The power of the roar of the crowd

It's easy to discount the spiritual impact of basketball crowds if you haven't attended a playoff game with special fans before. There's no way to understand it unless it definitely has happened to you. Then you know. As strange as this sounds, it's like a woman being unable to tell whether she's ever had an orgasm. If she thinks it might have happened, or it felt like it kind of happened one time ... it didn't happen. When it happens, they know. Then they feel stupid for all the other times when they thought it had happened.

After I wrote last week that two special NBA crowds remain -- Madison Square Garden and Oakland's Oracle Arena -- the predictable slew of e-mails arrived from Sacramento, Chicago, Toronto and many other cities, all of them asking, "What about us?" I don't blame them for being deluded because they don't know any better. (See example above.) When the Celtics climbed to the Eastern finals five years ago, I convinced myself that we'd turned the FleetCenter into the old Garden all over again ... but looking back, that wasn't really the case. Maybe it was loud, maybe it was raucous, maybe we willed the boys to come back in Game 3, but since New Jersey captured Games 4 and 6 in Boston, were we really that great?

Game Six, Rockets-Jazz

Just wanted to go on the record: I'm predicting an easy Utah win tonight. Once the Jazz finally figured out that nobody could hurt them except T-Mac, this series took on a totally different feel after Game 2. Utah has three guys who can get quality shots -- Williams, Boozer and Harpring (coming off screens) -- whereas the Rockets have T-Mac and that's it. And to answer your "What about Yao?" question ... exactly. What about Yao? Defensively, he has been a liability; offensively, he can't even post up 6-7 Paul Millsap, much less Boozer or Memo Okur. It's his fifth season in the league. He should be killing a team like Utah -- the Jazz don't have a single guy to guard him. So why isn't he killing them? Great question. If you're a Rockets fan, you should be petrified right now. Your team needs a superhuman performance from T-Mac to win one of these next two games. Anything less and they're going home.

Once upon a time, the Celtics had the most significant home-court advantage thanks to 15,000 savvy hoop lunatics crammed into an overheated lunchbox. Since I was blessed with the chance to attend most of their pivotal games during the Bird Era, you have to believe me on this one -- we swung the outcome of six series ('81 Sixers, '84 Lakers, '87 Bucks, '87 Pistons, '88 Hawks and '91 Pacers) in which superior opponents failed to handle the mythical combination of Bird and the Garden. Off the top of my head, I can remember 20-25 games in which we carried the team to a higher place.

Now, you're saying to yourself, "Doesn't every crowd do that?"

Actually, no. More than in any other sport, the fate of a basketball game hinges on the connection between players and fans. Last year, you could have dressed in white, headed to a big Miami game, stood and cheered at all the predictable spots and convinced yourself that you impacted the game ... but you really didn't. You did exactly what you were expected to do, nothing more. You obeyed the giant video screen, followed the musical cues and served your purpose. In other words, you were just like every other NBA crowd.

These things don't happen at Warriors and Knicks games because they're the only two places left with old-school fans, fans who have been coming to games for 30-40 years, fans of all colors, fans who genuinely understand basketball and every nuance that comes with it. They don't need a giant video screen to help them out; hell, they don't want the giant video screen to help them out. These are the fans who recognize a beautiful pass as it's happening, not after it happens, simply because they love basketball and see the same angles players see. These are the fans who instinctively understand stuff like, "Mickael Pietrus just threw down a ridiculous putback; I'm going to stand and keep cheering for an extra 30 seconds because he's a young kid and we need to keep pumping him up so he'll do it again."

Why are New York and Oakland the only two throwback cities remaining in the league? It's simple. The Knicks haven't priced out their real fans because so many people have money in New York that it's impossible to price everyone out. They also have an old-school arena with luxury boxes situated 50-60 rows away, so fans are crowded around the court and it's a much more communal experience. And since New York has always been the capital of basketball -- for further details, read the Pete Axthelm classic "The City Game" -- the fans have an inherent appreciation and understanding of the sport that distinguishes them from fans in nearly every other city. (Yes, including Boston, which will always be a baseball town.) The real tragedy of Isiah's catastrophic tenure is that we were robbed of some monster basketball crowds. The Knicks should always be good, if only to show every other fan base how it's done. Or, used to be done.

