- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2002

One of the cliches about the NBA postseason is that the playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint. Looking at this year's first-round schedule, even calling them a marathon may be too kind.
After a regular season in which back-to-back games and four-game weeks were commonplace, each of the eight first-round series are spread out over an entire fortnight. The drawn out schedule is a direct attempt to maximize TV exposure. But at a maximum of five games for each series, players will spend much more time traveling, resting and practicing than actually playing games.
Call it basketball's equivalent of a four-hour director's cut of "Apocalypse Now."
The San Antonio Spurs played the second game last night of their first-round tilt with Seattle. Game 3 will not be until Saturday, five days later. Series between Sacramento and Utah, Dallas and Minnesota, Charlotte and Orlando, and New Jersey and Indiana all have four days between scheduled games.
"It's nothing like we are used to playing," said New Jersey swingman Kerry Kittles. "With us, we play two, with an off-day in between, and then we have this long wait."
The NHL, also with 16 teams in its opening playoff round, has only one- and two-day gaps between games. The later NBA playoff rounds will similarly revert to a more compressed schedule.
All the dead time between first-round games requires a significant physical and mental adjustment from the hectic pace of the NBA regular season. The Washington Wizards, for example, played three games in four nights on 11 separate occasions this past season, and four games in five nights three times.
"The worst thing about it is losing and then having to wait that long to get that bad feeling out of your mouth," Kittles said. "But you can't complain about it. All you can do is play the schedule that you have and keep the intensity."
The reasons for the elongated playoffs are, not surprisingly, television, money and peak exposure for each playoff team. The switch was first made in 2000, the second season in a now-ending, four-year pact with NBC and Turner Sports. After some dissatisfaction by the TV partners routinely juggling four playoff games on a single day, the staggered schedule was implemented. Both Turner and NBC received additional opportunities to sell prime ad slots and a second weekend of first-round games, welcome perks given the $2.64 billion they paid for the TV rights.
Turner, which shows games on TNT and TBS, will air just two games each night this week one early, one late until Friday, when just one game will take place. Over Saturday and Sunday, TNT and NBC will combine to air seven games.
The first round could even get longer starting next season if the league is successful in its attempt to increase the first-round series to seven games each. The NBA is conferring with the Players Association, as union approval is required, and a decision is expected soon. With the forthcoming All Sports Network joining as an NBA TV partner, it is not clear whether going to seven games would necessarily require more days for the first round.
"We're trying to get every game possible on TV," said league spokesman Brian McIntyre. "It's not a perfect system, but we're trying to refine things, most notably the possible move to seven-game series. And the longer layoffs do give players a chance to heal nagging injuries."
For all the catering to television, however, first-round NBA upsets remain the exception rather than the rule, and ratings have not responded to the format. Of the 24 first-round series played since 1999, the lower seeded team prevailed just seven times. And in three of those upsets, the No. 5 seed beat a No. 4 seed it had tied in regular-season wins but lost home-court advantage to on tiebreakers. TV ratings for pre-Finals playoff rounds have fallen each of the last three years.
"More than the schedule, we need each series to be compelling," said Greg Hughes, Turner Sports senior vice president. "If we get compelling, five-game series, people will watch."
Staff writer John N. Mitchell contributed to this report.

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