- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2004

And you thought one hour and 50 minutes of Ben Affleck in “Paycheck” was overkill.

The NBA Playoffs have officially entered the Twilight Zone. And no, we’re not talking about Left Coast tip times.

For all but the most ardent basketball fans — and maybe David Stern — the road to the finals is too long. Too slow. Stretched thinner than Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, whose washboard abs are thus far the postseason’s breakout performer.

Speaking of which: “Let’s Get it Started?” At this rate, the title chase will never finish. Honestly, Greece has a better chance of finally putting up the problem-plagued Olympic Stadium roof. And that little fixer-upper is only two millennia behind schedule. Doesn’t Athens have a Home Depot or something?

By now it’s obvious that the NBA’s extended playoff format — a best-of-7 first round, with mini-sabbaticals between most games — is one of those boneheaded, made-for-TV ideas that only come along once every few months. Like Lisa Guerrero, sideline reporter. Or anything with Charlie Sheen.

The super-sized postseason is bad for the fans. Bad for the teams. It’s probably bad for the league’s sagging ratings. (That said, we can’t actually prove the last one, any more than we can prove the existence of Iraqi WMDs. But if sloppy guesstimates are good enough to start a war, they’re good enough for us.)

On Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers suffered a road loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the second game of the Western Conference semis. Game1 took place in San Antonio on Sunday afternoon. In the interim, the Lakers flew back to California, the better to squeeze in two days of practice. Kobe didn’t even have a court date.

In the Lakers’ defense, the Riverwalk isn’t exactly Sunset Strip. But still. Jetting all the way to El Segundo before returning to the Alamo is a heck of a way to rack up frequent flier miles. Especially when you’re losing Marriott points in the process.

More to the basketball-related point, that’s no way to sustain playoff excitement. In tennis, Jim Courier once irked spectators by reading Armistead Maupin’s “Maybe the Moon” during a changeover; if the bookish former French Open champ donned a gold jersey and swapped spots with Karl Malone, he’d have time for “The Brothers Karamazov.” In the original Russian.

Then there’s Miami-New Orleans, a thrilling, seven-game affair that spanned 17 short days, a mere 21/2 weeks. Not to say that the series ran long, but imagine what else the Heat could have accomplished in the same amount of time:

cPut on an entire Olympics, including pretentious, incomprehensible opening and closing ceremonies. Is Kiss still available?

• Watched 408 episodes of “24”; alternately, performed 408 hours of community service, in preemptive preparation for Lamar Odom’s next marijuana-related offense.

• Conducted a full-blown invasion of Iraq, topped off by Stan Van Gundy donning an XXL flight suit and declaring an end to major combat operations from the deck of an infinity pool in South Beach.

The premise behind playoff bloat is simple: You can’t have too much of a good thing. Turner boasts of 40 games in 40 nights, with Charles Barkley changing his suit twice. ESPN gets a momentary reprieve from having to broadcast hockey. It’s like the monster flick “Van Helsing” — only instead of the Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula (what, the Mummy and Jaws weren’t available?), you get the Lakers on Sunday, a double-dose of KG and Carmelo, a smattering of the Sacramento Kings and the Lakers on Sunday.

Did we mention the Lakers on Sunday?

Problem is, the best-of-7 format eliminates almost any chance of a dramatic opening-round upset, such as Denver’s stunning 1994 triumph over top-seeded Seattle. Au revoir, Dikembe Mutombo gripping the ball like the Holy Grail. Bon jour, Detroit and New Jersey combining for 134 desultory points. Give us a gentle nudge and a few soft taps with the defibrillator when the Pistons advance.

Dragging out matters doesn’t help. When the Chicago Cubs went from Cursebusters to Bartmanned to out of October in a four-day span last fall, it was gripping, edge-of-your seat television; when the Indiana Pacers have an 11-day break between the first and second round, it’s an excuse to screen TiVo’ed episodes of “Chappelle’s Show” and catch up on breaking news from Redskins quarterback school.

To put it another way: The Super Bowl can’t sustain two weeks of pre-game hype. Why should a Nets-Pistons series that could last as many as four days longer be any different?

And don’t think the players and coaches aren’t bored. Never mind rusty shooting, blown timing, sluggish play. There’s a better reason Tim Duncan and Co. don’t need extra time off — namely, they don’t know what to do with it.

Last spring Gary Payton was involved in a scuffle outside a Toronto strip club. During a SARS scare. So what happens when the Lakers have three days between Games 2 and 3 of the Western semis? Does the mammary-minded point guard end up in Baghdad, checking out an Iraqi burqaless revue? (Keep in mind: the Lakers are only an hour from Vegas. You do the math.)

Already, signs of off-day playoff ennui are beginning to show. Denver’s Francisco Elson dropped a bizarre gay slur on Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett. Shaquille O’Neal’s stepfather popped off to a San Antonio newspaper about Bryant’s ball-hogging habits. Heat boss Van Gundy blasted reporters in Miami and New Orleans for writing a bunch of “garbage” about his club.

When a workaholic coach who views more film than Ebert and Roeper has time to pick apart the home and away papers as if he’s Matt Drudge — and then take the press to task for the same stuff they print year ‘round — well, let’s just say that the NBA Playoffs need a little less leash.

Of course, the networks disagree. As Eric Fisher of The Washington Times reports, ESPN has enjoyed a 5 percent ratings boost over last year’s postseason, leading network programming VP Mark Shapiro to crow, “We’re on a total high.” Maybe so. But look a little deeper and the numbers suggest eroding interest.

Ratings for last year’s finals on ABC were down 32 percent. Between 2002 and last year, television ad sales for pro basketball dropped more than $180million. Last month’s NFL Draft drew nearly four times the viewers of a Miami-New Orleans playoff game.

Is postseason drag solely to blame? Probably not. Is it a factor? No question, given that the playoffs move slightly faster than Payton trying to stay in front of Tony Parker.

Come to think of it, the NBA could learn something from San Antonio’s quicksilver point guard: When you’ve got the ball, push it up the floor. Otherwise, the rest of us might forget what makes the playoffs so exciting in the first place — giving us reason to watch something else, anything else, if only to kill the remaining month between now and the finals.

Oh, and that reminds us: Is “Jersey Girl” out on DVD yet?

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