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NBA 2-3-2 Finals Format: Who Has the Advantage?

   by Larry Ness - 06/01/2009

Because of coast-to-coast travel in the early 80s (LA vs Boston or Philly was the matchup in four of five NBA Finals from the 1979-80 season the 1983-84 season), the NBA changed its traditional 2-2-1-1-1 seven-game format in the Finals to the current 2-3-2 format for the 1984-85 postseason. The team with the home court advantage now opens and closes with two home games, while its opponent gets three consecutive home games in the middle (Games 3-5).

At the time, the prevailing wisdom was that this new format could very possibly benefit the team without the home court edge. That hasn't been the case. Over the last 24 NBA Finals, the team with the home court edge has won 18 of the 24 series played, or 75.0 percent. In comparison, the previous 24 years (under the 2-2-1-1-1 format), the team with the home court edge won just 15 times, or 62.5 percent! With the switch to the 2-3-2 format, the team with the home court edge has actually done better not worse, as many had feared!

A closer look shows that over the last 24 years, teams playing Games 1 & 2 plus Games 6 & 7 at home are 45-19 or .703 percent. Over the previous 24 years, teams owning the home court advantage got Games 1, 2, 5 & 7 at home and went 50-25 or .667. That's not a huge difference but the new format has increased not decreased the advantage at home for the team with the four home games.

However, teams without the home court edge in the Finals have seen their win percentage drop when playing three straight at home. In the years of the 2-2-1-1-1 format, teams playing Games 3, 4 & 6 at home, went 37-26 or .587. However, under the current format of Games 3 thru 5 at home, they've gone just 34-34 (.500) and that includes a impressive 10-4 run the last five years. Teams with the middle three games at home had gone just 24-30 (.444) during the first 19 years of the format.

Pointing out the disadvantage of this format even more to the team without the home court advantage, is this. Of the six teams which have won the title since 1985 without the home court edge in the Finals (the 1985 Lakers, the 1993 Bulls, the 1995 Rockets, the 1998 Bulls, the 2004 Pistons and the 2006 Miami Heat), history shows that those teams won not so much as a result of them winning their home games but rather by them being able to win their road games.

These six teams did go a combined 13-4 or .765 at home (just 7-4 prior to 3-0 sweeps by both Detroit in '04 and Miami in '06) but also went a solid 11-5 (.688) in their road games! Under the 2-2-1-1-1 format, where nine teams without the home court edge won the title the previous 24 seasons, those teams "won it at home!" They went 21-3 (.875) in home games, while going just 15-14 (.517) on the road!

What this points to is that having three consecutive home games in the middle of a seven-game series has certainly been no advantage and that makes sense. After playing Games 1 (Thursday ) and 2 (Sunday) in LA, the Lakers and Magic will head to 'Disney World' for a week. Game 2 is set for Tuesday, Game 4 for Thursday and Game 5 for Sunday. The home court edge is mitigated, because the visiting team (this year the Lakers), will have almost entire week in its opponent's city (this year, Orlando).

Now I'm not predicting an LA win but I do feel that history reveals that if the Magic are to beat the Lakers in this year's Finals, they'll most likely have to do it by winning at least twice in LA. It's not as if the Magic can't win all three home games (remember, the Pistons did it in '04 and the Heat did it in '06) but the Lakers were the NBA's best road team during the regular season (29-12) and just took two of three in Denver, where the Nuggets had won 16 straight games prior to the Western Conference finals.

Giving the Lakers just one win in Orlando, means the Magic must win at least twice in LA. They get their first chance to win in LA on Thursday night.

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