NBA Playoffs: Mike Breen, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy interview - Sports Illustrated

Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy Discuss the NBA Playoffs, Bubble Broadcasting and Uber Eats

Before calling Sunday’s doubleheader, ABC’s top basketball broadcast team spoke with Sports Illustrated in a wide-ranging conversation about life inside the bubble and the major NBA storylines on and off the court.
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The broadcast trio of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy are calling back-to-back playoff games this Sunday for ABC. First is the Miami Heat looking to sweep the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which tips off at 3:30pm ET. Then, it is a trip to primetime as James Harden and the Houston Rockets look to seize a two-game advantage on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Breen, Jackson and Van Gundy have spent their entire professional careers within professional basketball, but calling NBA playoff games in September is foreign territory. The games inside the NBA bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex have virtual fans instead of a live crowd, and removing the emotion of paying customers has altered the playoff environment. Yet the NBA has delivered safe and incredibly entertaining games, with even more compelling matchups in store for the conference finals and championship series.

Before calling Sunday’s doubleheader, ABC’s top basketball broadcast team spoke with Sports Illustrated in a wide-ranging conversation. Each call was conducted separately, with the same questions presented to Breen, Jackson and Van Gundy. Topics included preparation for calling back-to-back games, an account of life inside the bubble and in-depth takes on the major NBA storylines on and off the court.

Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Breen

Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Breen

Justin Barrasso: Calling back-to-back games is certainly unique. Will that affect your routine before either of the games?

Mike Breen: The first thing that came to mind when I thought about calling back-to-back games was, how the hell do the NCAA broadcasters do four tournament games in one day? I can’t imagine doing four. With two games, if the first game is just a wild affair and every basket down to the end of the game is big and you’re really stretching your voice, then you might make some adjustments. Overall, you’re doing the same thing.

Jeff and Mark are so integral to the success of the broadcast. The key is having everybody together on the same page. The crew works twice as many hours as we do on a day where there’s two games, and they have to prepare, too. For me, to have our crew and the ability to rely on Mark and Jeff, it really helps my ability to do two games. Our whole crew has worked together so long. That’s not just the announcer team; it’s also Tom Corrigan, our producer, and Jimmy Moore, our director. There is such a trust factor. You just focus on what you have to do to prepare, and then everybody has each other’s back when we get on the air.

But I still laugh—anybody that has ever called four games in the NCAA Tournament is probably laughing at me while I talk about this challenge.

Mark Jackson: For me and Jeff, the routine won’t change. The demand of doing two games is a long day, but it’s more pressure and stress on Mike. Jeff and I, we’re pretty much doing the same thing that we would if we went to two games and watched them. We really enjoy this, and there is no other place we’d rather be.

And the great thing about this is we’ve known each other 30 years. Our relationship, what you see is what you get. It’s no different if the lights are on or the microphones are turned off. You get the same thing if you sit us down at a dinner table. There is no agenda other than to call the action. No one is saying they don’t get enough air time. There’s none of that. We really love each other and we enjoy one another. We’re family.

Jeff Van Gundy: The hard part is what Mike does. Mike carries 90% of the broadcast, and Mark and I have the benefit of talking about what’s going on. Mike weaves in stories and he shares stats, so for him, it’s a challenge—and a challenge on his voice. But Mike paints a picture so well. His basketball vocabulary is so well-developed.

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Barrasso: Even as recently as early March, no one could have predicted that the NBA playoffs would have taken place in the summer amid a whole new world of social distancing at a remote location with no fans. What has life been like living inside the bubble?

Breen: You hesitate to complain about anything because I’m doing what I love, calling games with the best athletes in the world, but I really miss my family. ESPN was kind enough to give us a break. I went home for five days. But it’s really hard, and I can’t imagine being one of the players that have little children and you don’t see them for over two months. All my kids are adults in their 20s, so we can have good conversations on the phone, but to be a parent of small children, it really is difficult.

