The reformatting of the NBA Finals provides plenty of what if’s but more of the same in the future
When I tuned in on a Sunday night to see the Game 5 tiebreaker between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat in the Alamo, even after years and years of growing up with the NBA Finals in this fashion, there is always that weird, disheveling feeling when you realize where Game 5 is being played. It was the same feeling I got two years ago when the Heat had to play Game 5 in what amounted to a three-point shootout in Dallas and the year before that when the Lakers, despite a great performance from Kobe Bryant, lost to the Celtics in Boston.
The Heat lost 114-104 to a Spurs team that was playing their third home game in a row, where confidence can ride at its highest for the home team. It sounds like I am making excuses, but beating a really good conference champion two out of three consecutive tries in their building is highly difficult. However, as Tony Parker kept finding Danny Green open for three-pointers that buried the Heat, the thought was always in the back of my mind: “Miami is going to lose this one, but they get two games in a row back home to finish the series, and then the real drama begins.” Is such a forward-looking frame of mind something you desire while you are watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals? That the game you are watching could become instantly forgotten in the endgame? That is exactly what happened to the Spurs last year after they lost two straight nail biters in Miami to lose the NBA Championship.
When fans become so engrained in watching playoff basketball their entire lives and watch one round after the next, it is always strange to see the teams dancing to a different tune on the biggest stage of them all. It is the same disengaged feeling we get when the main event of WrestleMania is in an 80,000-seat stadium where crowd noise disappears in the spacious air or when the Super Bowl is played in front of a bunch of fair-weathered corporate lackeys with deep pockets and muted allegiances. It is the strange sense that something is a tad bit off, as if we reach a Bermuda Triangle where normalcy and objectivity get temporarily thrown out. It is safe to say that although arguments can be made in its favor, many fans, writers, and players have viewed the NBA Finals format as fundamentally unfair to the team that enters the series with home court advantage.
If the home team loses one of their first two games at home then it could easily spell doom for the presumed favorites if their performance cannot match up with their travels. The Heat lost Game 1 to the Spurs and were immediately behind the eight-ball because of the impending fear that the Heat had to take one game out of San Antonio in order to just bring the NBA Finals back home for a Game 6. For Miami, that sigh of relief came in Game 4 when the Heat took a 109-93 win from the Spurs to tie it up and bring about the Game 5 that we just talked about. The Heat lost the battle, but they won the war by bringing the series back to South Beach and holding their home court in the last two games to win it all. It did not work out for the Heat in 2011. They had the same 3-2 series deficit against the Mavericks and went down like Sonny Liston in Game 6 as Dirk Nowitzki won his ring. But to say that Miami’s final two-game home stand was an exception to the rule in NBA Finals play is a little bit of a stretch.
The 2-3-2 format began in the 1985 Finals after newly hired commissioner David Stern fielded a multitude of complaints from various parties about the back-and-forth travel for teams and media during the heavily hyped Bird/Magic showdown between the Lakers and Celtics. The 1984 match up went seven games under the 2-2-1-1-1 format, which they had used since the league’s inception. The next year, however, as the series was tied at two games apiece, instead of Boston hosting the Lakers in the pivotal Game 5, it was played at the Forum, where the Lakers won by 9. Boston, however, could not hold their home court and the Lakers won Game 6 to win the title in the Boston Garden, which still irks Celtics fans today. Bostonians grimaced at the time that if the previous format had stayed in place, the Celtics would have won the title.
