Coast-to-coast Finals game brings focus back to old 2-3-2 format
SAN FRANCISCO – There was a time when the deadline for this story would always read “BOSTON”, no difference between game 5 and after game 3 or game 4.
The Celtics, after falling back to a 2-2 tie in the best-of-seven series losing 107-97 on Friday at TD Garden, would have some level of home comfort for a final game. But they might also feel a little pressure not to waste it, knowing that everything from then on would be at the Chase Center in San Francisco. The Golden State Warriors, on the other hand, would know that no matter what happened in Game 5, they would hold the home court for Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7.
Not so long ago, and for about three decades, the NBA Finals were played in a 2-3-2 format similar to the World Series of baseball. The first two and last two games were hosted in the city whose team had the best record (or won a tiebreaker). The block of three consecutive games in the middle was in the building of the other team.
This setup began in 1985 under Commissioner David Stern, at a time when the Finals seemed to be defined by repeated Celtics-Lakers matchups. Prior to this, the 2-2-1-1-1 format used in all playoff rounds required – for the finals – teams, media and league officials and staff to fly from Boston to Los Angeles and back. on as many as five cross-country flights.
For a variety of reasons — including perhaps the rumor that Boston boss Red Auerbach didn’t like having to make the whole trip — the league’s board of governors unanimously approved the change. It didn’t hurt that the 1984 Finals lasted a maximum of seven games, with everyone ping-ponging back and forth, 2,592 miles per flight.
And so it went for 29 years, from 1985 to the 2013 final. In 2014, with commissioner Adam Silver taking over from Stern, the league was reassessed. The 2-2-1-1-1 format has been dusted off and restored.
It’s the first since the change, however, it’s truly a coast-to-coast showdown. Golden State vs. Cleveland (2015-2018) or Toronto (2019) spanned three time zones, but significantly fewer miles. Surely that could make someone nostalgic for the 2-3-2, which only required two or three steals before the series was over.
“Not at all,” Silver said before the series opened in San Francisco. “As long as the flight lasts, we think it’s better from a competitive point of view.
“I always felt in all my years in the league before coming back to this format that, first of all, the players are used, on their bodies, to the 2-2-1-1-1 format of the previous Innings. And it always felt, even uncertain where the injustice lay, but the three in that second city just felt long and arduous.
“We have great planes in this league. It’s a long flight. Again, it’s hard on everyone’s body. It’s hard for the media to have to go back and forth across the country, but I feel like it’s the right format.
There’s a lot to unpack in Silver’s comments.
As for the “competitive point of view”, the main objection to 2-3-2 almost from the start was that the home court advantage barely existed. In the first five games, in fact, the lesser team got more games in their arena than the team that had gained the advantage.
The prospect of losing at home in Game 1 or 2 and then never bringing the series back to their city weighed on those teams. The reality, however, was that it almost never happened.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the home side won all three middle games, when Detroit did so against the Lakers. After parting ways in Los Angeles, the Pistons held off a Lakers team that was poised to be toppled at 68, 80 and 87 points to close the series in five.
Before that, however, the road team was more likely to win the middle three games. Detroit did it to Portland in 1990, Chicago did it to the Lakers in ’91, and the Lakers did it to Philadelphia in 2001.
Only one other time did the home team sweep Games 3, 4 and 5, winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy while preventing the favorite team from bringing the series back to their hometown. It happened in 2012 when Miami, after dividing 1-1 at Oklahoma City, sent the Thunder in five to South Florida.
Prior to that, the Heat also won all three middle games at home to Dallas in 2006. But the Mavericks, taking a 2-0 lead, still had at least one more home game. They lost it and the championship in Game 6.
The idea of settling in for a good week downtown could have the team on the road sitting back with a case of hotel-itis. But at what cost ?
The head of sports medicine for an NBA team recognizes that life on the road is a challenge. But then, he said, so are additional flights across the country. Jet lag, adverse effects on sleep patterns, how injuries respond to changes in air pressure, and more can make a compelling case for 2-3-2.
As enjoyable as team flying is in the progression from commercial travel to charter to franchise-owned jets, the planes are equipped to meet every need to an almost luxurious extent. Sleep-friendly seats, trainer facilities, fine dining, room to move around the cabin for better circulation – it’s all standard these days. Compression garments help combat swelling that changes in atmospheric pressure can trigger, and hydration is maintained vigilantly to deal with dehydrating cabin air.
But keeping the number of flights to a minimum limits how often players need to switch time zones. This allows them to settle into a better circadian rhythm, the medical expert said, keeping their internal clocks aligned with play and training schedules.
That’s much less likely to happen once teams sink into the series, switching cities from game to game for 5, 6 and 7. And teams are taking sleep more seriously than ever in the NBA.
For example, after injuring his foot in Game 3, Warriors guard Steph Curry said he had “about ten and a half hours of sleep” Wednesday night. 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 favor 2-3-2 for that advantage in Game 5. But would a team starting a final at home go for less flights and travel?
Golden State’s Steve Kerr won five championships as a player in the 2-3-2 series, but has coached the Warriors to six finals since the switch.
“I prefer 2-2-1-1-1,” he said. “It’s a fairer format. And given that we have a few days between each game, apart from 3 and 4, I think both teams will be able to manage the trip.
The NBA has scheduled travel days for each city change, which extends the Finals schedule but allows for some recovery time.
“What I remember,” Kerr said, “is anytime a team lost one of the first two games at home in those days, it didn’t feel right to have to go on the road. and playing three consecutive games on the road. I think that’s why the format was changed.
Kerr acknowledged that the home side “almost never” won the middle three games. But he added: “It was good for traveling, but it feels like a more natural flow to go back to 2-2-1-1-1.”
So here’s the final tally from the Finals: In the 29 years of the 2-3-2 format, teams with home advantage have gone 21-8, a winning percentage of 72.4. In the 45 finals played before and since then, teams with home court have gone 36-9 (80%). That includes a 5-2 rating (71.4%, with a neutral bubble in 2020) since returning in 2014.
* * *
Steve Aschburner has been writing about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs, or Turner Broadcasting.