We Interrupt These Playoffs For — What Exactly?

published May 13, 2010

On behalf of Steve Nash’s right eye, I’d like to thank David Stern.

Likewise for the legs that have carried Kobe Bryant through 1,206 NBA games to date, or Derek Fisher’s almost thirty-six-year-old joints.

Seventy-year-old referee Dick Bavetta probably doesn’t mind a few days off.  Gary Bettman would be grateful for the chance to grow the NHL’s audience if fans knew how to find Versus on their cable systems.

For the rest of us, though, the week-long hiatus before the start of the Western Conference Finals is a thoroughgoing bummer.

The Phoenix Suns are on a roll.  They’ve finally gotten past their nemesis, San Antonio, with a remarkable display of balanced basketball – quick, physical, poised.  Their defense got them the big stops they needed to win two road games against the Spurs, who had knocked Phoenix out of the playoffs in four of the last seven years.  Their reward is a full stop of whatever momentum they’d built up, and eight days to ponder the challenge of facing the defending champs on their home court.  Their only consolation is that the L.A. Lakers are facing a similar long wait, having dispatched Utah after getting a good scare from Oklahoma City.

Is this any way for a league to build excitement through the playoffs?

Blame it on the sweeps.  Not the four-game sweeps the Suns and Lakers pulled off; the Nielsen ratings sweeps that skew the television schedule at this time every year.

The networks – remember them? – base their prime time ad rates on ratings during designated viewing periods through the year.  One of them concludes on May 26.  Until then, ABC will be happy to find extra hours for “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Dancing With the Stars,” but not for prime time basketball.

It’s been going on for years, the schedule growing mysteriously generous with off days as the conference finals approach, the NBA’s cable partners TNT and ESPN carrying the games until the lucrative sweeps period is safely past.

Does it really matter any more?  The sweeps are a relic of the three-network universe.  Cable coverage is good enough for the first two rounds of the playoffs, with network cameos on the weekend.  The NBA All-Star Game is a cable-only event; why not give the same treatment to the full conference finals?  Does it make a difference if a seventh game is shown on TNT or ESPN instead of “ESPN on ABC”?  Is the loss of dramatic momentum caused by such a long delay really worth what the networks and league get from it?

At least the Western teams are both in the same position.  In the Eastern Conference, Orlando has to wait eight days to play the winner of the Boston-Cleveland series, who will face a much shorter gap in its schedule.  A year ago, the Cavaliers were the ones waiting, for nine days after sweeping Atlanta while Boston and Orlando battled for seven games; the Magic rode their momentum to a six-game victory in the conference finals.

It’s not a good situation, but it’s one the league has decided to live with.   It’s better than the bad old days, when CBS’s solution to the prime-time dilemma was to show Finals games on tape delay.

In 1980, the Lakers met the Philadelphia 76ers in the finals.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was injured and unable to play in game six, which would be played in Philadelphia with L.A. leading the series, 3-2.  Rookie guard Magic Johnson was shifted to center for the game.  He scored 42 points to go along with 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers cruised, 123-107.

The game was shown on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. in the east.  I had carefully avoided hearing the result or seeing anything that would give me information about the game, so I could watch the delayed CBS telecast as though it were live.  This was easier to do in the days before Twitter feeds and scoreboard crawls.

As the telecast was about to begin, my girlfriend asked if we could switch channels briefly to the ABC affiliate to see the start of “Fridays,” ABC’s west coast sketch comedy answer to NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”  I don’t remember the opening bit.  I do remember that it ended with, “LIVE!  From the home of the World Champion Los Angeles Lakers…”

I hear Magic played a helluva game.

TOPICS: Basketball, Pro Basketball

ABOUT: Jeff Neuman

Jeff Neuman is co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf (with Lorne Rubenstein) and Just Hit It (with Frank Thomas). He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Links, and Private Clubs, and his sports columns appear at RealClearSports.com on Mondays and Thursdays.

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