Even though we all travel on a regular basis, this is different. I think Mike D’Antoni put it best when he said, ‘Every day down here is Wednesday.’ It never seems like anything around here changes. You pour yourself into your work. Our crew has had a lot of chances to have dinners together, more than we have had in a long time. I’m great friends with a number of play-by-play guys, but I rarely see them all together, so one of the really wonderful things for me has been having dinner with friends like Kevin Harlan, Ian Eagle, Brian Anderson and Spero Dedes. We’ve even had dinners where it’s been a few of us, and that never happens. It’s been so wonderful to spend that time with them, and we’ve cherished having those meals together.

Jackson: First of all, you’ve got to give the NBA and everyone involved a lot of credit. They’ve done an awesome job putting this league in a position to crown a champion. Not just sports, but this country should follow the lead taken by Adam Silver and the NBA. They’ve done an incredible job of making it extremely safe.

This league has the best professionals in the world. They stayed ready, and they deserve a lot of credit. If this was bad basketball, with guys getting hurt, it would have collapsed very fast.

But it is also different. For me, growing up, I was a kid sitting in the corner, watching games and envisioning I was a player, I was a coach, and I was an announcer. This is what I dreamed about, so it’s a position and a task I don’t take for granted. But it does have its challenges. You’re telling a story, one that doesn’t just include what is happening on the court, but also has to do with what is going on with the world today.

Van Gundy: I don’t think many people think of it this way, but the layoff between when we ended and when we started back up is longer than most offseasons. This isn’t a continuation of the 2019-2020 season. This is a completely different season. So when people ask, ‘Why is Milwaukee struggling?’ Well, it’s a new season. They didn’t play well in the seeding games and they haven’t played well in the playoffs. This is a whole new season.

For me, my brother [Stan] is in the bubble. I’ve seen him more, just the two of us, than I have since I graduated from college. That’s been really nice. Doing a lot of games and seeing all these teams has been fun. We aren’t in the same bubble as the players and coaches and teams, and that’s showed that we don’t need that access. We have the sideline reporters that do, but I think there are a lot of things that are going to change long-term on TV because of this.

jimmy-butler-heat-bucks

Barrasso: The first game on tap for Sunday is the Miami Heat looking to knock off the Milwaukee Bucks, who are about to endure a massive collapse if they are swept out of the conference semis as the East’s top seed. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an incredibly talented player, but Miami has exposed the Bucks’ lack of ball movement and over-reliance on Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Obviously the series is not over yet, but is there a parallel to be made between this Bucks team to LeBron James’ Cavs in 2010, a team that was very good but not quite elite?

Breen: I won’t say that yet. Last year, they were right there, up 2-0 in the conference finals [against the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors], and then a special player in Kawhi Leonard took over the series and led his team to a title. But Milwaukee was really close to making it to the finals last year, and who knows what would have happened had they made it. This one is more of a surprise, but the circumstances with the bubble has changed everything. All bets are off. It’s narrowed the gap between teams. There are extenuating circumstances that affect every player in a different way. Some players happen to deal with being away from their families better than others. Some players thrive on having that crowd.

Milwaukee’s fans are so crazy to get their first title since 1971. The games in Milwaukee would have been an unbelievable atmosphere. But that’s gone now, and that kind of evens it a little for teams that were behind them [record-wise]. They haven’t quite figured out how to get it done in the bubble. I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic by saying this has been a historic playoff for the league. Twenty years from now, people are going to be talking about this—how teams overcame certain circumstances, adversities and challenges that they’d never had before.

I won’t say Milwaukee is not an elite team. Look at the amount of games they’ve won the past two years. But I’ll say this—if ever there was a scenario where a team came back from three games to win a series, I think it would happen here. There are no road games. It’s not like Milwaukee has to go win in Miami. They don’t have that pressure, they just have to beat them on a neutral court.

