SAN FRANCISCO – There was a time when the dateline on this story still would have read “BOSTON,” no different heading into Game 5 than it was after Game 3 or Game 4.
The Celtics, having slipped back into a 2-2 tie in the best-of-seven series by losing 107-97 Friday at TD Garden, would have a certain comfort level being home for one last game. But they also might feel a little pressure not to squander it, knowing everything from that point would be at Chase Center in San Francisco. The Golden State Warriors, by contrast, would know that no matter what happened in Game 5, they would hold home court for both Game 6 and, as needed, Game 7.
Not long ago, and for roughly three decades, the NBA Finals were played in a 2-3-2 format similar to baseball’s World Series. The first two and last two games were staged in the city whose team had the better record (or won a tiebreaker). The block of three consecutive games in the middle were in the other team’s building.
That setup began in 1985 under commissioner David Stern, at a time when the Finals seemed to be defined by repeated Celtics-Lakers showdowns. Prior to that, the 2-2-1-1-1 format used in all playoff rounds required – for the Finals – the teams, the media and the league’s executives and staffers to haul from Boston to Los Angeles and back again on as many as five cross-country flights.
For various reasons – possibly including the rumor that Boston boss Red Auerbach didn’t like having to do all that traveling – the league’s Board of Governors unanimously approved the change. It didn’t hurt that the 1984 Finals went the 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 through the 2013 Finals. In 2014, with commissioner Adam Silver taking over for Stern, the league reevaluated. The 2-2-1-1-1 format was dusted off and restored.
This is the first one since the change, however, that truly is a coast-to-coast matchup. Golden State vs. Cleveland (2015-2018) or Toronto (2019) spanned three time zones, but notably fewer miles. Surely that could make a person nostalgic for the 2-3-2, which required only two or three flights before the series was complete.
“Not one bit,” Silver said before the series opener in San Francisco. “As long as the flight is, we just feel it’s better from a competitive standpoint.
“It always felt to me in all my years in the league before we switched back to this format that, first of all, the players are used to, on their bodies, the 2-2-1-1-1 format from the earlier rounds. And it just always felt, even unsure where the unfairness lay, but the three in that second city just felt long and arduous.
“We have beautiful planes in this league. It’s a long flight. Again, it’s tough on everybody’s bodies. It’s tough on the media having to go back and forth across the country, but it feels like it’s the right format.”
There’s a lot to unpack in Silver’s comments.
As far as the “competitive standpoint,” the primary objection to 2-3-2 almost from the start was that the home-court edge barely existed. Through the first five games, in fact, the lesser team got more games in its arena than the team that had earned the advantage.
The prospect of losing at home in Game 1 or 2, then never getting the series back to their town hung over those teams. The reality, though, was it almost never happened.
It wasn’t until 2004 that the home team won the middle three games, when Detroit did it against the Lakers. After splitting in L.A., the Pistons held a Lakers team that was ready to be toppled to 68, 80 and 87 points to close out the series in five.
Before that, though, the road team was more likely to win all three middle games. Detroit did it in Portland in 1990, Chicago did it to the Lakers in ’91 and the Lakers did it in Philadelphia in 2001.
Only one other time did the home team sweep Games 3, 4 and 5, winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy while denying the favored team from getting the series back to its city. That happened in 2012 when Miami, after splitting 1-1 in Oklahoma City, dispatched the Thunder in five in South Florida.
Before that, the Heat also won all three middle games at home against Dallas in 2006. But the Mavericks, by grabbing a 2-0 lead, still had at least one more home game. They lost it and the championship in Game 6.
The idea of setting up shop for a solid week in the middle city could cause the team on the road to get stale with a case of hotel-itis. But at what cost?
The head of sports medicine for one NBA team acknowledges that road life is a challenge. But then, he said, so are additional cross-country flights. Jet lag, adverse effects on sleep patterns, how injuries react to changes in air pressure and more can make a persuasive case for 2-3-2.
As nice as team flights have gotten in the progression from commercial travel to charters to franchise-owned jets, the planes are equipped to meet every need to an almost luxurious extent. Sleep-friendly seating, trainer facilities, fine dining, room to roam through the cabin for better circulation – all standard these days. Compression apparel helps combat swelling that changes in air pressure can trigger, and hydration is vigilantly maintained to cope with dehydrating cabin air.
But keeping the number of flights to a minimum limits how often players must change time zones. That enables them to settle into better circadian rhythm, the medical expert said, keeping their internal clocks aligned with game and practice schedules.
That’s far less likely to happen once the teams get deep into the series, switching cities from game-by-game for 5, 6 and 7. And teams take sleep more seriously than ever before in the NBA.
For instance, after injuring his foot in Game 3, Warriors guard Steph Curry said he got “about ten and a half hours of sleep” Wednesday night. Ten and a half? When’s the last time you got ten and a half hours of sleep?
Obviously, teams that don’t have home-court advantage are more inclined to favor 2-3-2 for that edge in Game 5. But would a team that starts a Finals at home opt for fewer flights and travel demands?
Golden State’s Steve Kerr won five championships as a player in 2-3-2 series but has coached the Warriors to six Finals since the switch.
“I like 2-2-1-1-1 better,” he said. “It’s a more fair format. And given that we have a couple of days in between every game, other than 3 and 4, I think both teams will be able to handle the travel.”
The NBA did schedule travel days for each change of city, which extends the Finals on the calendar but allows some recovery time.
“What I remember,” Kerr said, “was any time a team lost one of the first two at home during that era, it didn’t seem right that you had to go on the road and play three straight road games. I think that’s why the format was changed back.”
Kerr acknowledged that the home team “hardly ever” won the middle three games. But he added: “It was good for travel, but it feels like a more natural flow to go back to 2-2-1-1-1.”
So here is the final Finals tally: In the 29 years of the 2-3-2 format, the teams with home-court advantage went 21-8, a 72.4 winning percentage. In the 45 Finals played before and since then, the teams with home court have gone 36-9 (80%). That includes a 5-2 mark (71.4%, with one neutral bubble in 2020) since the switch back in 2014.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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