Let's play two!

The NBA is bringing back the "baseball-style series" for another season, but there will be far fewer in 2021-22 ... and no guarantee they will become a permanent part of the schedule

New Timberwolves co-owner Alex Rodriguez, pictured beside his business partner Marc Lore, will surely enjoy a dose of familiarity early in his maiden NBA season when Minnesota plays host to New Orleans in the first baseball-style series on the 2021-22 schedule Oct. 23-25. (Photo courtesy of the Timberwolves)

Let's try this one more time. 

Let's open the floor again and see if we can come up with something better than "baseball-style series" to describe the scheduling hookup of two NBA teams playing consecutive games in the same arena.

I mentioned more than once last season that I was never sold on the clunky baseball description for the advent of teams playing two consecutive road games against the same opponent to reduce travel in the midst of a pandemic … while also feeling shame that I failed to come up with a better alternative.

Some good news on this front: We have at least one more full season to search for a catchier tag after the league confirmed through the recent release of its 2021-22 schedule that two-game sets were not just a one-season experiment.

The big difference in the new season is that they appear on the schedule far more infrequently. There will be just 23 two-game sets leaguewide, to be exact, compared to 84 in 2020-21.

The reduction, I'm told, was a matter of shifting priorities in the league office. The priority last season was reducing travel and specifically flights, which was the inspiration for the league's sudden embrace of the two-game series in the same venue that had for so long been taboo. With no ticket sales in numerous arenas for much of the season and so many more arena dates available with concerts and other events on hold, scheduling two-game sets was also much easier.

Those variables changed when the league was assembling its 2021-22 schedule. The two-game sets were no longer regarded as essential and thus not forced into the calendar. A new measure adopted to reduce travel slightly calls for more teams to play the Lakers and the Clippers on the same Los Angeles trip, or the Knicks and the Nets on the same New York trip.

Yet league officials did feel compelled to persist with a handful of two-game sets in the months ahead to be able to better gauge the long-term viability of the concept and take a more detailed look at how they affect fan interest and attendance. Trying to measure the business impact of a two-game series for the home team was not a realistic option for much of last season with crowds limited or even nonexistent early on.

"We wanted to do a bit more of a pilot test to see what will happen when Team X visits Team Y for two consecutive games," Evan Wasch, NBA executive vice president of basketball strategy and analytics, told my longtime colleague Howard Beck last week on Sports Illustrated's Crossover podcast.

"Will that impact gate for those games?” Wasch told Beck. “We'll look at the data after this year and decide whether we want to sort of push the pedal on that going forward."

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr is a devoted Los Angeles Dodgers fan but was among those who wondered aloud last season whether NBA fans would be willing to pay to see the same opponent twice in a two- or three-day span like baseball customers are so accustomed to doing.

“I think if you’re a season-ticket holder, you don’t really want to see the same team two times in a row,” Kerr said then. 

I see another potential issue with the two-game sets beyond that fan component or my persistent campaigning against the unwieldy baseball tag. I continue to suspect that, over time, it would prove to be a real advantage for the road team to play twice in a row against the same opponent in the same building, providing potential boosts in the rest and familiarity departments that slice into a team's home-court advantage even further — at a time that home teams have never been more beatable.

Last season's .544 winning percentage for teams playing at home, remember, represented a new low in league history, down from .551 in the 2019-20 season. Do road teams need more help?

In two-game sets specifically, home teams won both ends 27 of 84 times last season, as tabulated by Ben Falk from Cleaning The Glass. The road team swept the two-game series 16 times and there were 41 splits. Home teams thus posted a winning percentage of .565, meaning my concerns on this front might prove unfounded, but it’s obviously too early to know conclusively when the sample size is so small.

With the 23 two-game sets that were scheduled in the new season, 20 include a day off between games — but they involve only 20 of the league's 30 teams. So it’s fair to wonder, with more than 60 fewer such series than last season, what sort of read the NBA can actually come away with on this practice … on top of my pestering about something snappier to call it.

(Your suggestions, as always, are welcome at marcstein@substack.com)

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🍴 US Open food report*

I affixed an asterisk because this is not going to be one of those review pieces about the dining options for tournament-goers. Food vendors were not open during the qualifying rounds last week and sampling expeditions just were not possible Monday given the chaos and delays as fans poured back into the National Tennis Center grounds after last year's Open was closed to the public.

