The secret to winning in the NBA playoffs this year is to play on your own court: teams at home are 20-1. At first glance, this makes little sense. It’s much easier to understand why football teams (the noise can disrupt play calling) and baseball teams (each field is unique) might benefit from playing at home. But why basketball? The court is always the same and the offense doesn’t rely on audibles.
The only tenable hypothesis, it seems to me, is that teams on their home-court have an affective advantage.* The cheering fans make them more likely to be in the proper emotional state of mind. I can make some guesses about this emotional state (aggressive, confident, inspired, etc.), but I’ve never played basketball in front of 18,000 screaming people so I really wouldn’t know.
Has there been any research on the psychology of home-court advantage? (A quick search turned up little.) Given the astonishing effect on player performance, however, it seems like a worthwhile subject. The problem, I imagine, is that it’s not easy to perform psychology experiment on athletes before and after a playoff game. But if I were an enlightened general manager, I’d spend a little less time and money on sabermetrics and hire a psychologist trained in stress and emotions instead.
Please put your hypotheses in the comments below. I’m rooting for a Lakers-Celtics rematch in the Finals, so I’m perfectly content to let home-court advantage work its magic.
*Some papers have focused on the duress of travel as a possible explanation for home-court advantage. But, during the playoffs, both teams are playing the same schedule, so travel doesn’t like a relevant causal factor.