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Why The 2-3-2 Format Doesn’t Work

For a guy who has spent the past 25 years overseeing the development of the NBA into the major money-making entity that it is today, you’d think David Stern would be inclined to embrace progressive change. But ask him about the NBA Finals’ 2-3-2 format, and he ultimately harkens back to complaints from legendary Celtics head coach Red Auerbach about how play quality declines late in play-off series as jet lag and travel-related fatigue sets in.

These would be legitimate, viable concerns were they not about a quarter century out of date, made at a time when air travel was far from luxurious for tall, long-legged individuals and basketball players, in general, were not offered the cushy star treatment they currently enjoy. In addition to enjoying favorable treatment, today’s star player is better conditioned and is accustomed to an 82-game regular season grind across 30 NBA cities with numerous games occurring in back-to-back situations.

All this to say that “travel fatigue” no longer holds up as an adequate explanation for an archaic play-off format that seems to have no redeeming element beyond saving teams a few bucks in travel costs.

As the team with a better regular season record in a given play-off series (as the Lakers are in these NBA Finals), you have earned the added benefit of an additional home game and to be on your own turf should a decisive Game 7 be required. It seems like an unfair advantage, however, to award that team with the final two games in a series. As it stands, even if the Celtics were to claim their two remaining games at home, they would still have to win one of two games in L.A.

Compare that to the more traditional 2-2-1-1-1 set-up, whereby the Celtics – in keeping with the hypothetical scenario from the previous paragraph – would be heading home from L.A. up 3-2 instead of bidding farewell to the TD Garden. Meanwhile, if the Lakers can build on their 2-1 series lead over the next two games, they either win the series outright or head home with two opportunities to clinch the title.

In the World Series and Stanley Cup Finals, each team is afforded at least one potential series-deciding home game in the event of a seven-game series. In any potential Game 6, the team without home court advantage (in this case, the Celtics) hosts either with their backs against the wall or with a chance to clinch. In Game 7, the team with home court advantage would be guaranteed to host with the series knotted up at three games apiece. Now, in the NBA Finals, unless the Lakers triumph in Game 4, any series-deciding game will take place at the Staples Center.

It may seem a bit overblown to critique the distribution of home games over the course of a seven-game series when, regardless of who plays where in which game, there will still be four home games allocated for one team and three for the other. But even if you are to accept that the order of the games doesn’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things, it still seems strikingly illogical to not have consistency across the entire postseason.

Yes, the 2-3-2 format is exclusive property of the Finals and does not apply to any other play-off round leading up to it. When Los Angeles secured their spot in the Finals at the conclusion of their six-game Western Conference Final against the Suns, they did so in front of a hostile Phoenix crowd, a factor they won’t have to worry about once Game 6 of the Finals rolls around.

It simply defies logic to maintain a certain format through three rounds of play, only to abandon it once the ultimate, deciding series takes place.

So maybe none of it really matters. After all, through three Finals games so far, the road team has taken two. It certainly shouldn’t be the first item on Stern’s to-do list moving forward (I’ll save my officiating rant for another day).

But, there is something inherently unfair, outdated and inconsistent about the 2-3-2 format and it’s time to move on.

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  • Craig W.

    The original reason was that the two teams would likely be at opposite ends of the country, while previous series would be in one half of the country or the other. Teams moving have altered this original East-West organization, but that was the logic for only changing the Finals.

    However, I agree with your premise that we should change back. The only reason for leaving it like this is if there is a two day delay each time a team changes city (only one day off when also traveling hurts older players more). Since TV drives the schedule and this year it seems perverse, since the series started on THUR instead of TUE.

  • michael c

    2-3-2 does not work for one MAJOR Reason: The team with Home ct, if they hold serve should NEVER be in a position to be DOWN in a series. in the other formats by holding serve they are NEVER down, only tied. You should Never be trailing in a series as the team with Home Court if you win your games, and thats exactly what this format does. Now Laker shave all the pressure on them…

  • Tom

    I don’t think the World Series has a 2-2-1-1-1 format. They still use the 2-3-2 that the NBA uses. I disagree, though, that the 2-3-2 format is bad. I understand that if both teams hold serve, the team with homecourt advantage will be down 3-2, but if they’re really the better team, it shouldn’t matter. Receiving homecourt advantage is enough of an advantage, no? I mean, why don’t we just give them 5 games instead of 4 if we REALLY want to give them a double advantage? I say just get the job done and win…simple as that.