The greatest joy I ever experienced in sports was on July 17, 2010. It was another dry summer night in Socorro, New Mexico, and I was holed up in the computer laboratory of the Petroleum Engineering department at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Right in front of me was the computer running some simulations crucial to my research work, and to my left was another computer showing Game 7 of the NBA Finals on ESPN360. You know which monitor my attention was transfixed on that night. Right?
The night was one heck of a roller coaster for my emotions as the game went back and forth between Boston Celtics and my Los Angeles Lakers. Celtics even went into halftime with a 40-34 lead. I do not remember much from the game, but I recall the great Kobe Bryant almost shot us out it with his paltry 6-for-24 shooting for 23 points. Fortunately Pau Gasol stepped up with 19 points and 18 boards (!), and Metta World Peace Ron Artest with 20 points, including the 3-point shot that basically sealed the win with a minute remaining on the game clock. To be fair to Kobe, he wasn’t so shabby in the fourth quarter, all of his 10 points in that period were needed to put away the Celtics.
My Lakers winning that game to clinch championship was sweet on a number of levels:
- We won the championship
- We beat the Celtics
- We beat the Celtics in Game 7
- We got revenge from losing to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals
- We moved one championship closer to matching Celtics record 17
- Celtics fans shed tears.
Yeah, I really do not like those guys in green from Boston.
Even though I have not had as much fun in the NBA postseason as I did in 2010 – because my Lakers have been terrible, and we got swept in the first round of the following postseason by Dallas Mavericks (eventual champions) – the playoffs period in the summer is still my favorite of the year. I hardly miss any postseason games, except the mediocre ones that get relegated to NBA TV. I love basketball, and I love NBA playoffs basketball more. I cannot wait for my Lakers to be relevant again, which will be very soon, and the NBA playoffs will be more Magical ahem then. Until then, I have a suggestion to make to NBA commissioner Adam Silver on how to make the first round of the postseason more interesting.
This NBA postseason has been alright so far, but surprises have been few and far between in this first round. Milwaukee Bucks started like a sixth-seeded team poised to upset Toronto Raptors with a 2-1 lead but the boring team from the north recovered and reeled out three straight wins to put the plucky deer away. Results from other series have been equally or more predictable, except for Clippers-Jazz because the Clips gon clip (shout-out to Cari Champion), a fourth-versus-fifth seed series that has gone on to produce a Game 7 at the time of writing. Reasonably predictable.
Predictable is boring.
As Howard Beck of Bleacher Report rightly pointed out on The Lowe Post podcast, the reason the NCAA basketball tournament (March Madness) is so popular and interesting is because of the win-or-go-home format of the tournament. This single-game elimination format increases the probability and occurrence of upsets, especially in the first round of the tournament. Everyone loves a good Cinderella story, and the possibility of witnessing Davidson slay the Gonzaga. At the final buzzer.
A bit of some playoffs-format history now: The first round of the NBA playoffs from 1977 to 1984 was a best-of-3 games series, with preceding rounds being best-of-7 games. The first round was later upgraded to a best-of-5 games series in 1984, and then extended to a best-of-7 games series (to be same as the other rounds) in 2003. This current format has significantly reduced the probability of upsets in the first round of the playoffs.
I believe the first round should be reverted to a best-of-5 series: This will increase upset probability across the board and increase the quality of games. It will also shorten the length of waiting time for a team that swept a considerably weaker team, while waiting for a potential opponent battling it out in another seven game series.
It can be argued that of the five 8th seeded teams have managed to win a series versus the number 1 seeded team, three of those upsets happened under the present format, so why fix what is not broken. Decent point (although I can break down those series to show why the two upsets in the former format are far more impressive than the three in the present), but my focus here is not just on probability of upsets between the first versus eight seeds, it also extends to two versus seven and three versus six. The difference between fourth and fifth seeds is usually negligible.
Imagine the additional excitement and attention that would have been generated if the first round of this postseason was a best-of-5: The 8th-seeded Chicago Bulls went up 2-0 against the Boston Celtics, winning the games away in the TD Garden, 6th-seeded Milwaukee Bucks were up 2-1 against Toronto Raptors, 7th-seeded Memphis Grizzlies were tied 2-2 with San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pace…Oh! Forget about those guys. You get my point; there would have been an increased level of excitement going into these decisive games early in the playoffs, which is obviously what the NBA and its partnering TV networks want. More attention, higher TV ratings, increased ads revenue.
The anticipation of the upset would be the driving force in these situations, even if the higher seeded team eventually overcomes the plucky pretenders. For example, NBA aficionados still talk about the first round of the 1993 playoffs (best-of-5), when the mediocre LA Lakers team (who finished with a losing record of 39-43) almost upset the Charles Barkey-led 62-win Phoenix Suns team. Lakers won the first two games, heightening attention and excitement in Los Angeles and the rest of the basketball world, but the then-MVP Barkley found a higher gear and led the Suns to win the next three games to take the series. Phoenix went all the way to the Finals to lose to MJ’s Chicago Bulls. For the Lakers, close but no cigar, but that proximity to an all-time upset still gets a mention every now and then when great postseason series are being discussed. Not as great as the first round upset in the following year though (best-of-5); #8 Denver Nuggets over #1 Seattle Supersonics; Dikembe on the floor after the final buzzer, holding the ball up high as he screamed his lungs out. Bliss!
So if you are reading this, Adam Silver, it’s time to make the first round of the playoffs great again. If you revert to the former format of best-of-5 in this round, the league will win new fans so much, so much you will say there is too much winning. Oh, and the TV ratings is going to be tremendous. Tremendous, I tell you. Bigly.
It’s going to be huge!