Monday June 15th, 2009

An NBA postseason filled with buzzer-beaters and great television ratings ended with a Game 5 blowout Sunday in Orlando, eliminating the potential for high drama (and higher ratings) in the championship round later this week in Los Angeles. Here are's grades for ABC's coverage of the Finals:

The quartet of Stuart Scott, Jon Barry, Magic Johnson and Michael Wilbon gets graded on a tougher curve because inevitably it must be compared with the trio that sets the standard for NBA pregame excellence: TNT's Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. Alas, this group lacks the joie de vivre of that crew, and more specifically, it lacks Barkley, whose devil-may-care attitude drives the tenor of his show. The Scott-led pregame covered all the main points and requisite stats and never failed to provide all-access footage, but the chemistry remains a work in progress.

Johnson is one of the most likable guys in basketball and is a great ambassador for the sport, but he's an average analyst (at best) with a below-average voice. It also remains suspect to have a guy comment on a team he partly owns. The final game was Magic's best of the series. For instance, he boldly declared that Pau Gasol was the best-skilled big man in the NBA along with Boston's Kevin Garnett.

Scott thankfully dialed down the hype meter as host and handled the post-championship interviews well. He asked Phil Jackson about passing Red Auerbach for the most coaching championships and got a terrific response ("I'll smoke a cigar tonight in memory of Red," Jackson said). Of course, he also asked Johnson at halftime of Game 5 what locker room would be more intense, which was strange given that Johnson was sitting on the set and not in either locker room.

Barry is coming along as an analyst -- he picked the Lakers to win in four games -- and was all over L.A. forward Trevor Ariza's impending free agency ("He has a chance to make serious coin," Barry said). Wilbon was less provocative on these broadcasts than his usual forum on Pardon the Interruption, but he provided a reporter's eye and some useful information based on visiting with the coaches before games.

In one of the strangest yet most compelling features of the series, Game 5's halftime offered viewers a piece on Gasol's burgeoning friendship with opera star Placido Domingo. Yes, narrator Chris Connolly actually said the Three Tenors were "opera's version of the triangle offense."


Much of the storyline before the series centered on analyst Jeff Van Gundy and how he would react to calling games involving his brother. It turned out to be a non-story as Van Gundy quelled the issue before he ever went on camera. "I'm going to try to be as objective as possible," Van Gundy said, "but I want my brother's team to win. There's no question about that." (It's worth noting that Van Gundy correctly predicted that the Lakers would win in five or six games.)

Van Gundy was often critical of Magic players, especially guard Jameer Nelson at the end of regulation in Game 4. ("Why wouldn't you be up and crowd the guy?" Van Gundy said after Derek Fisher's game-tying three-pointer over Nelson. "The players' IQ always astounds me of not knowing time, score and situation."). In Game 5, Van Gundy said (in jest, we assume) Jackson should play the fourth quarter without Kobe Bryant to see if the Lakers, who led by double digits, could win it. It provoked silence among his colleagues and was one of the honest moments of the series: Jeff Van Gundy knew it was over.

Deadspin's Tommy Craggs recently gutted play-by-play announcer Mike Breen, but I'll still contend that he does what a good network play-by-play person should do: call a sound game and allow his analysts to shine. Mark Jackson's expressions ("Pressure either busts pipes or it makes diamonds!") became silly after a couple of games, but he interacted well with his colleagues and also (correctly) advised Stan Van Gundy to foul "immediately as soon as they get across half court" before Fisher's three-pointer to tie Game 4 in regulation. The announcing trio also received a unique shout-out from across the pond: "They mix wit and wisdom in a way that [British commentator] Clive Tyldesley can only dream of," Mark Woods wrote in The Guardian.

The game production was generally first-rate (as you would expect at this level), especially when ABC invited viewers to listen in on Stan Van Gundy's maniacal urging of his team. Inexplicably, ABC's cameras missed a couple of baskets during the series, including focusing on Magic forward Rashard Lewis heading to the bench when Gasol scored on a dunk with 24.4 seconds in the second quarter of Game 2. Sideline reporter Doris Burke asked smart and direct questions.


For those who enjoy old-school basketball coverage (or were stuck in traffic on the freeway), ESPN Radio's Mike Tirico, Hubie Brown and Jack Ramsay were fantastic. Brown and Ramsey are the rare breed of coaches-turned-broadcasters who educate viewers by breaking down (in understandable terms) what coaches need to do in certain situations. Tirico did what one should do with strong analysts: He smartly stayed out of the way.


ESPNews and NBA TV both did an excellent job covering the postgame news conferences, particularly NBA TV, which had a camera on reporters asking questions (always fun to see what power suit ESPN's Ric Bucher is wearing). NBA TV also featured TNT's Inside The NBA crew and reporter David Aldridge, whose locker-room interviews often drew something interesting from players.



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