Before the 2003 NBA playoffs, the NBA decided to maximize advertising profits and ticket sales surrounding its vaunted postseason and change the first round from five game series to seven game series. There could be no other explanation for it than a money grab, because it certainly doesn’t help the basketball.
In the days of the five game series, it was pretty tough for an eight seed to beat a one. The 1998 New York Knicks and the 94 Denver Nuggets were the only teams to do it during the five game first round era, part of a magical run to the Finals that met reality against San Antonio for New York. In the seven game era, Golden State, Memphis and Philadelphia have upset a one seed, beating Dallas in 2007, San Antonio in 2011 and a crippled Derrick Rose-less Chicago respectively.
In the end, not much has changed on that front other than the lower seeds have more shots at the top dogs and perhaps that has a good effect on upsets, but is a playoff entirely comprised of seven game series too much basketball?
While the seven games series is a staple of sports and a great way to spend the later rounds, the first round of the playoffs was much better as a five game setup. I would argue that it made it easier for lower seeds, not necessarily the eight seed, to beat a higher seed. In the five game era, seven seeds beat a two seed three times, but since the change, there has been just one. Countless times over the five game era, a six seed topped a three, something that has happened five times since the change to a seven game first round series.
As you get toward the middle of the standings, like the three through six seeds, the gap between the quality of the teams narrows and the five game series affords the lower seeds a simpler chance to shake up the status quo by requiring them to win three games instead of four.
Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but there was something more impressive about a high seed who flexes their dominance and sweeps a team 3-0 rather than 4-0. By the time the fourth comes around I’m bored and so is the team that is about to get swept. So are the fans on both sides and when it team avoids the sweep, no one can help but feel that they’re just delaying the inevitable which is not exactly spellbinding television.
The five game series was so exciting because it allowed so little room for error on the part of the favorites. A slip in game one and suddenly their backs were against a wall requiring them to perform at near perfect levels every game the rest of the way. A lower seed would be invigorated by a game one victory, knowing they were just two wins from advancing and shocking the world.
The champion moment of the five game series was Allan Houston’s basket against Miami in 98, but recalling all of the magical game fives that took place in the years before the seven game series is near impossible.
The fact is that the seven game first round series is a bit monotonous with the first round taking two weeks to transpire. This year, Miami will face Milwaukee in a series that can be summed up right now as pretty much ceremonial. The Bucks don’t stand a chance at beating the Heat twice, never mind four times. The playoffs don’t need to be dragged out when the other series below Miami vs Milwaukee would be well served packing the excitement into a five game format.
Imagine the pressure placed on San Antonio or Oklahoma City should they slip in game one against the Lakers or Rockets. Imagine the intensity of game 5 between Chicago and Brooklyn if they split the first four games. For that matter, imagine the intensity of game three as each fights to get one victory away from sealing their place and game four as one fights to stay alive.
Instead, what we get is a scenario where New York doesn’t panic if they drop game one to Boston and the average NBA fan doesn’t consider must see TV. San Antonio doesn’t adjust their strategy a bit if they go down 1-0 to a seven or eight seed. The first two games of the series have a diminished meaning in this format and the first round doesn’t need to be dulled down, it needs to be more exciting.
Basketball fans don’t want to watch favorites do their thing and ease into the next round with 4-1 series win over a team they dominated all season, they want at least one crazy series with a Cinderella team stretching a championship contender to a stressful, potentially season ending game 5, a round of Russian Roulette after an intense 82 game season for a title contender.