As for Warriors fans, it's a little more simple: They play in Oakland and have the most eclectic mix of fans in the league, so their home games have a different feel, almost like an upscale version of Rucker Park. Earlier this year, my wife and I were trying to determine whether we wanted to leave L.A. and live somewhere else for a few years (just to mix things up), and during the course of the discussions, she brought up the Bay Area. Well, you know why I couldn't live there? Because of the Warriors. If we moved there, I'd end up purchasing Warriors season tickets; inevitably I would be compromised by those unique crowds, placing me in a precarious sports bigamy predicament since I'm utterly and completely disgusted by the Celtics' front office and ownership right now. It would be like a guy who hates his wife hiring the hottest 20-year-old Danish au pair on the planet. Just a bad idea all the way around.

What does this have to do with Game 6 of the Warriors-Mavs series tonight? In the words of Russell Hammond, everything. I don't believe the 2007 Dallas Mavericks have the collective heart to prevail in Oakland, not with the Warriors' fans smelling blood and providing one of the all-time electric/rabid/emotional/crazed atmospheres in recent sports history. As good as they were in Game 3 and Game 4, the fans will be better tonight. They will rise to the occasion. They will. I am convinced. They have been waiting for a night like this for 30 long years. Literally.

Maybe a veteran team such as the Spurs wouldn't be fazed, but the Cuban-era Mavs have proved time and time again -- in Miami last June, against Phoenix two years ago, even last weekend in Oakland -- that they have no qualms about folding at the worst possible times. The right crowd can get to them. The right mix of shaky calls can get to them. They fall apart when you least expect it. In fact, they squandered a 21-point lead in Game 5 and would have ended up on one of TNT's "Gone Fishin'" cards if (A) the Warriors hadn't stupidly slowed things down with a six-point lead, and (B) the Mavs hadn't gotten four major calls in the final 50 seconds: Barnes getting whistled for a clean strip of Nowitzki, Nowitzki not getting whistled for clobbering Richardson on a go-ahead 3, Davis getting a sixth foul for not touching anyone and Nowitzki going over-the-back on the biggest rebound of the game. Whatever. The league wanted this series to go back to Oakland, and it did.

To beat this particular Warriors team -- an undersized group that thrives on dunks, killer 3s, alley-oops, energy plays and everything else that ignites a great crowd -- when they're playing at home, you need five guys who won't be afraid (as far as I can tell, Dallas has Nowitzki, Stackhouse and Howard and that's it), and one special player who can pull a Clint Eastwood and jam a stake in the crowd's collective heart. On paper, Nowitzki should be that player -- we even caught a glimpse in Game 5, when he did a superb impression of the 2007 MVP during the final three minutes -- but as I wrote in Tuesday's piece, he has looked like a mess for most of this series. Even in Game 5, Nowitzki disappeared for nearly the entire second half. This was an elimination game! How could a team's best player attempt only two shots in the first 21 minutes of the second half against a surging Warriors team that clearly smelled an upset?

When Dirk finally stepped up with a couple of 3s and a monster block, TNT headed to a commercial as Dick Stockton excitedly yelped, "Dirk Nowitzki, playing like an MVP in the last minute!" Really, a whole minute? That's what it takes to be an MVP these days? Sure, you can't discount Nowitzki because he has shown flashes -- like the end of Game 5, or his incredible three-point play to save the Spurs series last spring -- but at the same time, not since Kevin Garnett's Game 7 against the 2004 Kings have we seen an NBA superstar face a bigger career gut check than the one Nowitzki faces tonight. KG was playing at home and came up huge (32 points, 21 rebounds). Nowitzki will be playing in one of the toughest environments in sports. If he ever wanted to be challenged as a basketball player, tonight's the night. If he shows any sign of weakness at all, the crowd will smell it. If he falters at all, so will the Mavs.

It's the second best subplot of tonight's game, right behind the crowd itself. For the past week or so, I've been swamped by e-mails from readers who were unequivocally delighted by this series -- not just Golden State's fan-friendly style of play but those two home games in Oakland and how much they meant to anyone who cares about basketball. It's been a throwback to the days when crowds actually mattered, when players liked playing with one another, when every playoff game didn't end with the same predictable "everyone clear out for the alpha dogs so they can go one-on-three" sequence. I haven't been this excited for a non-Celtics game in years.

Maybe the winner tonight doesn't matter, just that the game is happening at all does. But I'll be rooting for the Warriors for selfish reasons: If they advance to Round 2, I'm flying to Oakland and attending the next slew of home games. Maybe it won't be as good as hopping into a time machine and heading back to the old Boston Garden, but it's better than nothing.