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NBA Finals

   by Jim Feist - 06/07/2010

The NBA Finals shift this week from Los Angeles to the East Coast, as the Lakers head to Boston for Game 3, 4 and 5. Many fans find this odd, as all the previous series are in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, but then the Finals shifts to a 2-3-2 format. It is odd, but there is a reason for the change: M-O-N-E-Y. The NBA prefers a longer series to build up interest and increase television ratings. The league won't admit it, of course, but the 2-3-2 format was instituted because it's theoretically tougher for a team to win the first two games at home, then win two of the next three on the road to close out a series in five games. The league doesn't want five games, it wants six or seven.
It also hasn't worked often, either. Since 1994 there have only been two seven-game Finals. Over the last ten years the Finals have gone 5, 6, 5, 4, 6, 5, 7, 6, 4, 6 and 5 games. Too many sweeps and five-game series, not exactly what television executives and ratings observers would like. It wasn't always this way. The 2-3-2 format, which copies the World Series, was put into effect for the 1985 NBA Finals during an earlier series when the Celtics and Lakers met during the Bird/Magic years. Before that, the Finals had always been 2-2-1-1-1, which worked fine. In fact, from 1976-84 there were three 7th games in the Finals and five series that went six games. Since 1985 under the 2-3-2 format there have more sweeps (4) than seven-game NBA Finals (just three, 1988, 1994, 2005).
Some players have even suggested that the team with home court doesn't really have an edge for the Finals, being forced to play three road games in a row in the middle of the Finals. Not having home court appeared to help the Pistons six years ago, as they got a split in LA in the first two games, then came home and swept the middle three for the title. Four years ago Miami got back in the series, down 2-0, then sweeping the middle three at home to take charge on the way to winning a title.
When the Celtics defeated the Lakers in seven games in 1984 (the last of the 2-2-1-1-1 format), they took a 3-2 series lead by winning the key fifth game at home. That's an edge that won't be possible this Finals. A year later (1985) when the two met again, the Lakers won the fifth game at home to take a 3-2 series lead and went on to win the series under the new 2-3-2 format. After the series, Celtics star Larry Bird commented that he didn't like the format change, and didn't like the fact that the all-important fifth game was on the road even though his team had earned the home court via a better regular season record.
You can argue the same thing happened four seasons ago when the Mavericks went up 2-0 at home, then had to play three in a row in Miami. The Heat won all three, including the pivotal fifth game, putting the pressure on Dallas. The Mavs surely would have preferred to come home for Game 5.
Not counting this current series, over the last ten years the home team is 42-13 SU, 33-21-1 ATS in the Finals, while the favorite is 37-19 SU/30-25-1 ATS. Recent results show the home team stepping up and getting the money, while the favorite often wins but doesn't always cover. In fact, from 2001-2004 the home team went just 10-10 SU/6-13-1 ATS in the Finals
Defense often rules this time of the year. During the regular season the Celtics and Lakers finished 5th and 9th in the NBA in points and field goal shooting defense allowed. In 2008 the Celtics and Lakers were in the top six in defensive field goal percentage allowed, while Boston was second in points allowed. A year ago Orlando and LA had reputations of being all-offense, but Orlando was at 6th in points allowed and LA was 13th; plus the Lakers were sixth in field goal shooting defense while the Magic was third (43%).
Three years ago the Cavs and Spurs were in the Top 8 in field goal defense with the Spurs No. 1 allowing 89 ppg. Five years ago the Pistons and Spurs finished the regular season one and two in the NBA defensively and met in the Finals. This certainly adds to the long list of teams that have won titles with defense, supporting the old adage, "Defense wins championships." Don't discount the importance of defense this time of the year!

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