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Change format and give it a rest

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff Being enveloped by Ron Artest likely didn’t leave Nate Robinson with a comfortable feeling in the second half of Game 2 Sunday night.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Being enveloped by Ron Artest likely didn’t leave Nate Robinson with a comfortable feeling in the second half of Game 2 Sunday night. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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When questioned about the 2-3-2 NBA Finals format recently, commissioner David Stern attributed the change, now 25 years old, to Red Auerbach, who had complained that heavy travel for Games 5, 6, and 7 affected the quality of basketball.

In those days, back-to-backs for Games 1 and 2 and Games 3 and 4 were common and Red was right; given the schedule, which allowed off days only if there was a change of venue, the increased travel as the series wore on affected play.

That is no longer the case, yet the NBA seems married to this format that is annoying more than anything else. The Celtics are home for nearly a week as the Finals shift to Boston. Having three consecutive home games places pressure on the team without home-court advantage — the Celtics in this case — to win at least two of those games. Gaining home-court advantage should mean the right to host Game 7. But Games 6 and 7? It doesn’t make sense.

If the Celtics take two of three this week against the Lakers, they still will have to win at Los Angeles to win the series.

All the Lakers have to do is steal one of the next three games, then they have the comfort of playing at home the final two games. Although many in the NBA complained the 2-3-2 system would favor the team without home-court advantage, it actually makes it more difficult to win because a potential clinching Game 6 is on the road.

Stern has the power to make changes, but the question is whether he wants to because one of his primary goals is satisfying television demands. It’s unfair for both teams to have to play tonight when they finished Game 2 at nearly 11 p.m. Sunday. Both teams had to fly cross-country and play another game in less than 48 hours. That’s old school, which is what Stern was trying to avoid with this format.

A former NBA player questioned why the NBA doesn’t push Game 3 to Wednesday, then play Game 4 Friday and Game 5 Sunday. A grand idea, except television wants to avoid Friday night because of ratings.

The NBA could have scheduled Game 1 of this series last Friday, but the series started on Thursday for a reason. Stern is listening to his masters and if ABC wants two weekday games and then a Sunday game for ratings, that’s what Stern will do. But adhering to television requests as well as making for a fair series forces the league into some difficult decisions.

Returning to the 2-2-1-1-1 format can allow television two off days between Games 2 and 3 and Games 5 and 6, giving the teams a break when traveling cross-country. Auerbach did not want the teams affected by jetlag, but the Celtics and Lakers will play Sunday night at 8 p.m., then potentially travel west for Game 6 two days later, with Game 7 in that magical Thursday slot.

Celtics forward Paul Pierce wasn’t relishing three straight home games.

“We took home court, so we’ve got a chance to play three games [at home],’’ he said. “But, I told ya’ll that doesn’t guarantee we’re going to win the games because we’re at home. We’ve got to go out there and play the game. They’re going to be coming into our house and we can’t assume anything — we can’t take it for granted.’’

And if the NBA is fine with the other playoff series in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, why are the Finals different? Stern dropped the responsibility in the lap of Auerbach, who eventually acknowledged he didn’t like the format.

Although Stern has more pressing responsibilities trying to formulate a new collective bargaining agreement, the commissioner can no longer throw up his hands and blame a 25-year-old conversation with Auerbach because of the format. He has the power to collaborate with ABC for an amicable 2-2-1-1-1 format that would satisfy television, because ABC/ESPN had no trouble with the Celtics-Magic series or even the Celtics-Cavaliers seven-game thriller two years ago.

Something hasn’t seemed right with the Finals since the format changed, and the progressive Stern should finally admit this trend has run its course. The NBA is the only professional league in which the finals format differs from the rest of the playoffs, and that makes no sense.

Stern scoffed at Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy’s earlier suggestion that the playoff series are too spread out and back-to-backs need to return. So if that old-school idea was so preposterous, why is he holding on to 2-3-2?

It’s time for Stern to blend a little of the progressive and old school, and he is brilliant enough to devise a format that would satisfy all parties because 2-3-2 will never stop giving off that uneasy feeling.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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