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Thunder v Heat

   by Jim Feist - 06/12/2012

The NBA Finals gets underway this week featuring a newcomer, the Oklahoma City Thunder with home court before heading East 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.
Despite 2010's Celtics/Lakers Game 7, it really hasn't worked often. Since 1994 there have only been three seven-game Finals. Over the last 12 years the Finals have gone 5, 6, 5, 4, 6, 5, 7, 6, 4, 6, 5, 7 and 6 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 seven 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. Five 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, putting the pressure on Dallas for Game 6.
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 five 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 12 years the home team is 50-18 SU, 40-27-1 ATS in the Finals, while the favorite is 45-24 SU/37-31-1 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. Last year the Heat and Mavericks finished 6th and 10th in the NBA in points allowed, while in 2010 the 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. In 2009 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%).
So how did Oklahoma City do against the Best of the East? The Thunder handed Miami its most lopsided defeat, 103-87. Oklahoma also whipped Boston 119-104 at home on February 22, leading by 23 at the half. Oklahoma City missed nine of its first 10 shots and quickly fell behind 15-5, then could hardly miss for the rest of the first half, going 18 for 23 during the most impressive stretch.
Westbrook scored 26 points, including two of Oklahoma City's four 3-pointers in the final two minutes to help the Thunder beat Boston Celtics 97-88 in January. Kevin Durant scored 28 with seven rebounds. The Celtics had 19 turnovers that led to 24 Thunder points; Oklahoma City had 13 turnovers that led to two Boston points. Are the kids ready to claim the crown? Or will experience prove to be more valuable on the big stage?

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