NBA playoffs: New format separates men from boys

Apr 17, 2003 3:52 AM

The long NBA regular season does little to weed out the pretenders from the contenders, but now that the playoffs are here the contenders will rise at a faster pace each week.

There’s a new wrinkle in the playoff format this season: The first round will be the best four-out-of-seven. It previously had been three-out-of-five games, which had been the first-round format since 1982.

This was done, naturally, for more revenue, from gate receipts to TV money. This is also nothing new.

In 1985 the league decided to change the Finals to a 2-3-2 format, similar to the World Series.

This means the first two games are played on the home court of the team with the better record, and the opponent gets home court in the middle three.

This was done because the league didn’t want a sweep or a five-game series ”” a longer series means more money and exposure.

With home court such a strength in basketball, playing a 2-3-2 makes it more difficult for the favored team to close out an opponent in Game 5, which in the old days would be at home but is now on the road (at least in the Finals.)

You’ll notice that in all the playoff series one team will play Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 at home (known as the 2-2-1-1-1 format) until the Finals, which changes to 2-3-2.

Most players and general managers don’t like this change and many believe it actually gives an edge to the team playing the middle three games at home.

A potentially longer series favors the superior team, because less games raises the upset possibility.

You’ve often heard sports pundits after a big upset say, "If these teams played 10 times, so and so would win eight, but they didn’t win tonight..." In a short series, an upset is more likely.

Back in 1981 the first round playoff series was actually 2-of-3! It was called the mini-series and it was quickly discarded because Magic Johnson and the defending champion Lakers (54-28) were upset by a 40-42 Houston team in the first round.

Any team can have one bad game, and that series was a great example. The Lakers had the home court but lost Game 1, 111-106.

All of a sudden that one game changes everything ”” the defending champs needed to sweep the next two games or the season is over. Goodbye 54 wins, goodbye home court, and the team with a 40-42 regular season record is suddenly confident and in the driver’s seat. What team do you think TV and NBA executives wanted to see in the Finals ”” Magic’s Lakers or the 40-42 Houston Rockets? Again, money is the major reason for these format changes over the years.

Changing the format to 3-of-5 made more sense, and now making it 4-of-7 makes even more sense (and cents).

The team with the home court has the edge, as well, much more so than the Lakers had in 1981.

For example, if the Kings have a bad game this weekend and happen to get upset in Game 1, the opponent still has to beat Sacramento three more times to win the series. If an upset were to occur in the first round now, the underdog is really going to have to earn it.

One other point about the playoffs is that teams often bring their best defense now that the games mean more.

A year ago in the first round, the UNDERs went 18-14-2 through the entire first round, but 7-1 UNDER in the first game of each series. Two years ago, the UNDER was 5-3 in the first game.

A year ago the Suns and Kings played in the first round and Phoenix won Game 1, 86-83, at Sacramento as a six-point underdog.

There was enormous pressure on the Kings to get a win in Game 2, which they did 116-90. This season even if a team goes up 2-0 or trails 0-2 in a series, there’s still a lot more basketball to play, and the longer a series goes the more likely the cream will rise to the top.