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NBA Playoffs 2018: A Conversation about Game 1 Start Times

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The Toronto Raptors might not be playing Game 1 in the morning after all. Where, then, will they be?

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the last two years, the Toronto Raptors have opened their playoff schedule at home. This is good! To the chagrin of fans, though, the games have started absurdly early because of American TV schedules. As I understand it, an extremely tuned in, turned up audience doesn’t help advertisers when they’re in a foreign country. (Also, it’s not a conspiracy.)

A noon start time has meant 11 a.m. in Winnipeg for me, and while basketball and coffee is a weird mix, it’s not the worst thing. For the players, though, it’s not what they’re used to — a noon start means early preparations, a variable at a time when they’re not welcome. We’ve seen the Raptors come out sluggish and allow it to be one (of many) factors in two straight first round Game 1 losses.

So, what about this year? The Raptors are even more logged in at home, being the number one seed. Has this added clout earned them more favour with ESPN and Turner? With this bit of news leaking out of Sports Media Watch, the news would appear to be favourable.

To discuss, site manager Daniel Reynolds and I had an old-fashioned HQ back-and-forth.

John: Okay Daniel, without a 12 or 12:30 PM start time on the schedule for the NBA playoff broadcasters this year, where do you see the Raptors playing?

Daniel: First, let me just toss out this rhetorical chicken-or-the-egg question — is the grousing over start times because the Raptors always seem to lose Game 1 or is it because the game often starts at the unusual time of 12:30, which causes the Raptors to lose? Have I just opened up a weird philosophical ouroboros? You know what, forget I asked. What it really comes down to is whether or not the Raps are going to appear on ABC or ESPN or TNT. And for my money, it feels like ESPN is the logical answer there. You can’t sell middle America on an ABC matinee game if one of the teams is Canadian. That’s just Marketing 101. Am I wrong?

John: Yeah, absolutely. I look at those two ABC openings (in their marquee afternoon slot, with nothing else really going on in the sports world) and it just screams Cavs and Warriors. As exhausted as everyone is of those two teams, LeBron James draws eyeballs. Also, Golden State will be in a relatively sexy match-up no matter how the next two days play out — the Pelicans (Anthony Davis), the Thunder (all their frustrating superstars), and Spurs (rematch, baby) are all interesting first round fodder for everyone’s bandwagon team.

So in all fairness to the Raptors, they were never getting in there. It comes down to where they slot into those three other spots and, considering history, I agree with you on ESPN. We’re almost locked for Hubie Brown yelling “OH!” at a Poeltl-over-Gortat dunk.

I think we’re on the same page with this, but does 5:30 PM seem like a reasonable trade-off between “not morning” and “normal NBA start time”?

Daniel: Very much here for Hubie Brown calling the Raptors. There’s just something in his voice as he watches this Toronto squad — the young guys, in particular — and discovers new things about them in real time. You could schedule the game at 11am and I wouldn’t complain (unless the Raps lose, then all bets are off).

As for the 5:30 time, I’m fine with it. The Raps should be used to it this season, having played enough 6pm games on Sundays to get into a comfortable early evening zone. And, selfishly, it means I’m not leaving the arena at midnight, and/or have time afterwards to really celebrate (or drink away my sorrows).

For what this is worth, the real problem the Raptors have with the start time isn’t the hour, but the day. I have it on good authority that coach Dwane Casey would be fine with a Sunday start at any time as long as he got an extra day in there for a good practice. As it stands, the team is on the road tomorrow, then needs to fly back and get reset on Thursday. Obviously you can’t go hard on Friday because then, heyo, Game 1 comes calling on Saturday. I have to believe Casey isn’t loving the (probable) news.

Moving on, we can scratch Raptors-Wizards/Bucks/Heat off of one slot. And your pick of Cavaliers at 3pm sounds good to me. So how does the rest of Saturday work?

John: You’re absolutely right, and I think anyone reasonable would see that the problems with the Raptors and Game 1s go beyond the time of day they tip at. A familiar early evening start should help, but it’s just one of many things to watch for.

For my money, I would see Saturday’s two evening slots (after Cavs/whoever and Raptors/whoever) being Western Conference games. Give me the Jazz in the 8 PM slot, because everyone needs a break to eat and have a real life (sorry Utah fans), then Houston in the night cap.

What about you?

Daniel: The Jazz getting tossed into the dinner slot fits. They’re the only other fanbase that often sounds as aggrieved as Toronto’s. Meanwhile, Houston anchoring the show for Saturday night also feels very James Harden. Lock in it.

This puts Sunday in a pickle though. If the 3pm game is going to the East, the NBA is left with either the Sixers or the Celtics as the marquee match-up. I suppose given the firepower of Philly-Bucks (right now), it should get the nod — but weirdly, things could change by Thursday. Then I guess you go Warriors-Thunder for 5:30, Boston-Miami at 8, and finish it off with Spurs-Portland for the late game. Should I work in television production or what?

John: You can’t talk me into the Warriors being anywhere but on ABC on Sunday, or at the very least in their usual 10:30 night cap slot. Still, there are so many moving pieces and match-ups that could change how these series get billed. We’ve still got at least four spots to fill and only two days left to do it in!

At the very least, we can work on the notion that the Raptors will get a better time slot in 2018. Now, we wait and wonder who it’ll be against, and whether it makes a difference.

Daniel: I’m already aquiver with emotion.