Somewhere at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., perhaps on a floor as high as Disney's current stock price, network executives were undoubtedly enjoying the final act of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals on Monday night. While Paul George and the Pacers were a fantastic basketball story, LeBron James and the Heat offered something far more valuable: a proven NBA Finals ratings draw.
Television executives always want length for a championship series -- NBA Game 7s are ratings gold regardless of a team's television market size -- but Miami proved last season that it can attract eyeballs even in a short series. The Heat's five-game win over the Thunder in last year's Finals averaged 16.8 million viewers. The 2011 NBA Finals -- which saw Dallas beat Miami in six games -- averaged 17.3 million viewers, making it the league's second-most-viewed championship series since Pistons-Lakers in 2004 (17.9 million viewers) and only slightly behind the seven-game series between the big-market Celtics and Lakers in 2010 (18.1 million viewers).
On Tuesday, TNT reported that Game 7 between the Heat and Pacers drew 11.5 million viewers, the network's most-viewed NBA game ever and the most-viewed NBA telecast on any network this season. The viewership momentum should continue into Finals as the Heat face a terrific Spurs team that has more television appeal than in previous years, given its up-tempo style and the appreciation for its Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
With Game 1 set for Thursday in Miami, here's a guide to the television coverage of the Finals:
What time will the games start?
Games on Thursday and Tuesday (Games 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7) will tip at 9 p.m. ET. Games on Sunday (Games 2 and 5) will tip at 8 p.m. ET. All games will air on ABC.
Who will be calling the games?
Mike Breen will handle play by play alongside analyst Jeff Van Gundy. Doris Burke will provide sideline reports, and former referee Steve Javie will be courtside with Burke throughout the series.
What about the pregame and postgame coverage?
ESPN's NBA Countdown will be on site throughout the Finals, previewing every game with half-hour shows on ABC (8:30 p.m. for weeknight games, 7:30 p.m. for Sunday games). The foursome of Michael Wilbon, Magic Johnson, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons will also appear during halftime and after the game on SportsCenter.
"It's safe to say the Countdown guys will be used after the game extensively," said Mark Gross, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer. "There are four main components to the postgame coverage. One is the Countdown guys providing their opinion and context and perspective. Then there's how we can make the highlights of the game great. Three is the interview room, and Stuart Scott will be there conducting two to three interviews with the key players of the game. Fourth are the press conferences, and we will go live to them. Those four components make up SportsCenter after the game, and it's all about the proper mix of the elements you have available to you."
What about radio and Spanish-language coverage?
Play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico and analyst Hubie Brown will call games for ESPN Radio, and NBA insider Marc Stein will serve as the sideline reporter. For the first time, ESPN Deportes will present exclusive Spanish-language coverage of the Finals. Play-by-play announcer Alvaro Martin, analysts Carlos Morales and Alejandro Montecchia and sideline reporter Sebastian Christensen will work the games.
OK, you talked a lot about Miami already. Can San Antonio draw a national audience?
Having Miami as an opponent is significant because the old school vs. new school storyline is something casual basketball fans can embrace. San Antonio is the 37th television market -- there's no getting around that in terms of a viewership -- but what determines big ratings is often the length of a series. The Spurs are also playing a more television-friendly brand of basketball this year. Expect the viewership numbers to be healthy.
"I never understood why San Antonio was not a big draw years ago even though they did not play the up-tempo, exciting style they play now," Breen said. "They are everything we embrace about sports and want from our teams and our players. Yet for some reason they were not universally loved. I have always said if San Antonio had New York or L.A. or Chicago across the jerseys, people all over the world would be saying this is the greatest team of all time."
What production elements should viewers pay attention to during the Finals?
ESPN will have in-game interviews with the two coaches, who will be "wired" for sound. There will also be pregame and halftime locker-room access.
The coverage includes 36 high-definition cameras, a "SkyCam" apparatus for aerial views, eight Super Slo Mo cameras and I-MOVIX cameras (which are located behind the backboard) for slow-motion replays.
