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Houston has to prove home court means something

After locking up the league’s best record, the Rockets front office needs to prove it addressed lower bowl crowd apathy from last year.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets
Houston has to pack the house all playoffs to make the one seed matter.
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Earning the best record in the NBA sets the Houston Rockets up for home court advantage throughout the playoffs, a first in franchise history. From there, the responsibility of making home court matter falls to the fans and the franchise ... and last year it barely existed.

It’s easy to react with disgust or a quick defense to this sentiment, but there’s a few empirical factors which prove the point:

  • Chris Paul called on Houston fans to arrive early, be in their seats for tip off, and to be loud during postgame of the final regular season game at Toyota Center. Paul is in his first season with the Rockets but is no stranger to playoff games at Toyota Center following the 2015 season.
  • During Game 5 of the 2016 first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder there were $1 beers, sodas, hot dogs, and nachos before the clinching game.
  • During Game 6 of the 2016 second round series of against San Antonio Spurs there were $1 beers between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. before the elimination game.
  • The Houston Rockets Red Rowdies were formed independently by then-head-coach Jeff Van Gundy in 2006 following a disappointing losing season where the Rockets went well below .500 at home.

However this should not be construed as a condemnation of the fervor or intensity of Rockets fans. Attend any game and you’ll find a heavy concentration of dedicated supporters. The type of fans who would recognize Jeremy Lamb in a restaurant and anonymously pay his bill for his role in the James Harden trade.

Statheads, bobblehead collectors, Vernon Maxwell jersey wearers, the older crew who say “you need to find some video of Moses,” Yao Ming basketball converts, and plenty of folks who spent two hours in EaDo; they all are ready to get loud and keep the party rolling in the Toyota Center.

However, these fans are largely relegated to the Toyota Center’s upper deck and the atmosphere in the arena has suffered for years because of it.

At the start of a game, the lower bowl can feel like a non-mandatory school assembly. This reality spurred the Rockets to offer $1 beers for two playoff games last year, including a contest that started at 8:10 p.m. local time, a late start which should accommodate travel from any part of the city.

The Rockets franchise is right to try and entice fans to arrive earlier as the team is the likely source of the problem. Conversations I’ve had for years all point to season tickets and corporate packages as the source.

Houston is a town with lots of money, and the Rockets have perennially been a team who turned a profit. The seats in the lower bowl come at a premium and many are in the hands of season ticket holders or corporations who find it easier to arrive midway through the first quarter than be present at the opening tip.

For years, the Rockets fanbase has gotten raked on Twitter, podcasts, and NBA circles for having most of the requisite tools of an NBA powerhouse, but an underwhelming home court atmosphere. In last year’s playoffs, it showed mightily.

The first and second round of the playoffs are a real test of if the Rockets franchise has taken steps to address this systemic issue. Since clinching the No. 1 seed home crowds have appeared flush and vociferous. But during big stretches of the regular season the lower bowl of the Toyota Center has been startlingly bare.

A repeat of the Toyota Center from 2017 would be disastrous for a team with title aspirations.

Houston doesn’t have to be Oracle Arena or TD Garden ... it has to be Houston. Full, loud, and itching to remind anyone who will listen the city and franchise are wrongly overlooked and disrespected. Every person matters and this is the chance for Houston to prove the time is now.