Carter when he returned as a New Jersey Net to play the Toronto Raptors. As a fan, the only other that comes to mind is the uniformly red mob—giddy and a bit bewildered—that showed up for Toronto’s first playoff game a couple seasons later.

Of course, the home team lost both those games. So much then for home court advantage.

Except last night, watching Game 7 of the Spurs/Hornets series, it was difficult not to link the New Orleans loss with the dreadful showing of those in attendance. With all due respect to the people of New Orleans, who have suffered so much in recent years, it was unquestionably a pathetic effort. So much so that Charles Barkley took a moment at halftime to call out the 18,000-strong crowd, all wearing white and all seemingly petrified.

In one regard, it was victory alone that so many showed up. For the regular season, the Hornets ranked near the bottom of the NBA in attendance—drawing fewer home fans on average than the hopeless Timberwolves. This was, of course, the Hornets’ first full season back in New Orleans after splitting time between Louisiana and Oklahoma City for two years after Hurricane Katrina. And that would have wounded any team, let alone one that only just arrived in 2002 and struggled in its first three seasons to draw decent crowds—averaging 15,560, 14,332 and 14,221 fans per game respectively.

This season, the Hornets were the hip new break-out stars of the NBA. And it’s not hyperbole to suggest the emergence of uber-guard Chris Paul and a 56-win season might’ve saved professional basketball in New Orleans. At least for the time being.  

Home and away they were a balanced team through the regular season—winning 30 games in New Orleans and 26 on the road. But in the playoffs, they were vastly superior when playing in front of a friendly crowd. Indeed, before Game 7, they’d won all six of their home playoff games and by an average margin of nearly 17 points.

In the second round against San Antonio, the home team won each of the first six games—the closest contest coming Game 3 when the Spurs won by 11. This mirrored a leaguewide trend in which home teams have dominated play (witness the Boston Celtics, the league’s best regular season team, who have yet to win a playoff game this year away from the latter-day parquet).

You can debate how much this has to do with a supportive-slash-intimidating crowd and how much it simply comes down to players performing better in familiar and comfortable surroundings, but in the NBA, where fans are closer and the environment generally more raucous than you’ll find in other pro sports leagues, there is recent precedent for the home crowd as significant factor.

A season ago, the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors upset the first-seeded Dallas Mavericks in round one of the Western Conference playoffs. The Mavericks had won a league-best 67 games in the regular season and boasted the league MVP in Dirk Nowitzki. Golden State’s win in six games is generally considered the greatest upset in NBA history. 

Granted, the Mavericks were shaky before the series even began. The Warriors had swept the regular season series and, in an effort to counteract Golden State’s up-tempo game, Dallas coach Avery Johnson changed his starting line-up before Game 1, resulting only in an 85-point opening-night effort from a squad that had averaged 100 per game until then.

But the fight wasn’t really lost until Game 3 when the action shifted to Oakland and a delirious yellow mob seemingly willed the series in Golden State’s favour. A team of emotional, if inconsistent, stars like Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson fed off that energy, gaining obvious confidence and newfound focus. By the time Davis started hitting bizarre, off-balance three pointers, the upset seemed inevitable. By Game 6, Matt Barnes was emboldened enough to do this.

So go back to that crowd in New Orleans. Let’s say they’re even half as raucous as those in Oakland. What’s that worth in increased intensity, focus and momentum for the Hornets? It’s obviously impossible to quantify, but it’s probably not too great a reach to suggest a truly great home crowd could be worth an extra two points in your favour. What’s that accomplish? Well, an extra two points in the fourth quarter of last night’s Game 7 might mean New Orleans is down one, not three, when Jannero Pargo hits a 24-foot jumper with 1:35 to play. And trailing by just one, maybe Pargo—a decent, but hardly great shooter—doesn’t go for an open three-pointer on the next possession. Maybe he drives, makes a lay-up or gets fouled, and gives New Orleans the lead with a minute to play.

As it is, he missed that 23-foot shot from the corner. San Antonio got the rebound. And Tony Parker calmly made a mid-range jumper at the other end to give the Spurs a five-point advantage. Fifty perfunctory seconds later, the game was over. And the crowd, seeming to have suspected this ending from the start, was finally permitted to quietly file toward the exits.