Sunday night’s action provided what felt like a distinct and significant contrast: in game two of the NBA Finals, the Celtics picked up a split in Los Angeles before heading home for the next three games, while the Chicago Blackhawks got the win they needed at home in game five of the Stanley Cup Finals, to keep from having to beat Philadelphia on the road just to stay alive.
The difference in the ebb and flow of the two series stems from the scheduling. The basketball goes 2-3-2, while the hockey finals are played in the same 2-2-1-1-1 format as all of the NHL’s other playoff series, as well as all NBA series until the Finals. If the Blackhawks and Flyers were using the NBA format, their game would have been in Philadelphia, and judging by the last two games there Chicago would now be facing two elimination games back home at the United Center.
A torrent of words has been unleashed upon the 2-3-2 ever since it was adopted in 1985. It either helps or hurts the team that is supposed to have the home-court advantage, which now has to play the middle three games on the road. It puts enormous pressure on the home team for the last two games if the first two segments have “normal” splits (1-1 then 2-1, giving the team with the lesser regular-season record a 3-2 lead in the series).
A lot of words get spilled, but not a whole lot of facts.
We’ve had twenty-five NBA Finals since the league switched to 2-3-2. The team with the home-court advantage – two games at home to begin and end the schedule of seven – has gone 19-6 in those series. Coincidentally, that’s also the record of the home team in the first game of the series, 19-6. And when the home team wins the first game, it has gone on to win 16 of those 19 NBA Finals.
Go deeper into the series, and the records support the notion of the pressure on the home team at the end. Teams that return home leading 3-2 have won all eight such series; those trailing 2-3 have won one of six. There have been only three Game Sevens in the last twenty-five Finals; all three were won by the home team.
All very impressive, and suggestive of the trends we might have expected from the 2-3-2, even if it’s a little surprising that teams with the home-court edge have done so well. We do have to remember that they’re also the teams that performed better in the regular season, and in fourteen out of twenty-five seasons had the best record in the league.
For purposes of comparison, I decided to look at the results of the 25 prior seasons when the NBA Finals were played under the 2-2-1-1-1 format. Those seasons stretched from 1957 to 1984, with three years not included (in 1975 and ’78 the series format was 1-2-2-1-1 because of arena scheduling conflicts; in 1971, Milwaukee and Baltimore switched cities after every game).
In the earlier format, the team with the home-court advantage won 18 of twenty-five series. This was also the record of the home team in the first game of the series, 18-7. When the home team won the first game, it went on to win 14 of those 18 NBA Finals.
Go deeper in the series, and the numbers reveal hardly any difference between the two formats. Teams that went on the road for game six with a 3-2 lead won eleven of twelve series; those trailing 2-3 won just one out of five. There were eight seventh games in the twenty-five seasons, with the home team winning six and losing two.
The following chart shows the series records (not games) for NBA teams with the overall home-court advantage in the Finals under every possible record along the way. Good luck to anyone who wants to find a significant difference between the results under the two formats:
Overall 19-6 18-7
1-0 16-3 14-4
0-1 3-3 4-3
2-0 12-1 8-2
1-1 7-3 10-5
0-2 0-2 none
3-0 4-0 2-0
2-1 15-1 13-2
1-2 0-4 3-5
0-3 0-1 none
3-1 10-0 7-0
2-2 6-2 9-4
1-3 0-4 0-3
3-2 8-0 11-1
2-3 2-4 1-4
3-3 3-0 6-2
The point of greatest departure – if we can say such a thing about this small a sample – comes after game three. No team trailing 1-2 and facing the next two games on the road has come back to win the series, while those with the same deficit who returned home for game five won three of eight series.
In general, it seems safe to say that if David Stern wants to entertain sponsors and clients with an extended stay of three games in the middle of the Finals, he can do so without having any noticeable effect on the results. It’s time to put the arguments over the format to rest.