Saturday, June 7, 2014

NBA Finals Ver. 2-3-2: A Legacy?

The circumstances surrounding the opening game of this year’s NBA Finals evoke some memories of days gone by…especially some sultry late spring Sunday afternoons in the old Boston Garden as Bird and Magic were battling for supremacy. Sweaty gymnasiums notwithstanding, that bi-coastal rivalry spurred an unprecedented growth in the league’s popularity and marketability.

But this classic rivalry also begat an NBA practice that has, ever since, caused some to cry foul. Perhaps figuring that classic Boston-LA match-ups would be both inevitable and indefinite, the NBA adopted the 2-3-2 format for its championship series beginning in 1985. Instead of as many as four inter-city jaunts, at most only two would be needed.

Maybe I’m too much of a wise-guy, but it seems fitting that the first NBA Finals game contested under the “everything-old-is-new-again” 2-2-1-1-1 format should also be played in the same conditions as the last one.

Let’s look back at the league’s 29-year “World Series of Basketball” experiment.

Nearly half (13) of these title teams wrapped up their rings in six games, five times on foreign turf. Seven series were decided in Game 5, but only twice on a home court. There were four sweeps, and the home team won all five Game 7’s.

Nearly three-quarters (21) of this era’s titles were claimed by the “favorite” (i.e. the team holding the home-court advantage). Indeed the home squad emerged victorious in 101 of 164 Finals games – just shy of 62 percent. Moreover, the home team has a winning record game-by-game:

Game 1 – 22-7 (.759)
Game 2 – 18-11 (.621)
Game 3 – 15-14 (.517)
Game 4 – 15-14 (.517)   [Yes, Games 3 & 4 are identical – I didn’t edit poorly!!]
Game 5 – 14-11 (.560)
Game 6 – 12-6 (.667)
Game 7 – 5-0 (1.000)

Only four underdogs were able to hold serve at home, champions all: Miami ’12, Miami ’06, Detroit ’04 and Houston ’95, who deprived ownership a big gate by sweeping the higher-seeded Magic. (Three favorites swept a series, three others swept Games 3-5.)

In no year did home court prevail completely, but on four occasions a favorite returned home in need of two wins. Last year’s Heat, the ’94 Rockets and two generations of Lakers (’88 and ’10) all succeeded.

During the entire 29-year run of the 2-3-2 format, the playoff field consisted of 16 teams; for the first 18 years, the opening round was a best-of-five series. Aside some minor tinkering with in-conference seeding, there were no other adjustments.

It would be interesting to compare this data with that of the pre-1985 era. Anyone got a link?