Otis Birdsong was on a business trip in Florida when he began watching Game 5 of the first-round matchup between the Clippers and Dallas on Wednesday night. Seeing the Clippers lose at home for the third time in the series, and only days after they’d drawn even with two road wins in Texas, went nothing like his prediction.
“If I was a betting man, I would have bet a lot of money that they would win Game 5,” Birdsong said Thursday. “This series is crazy.”
As surprised as Birdsong was, he should not have been. After all, he is one of about four dozen NBA players in the league’s 75-year history who knows what it feels like to be in the Clippers’ and Mavericks’ sneakers, amid a series defying one of the NBA’s most closely held beliefs: In the increased intensity of the playoffs, home is where the advantage lies.
Before the road team won the first five games of this matchup, it had happened only twice before: in 1984, when a New Jersey Nets roster featuring Birdsong, a 6-foot-3 guard, stunned defending champion Philadelphia in a five-game, first-round series, and in the 1995 best-of-seven Western Conference finals in which Houston outlasted a top-seeded San Antonio team featuring the league’s most valuable player, David Robinson, and three future NBA coaches in Doc Rivers, Vinny Del Negro and Avery Johnson.
For participants of both series, watching the Clippers and Mavericks alternate losing home-court advantage in a slugfest with plot twists produced by Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Luka Doncic has brought back memories of their own places in the league’s more obscure playoff history.
“It’s weird because you look at the Clippers and you look at the team like damn, they got a good team, what’s missing? Why are they not doing it?” said Robert Horry, the former Rockets forward. “The thing they did I think will be helpful is they shortened their rotation but all of a sudden, you got one of those phenomenal players like Luka to go off and have a good game, 40 points, you can’t let that happen.
“You’ve got to figure a way to get the ball out of his hands and that’s one thing we did. We made sure we didn’t let David Robinson get off. Everybody else can step up, but you can’t let the star of the team get off.”
The former Nets and Rockets stars felt empowered by the rowdy road environment, not paralyzed, a feeling shared by the current Clippers and Mavericks.
“I think we definitely enjoyed it,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said of the team’s mood after arriving in Dallas last week, trailing by two games. “Just going out there and trying to have a villain’s mentality, showing up to try to be a spoiler.”
Unlike the Clippers, or the 1995 Rockets, who had won the previous season’s championship, the Nets arrived in Philadelphia for the series’ first game without serious title aspirations having finished the regular season 45-37. Free of expectations but believing they matched up well in part because of the presence of former 76ers center Darryl Dawkins, they played unburdened.
“It was no pressure on us,” said Micheal Ray Richardson, who averaged more than 20 points during the series to lead the Nets. “We just played free and just had fun.”
The 76ers won Game 3 in New Jersey, their rally beginning after the Nets’ mascot emerged near Philadelphia’s bench, sweeping a broom in premature celebration, then tied the series with an eight-point win in Game 4. The lost opportunity to put away Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Maurice Cheeks “was very frustrating,” Birdsong said, “because you expect to win at least one home game.”
Yet the Nets remained loose, finding motivation when comments made by Erving before Game 5 that the 76ers would prevail easily were relayed to them.
“When we got to Philly, when we had our practice the day before, we walked in the gym and said, ‘OK guys, we’re back home!’” Birdsong said.
While celebrating after Game 5, Birdsong looked into Philadelphia’s thinning crowd and saw Erving’s then-wife, Turquoise, “in unbelief, shocked” in the stands.
“It was dead silence after that final buzzer went off and we had won that game,” Birdsong said. “That was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced in the NBA.”
The Nets boarded their bus and partied all the way to New Jersey before flying to Milwaukee — where the Nets won the second-round opener on the road.
Eleven years later, by the time the sixth-seeded Rockets left San Antonio with a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, they had already closed out a first-round win against Utah on the road and rallied from a 3-1 deficit with a Game 7 win in Phoenix.
After two road wins in front of more than 33,000 Spurs fans inside the Alamodome, the Rockets “got comfortable” once back at home, Horry said, allowing the Spurs to draw even.
“We just felt like, oh well,” Horry said. “We almost felt like we were going back home. We had been the road warrior team, and we were fine with that. It was hard to explain but we were just flat-out comfortable going on the road.”
“You have to have no fear because it’s all about blocking out the noise. Think about it: When you’re at home, you have to think about your wife getting to the game, your kids getting to the game, your parents in town, there’s a lot of distractions when you play at home. But when you’re on the road, it’s just you and your teammates and you’re more focused.”
The Rockets closed out the Spurs by finally doing what the Mavericks are hoping to match Friday — breaking the home-court curse and winning Game 6 in their own arena. To stave off a stunning first-round elimination, the Clippers must make history by claiming a sixth straight victory by a road team.
Foreboding odds and unprecedented feats are nothing daunting for Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, whose 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers remain the only NBA champion to rally from a 3-1 Finals deficit. And Birdsong, himself a witness to the playoffs’ unpredictability, is not counting them out.
“With Kawhi Leonard and his pedigree, there’s no way it’s over,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Clippers went in there and won.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.