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NBA Finals Format: 2-3-2 vs. 2-2-1-1-1

   by Al McMordie - 06/13/2014

The NBA changed the format of its Finals this year, and went back to the 2-2-1-1-1 format which existed until 1985. I would have kept it at 2-3-2 (though, as a Spurs fan, I'm thrilled the Spurs will get Game 5 at home this season).

I agree it’s better for the team with home court advantage to have the 5th game at home. Though I don’t necessarily think it’s “fairer.” After all, there will be some instances where a team “earned” home court advantage but was significantly aided by playing in a much weaker conference, resulting in a much easier schedule. However, the primary reason I disliked the NBA’s decision is that, in the long run, it will result in shorter series, and I think both the league and the fans benefit (for different reasons) by having series go as many games as possible.

Obviously, the 2-3-2 or 2-2-1-1-1 format difference, from a mathematical perspective, only matters in series that are 3 games to 1 after 4 games. If a series is or 2-2 (or 4-0), then it is immaterial that the 5th and 6th games’ venue are flipped.

In the 29 seasons with a 2-3-2 format, there were 14 Finals series that were 3 games to 1; the other 15 series were tied at 2 games apiece, or ended with a 4-0 sweep.

Not surprisingly, the better team (defined as the one with home court advantage) was up 3-1 in 10 series, while the worse team was up 3-1 in four series.

In the 10 series where the better team had a 3-1 advantage, but had to play Game 5 on the road, it was 5-5 in those 10 Game 5s. If there was a 2-2-1-1-1 format, one would expect not five of those better teams to have won, but rather seven or eight. Thus, the 2-2-1-1-1 format would have resulted in SHORTER series, say, 2 or 3 times.

Now, there were four series in the 2-3-2 format where the worse team was up 3 games to 1. Two of those four teams closed out the series with a Game 5 win, which is what one would roughly expect (the actual projected number might be, say, 2.5 of four). But if there was a 2-2-1-1-1 format, and the worse team had a 3-1 lead, one might expect 1, rather than 2, of those worse teams to end the series in five games. So, the 2-3-2 format probably shortened roughly 1 series.

Combined, then, we would have expected to have longer series roughly 2 times in those 29 years where the 2-3-2 format was in existence – about 7 percent of the time.

One of the funny things that people say when defending the 2-2-1-1-1 format is that it’s tough to win those 3 middle games at home in the 2-3-2 format and that, somehow, the 2-2-1-1-1 format is actually better for the worse team! Um, it's not.

The reality is that it is tough to win 3 games in a row, but the hardship occurs mainly in Game 3 or Game 4, not Game 5. In the 29 years, the home team won Games 3 + 4 a total of seven times, much less than what would be expected. One of those was a 4-game sweep (1995), so the home team wasn’t afforded an opportunity of a 3-Game sweep that series. But of the other six times, the home team swept the middle set three times, and lost Game 5 three times, which is slightly less, but definitely in line with, what one might expect (my expectation would be about 3.5 of 6).

The bottom line is that the NBA decided to "reward" the higher-seeded team by giving it the 5th game at home. I would have left it as it was. But the change in format was one of the reasons I projected the Spurs to win this year's series in five games (at 6-1 odds). With a win on Sunday, that prediction will come to fruition. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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