It seemed that anyone who had watched these Stanley Cup Playoffs - particularly these series - had little doubt that the teams that trailed 3 games to 2 - the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers - would win their respective Game 6s and force the series to the distance. Both teams demonstratively won their games, and for the second time in 34 years, both Conference Finals are going to Game 7; the last time was in 2000, when the Devils-Flyers and Stars-Avalanche series both went to the limit. In the modern era of Conference Finals in the NHL (since 1982), these are the 15th and 16th series to go to seven games out of 68 total possible times, marking just over 20% of the time that a berth in the Stanley Cup Final rests on one game. And people remember these games, even decades later; I wasn't even really a Leafs fan yet, and I still remember the 1993 series against the Kings.
This year's NBA playoffs are being met with less enthusiasm, and many commentators are lamenting the dearth of competition in this year's playoffs, save for the Spurs-Clippers series in Round 1 that went to a classic last-second ending in Game 7. It's a bit of a misnomer, as the NBA's second round series between Golden State and Memphis and Cleveland and Chicago provided some great last-second heroics, but the overall feeling of a fait accompli of the Finals between Golden State and Cleveland has pervaded these playoffs. At any rate, it makes for an interesting time for comparison between the two leagues.
On Game 7 and the Conference Finals
Despite the competitive imbalance apparent in the NBA Conference Finals this year, I was curious to see how the NBA usually stacked up against the NHL in providing entertaining matchups in the penulimate round, and I was actually surprised at what I found. Game 7s are actually slightly more prevalent in the NBA Conference Finals, with 21 out of 90 possible since 1971 (a rate of 23%), a fact that surprised me at first until I considered it more deeply. There are a few reasons why I think this is the case.
1. Upsets are much more common in the NHL playoffs. I could go through the stats to back this up, but that would be a lot of work to prove what is certainly true: there are more lower seeds that win in NHL series than in the NBA, especially in the first round. The NHL tends to provide a more equalized field in the playoffs, and it has even happened that a team seeded 8th has won the Cup in convincing fashion (the LA Kings in 2012 after leading each series 3-0). Even this year, two of the four Conference Finalists (Tampa Bay and Chicago) were upset victors in their previous series. In basketball, on the other hand, the best teams are the best; in the past 35 years, only a handful of teams not seeded between 1st and 3rd in their conference have made it to the Finals, and there is only one notable example (1995 Houston Rockets) of a lower-seeded team winning the title. More upsets in the early rounds in the NHL in both theory and practice means that there are more imbalanced series in the Conference Finals, a fact that bears up both anecdotally and statistically.
2. More series go to Game 7 in the first two rounds in the NHL playoffs than in the NBA. In the 13 playoffs since 2003, when the NBA extended the First Round to Best-of-7 from a Best-of-5, there have been 32 series that have gone the distance in the NBA, including a ridiculous five in 2014. In the same time span in the NHL, 44 series have gone the distance, an average of almost one additional series each year. That means that NHL teams are likely more tired by the time they hit the Conference Finals and that, correspondingly, fewer series are likely to go to Game 7.
3. It is easier for one player to dominate a basketball series than a hockey series. Other than a hot goaltender, it is very difficult for one player to swing a series in hockey; in basketball, however, it is much easier for a player to take over for a game or two and to push the series further.
4. Hockey is a more "momentary" game. As mentioned, the best team almost always wins in an NBA series. It is rare that a team comes away feeling that they played a better series and still lost, even in the case of an upset. I suppose it seems a little facetious to assert that the team that lost could be the "best team" (which by definition should seem to apply to the winner), but it is more likely that the "best team" can lose a hockey series due to moments. An OT goal here, a great save there - it's a lot easier for a hockey series to be won or lost in a moment than an NBA series, which is why it seems less likely that as many NHL Conference Finals go the distance.
5. Basketball, unlike hockey, is measured in dynasties and legacies, and teams and players are usually only legitimized by multiple titles. In hockey, almost every player eventually gets their shot at the Cup; not everyone wins it, of course, but almost everyone gets a shot at some point. Furthermore, a hockey player's legacy can be justified with just one Cup win, especially if it is very memorable. The NBA's history is full of players who just could not be the best, and even if they had some success, it was limited by the teams and players who were better. Think of the 1990s Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle Supersonics, or Utah Jazz; all teams that had success, some even making it to the Finals, but all of whom ended up in the shadow of the defining player of their generation: Michael Jordan. Every once in a while, a team sneaks through (the 2004 Detroit Pistons beating the loaded L.A. Lakers or the 2006 Miami Heat beating the Mavericks come immediately to mind), but the narrative of the NBA typically revolves around its best teams and players. But this also means that, since players have more on the line, that the best teams will push themselves to the limit more often, meaning that the series that in theory should feature the best teams (ie. the Conference Finals) would be more likely to go to Game 7.
So there are my thoughts on the difference between the NBA and NHL in terms of why the Conference Finals go longer slightly more often in the NBA, but also as a reflection on the difference between watching the two sports. I'm enjoying them both about equally this year, and I think that no matter what happens over the next two nights of hockey that we're in store for a great Stanley Cup Final. I also think that Golden State and Cleveland has the possibility to be a great series, and that despite the injuries on both teams that this will be a legacy-making series. Also, the great thing for LeBron is that he has nothing to lose; if he wins, big bonus, but if he loses, he's still the only player since the 1960s Celtics to make five Finals in a row, and he has cemented his legacy as one of the top players of all time (top ten for sure, maybe even top five).
And for anyone keeping score at home, my rate of predicting the playoff series winners in both leagues has been comparable so far. My NBA picks, though still strong overall, have been slightly less successful, with three series in total incorrect so far thanks to the Clippers beating the Spurs in the first round; I still have both Finalists active, though, so I'll take that as a point in my favour. My NHL picks rest on the events of the next two days: if both Chicago and New York manage to win, I'll have picked both Finalists correctly; if they lose, I'll have proven just how fickle trying to pick winners really is in hockey - or at least that's what I'll tell myself if I'm wrong. After all, anything can happen in Game 7, right?