by Jim Feist
The NBA Finals continues this week moving from the West Coast to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. Game 5 will be played at Golden State, which is just the second time since 1984 that the league has gone back to the 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Finals. Last year it didn’t make a difference, as Miami split the first two at San Antonio, then the Spurs torched the Heat in South Beach, winning Games 3 and 4, 111-92 and 107-86. Of course, coming home for Game 5 was a treat, crushing the Heat, 104-87 to win the title in five.
The old 2-3-2 format didn't make any sense, with all the other playoff series the same -- then changing for the Finals. It wasn't always this way. The 2-3-2 change was instituted in an attempt to make series go longer, which would increase interest and TV ratings (in theory). They figured it was tougher for a team to win the first two games at home, then win two of the next three on the road to close out a series in five games. The league doesn't want five games, it wants six or seven.
Despite the 2013 series going seven games, it really didn't work often. Since 1994 there have only been four seven-game Finals. Over the last 16 years the Finals have gone 5, 6, 5, 4, 6, 5, 7, 6, 4, 6, 5, 7, 6, 5, 7 and 5 games. Too many sweeps and five-game series, not exactly what television executives and ratings observers would like.
The 2-3-2 format was put into effect for the 1985 NBA Finals when the Celtics and Lakers met during the Bird/Magic years. Before that, the Finals had always been 2-2-1-1-1, which worked fine. In fact, from 1976-84 there were three 7th games in the Finals and five series that went six games. Since 1985 under the 2-3-2 format there have been almost as many sweeps (4) as seven-game NBA Finals (1988, 1994, 2005, 2010, 2013). So much for changing the rules to get longer series!
Some players used to imply that the team with home court didn't even have an edge under the old format, being forced to play three road games in a row in the middle of the Finals. Not having home court appeared to help the Heat in 2012, getting a split in Oklahoma City after losing Game 1, then blitzing the young, wide-eyed Thunder with three straight home games. OKC's reward for having a better regular season record: Playing 3 of 5 NBA Finals game on the road.
That's what happened 11 years ago when the Pistons got a split in LA in the first two games, then came home and swept the middle three for the title. Nine years ago Miami got back in the series, down 2-0, by sweeping the middle three at home to take charge on the way to winning a title, putting the pressure on Dallas for Game 6. Dallas returned the favor in 2011 getting a split in Miami before winning 2 of 3 at home.
When the Celtics defeated the Lakers in seven games in 1984 (the last of the original 2-2-1-1-1 format), they took a 3-2 series lead by winning the key fifth game at home in a blowout. A year later (1985) when the two met again, the Lakers won the fifth game at home to take a 3-2 series lead and went on to win the series under the new 2-3-2 format. After the series, Celtics star Larry Bird commented that he didn't like the format change, and didn't like the fact that the all-important fifth game was on the road even though his team had earned the home court via a better regular season record.
You can argue the same thing happened in 2006 when the Mavericks went up 2-0 at home, then had to play three in a row in Miami. The Heat won all three, including the pivotal fifth game, putting the pressure on Dallas. The Mavs surely would have preferred to come home for Game 5.
Not counting this current series, over the last 16 years the home team is 65-25 SU, 54-35-1 ATS in the Finals, while the favorite is 59-31 SU and 50-39-1 ATS. Recent results show the home team stepping up and getting the money, while the favorite often wins but doesn't always cover. In fact, from 2001-2004 the home team went just 10-10 SU/6-13-1 ATS in the Finals.
Defense often rules this time of the year. In 2013 the Spurs and Heat ranked 5 and 11 in points allowed during the regular season, while both were in the top 8 in field goal shooting allowed. Three years ago the Heat and Thunder were 4th and 5th in field goal shooting defense. In 2011 the Mavericks finished 6th and 10th in the NBA in points allowed, while in 2010 the Lakers finished 5th and 9th in the NBA in points and field goal shooting defense allowed. Cleveland hasn’t won a major sports title since 1964 (Browns), so sentiment might be with LeBron winning one for his hometown. Or are we seeing the birth of a young Warriors dynasty?