The seventh game of the Brooklyn Nets-Toronto Raptors playoff series last Sunday was about 21/2 hours old and seemingly just about finished.
But then the game’s final minute kicked in, and play inched ahead slowly, as if mired in a congressional filibuster. When the game would end, no one could tell.
The final minutes of any game governed by a clock can turn into tense torture, especially tight ones like last Sunday’s, in which the Nets’ double-digit lead shrunk to 1 point with 8.8 seconds left. In the NBA, strategic fouls, tactical adjustments and commercials — not to mention the myth of the so-called 20-second timeout — can transform the final moments of a matchup into a subject worthy of a reinvestigation into time by Stephen Hawking.
In fact, the choreography of the closing seconds is so ingrained in the NBA mindset that when teams deviate from it, they can make poor decisions.
The New York Knicks lost a game in December when Mike Woodson, then the team’s coach, confused his players by not calling a timeout in the final minute. Nets coach Jason Kidd was fined $50,000 in November when — out of timeouts — he contrived to spill a cup of soda on the court to create the delay he needed to call a play.
Last Sunday’s finish in the Nets-Raptors game was more routine in some respects, but in the end the teams took nearly 18 minutes to make it through the final 60 ticks of the clock.
One of the NBA’s problems in the playoffs is present in most sports’ postseasons: Games last longer on national networks, which, to cover ever-growing rights fees, must sell more advertising time, expanding each commercial break.
During this past regular season, NBA games averaged 2 hours 17 minutes. But those broadcast on national television averaged 2:29, and so far this playoff season, when all the games are nationally televised, the number has risen to 2:38, up two minutes from last year.
In tight games, with coaches burning through the timeouts they have hoarded, the gap between clock time and real-world time can swell to an uncomfortable degree.
“The last two minutes at times drags on and drains the suspense out of the game,” said Jeff Van Gundy, an ESPN and ABC analyst and a former Knicks coach.
Rod Thorn, the NBA’s president for basketball operations, acknowledged that some games lasted too long but insisted that the long final minute of the Nets-Raptors game was “an aberration.”
Timeouts were the primary culprit.
“In the last two minutes, I’d like to see each team get one timeout, and that’s it,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t think it would be a problem for players and coaches; they would evolve and adapt and know they play more in a flow after a made basket or a missed free throw.”