Here’s hoping things function much more smoothly and safely after the initial chaos.

What follows, then, is simply a summary of my best dining experiences so far on my first trip to New York since January 2020. I am here for the tennis first and foremost, which doesn’t leave too much time for culinary pursuits, but Mrs. Line and my high school pal Dave Casarez are among those who have been urging me to write more about where I dine on the road, since the meals are such a big part of an NBA scribe's life.

So as part of the ongoing content rotation in this space …

🍕 Best NYC slice: Upside Pizza near the venerable New York Times building. It's always pepperoni at Upside Pizza for me when I'm here … and it was especially great to see it maintaining late-night hours (contrary to what was listed online) for a visit after my flight from Dallas arrived.

🥯 Best new addition to my Manhattan rotation: As a huge salmon fan, I happily discovered a Zucker's Bagels & Smoked Fish nearby. Haven't been awed by the bagels, frankly, which we’re taught to believe as visitors will be an otherworldly experience in New York City, but the smoked fish options are considerable (and delicious). Gravlax and pastrami salmon were both wins.

Best reason to pay for an Uber instead of just choosing something within walking distance: Kafana for Serbian fare. Because I have failed miserably and have yet to visit any of their countries even after covering so many NBA players from the Balkans, Kafana is where I frequently go for the best ćevapi I've ever had. 

Best laffa: There's an Israeli restaurant (new to me) in the Arlo NoMad hotel called LamaLo and the piping hot laffa that comes out of its ovens is indeed sensational. The problem: Both the tahini and hummus plates, which absolutely cannot miss in a Middle Eastern restaurant, land well shy of true Tel Aviv taste. Not sure why those staple dishes are so hard to replicate, but it’s a frequent complaint of mine wherever I’m traveling domestically. We just don’t have enough tahini and hummus here that tastes like the real thing. Here's hoping that changes because the laffa was that good.

🥤 Best round of nostalgia: My glass bottle Coca-Cola affections have been mocked on various niche basketball podcasts, so it won't surprise some of you to hear how excited I was to find that a Greek restaurant near me (Avra Estiatorio) stocks glass deli bottles of Pepsi. Deli bottles are close to extinct in the States and always relished by soda aficionados who know we shouldn't be drinking the stuff but can't help it.

☕️  Best caffeinated writing aid: Greek coffee from the same place. When I need a jolt to bring me back to work mode after I've been playing tennis hooky, this delivers. (For a more traditional coffee selection, I love cappuccinos at the Little Collins chain whenever I can make time.)

Numbers Game

🏀 28

Training camps open leaguewide on Sept. 28. And that, friends, is just 28 days away.

🏀 3

Less than a month remains, then, before Ben Simmons is due to return to Philadelphia for 76ers camp. Just don't forget that Sixers president of basketball Daryl Morey has cut it very close to Opening Night before when making a megatrade. While Morey was running the Houston Rockets' front office, his acquisition of James Harden materialized on Oct. 27, 2012 — just three days before the start of the 2012-13 season.

🏀 9

When he formally re-signs with the Los Angeles Lakers after negotiating a buyout with Memphis, Rajon Rondo (35) will become the ninth Laker in his 30s on a roster expected to feature 14 players (and two more on two-way contracts). He'll join Carmelo Anthony (37), LeBron James (36), Marc Gasol (36), Trevor Ariza (36), Dwight Howard (35), Wayne Ellington (33), Russell Westbrook (32) and Kent Bazemore (32). It's a number, though, that could still be adjusted if the Lakers and Gasol ultimately part ways. As discussed in a recent This Week In Basketball column, league sources say that L.A. has explored the pursuit of other centers even though Gasol has one year left on his original two-year deal.

🏀 14

When the Milwaukee Bucks refused to leave their locker room at the Walt Disney World bubble for a playoff game against Orlando on Aug. 26, 2020, in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake is Wisconsin, it led to 14 game postponements across four major sports that day. There were three games each called off in the NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball and five more in Major League Soccer, all starting with the Bucks' refusal to play in a protest against police brutality and systemic racism.

🏀 3

Only three countries apart from the United States have won a gold medal in men's Olympic basketball: Argentina and the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia.