The 1984 NBA Finals and the 2-32 Format

It took 28 years but after NBA commissioner David Stern retired NBA officials returned the Finals format to 2-2-1-1-1 rather than the 2-3-2 format that it has been since 1985. For those who don’t know, the team with the better record has “home court advantage” in the playoffs. For example, the Boston Celtics would play the first 2 games in Boston, the next two away, Game 5 in Boston, Game 6 away and Game 7 in Boston. The crucial game is number 5 as it could make or break the series. Up until 1985 this was the way the format was. Then it all got flushed down the toilet thanks to a greedy David Stern and a whining Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley. Let me tell you why.

The 1984 NBA Finals was arguably the greatest NBA Finals of all time. Each team had a bevy of Hall of Fame players and by the time it was over, ratings went through the roof. A lot of people consider the 1980’s the golden era of basketball as the Celtics and the Lakers dominated the game as they would win 8 out of the 10 Finals in the decade. The Lakers in 84 were led by center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, forward James Worthy, 6’8 point guard Magic Johnson and coach Pat Riley. The Celtics countered with center Robert Parish, forward Cedric Maxwell, forward Larry Bird, guard Dennis Johnson and 6th man Kevin McHale. The two teams played completely opposite styles. The Lakers featured an up tempo, full court fast break that utilized speed and running while the Celtics utilized a half court power game of passes and low post play. The two cities were also opposite as Los Angeles was considered celebrity heaven and the land of riches while Boston was considered hard-nosed, blue collar working class. The Lakers were nicknamed “Showtime” so in 1984 it was considered Showtime vs Blue Collar. The two main characters for the Finals (and the 80’s really) was Magic Johnson vs Larry Bird. The two of them helped transcend the game into national spotlight. They entered the league following their epic 1979 NCAA Final in which Magic’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Larry’s Indiana State Sycamores. Thanks to the Philadelphia Sixers and Houston Rockets, Larry and Magic needed to wait 5 years to settle the score. In the meantime the Celtics and Lakers would make personnel changes that not only made the team better, but made specifically to beat each other. The Celtics made a trade for defensive guard Dennis “DJ” Johnson to guard Magic Johnson. Yes, the Celtics were so confident they’d make the Finals that they planned for it before the season began.

The 84 Finals began with Celtics coach KC Jones making a peculiar decision, putting guard Gerald Henderson on Magic. The reason Celtics general manager Red Auerbach traded for DJ was to guard Magic in the Finals and KC at the time felt DJ was too slow to guard Magic. This would cost the Celtics dearly. The Lakers used their vaunted fast break to steamroll the Celtics in the first 3 games, dropping the second only because of a huge mental error by the Lakers (Henderson stole the ball!!). In fact, the Lakers absolutely humiliated the Celtics 137-104 in Game 3 in Los Angeles. The Lakers were running and scoring at will so frequently that Larry Bird got pissed off. In a legendary interview he said the whole team played like sissies. Comments like that today would get him fined, suspended and yelled at by his own team but back then, it was the tonic the team needed. It didn’t hurt that an LA paper started a campaign to name James Worthy finals MVP despite the team still being 2 games away, more motivation. Game 4 in LA started with more of the same but ML Carr got in Kevin McHale’s ear on the bench. “No more layups, grab em!” When McHale finally got in the game in the second quarter, Lakers forward Kurt Rambis streaked toward the basket only to be met with a violent, Ultimate Warrior style clothesline by Kevin. The benches emptied and commentator Dick Stockton announced “And you knew this was gonna happen!” Nowadays McHale would be ejected but back then it was only a technical foul. Never a loss for words, after the game Maxwell proclaimed, “Before Kevin McHale hit Kurt Rambis, the Lakers were just running across the street whenever they wanted. Now they stop at the corner, push the button, wait for the light, and look both ways.” While not entirely accurate, the fact remains the Lakers did not enjoy the same success they had with the fast break for the remainder of the series. It also didn’t hurt that KC Jones finally got his head out of his ass and put DJ on Magic after 3 games of watching Henderson run behind him. With the fastbreak slowed to a crawl, the Celtics clawed back to put the game in reach. With seconds remaining, Larryy Bird hit the kill shot over Magic. The Celtics won Game 4 to tie the series at 2 games apiece going back to Boston, and this is where the Lakers were met with 2 nasty surprises. A newspaper article had unknowingly printed the name of the hotel the Lakers were staying at and the night before Game 5, the Boston faithful cranked calls and pulled fire arms all night, causing the Lakers to miss out on sleep following a cross-country trip. The second surprise was mother nature decided to intervene as a sweltering heat-wave struck Boston the day of Game 5. There was no air conditioning in the old Boston Garden so the on court temperature was nearly 100 degrees. The Lakers, used to the LA Forum air conditioning, wilted under the heat. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was filmed on national television sucking air through an oxygen mask on the bench. When asked about the conditions, he replied “”I suggest that you go to a local steam bath, do one hundred pushups with all your clothes on, and then try to run back and forth for 48 minutes.” Once again due to adverse weather conditions, the Lakers fastbreak slowed to a crawl. The Celtics won the critical game, lost Game 6, then won their 15th world championship in Game 7 in the Garden. Cedric Maxwell dominated Game 7 and the Celtics had an astonishing 20 rebound advantage over the Lakers to win it.

That’s when Stern and Riley changed the course of NBA history. Riley was not amused by the crank calls in the hotel plus the heat-wave and David Stern wanted more revenue that would be generated by a 7 game series. Before the 1985 season, Pat Riley petitioned for it and David Stern formally announced that the Finals format would be changed to 2-3-2 rather than the previous 2-2-1-1-1. The official reason was that it “cut down on travel” but that was complete horse manure. The REAL reason was money. That format was better suited for a longer Finals series because it forced the team with home court advantage to play Game 5 on the road. If Stern really wanted to cut down on travel, EVERY playoff round would be 2-3-2 like in baseball, but no, only the Finals would be 2-3-2. Larry Bird was the most vocal against the rule change because he knew that the Celtics would have to play Game 5 in LA that year (once again, the Celtics and Lakers were so good they were planning for the Finals before the season started). Sure enough, the 85 Finals was a rematch between the Celtics and Lakers. The Celtics and Lakers split the first 4 games (Game 1 was known as Memorial Day Massacre as the Celtics crushed the Lakers 148-114 and DJ hit a buzzer beater to win Game 4). Rather than dealing with rowdy fans and 100 degree temperatures, the Lakers had the pivotal Game 5 at home. Sure enough the Lakers prevailed and the Celtics were finished off in 6 games. To be fair, the Celtics didn’t lose the series because of the new format, but it sure didn’t help playing Game 5 in LA. The real reason the Celtics lost was KC Jones refused to use the bench in Games 5 and 6, leaving 84 hero Maxwell rotting on the bench as the Celtics starting 5 were literally ran off the court. Still, a Game 5 in Boston with another June heatwave could have rattled the Lakers into losing like the year before allowing them to take the title in 7 again.

It took 28 years but finally things went to what it should have been all along in 2014. The Celtics had to play Game 5 in LA in 1985 as well as 2008 and lost both times. The Lakers seem to be on their way back into prominence and the Celtics are loaded for bear headed into the 2017-18 season. Whether or not either team can topple Cleveland or Golden State is up for debate. As it is, at least teams with the better record can enjoy Game 5 at home these days now that CBS and David Stern no longer call the shots.

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