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Playoffs Reveal Differences Between Basketball and Hockey: Fan's Take

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In the end, the choice to follow one of the two major American winter sports usually comes down to a preference between basketball and hockey. Both games possess similarly-timed seasons, contend with overlapping playoffs, and frequently even share the same arenas. Though each carries a die-hard fan base, these sports annually compete for casual viewers of their dramatic spring post-season games. Yet, an analysis of fans' decisions exposes many differences that characterize these seemingly similar pastimes.

Yes, I know. The most obvious difference is that one sport is played on ice and the other is not. That is a significant variance, as I would rather not see LeBron James skating around a basketball court or Alex Ovechkin gliding across the rink in a pair of sneakers.

However, the more meaningful differences between the two sports begin with the observation that basketball is dominated by its stars, while hockey is the quintessential team game. Certainly roster sizes play a factor since the average basketball game typically involves less than half the participants of a hockey contest. NBA stars can dominate because they are seemingly always in the game.

Indeed, the very nature of the two sports dictate how great an impact stars can enjoy. Even the bodies of the most physically fit hockey players cannot tolerate play for more than 30 minutes of 60 total. In contrast, basketball competitors easily are good for 30 minutes per night. Many athletic stars, such as NBA veteran Kobe Bryant, often stay on the court for entire games. Basketball coaches offer the rationale that the player was simply too valuable to remove. That might justify a double shift in hockey, but anything more would be a likely ticket to the hospital, or at least a very short career.

The current NBA and NHL post-seasons have further exposed a great divergence. Basketball is far more predictable because its dominant teams almost always rise to the top. It did not take a Vegas insider to call for a Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. This #1 vs. #2 seeded series appeared inevitable for most of the season and the NBA playoffs did not disappoint.

In contrast, a look at the NHL's Western Conference Finals reveals just how unpredictable hockey has become. Few projected a meeting of the #8 seeded Los Angeles Kings and #3 seeded Phoenix Coyotes. After all, the Coyotes are in such a financial mess that the league itself seized ownership of the club. This would be the equivalent of the New Orleans Hornets making a deep run through the NBA playoffs. Instead, the lowly Louisiana franchise was the 2nd worst in basketball.

Once equally dominated by power squads like the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens, hockey has embraced an "anything goes" approach when it comes to awarding the Stanley Cup. While the NHL has provided 8 different champions in the past 8 seasons, one needs to turn back to 1994 to conjure up 8 unique NBA titlists. While some teams, such as the Detroit Red Wings, are consistently good every year, modern hockey certainly does not favor assembling dynasties.

Another critical way to distinguish these sports is the actual appearances of the players. Basketball competitors are free of bulky pads, run the court without headgear, and wear clothes that only cover half of their bodies. On the other hand, clothed with gloves and visors, hockey players are even more covered than peers in the NFL. If fortunate, part of an athlete's face might be viewed, but it is the impersonal jersey number that offers the best chance at identification.

So what kind of fan are you? Do you crave seeing big stars up close that carry the best squads to multiple championships? Then basketball is probably your game.

Do you prefer a team game of role players pitching in and leading unlikely clubs on magical title runs? If so, playoff hockey is the better option this spring.

However, if a truly passionate fan -- like so many readers of Yahoo! Sports -- you will probably find a way to follow both sports.


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Jeff Briscoe is a sports fan from Florida and a regular contributor to the Yahoo! Contributor Network. He co-hosts the Sports Train radio show.

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