The 2-3-2 NBA Finals Format & The Reason Why It Changes Everything

They were the first two games of the NBA Finals, yet Greg Anthony considered them to be closer to Game 7s for Miami. Why? The 2-3-2 format of the Finals, established in 1985, alters the gamesmanship honed over three previous playoff rounds played under a different format. He should know: His 1994 Knicks team was tied, 1-1, going into three straight Finals home games against Houston. The Knicks went 2-1 in Madison Square Garden but lost the series. The format switches, but one thing remains constant: Miami’s Game 2 win in Oklahoma City on Thursday night was impossibly huge to its survival, even with three straight coming up and a history of success there. And also, that they’re going to need one more on the road if they want to win this thing.

“(Pat) Riley used to talk about when you don’t have home court and you knew you had to win one on the road,” Anthony, now an NBA TV analyst, said last week before the Finals began. “But his feeling was and my feeling is you actually might have to win two. It’s so difficult to win three in a row at home in this format. When you play them all consecutively it’s one thing to win three in a row at home than if you play two at home, go away, and come back.”

Miami is no slouch at home despite all the grief given to the lackadaisical atmosphere its fans provide. This regular season Miami scored nearly four more points per game at home while holding opponents to six fewer points. It committed one fewer turnover and grabbed one more rebound in home games. In four three-game home stretches this season (albeit never against the same team even twice), the Heat were 8-1.

They benefitted in those games from a rhythm gained from playing on home court. In the playoffs, against the same team three straight games, Anthony contends, that can go just as easily against the home team. The element of surprise fades quicker than LeBron‘s hairline. History bears it out that this won’t be a cakewalk for Miami just because the series reverts to American Airlines Arena. While the 2006 Heat were one of only two teams ever to sweep the middle three games (the other being the 2004 Pistons), Miami fans should stop patting themselves on the back. They were the exception to the rule.

“It’s much more difficult to win three in a row at home consecutive because basketball is a game of rhythm and the visiting team can get a much better rhythm when they play you three straight times in your arena,” Anthony says. “That definitely makes a big difference and that’s why I think it’s so important that you’re able to get one of those first two as a road team.”

Don’t think it’s the case that even winning the majority of those middle three delivers a Larry O’Brien Trophy. Since 1992 nine teams have gone 2-1 at home but they’re 2-of-7 in winning the title. Gulp.

In the same 20-year span in Finals tied 1-1, the team hosting the middle three games has won the title three times (Dallas in ’11; Detroit in ’04; and Chicago in ’98) in five chances.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Heat, who as already shown are exceptional at home, and will be facing a solid but unspectacular Oklahoma City road team. OKC scored six fewer points per game on the road but the road disadvantage was negligible on defense, allowing opponents to just one more point per game (that says something about its defense as a whole). One of the largest disparities is that the Thunder give out 3.5 fewer assists per game when traveling, instead opting to go to their proven big guns: Durant averages more points and field goals per game on the road — but shoots 8 percentage points worse. The Thunder this regular season, in three, three-game road stretches: 6-3, all going 2-1.

The takeaway, is that home teams do not get the right of way there, and don’t have the inside path for a win. The series may be in Miami for six straight days, but a block like that can give any team a comfortable routine, especially one as dangerous as Oklahoma City. Every team should know this, of course. Say what you will about Miami’s bravado from the summer of 2010, but they know it, too. After all, they learned the most important lesson just last season from Dallas, one that Anthony said Riley preached as far back as the mid-’90s. You have to — have to — win twice on the road.

“You saw that last year with Dallas you know, because remember Miami came back and won in Dallas, but Dallas had the ability to win a second time in Miami,” Anthony said. “… You don’t want to put that pressure to win three consecutive at home, or winning the last two on the road — because that is very difficult to do.”

Who does it favor?

Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.