Losing Game 6 at home as you watch the visiting team celebrate with the Larry O’Brien Trophy has been repeated since it happened to the Celtics in 1985, the first Finals under the 2-3-2 format. Two of them involved Michael Jordan’s Bulls cutting the hearts out of Phoenix in 1993 and Utah in 1998, and the other two involved the Miami Heat, one in which they did it at Dallas in 2006 and then in 2011 when Dallas returned the favor. But get this: Since the 2-3-2 format was implemented, 18 NBA Finals have gone six games or longer. 13 out of those 18 have ended with the team that originally had home court advantage eventually winning the NBA Championship. The 2013 Heat, 2010 Lakers, 1994 Rockets, and 1988 Lakers did pull the rare feat of winning Games 6 & 7 at home to win the series, but the odds of the home team winning are pretty slanted anyway. The only team to lose Game 6 at home and still win the title was the 2005 Spurs against the Pistons, which goes to show how evenly matched that Finals actually was. And even though the Celtics and Spurs came damn close in 2010 and 2013, no road team won Game 7 of the Finals in the 2-3-2 era.
Sure, it is only two out of potentially seven games in the NBA Finals that get switched up at the end of the day. But once you realize that those two games are Games 5 & 6, the two most crucial installments in a playoff series before the elimination game, then you have to consider how odd it was to see it play out when it did. The 2-3-2 format is not exactly a revolutionary concept, as any fan of Major League Baseball will stand up to tell you, but what I always found curious is that it never received an official slang term or nickname over the years. I have heard it called the “block format” before, but I personally call it the “island format” because of the fact the team that has to travel for the middle portion of the Finals winds up staying in enemy territory for a week. Same story goes for the Spurs in 2013 or the Pistons in 1988 when they had to travel back to the danger zone, couldn’t close out Game 6, and tried it make a last go of it in Game 7 to no avail.
It’s like being stuck on an island, and if things break right, you could wind up happier than the chick who is not Lori Beth Denberg in this “All That” skit. Those middle three games were heavenly for a team if they took a game on the road in the first two and held their home court. Ask the 2004 Pistons, who laid a smack down on the Lakers in Games 3, 4, and 5 to clinch the title in Detroit. The Heat did the same thing to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012. But that worm tended to turn at times during the Finals, too, and your home island wound up more maddening than the Island of Dr. Moreau. I remember as a kid thinking that the Lakers had won the title in 1991 after taking Game 1 from the Bulls in Chicago. Little did fans in Lakerland know what was about to occur. The Bulls soundly won all three games in L.A. to give Jordan his first ring. The Pistons did the same thing to the tortured fans in Portland when they beat the Blazers in five games. The most recent example was in 2001 when the Philadelphia 76ers, after taking Game 1 behind a virtuoso performance at Staples Center by Allen Iverson, got buried by Shaq and Kobe in Philly during their path to back-to-back titles. The home court advantage in those three games could be a blessing, but depending on what side you are on and how much luck you have, like that crazy island on “Lost,” it could turn into a curse, as well.
Beginning next postseason, the NBA has voted to disregard the fears of tedious travel and go back to the 2-2-1-1-1 format that the rest of the NBA playoff series already use in the earlier rounds. In order to look into what is to come, it is imperative to see what came before it, and in the case of this change in the NBA Finals format, we do have some history to fall back on. From 1974 to 1984, the last ten years of the 2-2-1-1-1 format, 8 out of 11 NBA Finals series ended in six or seven games. Since then, we have seen 11 out of 29 NBA Finals finish in five games or less. Some would suggest that the 2-3-2 format has slightly increased the likelihood of the series not going 6 games or longer. It is plainly obvious that NBA and TV executives salivate at the prospects of the Finals going six or, if they get really lucky, seven games to prolong media coverage and, most importantly, maximize ratings. It makes sense that the name of the group that issued the change back to the 2-2-1-1-1 format, which will begin for the 2014 Finals pending final approval, is called the NBA Competition Committee.
Thirty years after he ushered in the 2-3-2 Finals era as one of his first moves, David Stern’s critical decision will be undone as he steps down as commissioner in February. This upcoming change back to the old school format is the most significant change to the NBA postseason since 2003 when, in a blatant ploy to drive viewership, the first round expanded from best-of-5 to a best-of-7 scenario like all other rounds. Fans eventually come around to that change, and because they are so used to seeing this style of location changes in the earlier rounds, the general feeling about the announced NBA Finals update is one of comfortable familiarity. Unlike the “island format,” there is more tangible, tactical approach to winning a series in the 2-2-1-1-1 format, which I call the “see-saw format.” Momentum can swing in many different ways in a postseason series in both incarnations, but the more frequent switches in location in the “see-saw format” give coaches and players the opportunity to throw their opponents off and keep the series going.
