NBA Playoffs: A Different Game

As the quest for the championship enters its final phase, a group of veteran sportswriters talk about what's unique - and what needs changing - in professional basketball. BASKETBALL FINALS

SIXTEEN basketball teams began chasing the National Basketball Association championship in mid-April, and by press time three teams were left: the Chicago Bulls in the East; the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers in the West. To put the two-month-long postseason in focus, and to discuss some of basketball's current issues, a group of print journalists with extensive NBA writing experience (see box for credentials) agreed to share their thoughts with Monitor readers. Excerpts from separate interviews follow.

Is NBA basketball a different game in the playoffs, as many claim?

Joe Gilmartin (Phoenix Gazette): Yes, you have much more intensity because everything is compressed. If an entire NBA game lasted only 12 minutes [instead of 48] you'd be talking about some fierce concentration, and that's pretty much what happens during the playoffs.

Johnette Howard (The National): It helps that there's only a finite amount of time left: When you're in January and talking about playing as hard as you can for the next six months, it's physically impossible. Now you see more guys going for rebounds, more guys going for loose balls, and more guys playing defense the way they should - if they could - all the time.

Bob Ryan (Boston Globe): There's much harder play going on during the course of the regular season than critics contend, but in the playoffs most everybody gets to the maximum level. There's an assumption on the part of the coaches and players that every possession is meaningful, much more so than in an average regular-season game. You don't want to be thinking after the game, ``If I had only made that particular play in the first quarter we might have won.'' In a regular-season game it's a difficult enough rationalization; in the playoffs it's a very painful thought.

Sam Goldaper (New York Times): The coaching is better, too, because there's more time to prepare. In the regular season you are playing a different team each night. The team you see in December you may not see again until March. Another difference in the playoffs is that the referees call fewer fouls. They let 'em play.

Terry Pluto (Beacon Journal, Akron, Ohio): In no other sport do the officials drastically change their view of the game from the regular season to the playoffs the way they do in the NBA. In the World Series, the strike zone isn't adjusted to be bigger or smaller, yet in the NBA, for whatever reason, they allow more contact in the playoffs. They say they don't want to create a parade to the foul line, but they don't want to do that during the regular season either.

Gilmartin: The rules and officiating in other sports are more precise than they are in basketball, where the objective is to keep the riot going without letting a war start. Because of the intensity in the playoffs, you have to let the players play harder; there's more colliding.

Pluto: It's like there are all these unwritten rules about the playoffs: It's going to be more physical; it's going to be slower. Teams are afraid to run the ball up the court. It's not a 94-foot [full-court] game anymore. The offenses don't start until a step or two inside halfcourt. Games are a test of wills. One team wants to run, the other doesn't, and it seems invariably the conservative thought wins.

What is the relationship of the regular 82-game season to the playoffs?

Gilmartin: I call them the most exciting warmup period in any sport. Nobody cares what you do in the regular season. That may not be fair, but the playoffs were never designed to be fair; they were designed to be profitable and to be appealing. Fair or not, the fans love them.

Frank Deford (The National): Here in New York, though, it's been a month since our team [the Knicks] was involved. People who aren't in the [competing] cities or who aren't absolute dyed-in-the-wool basketball fans lose all interest in it. The playoffs aren't like another season, they're like next season. There's no continuity. You stop and start all over again.

Do you buy the argument that pro basketball players are the best athletes in any of the major North American team sports?

Phil Jasner (Philadelphia Daily News): I think they're the best conditioned, most skilled. Basketball is the ultimate team game; the ball must move, people must move. There's too much time in baseball and football where there's no movement.

Howard: A friend of mine once clocked center-fielder Gary Pettis to see how much he moved during a game, and it might have been 5 minutes, including the time spent back and forth to the dugout.

Ryan: There's probably a higher degree of athleticism on the part of the average NBA player. But are you telling me that [shortstop] Ozzie Smith's acrobatics don't qualify as great athleticism? And that they're aren't some fantastic athletes in football playing wide receiver, linebacker, running back? And in hockey, the simple act of skating is taken for granted. It's a talent you have to develop before you can become good at all.

Is the dominating big man still the most important playoff asset?

Goldaper: If that was the case, why were the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs eliminated in the first round, 3-0, 3-0, and 3-1? Yet they have three of the greatest centers in the game today, and maybe of all time in Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson, [respectively]. On defense, teams are double-teaming, even triple-teaming, making it harder for the centers to dominate offensively. It's unbelievable. The game has gotten very sophisticated. Teams rely on the point guard and some teams have even used a three-guard offense.

What, if anything, would you change about the playoff format?

Deford: I'd play shorter series so they'd mean more. There's no reason to play best-of-seven [in the last three rounds]. That comes from baseball, where you have different pitchers. In basketball, it's the same five guys every night. So you're playing more games for the box office, but what you lose is the greater drama.

I was covering the NBA in the 1960s and all they would ever say is that we need more games to pay the salaries. No one stops to think about how games would be worth more if there were fewer of them. I think you could play best-of-three all the way through the finals. There's no interest in the NBA playoffs as a major American event, and as long as they're playing a season that goes on interminably and 4-out-of-7 in June, it's never going to capture anything but the interest of the fans that it already h as. It won't bring in the fringe fans the way the World Series, Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, Indy 500, and Wimbledon do.

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