Until the playoffs were out of reach last season, there was a belief in NBA circles that the Lakers, with all their flaws, might be a dangerous team if they made the postseason.
Who wants to face LeBron James in the playoffs?
That question has its roots in history. James, after all, had been to the Finals in the previous eight seasons. His Cavaliers teams from 2014-18 weren’t always the top-seeded team heading into the playoffs, but they were always the last Eastern Conference team standing. The same was true for the Miami Heat teams on which he played from 2010-14.
It calls into question the power or importance of home-court advantage, and it could be why James says he doesn’t think too much about it.
“We don’t talk about it,” James said. “… At the end of the day I think every Western Conference team that will make the playoffs can win on someone else’s floor. For us we would love to play in front of our home fans as much as we can. We love being there with our Laker faithful. But at the end of the day you go out and play each and every game like it’s its own game.”
The Lakers have been the top team in the Western Conference for nearly the entire season. They have a four-game lead over second-place Denver as they head into the All-Star break. For a time, they had the best record in the NBA — but that now belongs to the Milwaukee Bucks. The standings were something coach Frank Vogel addressed with his team before Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets, but what it meant in the scheme of the season was less the point.
“It’s important, but it’s not everything,” Vogel said before the game. “We believe we can win on the road in the playoffs, so seeding is not everything.”
This season’s Lakers are a collection of players who spent most of their careers elsewhere. Sometimes they still marvel at what how many Lakers fans they’ll see at road games.
It’s why the question of home-court advantage seems like it might be less critical for the Lakers than for other teams.
Unless it’s different in the playoffs.
“Hell yeah it changes,” said Avery Bradley, who was part of deep playoff runs with the Boston Celtics. “Big time. I feel like there’s whatever team you’re playing against, those are going to be the fans in there and if there are any Laker fans they’re going to be up in the corner there. I think that’s why it’s important to get home-court advantage.”
Quinn Cook has seen the impact that both having and not having home-court advantage can have. He played for the Golden State Warriors for the last two seasons. They had home-court advantage in both of the Finals, but didn’t finish first in the Western Conference during the 2017-18 season. That meant having to play Game 7 of the Western Conference finals in Houston.
“It makes a difference,” Cook said. “Even though we won, you still want that last game” at home. “I don’t think that if we don’t get it it’s a failure, but I think it’s a goal that we should get.”
The Warriors swept James’ Cavaliers in the 2018 Finals — his last before he became a Laker. With his teams, the study of what home-court advantage meant is inconclusive.
In the eight consecutive seasons during which James went to the Finals, James’ teams held home-court advantage twice. The Miami Heat lost in 2011 despite having it, then won in 2012 without it. They won in 2013 with it and lost in 2014 without it.
While in Cleveland, James’ teams never had home-court advantage in the Finals. They went 1-3 against the Warriors during that time.
Perhaps more relevant is what happens in the conference. The Cavaliers were the fourth seed in the East in the 2017-18 season, second in 2016-17, the top seed in 2015-16 when they won the title and No. 2 in 2014-15. It never stopped them from making the Finals.
“If it happens it happens,” James said about this season’s Lakers.
His past experiences add to his confidence.
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