In the “island format,” it is not as much about holding home court as it is about survival on the part of both teams. As unfair as three road games in a row seems to be, it takes a lot of balls to bring the Finals back home and it made some teams raise their games in that final road game. I loved the ‘90’s Chicago Bulls and wished ill will on their opponents, but I had to admire the grit and refusal to perish that the ’93 Suns and ’98 Jazz showed when they both beat Chicago to make M.J. fly one more time and finish the job. Now that situation, one that made the Finals feel unique in some ways, is gone and we are left with the same layout that we have seen on TNT and ESPN for the longest time. I did not like how Game 5 between the Spurs and the Heat felt almost meaningless compared to the final two games in Miami, but with the 2-2-1-1-1 format back in place, we are just as likely to see five-game eliminations in the NBA Finals as we have had in the post-Jordan era.
The notion that flipping the script will make future NBA Finals more likely to continue is short-sighted, and the claim that such a change would have made previous Finals go longer is flat out ignorant. If you look deeper, if the 2-2-1-1-1 format remained in place, you have to factor in the fact that many NBA Finals that ended in six games probably would have ended one game sooner, costing them a lot of ad revenue. The ’86 Celtics, ’87 Lakers, ’96 Bulls, ’00 Lakers, and ’08 Celtics all would have clinched their titles in Game 5’s at home instead of having to delay the inevitable as they did in their Game 6 victories. What really fascinates me is the fantasy of placing so many great NBA Finals moments in opposite locations had the “see-saw” format stayed put. For example, if Isiah Thomas had played that remarkable Game 6 in the ’88 Finals in the Silverdome, would the Pistons have won the title?
How about the fact that two of Jordan’s greatest performances (the Flu Game ‘97 and the Jumper in ’98) would have occurred at the United Center in Chicago? If you believe the urban legend that an overzealous Jazz fan spiked a pizza that gave Jordan food poisoning, then it is likely that His Airness would have never gotten sick in the first place. If the Pistons had clinched the ’04 title and thumped the Shaq/Kobe regime in Staples Center back in 2004, would fans appreciate what that team accomplished a little bit more? If the Thunder won a home game to push the Heat to a Game 6 back in 2012, would the LeBron/Durant debate be more contentious than it currently seems? Clearly, these scenarios are all hypothetical, but it does entice one to imagine how amazing it would have been to see John Paxson hit that title-winning three-pointer in ’93 at Chicago Stadium.
The final shoe to drop in NBA Finals history that may become more likely with the 2-2-1-1-1 format is something that has only happened eight times in earlier playoff rounds: A team coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the championship. A 3-0 comeback will probably never happen in my lifetime, so I wait patiently for the day that a team wins three games in a row under the classic Finals format, which will be viewed by many as perhaps the greatest comeback (and biggest choke) in NBA history. Outside of that potentially awesome scenario, I am not sold on the assumption that change in format to the Finals will assure more games or the obsessively-desired Game 7 that we were blessed to watch this past summer.
The NBA Competition Committee can write as many trajectories as they want when it comes to guaranteeing more NBA Finals games, but there is one thing these executives, coaches, or even players can control, and that is chance. I remember LeBron James telling Bill Simmons about Ray Allen’s season-saving three in Game 6, “Sometimes you need a little bit of luck to win a championship.” When a play that miraculous and serendipitous goes one team’s way in the NBA Finals, maybe where the game is actually takes place does not really matter as much as we would like to think. There may be more frequent flyer miles and travel-weary writers for future NBA Finals thanks to the end of the 2-3-2 format, but in this case, the more things change, the more they stay the same.