Sawatzke: NBA vs. NHL final showdown

We’re in the midst of two fantastic championship series, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup Final. And there has been much debate at my house in recent weeks as to which playoff series (and sport) is better. As I have made clear in previous columns, I was born into a basketball family, growing up as a basketball player and fan. It’s my favorite game in the world, and has always been the best game in the world, to me.
My fiancée, Anna, on the other hand, grew up in a hockey family and learned to skate before she could walk. She played college hockey, and she lives and breathes NHL.
That may prompt a debate about what led us to be so happy together, but that’s for a different time. Now is a perfect time for a more important debate, NBA Finals versus the Stanley Cup Final. Put simply, which one is better?
To determine, we’ll debate the merit of each sport in a variety of categories before agreeing, as hard as that may be, on a winner in each category.
Watchability (How easy and worthwhile is the series to watch for a casual sports fan?): Clay – Basketball is an easy sport to understand. Dribble or pass to move, and put the ball in the basket as many times as possible. Most rules are simple, and these Finals, as well as most, present faces that are recognizable to even the most novice of sports fans.
Anna – I’ll be honest. Hockey games can be long, very long. Game one of the Stanley Cup Final dragged on, lasting nearly two full games’ worth, while game two, lo and behold, again entered sudden-death OT. Length aside, however, hockey is fast-paced, hard-hitting, and full of an unreal combination of skills on ice. One need not understand every rule to appreciate the game and the goal: shoot the puck in the net.
Verdict: Hockey loses points for some rules that appear weird to a novice. Icing? Huh? Thank goodness they got rid of the two-line pass rule, or this wouldn’t even be a contest. Hockey gains points because every good hockey game is up for grabs at the end, and the final minute is almost always the best part. Basketball is great for the recognizable faces and it’s easier to follow. But the timeouts and late-game choppiness can make it miserable to someone who isn’t invested. This category is a Draw.
Excitement (self-explanatory): Clay – Did you watch Game 6 on Tuesday? Were you not entertained? Sure, most of the games in this series have been blowouts, but two have been absolute dandies. And even the games that are blowouts provide excitement for other reasons, such as Danny Green and Gary Neal’s three-point shooting barrage in Game 3. There are very few things in sports more exciting than watching a three-point shooter get NBA Jam hot. On the downside, a low percentage of NBA games provide edge-of-your-seat-entertainment. Tuesday night was thrilling, but unfortunately much of the rest of the series has not been.
Anna – Sudden death overtime. Is there any term in sports that invokes more intensity, more passion, more urgency or more excitement? Surely not.  And — believe it or not — 25 percent (almost three full periods) of the three Cup playoff games thus far has been spent in this stressful state. Score and leave a winner. Allow a goal and lose immediately. Slapshots, wristshots, lucky bounces, unlucky bounces, deflections, goalie screens — all have the potential to matter, to make a difference.  And overtime aside, goals are harder to come by than baskets, making every shot, every save, every goal more exciting.
Verdict: Some people (Clay) love a building excitement, the kind that comes with watching a shooter get hot. But most people love edge-of-their-seat-excitement. Advantage: Hockey.
Accuracy (Do the Finals accurately crown the best team in the league, or does it favor a ‘what have you done for me lately?’ theme?): Clay – Well, this is a layup. The NBA almost always crowns the best team in the league. They may not come in as the top seed due to an early season injury, for example. But a low seed never comes in, gets hot and runs all the way through the Finals. It may come down to two or three equal teams at the end, but that’s about as much parity as you’ll find late in the NBA playoffs. From Russell’s Celtics to Magic’s Lakers to Jordan’s Bulls, the best teams win NBA championships.
Anna – This is a topic that comes up frequently between Clay and me. How (and why) did the no. 8 seed in the West, the Los Angeles Kings, win the Cup last year? How does a storyline like that that accurately reflect the league? Playoffs in hockey are a whole second season. Winning games in the regular season determine only if a team is capable of moving onto the next stage. The playoffs are a grueling trek, requiring endurance, versatility, resilience and endless drive, but are accurate in that the last team standing — no matter how bruised or battered — put the puck in the net when it mattered, and indeed deserves to hoist the Cup.
Verdict: Playoffs are supposed to crown the best team by being a continuation of the season. When the eight seed from one conference beats the sixth seed from another conference, as in last year’s Cup Final, you aren’t getting a continuation of the regular season. Advantage: Basketball.
Storylines (How many talking points does the final present; how much is at stake?):
Clay – Basketball is certainly a team sport. The Spurs have spent the past month hammering that point home to anyone that was a non-believer. But it’s also a sport that relies on the draw of individual star power and the debate about individual legacies. It seems every year, someone’s legacy is waiting to be determined during the NBA Finals. This year, more so than most. On the verge of Game 7, there are still so many possibilities. Will LeBron earn ring number two, and quiet the naysayers (at least for 11 months)? Will Tim Duncan, the big fundamental, earn a monumental fifth ring, securing his position as the best player of his generation? Will either of them even decide their fate, or will it come down to a Danny Green three-pointer or a Manu Ginobli turnover? Each year, nay, each game, is a new story waiting to be written. These Finals have been a crazy compilation of a dozen different storylines. That could be messy, but in this case it’s been mesmerizing.
Anna- How did the Bruins so swiftly upset the top-seeded Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals this year? How is it that the heroes of the Finals thus far (Andrew Shaw, Dan Paille) are not household names? Who knows. And that’s the fun of it. The Cup has been referred to as The Holy Grail, and the trail to the Cup is a quest, with the winnings awarded to the team who chooses to show up in the offseason. What fun is it knowing it will be two of the same three or four teams in the Final, practically guaranteed, year after year? Not knowing, leaving the door open to any team, any line, any player, is what makes hockey such an unpredictable, dynamic and exciting game.
Verdict: Due to a lack of helmets and body armor, fans are much more easily drawn to individual basketball players. NBA fans value legacy more than in any other sport. And it’s hard to find a deeper storyline than a legacy. The NHL, however, has a catchphrase to match all of its storylines – “Because it’s the Cup.” The NHL also gets credit for superstitions such as playoff beards, and conference champions not touching their trophy because they want Lord Stanley. Legacies are awesome, but team chemistry matches it stride for stride. Storylines are a Draw.
Conclusion: A 1-1-2 draw may seem like a cop out, but there are two important factors at play here. One, I didn’t want a big premarital fight on my hands. Two, and more importantly (at least to this article), one sport, and championship series doesn’t have to be better then the other. Both sports are full of thrills, passion, entertainment and some faults. Both sports are fantastic, and these championship series have more then proved that. Thanks for reading, we’ve got a Game 4 and a Game 7 to prepare for.

Contact Clay Sawatzke at clay.sawatzke@ecm-inc.com

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