NHL, NBA Playoff schedules far different today

May 22, 2019 3:00 AM

Times sure have changed through the years when it comes to scheduling for the NBA and NHL playoffs.

No longer do the basketball guys have to play on back-to-back-to-back days, which is how Games 5, 6 and 7 of the 1954 Finals took place between the champion Minneapolis Lakers and Syracuse Nationals.

Also, no longer do teams go coast-to-coast without a travel day, such as in 1967 when Philadelphia won the title in San Francisco a day after playing in Philly. One year earlier, Boston and the L.A. Lakers went coast-to-coast without time off.

“Back then we played all those games in a row to get the season over with as fast as we could,” Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Tom Heinsohn (1956-65) once told me. “You just slowed down, your legs were gone.”

As recently as 1971, the NBA postseason was completed April 30. This year the Finals won’t even begin until May 30.

In hockey, no longer does the NHL have its teams play four games in five days to kick off the first round, which routinely occurred from 1969-89.

In fact, this season there were no back-to-backs at all for either league, a scheduling practice that has been commonplace since 2010.

And sadly, that takes away a lot of the joy of watching matchups this time of year. Some of the greatest moments in sports history involve players/teams playing to exhaustion in part because of minimal down time.

Baseball has had its share of fatigue-driven moments such as in June 1989 when the Dodgers and Astros engaged in a 22-inning Saturday night game in the Astrodome followed by a 13-inning Sunday matinee. Great stuff, especially with Fernando Valenzuela playing some first base and infielders asked to pitch because of spent bullpens.

There also was a seven-hour, 22-inning Yankees-Tigers game in 1962 that occurred a day after playing a doubleheader.

In the NFL, what about that 1981 Chargers-Dolphins overtime playoff game, after which supremely exhausted San Diego TE Kellen Winslow needed assistance to merely stay on his feet while exiting the field. The next week the Chargers lost in the Freezer Bowl at Cincinnati.

Members of the old American Basketball Association’s Dallas Chaparrals, forerunners of the San Antonio Spurs, have to be getting a good chuckle at how today’s players are babied. In January 1968, in the league’s first regular season, they had a sequence of seven games in seven nights, capped by an overtime game in Denver one day after playing in Anaheim. And they won that OT battle.

My all-time favorite, though, came in the 2000 Stanley Cup quarterfinals when Philadelphia and Pittsburgh played the third longest game in NHL history, with the Flyers winning 2-1 at 12:01 of the fifth overtime on a goal by Keith Primeau.

The nationally televised game ended at 2:35 a.m. EDT. And it occurred two days after the teams played another OT game. The Flyers went on to win the final two games of the series and advance.

Primeau looked back at that marathon in an interview I had with him years later.

“Oh my gosh, I wasn’t going anywhere near a puck that was being shot,” he said of hitting the ice and sacrificing his body. “I don’t know if I had five shifts left. My legs were cramping. I was on IVs. I was going on fumes, and the fumes were running out.”

It was a lot like one of those old heavyweight fights that went 15 rounds. And you don’t see those anymore, either.

NHL Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, who teamed with Bobby Orr to lead the Boston Bruins to the 1970 and 1972 Cup titles, said he had absolutely no issues with playing four games in five nights.

“It didn’t seem grueling at all. It was great,” he said to me about a decade ago. “I could have played every day of the week. Today’s players are wussies. They get on charter planes, everything they want is at their beck and call.”

But he did admit that playing a day game after a night game could be trouble: “It depended on whether I went out drinking the night before.”

Michael Cooper, who won five championships with the Showtime LA Lakers in the 1980s, certainly wasn’t on the same page as Esposito with regard to back-to-backs.

“It was torturous and a killer, and you have to be strong to do it,” he mentioned to me in a 2010 interview, also adding that his teams didn’t have the luxury of charter flights back then.

Thus, I was greatly disappointed to see how much rest teams are getting this season between games and between series.

For instance, when the NBA Finals eventually commence, the Warriors will have had 14 days off the previous 18 days. And according to the schedule, there are five instances in which there would be two days off between Finals games. So, if Golden State goes the distance, it would have had 26 days off in a 37-day window — almost as many as the Lakers.

And in the NHL, it’s much the same. The Bruins are on a 10-day break after their conference final sweep of Carolina. Will their momentum carry over after such a break when the Stanley Cup Final begins Monday? Or do they need to have a mini-training camp?

Probably the most bizarre scheduling scenario occurred in the 1976 World Hockey Association playoffs when Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets met Gordie Howe and the two-time defending champion Houston Aeros in the final round.

On May 2 that postseason, the Jets completed their semifinal victory over the Calgary Cowboys in five games. The Aeros, meanwhile, hadn’t even started their semifinal until three days later. And they needed seven games to KO the New England Whalers.

The WHA Finals finally got going May 20, which meant the Jets had 17 days off between series. The rust, though, apparently didn’t hurt Winnipeg. The Jets swept the best-of-seven series, including a 9-1 romp in the clincher.

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