San Francisco – There was a time when the date line for this story was still “Boston” and going into Game 5 was no different than after Game 3 or 4.
With a 107-97 loss at TD Garden on Friday, the Celtics are tied 2-2 in a seven-game series and will have some comfort at home in the final game. But they may also feel a little pressure not to waste it knowing that from then on, everything will be in the Chase Center in San Francisco. By contrast, the Golden State Warriors know that no matter what happens in Game 5, they’re going to take the home court in Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7.
Not long ago, for about three decades, the NBA Finals were played in a 2-3-2 format similar to the baseball World Series. The first two and last two games are played in the city of the team with the better record (or winning the tiebreaker). The blocks in the middle of three consecutive games were in the opposing team’s building.
The setup began in 1985 under President David Stern, when the Finals seemed to be defined by the back-and-forth between the Celtics and the Lakers. Prior to that, the 2-2-1-1-1 format used in all playoff rounds required — the Finals — where team, media and league executives and staff traveled from Boston to Los Angeles and back again. Possibly as many places as five cross-country flights.
For a variety of reasons — possibly including rumors that Boston owner Red Auerbach doesn’t like frequent travel — the league board unanimously approved the change. It didn’t hurt that the 1984 Finals had a maximum of seven games, with everyone playing ping pong back and forth, each flying 2,592 miles.
It lasted 29 years, from 1985 to the 2013 Finals. In 2014, the league reassessed with President Adam Silver succeeding Stern. The 2-2-1-1-1 format is dusted and restored.
It was the first time since the change, however, that it was indeed a coast-to-coast game. Golden State vs. Cleveland (2015-2018) or Toronto (2019) spanned three time zones with significantly fewer miles. Of course, this makes one nostalgic for a 2-3-2 that only takes two or three flights before the series is complete.
“Not at all,” Silver said before the series opener in San Francisco. “As long as the flights are around, from a competitive standpoint, we just feel like it’s going to be better.
“I’ve felt in all my years in the league before we went back to this format, first of all, the players got used to the 2-2-1-1-1 format of the earlier rounds. And it always felt like, didn’t even know not Where the fairness is, but the three in that second city just feel long and daunting.
“We have beautiful planes in this league. It’s a long flight. Again, it’s tough on everyone’s bodies. The media has to go back and forth across the country, it’s tough, but it feels like it’s the right format. “
There’s a lot to unravel in Silver’s comments.
As far as the “competitive point of view” is concerned, the main objection to 2-3-2 almost from the start is that home-field advantage is almost non-existent. In fact, in the first five games, the weaker team played more games on the field than the winning team.
The prospect of a home loss in Game 1 or 2 and then never being able to bring the series back to their town hangs over these teams. However, the reality is that it almost never happens.
The home team won three games at halftime until 2004, when Detroit did it against the Lakers. After parting ways in Los Angeles, the Pistons have a Lakers team ready to be eliminated with 68, 80 and 87 points to end the series in five games.
Until then, though, the visitors are more likely to win all three midfield games. Detroit did it in Portland in 1990, Chicago did it against the Lakers in ’91, and the Lakers did it in Philadelphia in 2001.
Only once has the home team swept games three, four or five to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy while denying the favored team to bring the series back to its city. That happened in 2012, when Miami beat the Thunder 1-1 in Oklahoma City, sending the Thunder out of five in South Florida.
Before that, the Heat had won three midfield games at home against Dallas in 2006. But the Mavericks are up 2-0 with at least one home game left. They lost the title and the championship in Game 6.
The idea of opening a store for a week in a central city can lead to teams on the road getting stale with hotel fever. But at what cost?
The head of sports medicine for an NBA team admits road life is a challenge. But, he said, the same goes for extra cross-country flights. Jet lag, adverse effects on sleep patterns, how an injury responds to changes in air pressure, etc., can all provide a convincing case for 2-3-2.
While team flights have gone from commercial travel to charter to franchised jets, these planes are equipped for just about every need. Sleep-friendly seats, coaching facilities, fine dining restaurants, space to roam the cabin for better circulation – these are the norm these days. Compression clothing helps fight swelling that can be caused by changes in air pressure, and maintains hydration to combat dehydration of the cabin air.
But keeping the number of flights to a minimum limits how often players have to change time zones. Medical experts say this allows them to adapt to better circadian rhythms, aligning their internal clocks with competition and practice schedules.
That’s much less likely to happen once teams are deep in the series, switching from game after game to 5, 6, and 7 games. Teams are taking sleep more seriously than ever.
For example, Warriors guard Stephen Curry said he “slept about ten and a half hours” Wednesday night after hurting his foot in Game 3. Ten and a half? When was the last time you slept ten and a half hours?
Obviously, teams that don’t have home-court advantage are more likely to opt for a 2-3-2 in Game 5 to gain that advantage. But would a team that starts the Finals at home opt for fewer flights and travel needs?
Golden State’s Steve Kerr won five championships as a player in the 2-3-2 series, but he has led the Warriors to six Finals since the move.
“I prefer 2-2-1-1-1,” he said. “It’s a fairer format. Considering we have a few days between each game, except for games 3 and 4, I think both teams can handle the trip.”
The NBA does schedule travel days for each city change, which extends the Finals on the calendar but allows for some recovery time.
“I remember,” Kerr said, “in that era, any time a team lost one of their first two games at home, it didn’t seem right that you had to play three straight away games. I Think that’s why the format was changed back.”
Kerr admits the home side has “barely” won the middle three games. But he added: “It’s good for travel, but it feels more natural to go back to 2-2-1-1-1.”
So here’s the final Finals stat: In 29 years of the 2-3-2 format, teams with home-court advantage went 21-8 to a 72.4 win rate. In the 45 prior and subsequent Finals games, the home team has gone 36-9 (80 percent). This includes the 5-2 mark since switching back in 2014 (71.4%, with a neutral bubble in 2020).
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980.You can email him here, find his profile here, and follow him on twitter.
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