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Road worriers

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff May 19, 2008 08:21 AM

Really, this "Celtics not winning on the road will spell their doom" theory is a bunch of nonsense.

Yet if you peruse various previews and prognostications of Boston's Eastern Conference Finals series against the Pistons, a healthy number of them are going with Detroit in 6, due in great part to Boston's inability to yet win a playoff game away from the Garden.

The Pistons, on the other hand, have been the best road team the NBA playoffs have had to offer. So certainly they'll steal one on the parquet -- on which the Celtics are 8-0 in the postseason. Right?

Are we really basing the Pistons' ability to take one in Boston on the sole fact that they had one playoff road win in the semifinals?

Truly, you can see the enormous disadvantage that Boston is up against.

It can't be denied that watching these Celtics play on the road this playoff season isn't just garish in the form of those awful road jerseys. But this is a league-wide affliction. Everybody has been horrible on the road. Home teams in this round of the playoffs are now 21-2 overall, the lone two road wins coming from the Pistons and Lakers, Friday night in their series-clinching win over Utah. New Orleans hopes to make it 22-2 tonight in Game 7 against the Spurs.

Ninety-one percent of the time this past series, you could depend on the white shirts taking home the win. It's been 100 percent as far as the Celtics have been concerned in the playoffs.

Perhaps it's just that we're too close to see otherwise, but this isn't just the Celtics. Yet that particular failure seems to be at the forefront of any serious series breakdown. Has everybody simply forgotten that there's a reason why you fight all season long for home-court advantage, never more valuable than this year?

Writes Sports Illustrated's Steve Aschburner:

It also is understood that home-court advantage pays off, way more often than not, when it comes to advancing. According to NBA figures, over all of the league's best-of-seven playoff matchups, the teams with the home-court edge have won 280 out of 372 series, a .753 rate.

Still, it never has been taken so literally, with home teams winning and road teams losing quite like this. The most lopsided home/road results in any round since 1984, overall by winning percentage, came in the 1990 conference finals, when the home teams went 12-1 (.923). That postseason, the home clubs won 75 percent of the time.

So what is it this year? Statistical anomaly? An identifiable trend? An influx of wimpy players and coaches? Friendlier officiating at home? A new definition of "traveling violation?'' Probably some combination of the above (though the refs will deny their part).

Of course they will.

So please, let's not be na´ve enough to think that only the Celtics have had problems winning on the road, lest we point to this as the sole reason why they won't make it to the NBA Finals. Yesterday in trying to decide which team -- Boston or Cleveland -- would be a better matchup for the Pistons, the Detroit Free Press' Krista Jahnke wrote: "They've lacked poise and don't seem to have the aggressive mind-set to win a road playoff game. The Celtics might have home-court advantage, but the Pistons are one of the best road teams in the league. And that's why the Celtics might just be the preferable draw."

Don't seem to have the aggressive mind-set to win a road playoff game? No argument. Accurate.

The Pistons are one of the better road teams in the league? Again, accurate. The Pistons were 25-16 during the regular season away from the Palace. Know which team had the best mark? The 31-10 Boston Celtics. However, in the postseason, the Pistons did manage to take two road games in their series against the 76ers, and the best road win by any NBA team to date this postseason, a 90-89 victory at Orlando without Chauncey Billups. Overall, they're 3-2 on the road, but 5-1 at home, where Detroit's 34-7 regular season mark was one game off the best home record in the East, owned by the Celtics. You could just as easily say the Celtics' inability to lose at home would provide Detroit a serious disadvantage.

That's why the Celtics might just be the preferable draw? I must have missed those sizzling road wins by the Cavaliers last round.

If anything, the Celtics might have been the easier draw because of the continued disappearing act of Ray Allen, whose seeming inability to hit nothing but rim might haunt Boston sooner rather than later as the competition continues to get more worthy (And let's not count on P.J. Brown in a repeat act to save them again). Atlanta shouldn't have taken 7 games. Cleveland shouldn't have taken 7 games. Detroit probably should.

But to simplify it as easily as "Celtics can't win on the road" is foolhardy.

Mitch Albom makes no secret of his view that Detroit would have been better off facing Cleveland.

The Celtics can come at you from a lot of angles: Pierce won't kill you all series, but he'll kill you in a few games. Ray Allen may look dead tired, but the man can shoot; I don't think he's forgotten how. And point guard Rajon Rondo is spry and young and fast, three things that could really annoy 31-year-old Chauncey Billups with his recently injured hamstring.

I'll tell you this. The Pistons will need to keep attacking and attacking the basket, moving the ball around, because the Celtics can clog things up enough to make you say, "Oh, heck, let me shoot from out here." Which is just what they want. They kept James, in his most desperate game, from driving the lane as much as he needed. And the Pistons have no creator even close to him.

When the season was on the line, Pierce stepped up with a game for the ages, a 41-point afternoon that instantly raised his status in Boston Celtics playoff lore. It was the best game of his season, and possibly his career, considering all that was at stake.

Twenty years ago, Bird and Co. couldn't get past Detroit in the conference finals, denying the NBA another Boston-Los Angeles showdown. Until that possibility arises again in 2008, this is the series that will ultimately define Pierce as a playoff star. For he proved yesterday he could carry the team when it mattered, and that maybe Kevin Garnett's season-long claim that he was the real MVP weren't all that far off.

And yes, it will probably be another seven-gamer seeing as the Celtics can't win on the road.

But until someone else wins at the Garden, let's not freak out, OK?

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6 comments so far...
  1. Worth remembering that the Pistons will be the only team to make the conference finals this year who has lost a home game. Do with that what you will.

    Posted by VIn Baker May 19, 08 10:41 AM
  1. Wilbur, isn't the exact opposite point you were making last week?

    Posted by J-Bone May 19, 08 12:43 PM
  1. Flippity flop goes Wilbur. What a fraud you are.

    Posted by Mac May 19, 08 12:59 PM
  1. You talking nonsense...good teams win on the road and the pistons are a very good team.
    There is no case in history where nba team won the title without winning on the road.
    Ray Allan is a liability at this point and the pistons very likely are going to capitlize on it.

    Posted by david hirshfeld May 19, 08 01:54 PM
  1. Ok

    Posted by RED May 19, 08 07:58 PM
  1. David, if we were going to only go by history, the Sox wouldn't have come back from 3-0 to beat the Yankees and win the World Series in '04. Wilbur's absolutely right in what he says in this piece. It's just too bad he took the opposite stance last week.

    Posted by J-Bone May 20, 08 12:53 PM
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