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Why Are The WNBA’s ‘Home’ Teams Feeling So At Home In The Bubble?

As has become the standard, home teams in the WNBA wiped the floor with their visiting counterparts Tuesday night. The Sun crushed the Fever. The Storm routed the Liberty. And the Sky edged the Aces. WNBA home teams are now 41-25 this season.

If that’s puzzling to you, since the WNBA is playing in a bubble in Bradenton, Florida — where “home” and “away” have nothing to do with travel — you’re not alone.

“I personally don’t really feel a home-court advantage,” said Seattle Storm guard Jordin Canada. “We’re in the bubble, so it really doesn’t have an effect on me.”

And yet, Canada is shooting 46.8 percent in Storm home games but 41 percent on the road. All of her made threes have come at home as well.

Still, the Storm are pretty dominant everywhere this season — Seattle is 7-0 at home, 4-1 on the road. And their win over the Liberty represented continued futility for New York, which is winless at home, 1-5 on the road.

The other 10 teams, though? They’re 34-20 at home, with nine of them posting better home than road records so far. In total, WNBA teams are winning their home games at a 62.1 percent clip in 2020, ahead of their 60.8 winning percentage in home games last season, when they played those games, you know, at home.

Theories abound as to why, with players and coaches acknowledging they’ve taken notice of the gap.

“I mean, the hype video is nice,” Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen said, noting the home team gets that extra push of adrenaline. “I like how they did it, the music, and how the whole thing is made up.”

Still, pressed on the issue, she insisted, “I don’t see a difference.” The numbers, though? They do. Hines-Allen is averaging 16.2 points per game and shooting 55.6 percent from the field in the friendly confines of Bradenton, while scoring just 12.2 points per game and shooting 44.4 percent when she makes the road trip to … Bradenton.

For Seattle forward Alysha Clark, the difference she sees is spiritual, rather than purely emotional. She noted that customarily, teams have had pregame chapel services together. But as part of mitigation efforts, the teams have separate chapel services pregame, with road teams going at 70 minutes prior to tip, home teams at 60. (During normal WNBA seasons, both teams get together 60 minutes before the game.)

“For me personally, faith plays a big part in my life,” Clark said. “So I’ve started leaving the court after we do our shooting stuff as if I was going to chapel, and I just go to the locker room, read my own devotional and pray.”

You can’t argue with the results of her effort at standardized pregame: Clark is shooting north of 50 percent overall and better than 40 percent from three in both home and road contests.

There are other differences to account for the home-court advantage beyond God and hype videos. Home teams get to choose their uniform color. Home teams get to select their bench. Home teams have the right to pick music. And an effort was made to get Western Conference teams later start times, so any carryover internal clock harmony could play a part as well, even though players have been in the Eastern time zone for well over a month now.

“I saw those numbers early on,” Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve — 5-0 at home, 2-3 on the road — said about the split. “We kind of chuckled about home and road records. The only thing I can think of is maybe the introductions, and what each team is able to do, that you feel a little different.”

And this isn’t a WNBA-only phenomenon: During the NBA’s resumed regular season in its Orlando bubble, home teams finished 49-39 there.

What about the reverse of home cooking? The Diana Taurasi Effect — or the determination by a visiting player to destroy the will to live of home fans — does not seem to hold in the bubble.

Taurasi is 13-1 in her career in road elimination playoff games and is noticeably animated in those instances when she can shut down a road crowd. But without that motivation, the Mercury star is shooting just 38.2 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from three in road games, compared with 43.8 and 36.7 percent, respectively, in home contests.

“I mean, there’s really no energy to feed off of,” Taurasi said. “It’s just a different setting. There’s no one in the gym, and then you randomly hear a whistle from the other game going on at the same time. … This really feels like AAU basketball, where you all go to one city and play for two weeks.”

At this point, with the season now halfway over, players and coaches haven’t necessarily settled on why it is happening. Nor have coaches made any alterations in their team strategies.

“I don’t have any good answer for that,” Reeve said, a startling admission from a coach who is known for studying the statistical minutiae for any tactical advantage. “I’m pretty confident that we’re going to be able to win some road games.”

As for some other coaches, even if they can’t explain it, they have chosen their reasons for believing in the Bradenton home-court advantage.

“This is gonna be an interesting case study to understand,” said Los Angeles Sparks coach Derek Fisher. “I think at that point, it proves it’s probably more mental than anything. Or maybe jersey colors as well. I personally think that we’re better in purple.”

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.

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