Gross said he's excited about a two-minute feature that will open each game highlighting the greatest moments from the NBA Finals.
"I have not seen anything like it ever on our air or the other networks," Gross said. "It fits what the Finals are about, from the bigness of it to the historical context."
How can the Spurs slow down LeBron?
"I think the only thing that ever makes a star uncomfortable is the individual matchups," Van Gundy said in a conference call with reporters. "If you have a guy that has the belief, the instincts, the basketball IQ, the mental toughness it's going it take to withstand the assault that he'll bring ... if you have a guy like that or a couple guys like that, then you can do a couple things. It starts with, Who do you have to match up and who wants to be locked into that head-to-head battle? The scheme is almost secondary.
"The thing about San Antonio is it has good habits defensively. I love [forward] Kawhi Leonard. He is like the human mute button: He doesn't say a lot, but his game talks very loudly. He's improved dramatically offensively. He came into the league an aggressive defender, so I think [the Spurs] have a matchup that gives them a chance. Now, you're obviously not stopping LeBron James, but you want to try to at least make him work for it, reduce his efficiency somewhat."
Breen will call his eighth NBA Finals. How much more comfortable is he today than when he started?
"The first time I called the Finals was in 2006 with Hubie Brown, and I was overwhelmed when we got to Game 1 because the amount of coverage was just off the charts," Breen said. "I had people telling me I had to appeal to the casual fan but I could not insult the fan that had been there the whole year. I was getting all this advice and I was clearly nervous -- the most nervous I have ever been about going on the air was before Game 1 of those Finals.
"About midway through Game 1, Hubie leaned over to me because he could tell I was nervous and said, 'Hey, just call the game the way you always do.' And that really settled me down."
Van Gundy has been rumored for a couple of NBA coaching jobs. Does his partner expect him back with ESPN next year?
"I don't know because he is a coach and that's what he loves, and that is where he gets his competitive juices from," Breen said. "But I also think in the last couple of years he has reached such a comfort level here and I think he enjoys not having the stress from being a head coach. It would have to be almost a perfect situation for him and his family. He will not just take a job for the sake of it.
"The possibility this year exists more because Jeff's daughter graduated from high school. He was not going to take a job until she finished high school unless something extraordinary came along because he did not want to move the family [out of Houston]. I think it is a little more open for him to take a look."
What should I know about NBA TV's coverage of the Finals?
The network, which will be on site in Miami and San Antonio, is the best place to watch live coverage of the postgame news conferences. Matt Winer will host the network's coverage, joined by analysts Greg Anthony, Rick Fox, Steve Smith and Chris Webber from NBA TV, along with TNT studio analysts Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith. (O'Neal, Kenny Smith and Webber will work Games 1 and 2; Barkley, Fox and Steve Smith will work Games 3-4 and, if it's necessary, Game 5; and Anthony, O'Neal and Webber will be assigned to Games 6 and 7 if they happen.)
The network's nightly studio show will air live throughout the Finals at 6:30 p.m. (Games 2 and 5), 7 p.m. (Game 1) and 7:30 p.m. (Games 3, 4, 6 and 7). The show will feature highlights, analysis, player interviews, game previews and recaps.
I'm a fan of bloviators and manufactured NBA debate. Can you point me in the right direction?
Sure. First Take, featuring commentators Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, will air live from the Finals on ESPN2 at 10 a.m.
Will SportsCenter be at the games, too?
Speaking of Carlesimo, is he interested in sticking with ESPN past June?
"I'm always day to day," said Carlesimo, who was not retained as Nets coach after Brooklyn's first-round loss to Chicago. "That's what I've become. But this was a great opportunity. It's only definitely until the end of the playoffs and then we'll see what the future holds. It's something that could be obviously something I'd love to do long range. If there are coaching opportunities and if there's interest, obviously, I'd think about it. But the last couple times when I've been fired or relieved between jobs, I've had the opportunity to fortunately do TV or radio, and I've really enjoyed it."