New/old format for NBA Finals could make things interesting

Posted: June 11, 2014

THE SAYING is that the NBA Finals don't begin until one team wins on the road.

The 2014 Finals begin tonight in Miami.

LeBron James did indeed change the narrative concerning the leg cramps he got in Game 1 by responding with a typical monster game on Sunday in a 98-96 series-evening win by the Miami Heat in San Antonio.

For all the arguments I may make that James has not yet reached Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird status, he unquestionably has displayed the rare quality that all great ones have to bounce back from adversity with superlative performances.

James had 35 points and 10 rebounds against the Spurs in Game 2.

After having to sit out the decisive stretch after cramping up in Game 1, James was the decisive factor on Sunday.

"What happened on Thursday was Thursday," James said, refusing to add to the story line of the Game 1 cramps. "My whole focus was how I was going to try to help this team even this up and just try to make some plays."

So now it is "Finals on," with the action shifting to South Beach tonight, and as evenly as these teams are matched, I fully expect this series to follow the script of the 2013 Finals, when the Spurs and Heat went the full seven games.

That means the Spurs now must find a way to win a game in Miami, which brings us to the newest old thing about the NBA Finals - the return of the 2-2-1-1-1 format.

Because of the long travel between the East and West coasts, the NBA changed the format for the Finals to a 2-3-2 starting in 1985. But in October, before the season, the NBA Board of Governors voted unanimously to return to the 2-2-1-1-1.

"There certainly was a perception it was unfair to the team that had the better record, that it was then playing the pivotal Game 5 on the road," said NBA commissoner Adam Silver. "So this obviously moves that game back to giving homecourt advantage to the team with the better record, if it's a 2-2 series."

There is no large anomaly that says 2-2-1-1-1 provides a different outcome from 2-3-2. If you go by the theory that the team with the better overall record throughout the regular season is generally the better team, then the teams with the homecourt advantage were 21-8 (72.4 percent) in winning the NBA Finals.

By comparison, in 2-2-1-1-1, which had been used in all seven-game series leading into the Finals, the team with home court has won 75.8 percent of series.

But if you enjoy the drama of a long series, then the 2-2-1-1-1 has a measurable advantage over the 2-3-2.

Going into this year's playoffs, the NBA had 438 series in the 2-2-1-1-1 format, with 26 percent of them having gone to a Game 7. Of the 29 Finals in the 2-3-2, only 17.2 percent have gone the distance.

The 2-3-2 has disadvantages for both teams.

So while it is true that it took away the right of the team with the better record to play Game 5 at home in a 2-3-2 series, it forced the team without homecourt advantate to win in five games or have no opportunity to clinch at home.

When you get to the Finals, the two teams are usually so closely matched, it is considerably more likely to go at least six games. Of the 29 Finals from 1985 on, only 11 have been decided in five games or fewer.

Only three times did a team with the lesser record win those shorter series: Houston 4-0 over Orlando in 1995, Detroit 4-1 over the Lakers in 2004, and Miami 4-1 over Oklahoma City in 2012.

If the road team did not get it done quickly, it means having to win Game 6 and/or Game 7 in the other building - another difficult task.

In the series that have gone at least six games, only three road teams in the 2-3-2 format clinched NBA titles as visitors: Chicago at Phoenix in 1993 and Utah in 1998, and Miami at Dallas in 2006.

In last year's Finals, San Antonio won Game 1 in Miami, but the Heat won Game 2. Theoretically, the Spurs went home with a chance to clinch, but winning three straight against James & Co. was not going to happen.

While Game 5 is generally the pivotal game, the lower-seeded team playing at home in a Game 6 provides more drama, because of its increased chances of forcing a Game 7.

Before 1985, the NBA had 36 Finals in the 2-2-1-1-1 format (in 1975 and 1978, the format was 1-2-2-1-1). There were 11 Finals, or 30.5 percent, that went to Game 7.

"No matter what the format is, you have to play each game," Miami guard Dwyane Wade said before the Finals began. "Both of these teams are capable of winning anywhere. You wouldn't be in this position if you weren't."

And that's why I'm banking on another seven-game series from the Spurs and Heat.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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