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Home Advantage in the Playoffs

Since the dawn of time, home-field advantage has always been an important factor in sports but it takes on a different meaning when it comes to the playoffs. Think of Lambeau Field and its Frozen Tundra, or the Boston Garden's parquet floor. There's a mystique surrounding each of these venues and what they bring to the postseason table.

When the Minnesota Vikings were losing four Super Bowls between 1969 through 1976, their Metropolitan Stadium was one of the most daunting places to play in the playoffs for an opposing NFL team. As the ice, snow and wind blew through the vast confines of what is now the site of the Mall of America, enemy teams would often freeze in fear, unable to summon the nerves necessary to pull of an upset.

That doesn't mean that the Met (as it was lovingly called) was impossible to win in for opposing teams. But more often than not, it would at least require a prayer (see: Hail Mary 1975). When the Vikings moved out of the Met in 1981, they lost a bit of their home-field advantage. No longer could they look to the cruel weather for assistance. They had to rely on the sheer volume of their indoor facilities to scare opponents out of their wits. The Vikings haven't been back to the Super Bowl since 1976 and one has to wonder: is their mystique gone?

Some teams find a mystique and build on it over the decades, their stadium becoming an international institution. Since the days of Curly Lambeau, Green Bay has always been a daunting location for any opponent, especially during the playoffs. But when the new City Stadium opened in 1957, a mystique began to form around the small town. When Vince Lombardi's troops dominated the 1960's, the mystique grew and grew until it became a behemoth.

How did this mystique build? By winning and staying firm in their beliefs. While opponents travel to Lambeau Field fully expecting a very rowdy crowd and tough, tough weather, they also have to deal with typically very good teams. Green Bay prides itself in great quarterback play and building around its highly respected signal callers. Opponents might not want to admit it, but when they lose, they see the ghosts of Green Bay's past.

When a kicker misses a potential game-winner, the ball might as well have been batted down by Vince Lombardi himself. If a running back inexplicably slips on a patch of not-so-loose turf, he might as well have seen former linebacker great Ray Nitschke barreling towards him with eyes wide as saucers, seeking nothing more than to drill him into the earth below their feet. In the moments before kickoff, a terror often grows within the marrow of opposing players, spreading through the locker room like a cancer. The prognosis? A season's death.

That's why it was so surprising when the Atlanta Falcons beat the Packers in Green Bay in the 2004 playoffs. In 11 previous tries, no team had ever done that. Even though their precious mystique had a dent in it, every time the Packers have lost in Green Bay since it's still been just as surprising. Each time they lost to the Giants and each time they lost to the 49ers, hearts have sunk all across Wisconsin. And yet, despite the recent spate of losses at home in the playoffs, Lambeau's essence is as strong as ever.

It's interesting to see how a stadium's playoff mystique builds over time. Consider the New England Patriots. Before Bill Belichick took over as coach, the team never had a mystique in their old stadium. It was too small, too awkward looking to have any sort of essence within it other than the simple task of hosting at least 10 home games every year. But after they beat the Raiders in the Tuck Rule Game and won their first Super Bowl in 2001, a mystique began to build within the stadium they would soon move into.

After moving into the newly opened Gillette Stadium in 2002 and winning consecutive Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004, the mystique built more and more, until it built a life of its own. Soon, teams began to fear going to Gillette Stadium in December, a full month before the playoffs even began. The reason? The team was almost unbeatable at their home in December and onward.

It is no coincidence that the two teams that beat them that late in the 2012 season went on to face each other in the Super Bowl. More often than not, teams have to play out of their minds to win in Gillette Stadium. Over the course of their two-decade dynasty, the Patriots consistently produced teams that were built for the playoffs.

Sometimes a mystique lies within the look of the facility. The old Boston Garden was famous for its parquet floor as team after team struggled against the mighty Celtics. From the slick moves of John Havlicek to the domineering presence of Bill Russell, teams often entered the arena quaking in their sneakers long before tipoff and would leave the facility several hours later glad to have gotten that experience out of the way.

Of course, no team knows more of the daunting task of defeating the Celtics in the Boston Garden during the postseason than the Lakers. After losing to the Celtics six times in the 1960's the Lakers were growing desperate. Were they ever going to defeat their nemesis when it mattered most? After losing a seven-game heartbreaker in the 1984 NBA Finals, the Lakers spent all of 1985 plotting their revenge. Nothing else mattered. This w was the moment. They just knew it. The Lakers did win the 1985 NBA Finals and did something that no other team had ever done, they beat the Celtics in clinching Game Six in the Boston Garden. That night, former Lakers players from all over America joined in the jubilation amidst the triumph over their greatest adversary.

Even though the Celtics would move out of the Boston Garden in 1995, they seemed to bring their distinct home-court advantage with them, including their iconic parquet floor. The Celtics continued to dominate win-or-go-home games in their new arena TD Garden for decades. Until 2022. After a dozen years of missed opportunities, the Celtics were back in familiar territory, the NBA Finals. Their opponents, the Golden State Warriors, were no strangers to the Finals either, having won the title three times in the past seven years. But they had a new arena, Chase Center, that had yet to be broken into the postseason fold.

Back and forth the series went, with the Celtics winning the first game and the Warriors winning the next, only to watch the Celtics win Game Three in the first Finals game played at Chase Center. But the Warriors went back to their championship-winning ways and fought all the way to Game Six in Boston. Before the clincher, several of the Warriors' most prominent stars, particularly Klay Thompson, stated that they were excited to go to Boston. Throughout the series, the Warriors had endured verbal abuse from Celtics fans and now they would deliver their comeuppance. The Warriors delivered with a desire and determination often uncommon in sports. Like the few opponents before them, they had to play out of their minds to secure victory in the enemy's lair.

As we navigate the 2023 NBA Playoffs, we are left to ponder all of the home-court advantages that could determine the next NBA champion. Are the Celtics ready to take the next step and take full advantage of their home court through the very end of the NBA Finals? Is Golden 1 Center ready for its first taste of playoff basketball? Sacramento's last incarnation provided quite the sight as its fans, clad in white, enveloped opposing teams into submission time and time again until ultimately being felled by a tremendous Lakers team in the climactic Game Seven of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Or are the Warriors ready to build on a home-court advantage still very much in its infancy? In the NBA Playoffs, anything is possible.

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