- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The Detroit Pistons were in Boston on Friday night, zooming to a 12-point lead after one quarter. The lead ballooned to 27 points at the half, 35 entering the fourth and an unfathomable 60 points with 2:46 to play, all of it adding up to the sort of evening rarely seen in today's NBA.
No, wise guy. Not because it was the Pistons doing all the scoring.
Rarer, even, than an offensive flurry from Detroit's muckers and grinders is the sight of the road team doing all that scoring. The road team winning, and handily so, registers as news-bulletin material in these times when road teams feel blessed to win by any margin or means.
Shooting is a lost art? Take a glance at the standings and you'll notice that a winning record on the road is right there with the sweet mid-range jumper on the league's list of precious commodities. As of Monday morning, nearly 50 games into the schedule for everyone, there were only four teams out of 29 with away records over .500.
Last season, nine clubs finished 21-20 or better. There were 10 such teams in 2000-01. Seven in 1999-2000. Skipping the lockout-shortened season of 1999, when folks played only 25 road games, there were nine teams over .500 on the road in 1997-98 and nine in 1996-97. There were nine more in 1995-96 and seven in 1994-95.
Suspensions are suddenly as common as road powerhouses. Last week saw three new suspensions -- Ron Artest, Jerry Sloan and Isiah Thomas -- and the end of Rasheed Wallace's seven-game ban. In that same span, with Indiana falling to 12-12 on the road with Friday's loss in Toronto, we were left with four road-killers.
That would be Dallas (16-6), Portland (16-10), Detroit (14-10) and Sacramento (15-12).
San Antonio and Indy, meanwhile, are the league's only two break-even away teams at 12-12. That's after the Spurs won three straight (Pacers, Heat, Magic) to get to .500 on the road for the first time since 2-2. Milwaukee, even after a 6-0 burst in its January road games, is still just 11-12 away from the Bradley Center.
This is the part of the show, obviously, where it's time to explain the trend. Except that it isn't so easy, given that even the league's few good road teams struggle to explain their success.
The Mavericks are on pace to turn that 16-6 start into a 30-11 away record, after a franchise-record mark of 27-14 last season, which followed a 25-16 road showing the season before. Just don't ask the Mavs to tell you how they do it. They can't rebound and didn't start playing passable defense until this season, and those are generally regarded as the staples of road success. Dallas coach Don Nelson has been asked to explain the phenomenon repeatedly but hasn't hit upon a go-to theory. Guard Steve Nash, pressed to offer any sort of justification for a run spanning two-plus seasons, took a long pause before finally saying: "I honestly have no idea."
Proceeding to the ideas that are in circulation:
A. The key to winning on the road has always been playing the same style no matter where you're playing, home or away. "As simple as it sounds," said Pistons president Joe Dumars, "a lot of teams don't do that. They play free and loose at home and then get on the road and play a more conservative style." Even the Mavericks are somewhat guilty there. Dallas tends to play a more measured game, execution-wise, away from American Airlines Center, leaving Detroit as arguably the only club that can replicate its style, such as it is, no matter where it plays. Relying on their ability to control tempo and impose defensive discomfort upon the opposition, the Pistons have proven more adept at sameness than anyone.
B. Continuity doesn't hurt, either. For the Kings and the Mavericks, who model themselves after the Kings, keeping their roster cores largely intact this millennium has seasoned both clubs. Instead of major renovations after playoff setbacks, big changes have been eschewed in favor of letting the players learn, lose and grow together. Lakers aside, they're the league's two most fully developed teams and have thus matured into the sort that can win on the road consistently. As a bonus, both teams can score anywhere -- handy skills to have when handling road work -- and specialize in producing bunches of points and playing up-tempo without giving the ball away. The Mavs take care of the ball especially well (a mere 10.8 turnovers per game) and that always gives them a better chance.
C. Trying to predict or compartmentalize Portland's behavior is often futile, but here goes anyway. The Blazers have one of the most veteran teams out there, led by the refreshed Scottie Pippen, meaning they're not going to be fazed by unfamiliar rims. Yet like any team, confidence is an invaluable component and these Blazers found their confidence on the road this season, when they were mired at 10-11 and back when the fed-up residents of Rip City were openly protesting their heroes' unending string of off-court escapades. After a 22-point loss at Milwaukee on Dec. 13, the Blazers beat Minnesota in overtime the next night to finish their first extended trip of the season at 3-2. With seven of the next 10 games on the road, and Portland the last place they wanted to be at the time, Pippen and Co. won six of those seven road games -- losing only at Chicago, while winning in Sacramento and Detroit -- to turn their season around. For an encore, now flushed with belief away from home, the Blazers just won four straight road games (capped by a win at Dallas) after Wallace was suspended for seven games for threatening referee Tim Donaghy. That cemented the Blazers, as much as anything is permanent with these guys, as this year's Us Against The World squad. Last season it was the lameduck Hornets, who posted a 23-18 road record while going 21-20 in near-empty Charlotte Coliseum.
Alas, when you ask around the league, it's easier to build cases for the success of those four clubs than gathering theories for why there are only four. Since the 1994-95 season, when Toronto and Vancouver were added as expansion franchises to give everyone else a couple of more friendly stops on their schedules, the average number of winning road teams per season is 8.6. That includes the 2000-01 and 1999-2000 seasons, when the West was even more dominant than it is now, but also includes the three seasons before the '99 lockout year. That's when the East supplied Chicago as the champion, and when you couldn't say that the disparity between the conferences made it easier for West teams to amass gaudy road records.
The Lakers are this season's most overt offenders, slipping to an unsightly 7-15 on the road after establishing themselves as the most cold-blooded road-killers in the playoffs the past three years. In the '01 playoffs alone, remember, L.A. went 8-0.
Yet the Lakers aren't alone. The Hornets, Celtics and Sixers were all .500-or-better road teams last season but have fallen off the pace. The Spurs struggled mightily on the road all season until the past week after going 26-15 as an away team in '01-02. Minnesota is another slider, from 21-20 to 10-15. Portland, from 19-22 to its current 16-10, is the only new member of the club alongside the Mavericks, Pistons and Kings.
Fatigue certainly doesn't qualify as anyone's alibi because NBA travel conditions get better every year. So perhaps the Lonely Four simply account for one of those statistical anomalies that happen occasionally. Or maybe teams are actually better at home than they've been, with Indy (22-2), New Jersey (21-2), Dallas (21-3), Phoenix (19-4) and even Minnesota (18-5) and Houston (19-7) serving as prime examples.
Or maybe, just maybe, some of the teams at .500 or close on the road can pick it up after the All-Star break. That means you, Spurs, Pacers and Bucks. That means you, too, Nets (11-13), Jazz (11-13) and Celtics (10-12). That way, no one would have to blindly hypothesize like poor Steve Nash. And us.
You can count the teams with winning road records on one hand. How come?