“The NBA is expected to make a major change to its traditional Finals schedule, ending the 2-3-2 format and returning to the 2-2-1-1-1 game rotation used in all other playoff rounds, multiple sources told ESPN.com.”—Brian Windhorst
Nothing in sports makes me as happy as watching the Lakers win a title, but if I had to list the next-best thing it might be watching the Boston Celtics lose and listening to their fans complain.
They complain about John Havlicek’s injury costing them the 1973 NBA title and talk about how many more titles they’d won with Len Bias. If only Kendrick Perkins had been healthy for Game 7 in 2010, his offensive brilliance would have led the Celtics over the Lakers, they say with their annoying accents. And they might have three-peated if not for Kevin Garnett’s bad knee in 2009. Injuries cost them the 1987 title. So many complaints for a franchise with 17 NBA titles.
But my favorite example of Celtics martyrdom centers around the 1985 Finals. First there’s Larry Bird’s injured elbow. If only he was healthy, he wouldn’t have shot 45 percent against the Lakers. But what truly infuriates Celtics backers is the 2-3-2 format that went into effect in 1985, as the NBA sought to eliminate the cross-country travel associated with the traditional 2-2-1-1-1 format.
In Game 4, the Celtics defeated the Lakers when Dennis Johnson hit a shot at the buzzer off a pass from Bird. The victory evened the series at 2-2. A year earlier, the Celtics won an equally dramatic Game 4 in LA, returned to Boston and won in stifling temperatures and eventually prevailed in 7 games. Unfortunately for the Celtics, Game 5 in 1985 also took place in LA, the last of the three straight games hosted by the Lakers. LA won Game 5, then went back to Boston and won in the Garden.
And to this day, Boston fans are convinced everything would have changed if the NBA hadn’t changed the Finals format in ’85, which David Stern probably only did as part of a pro-Lakers conspiracy that cropped up once again during Game 6 of the 2002 WCF. The beer-addled thinking goes, “Reeling from DJ’s devastating shot — and have we told you with slurred words recently how DJ is one of the top 10 point guards of all-time and never got the credit he deserved? — the Lakers would have melted down — see, it’s hot in the Garden so they’d melt — in Game 5. No way Lakers win that game. Maybe they come back to LA and win Game 6 but you’re saying they’d win Game 7 in Boston? No way. Only reason Magic has 5 titles and Larry 3 is because of the 2-3-2 format.”
I’ve had this argument with Celtics faithful, though I can’t vouch for those exact quotes. Now they’ll probably feel vindicated, 28 years later.
The format had probably outlived its usefulness, since travel arrangements have gotten a slight upgrade for NBA teams since 1985. If the Celtics and Lakers — or your favorite West Coast and East Coast teams — ever do meet in the Finals again, which could be possible assuming LeBron comes to LA and Durant goes to Boston, the travel could still affect the players, but they’ll at least arrive in comfort. Adding travel days likely won’t impact either team. That wasn’t the case threee decades ago, as this video proves.
People debated about which team benefited from the format. The team with homecourt advantage might never have a shot to return home if it lost one of the first two games. Seems unfair. And that whole Game 5 business actually is important, since that puts one team a game from the title. But it was tough on the road team too because when two evenly matched teams meet in the Finals, chances are a three-game sweep of those middle games won’t happen, even if they are all on one floor.
The format produced some strange numbers over the years. From 1985-2010, the Finals entered Game 3 tied 1-1 11 times. Eleven times the winner of Game 3 won the series. The streak finally ended when the Mavericks lost Game 3 to the Heat in 2011 but won the series in 6 games. And just this year, the Heat got demolished in Game 3 but won in 7.
* The road team for the middle three games won nine straight games from ’89 through 1992 (Pistons two in a row from LA in ’89, Pistons three from Portland in ’90, Bulls three from Lakers in 1991, Bulls first game in Portland in 1992).
* Proving the difficulty of sweeping those middle games, the home team has won Games 3-5 only three times, and it didn’t happen until the Pistons crushed the Lakers in 2004. Miami did it in 2006 and 2012.
In the most recent Finals, it seems the Spurs could have finished it off in six if Game 6 had been in San Antonio. Then again, maybe they don’t have a 3-2 advantage under the other format because in that scenario, the Heat would have hosted Game 5 in a 2-2 series. These what-ifs can extend to any series, no matter the flight plans. In the majority of series since ’85 it wouldn’t have really mattered. The ’86 Celtics probably finish Houston off in five games instead of six if they take their 3-1 back to Boston. Maybe the Pistons win in ’88 or the Knicks in ’95 if they didn’t have to play the final two games on the road. But again, the what-ifs go on forever, Both of those Finals were 2-2; game 5 would have changed as well.
Ultimately in a best-of-7, but especially in the NBA, which isn’t hostage to a playoff being taken over by two dominant pitchers or one dominant goalie, the best team usually wins. There aren’t any flukes. That’s the case in the 2-3-2 format and in the 2-2-1-1.
So the Wes Johnson Lakers should still win.