SALT LAKE CITY – Nestled in Salt Lake City’s downtown grid structure, tucked between the Wasatch mountain range on one horizon and the Oquirrh on the other, resides one of the NBA’s best kept secrets: Vivint Smart Home Arena. Over 4,000 feet above sea level roars one of the greatest, and loudest, home court advantages.
“Nobody talks about Utah,” said Doc Rivers. “Utah is a hard place to play.”
Surrounding the Larry H. Miller court, named after the late Jazz owner, sits 19,111 seats. In those seats each home game are some of the most voracious fans in the league. During a 1997 NBA Finals game in Utah, featuring the John Stockton and Karl Malone-led Jazz against the Michael Jordan-led Bulls, Jazz fans were recorded at 110 decibels, the equivalent to a jet takeoff.
“You have to be mentally tough to win there,” said Chris Paul. “They have a lot of fans there who are complete homers.”
The Jazz return home for playoff basketball for the first time in five years, with Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward the only holdovers. Since the Vivint Arena’s creation in 1991, when it was known as the Delta Center, the Jazz are 68-26 at home in the postseason. Whether it be playoffs or the regular season, during game time in Utah, the tightly penned arena creates a layering of screams and yells; a cauldron effect, amplified and increasing row by row.
The Jazz retain one of the league’s best defense, but at home they are even better, holding opponents to 96.8 points per game, a full point less than the next closest San Antonio Spurs.
The suffocating Jazz defense, combined with the intense fans, creates another advantage: unintentional referee bias. In 2011 at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, economist Tobias Moskowitz concluded that subjective calls, such as traveling or offensive foul calls, were more likely to be whistled in favor of the home team than the road team.
This season, on average Utah benefited from 1.4 more foul calls at home than on the road, the fifth highest difference in the league. While fan influence may be one possible reason for the discrepancy, Rivers suggests another.
“The stars are good anywhere, they don’t care where they are at,” said Rivers. “In general, role players play better at home.”
Another advantage playing in Utah offers is playing at a higher elevation. The thinner air at altitude makes cardio difficult for the unacclimated visiting team, and some studies have connected missed free throws to the increased playing height. While a few teams will travel to Utah early, hoping to condition themselves prior to the game, the Clippers opted to stay in Los Angeles for as long as possible.
“I’ve heard the theory,” said Rivers. “We like L.A. better.”
The Clippers and Jazz have met in two playoff series before this year, in 1992 and 1997, and neither time did the Clippers win in Utah, going 0-5. However, in more recent history, the Clippers have won nine of their last 10 in Salt Lake City.
The Clipper victories over the Jazz in the 10 game span have come in all varieties, a few blowouts and a few one possession games, with an average margin of victory at six points. The game the Clippers did lose, Utah used one of their strongest second half performances of the season, scoring 65 points to overcome a first half deficit.
Paul and Blake Griffin have been magnificent against Utah, and in the ten games, both Paul and Griffin shot well above their season averages. Even with Utah’s elite home court advantage, since Paul joined Los Angeles, the Clippers have not succumbed to the road disadvantage.
And, Rivers theory how role players perform better at home, for his own team that might not even be true. The Clippers’ bench unit offensively operates better away from STAPLES Center this season, scoring at a higher rate more efficiently.
But, Paul believes all the past games have no bearing on upcoming performance.
“It mean absolutely nothing now,” said Paul. “When you get to the playoffs, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve lost to a team, it’s all about that night.”
Despite Utah’s fans, altitude and other home court advantages, the Clippers maintain that if they just worry about themselves, they’ll be fine.
“This team, I think we embrace playing on the road,” said Blake Griffin.