Even the most die-hard basketball fans think that the NBA playoffs are too long. More than half of the league’s teams get invited to the party, where even the first round is a best-of-seven affair. In order to maximize television exposure, only a handful of games get played each night. All of which results in a two-month-long grind that’s aptly referred to as basketball’s “second season.”
Yet it’s not just the format and scheduling that make the playoffs taxing to watch. On a game-by-game basis, watching basketball requires more concentration than watching other sports. It’s possible to enjoy football or baseball as a social event or with a laptop open. To watch basketball in any meaningful way, you have to put the rest of your life on hold.
Getting through an NBA playoff telecast requires a lot of willpower. Television timeouts cause awkward breaks in the action. If it’s a blowout, it can be hard to maintain interest. On the other hand, if the game’s close throughout, you might just wish you had tuned in for the final minutes. Most of the time, it’s hard to rationalize investing a ton of energy in a first-round game that tips off at 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.
But there’s another explanation for the amount of concentration it takes to watch a basketball game. Football and baseball have lots of downtime, allowing for replays and extensive color commentary. If your mind wanders when something important happens, you can look up and see it again from 10 different angles immediately thereafter. If you’re too busy to bother looking, the broadcasters will fill up airtime breaking down what you missed, mining the previous play for small details until play resumes. The fast-paced, fluid nature of basketball, however, affords no such leisure. Baskets, assists, and rebounds are treated ephemerally. Replays are sporadic and dependent on fouls, timeouts, or commercial breaks. By the time a play gets shown again, it’s often been distanced from its original context. And if too much time has elapsed, the producers might opt for a less striking, more recent clip.
It’s worth remembering that the NBA rose to prominence only after the game got state-of-the-art television treatment. It’s impossible to capture what Magic or Isiah did in words. Likewise, imagine watching Michael Jordan’s signature jumper over Bryon Russell in the primitive style of early 1970s TV. But while the sports broadcasting revolution brought about the NBA’s rise in popularity, it also encouraged fans to become lazy. Pro basketball plays well in short highlight packages—everyone loves to watch dunks, no-look passes, and buzzer beaters. (Not to mention that highlight packages don’t include TV timeouts.) But the flow of the game can’t be described or illustrated through a handful of highlights. Points may come more frequently than they do in football or baseball, but how and when runs occur holds the key to the eventual outcome.
When it comes to baseball, on the other hand, the highlights usually tell the whole story. A single pitch or a single swing of the bat usually decides the outcome of the game. Obviously, hardcore fans want to witness and analyze every moment for themselves. But for most audiences, watching a few key moments is enough. The irony is that, thanks to its slow pace, every half-interesting moment in a baseball game gets replayed endlessly, even though only a couple of plays determine who wins and loses.
So, what’s the best way to watch the NBA playoffs? You could just watch a game’s waning moments. But without watching the matchups and strategies unfold over four quarters, the ending comes out of nowhere. If you’re not going to keep your eyes on the screen for the whole game, you might as well do the same at the conclusion. Instead of staying up late, you’re better off watching SportsCenter.
Perhaps the best solution, then, is to skip the early rounds. At least that way, you can give the NBA Finals your undivided attention—by that point, the games are important enough that it doesn’t take much cajoling to convince a real sports fan to turn on the television. Better yet, the NBA should shorten the postseason by eliminating the first round, at the very least. The players would play better, more people would watch, and maybe fans would get a better appreciation of what basketball is all about.