Raptors Forward Vince Carter has said his first playoff appearance would be something to tell his grandchildren about. What he didn't know was that by the time Toronto has finished its first-round series with the Knicks, Carter may be old enough to have some grandkids. In a move inspired by sagging television ratings, the NBA has turned the playoffs into the layoffs, stretching the opening round further than spandex on Oliver Miller. If the New York- Toronto series goes the full five games, for instance, it will extend over three weekends. The Jazz-Sonics series includes a four-day gap between Games 2 and 3 and a three-day break between Games 3 and 4. The drawn-out schedule allows more games to be played during the afternoon hours on Saturdays and Sundays, when NBC can televise them, and keeps Turner Sports from having to split the weeknight audience by airing overlapping games on TNT and TBS, as it has in past years.
Outside the offices of the NBA and its television partners, hardly anyone is in favor of the new schedule. "This is absolutely insane," said Heat coach Pat Riley. "It allows people to almost get bored. You've made them wait all year long, 82 games, and now you're going to make them wait two weeks to get through five games?"
Even if the league earns a few extra 10ths of a point in the ratings—no sure thing—it will lose something that's harder to quantify: the sustained drama that is part of the playoffs' appeal. The pace of the postseason should be relentless: play, rest for a day, play again. In the NCAA tournament, 48 games are played in the first four days, creating a delightful frenzy that generates the kind of buzz the NBA should be doing its best to duplicate.
Instead the league is going in the other direction, with a first round that's moving at about the pace of the Clippers' rebuilding process. These series are like a basketball with a slow leak, the excitement steadily dissipating. As their interest wanes, fans may discover other things to do while they wait out the layoffs. That's what happened during last year's lockout, which is how the NBA got into this audience-chasing mess in the first place. Eventually viewers will do what they always do when a made-for-TV miniseries moves too slowly: change the channel.