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Jackson: That question makes me appreciate the run that LeBron James has been on since Day One. He was considered the next guy, and he has not disappointed. Even in the absence of great talent, he has found a way to still have success in this league, individually and collectively. That’s not easy.

As far as the Bucks, I would be shocked if they take this seven. In three games already, the Miami Heat have proven to be the better basketball team, and the team paying more attention to detail. They’re the team that wants to move forward. That’s not saying the Bucks can’t beat them, but everything that I’ve watched thus far tells me that the Miami Heat will move forward to the next round. They’re well-coached, they have extremely tough competitors and they’re rolling right now. It’s a tough task for the Milwaukee Bucks to overcome.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) shoots the ball against Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22)

Van Gundy: People say the Milwaukee Bucks have underachieved, but I think they’ve overachieved the past two years. Even if you achieve so much in the regular season, you need another level or another gear in the playoffs. A lot of it is due to Giannis; he brings it every night. But they have flaws, and all your flaws are exposed in a playoff series.

As far as being down, 3-0, it’s really hard to sweep when there is a home-court advantage. Usually you’ll get one of those two games at home. Here, it’s just basketball. It comes off better on TV, but here it’s beyond strange and eerily quiet [during the games]. It’s all about whatever motivation and enthusiasm you can generate for your own team.

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, they’ve lost two tough, close games. You have to say Miami is the clear-cut favorite to advance, but I believe if Milwaukee wins Game 4, they’ll get to a Game 7.

Barrasso: Even after watching them play for years, there must be a certain thrill about calling games featuring LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. As a broadcaster, does the energy on the court help replace the missing crowd? And as for the game itself, can L.A. recover from a two-game hole if they drop this game?

Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook (0) celebrates with Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers

Breen: Just watching how great these players are, that’s what gets me energized. When you love basketball, you see a great play and you go nuts. This is a game I’ve loved since I was a kid. When [Toronto’s OG] Anunoby hit that shot the other night against the Celtics, I jumped off the couch screaming.

And yes, the Lakers lost the first game to the Rockets. But I always think back to the Memorial Day Massacre when the Lakers and Celtics played Game 1 of the NBA Finals in ’85. The Lakers got blown out, they lost by 34, but they still ended up winning the title. It’s one game. The key thing is not to overreact to one game or one loss in a playoff series. The veterans and the coaches that have been through this know it’s only one game. You have to get beat four times.

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Jackson: Going down 0-2, that doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t win. They still have LeBron James, and along with him, they still have Anthony Davis. They dropped the first game to Portland, then bounced back and found a way to advance.

After watching a lot of basketball this season, I came to the conclusion that the one matchup the Houston Rockets do not want to face are the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers have the ability to put three guys on the perimeter that can defend, and they have a special ability on the offensive end. For the Rockets, that’s a bad matchup. But the Lakers are an entirely different matchup. The Rockets are a bad matchup for the Lakers. Can the Lakers win? Absolutely. But I’m going to pick the Houston Rockets because of the problems they create defensively for the Lakers.

Van Gundy: For me, it’s pre-game where you notice the crowd the most, and in the last few minutes of a game. But I think the quality of play has been way better than anyone could have hoped for when it comes to the skill level, the chemistry and the connectedness. The four-and-a-half months had a much greater negative impact for these teams on the defensive end of the floor than it did on the offensive end. The offense has been absolutely spectacular. As for what goes on pre-game, the introductions and all that, when you take off your headphones and they don’t have the piped-in music, it’s just weird. I think the games look great on TV and the product has been terrific, but it is weird that no one is there to see it.

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And obviously you don’t want to be down, 2-0, but this isn’t real home court. Every game is a game unto itself. If you have great players, they can certainly come back and win. Avery Bradley being out for L.A. is a much bigger factor this series than in the previous one. And the Lakers’ lack of reliable half-court options offensively makes it hard, and Houston’s defense and willingness to fight on the boards has been spectacular. No one would have ever said coming into this new season that Houston was going to win with its defense, but that’s why they won in the first round and why they won Game 1 against the Lakers. They’re playing tremendous defense.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green (14) during the fourth quarter in game one of the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs

Barrasso: There have been no shortage of storylines on the court, with Kawhi Leonard’s dominance in L.A., a phenomenal Nuggets-Jazz series and an outrageous out-of-bounds play that led to a game-winning three-pointer for the Raptors against a Brad Stevens-coached Celtics team all among them. A major off-court story this past week was Steve Nash getting hired as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets.

The controversy stemmed over whether Nash, who is a Hall of Famer but has no coaching experience, deserved that job. Stephen A. Smith called it a case of white privilege that Nash was hired over top Black candidates. Charles Barkley strongly disagreed with Smith’s take. What is your take on the Nets hiring Nash?

Breen: [Brooklyn GM] Sean Marks has known Nash for a long time. Those that followed Nash know he was a talented player and one of the smartest players to ever be around. Sean Marks has that relationship where he trusts him and he’s going to put good people around him, so I think it’s a great hire because of who he was as a player and because of his basketball mind.

Now any time you hire someone with no coaching experience at all, you’re taking a chance. There’s no doubt. The difference between playing the game and coaching the game is so vastly different. But sometimes risks are the decisions that turn out the best, and we’ve seen a number of coaches in the past who were hired without coaching experience and did a phenomenal job. My partner Mark Jackson is one of them, as is Doc Rivers and Steve Kerr. There is a whole list of people that have shown it’s worth taking the risk because you’re getting a brilliant basketball mind, and I think Steve Nash has a brilliant basketball mind.

Jackson: I wish him nothing but the best. And I do believe it goes beyond playing experience—the point guard is the extension of the coach on the floor. If you told me, right now, I could hire Chris Paul today as my lead assistant, I’m hiring Chris Paul. He’s the one making the decisions on the floor, he’s the one making the adjustments on the fly. As great a staff as that I’ve had in my coaching career, the best assistant coach I had was Steph Curry.

Van Gundy: I wouldn’t call him inexperienced. Experiences on the court are incredibly valuable. When we say ‘inexperienced,’ we’re doing a disservice to how valuable playing careers are. And when you look at it that way, I look at Steve Nash the way I looked at Steve Kerr or Mark Jackson or Derek Fisher, and many others. Secondly, a lot of coaching, particularly at the pro level, you learn your competence. You’re not ready to be a head coach until you’re a coach. A lot of the things you learn, you learn by doing. There have been many great assistant coaches that had trouble making that leap to head coach because the jobs couldn’t be any more dissimilar. I just disagree with the notion that Steve Nash is inexperienced. I think he’s very experienced. And all coaches, no matter how many years they’ve coached in the league, have to learn their team and what’s best for the group, and there is going to be a learning curve no matter who coaches.

Steve Nash and Jeff Van Gundy at the 2009 NBA Finals.

Steve Nash and Jeff Van Gundy at the 2009 NBA Finals.

I think Steve will do a really good job. It helps that he has prior history with Kevin Durant. This was my benefit. I was an interim coach and I was coaching Patrick Ewing in his prime. What great players do is they allow you to win while you make mistakes as a head coach. When you’re not with as talented a team and you make a mistake, you often pay the price as a coach with a loss. When you have a great player, like Ewing, he was able to bail me out of my own mistakes. The only person after the game that knew I made mistakes was me. So I was able to win and learn from my mistakes. Whereas when you don’t have a great player or a great team, every mistake costs you dearly.

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Barrasso: A lot has been made about the NBA’s challenge system, and there are certainly positives about getting a call right and negatives about interfering with the organic nature of the game. What is your take on the challenge and replay system? And on the subject of NBA coaches, is there enough being made about coaches not being allowed to bring their families into the bubble?

Breen: The replay system has worked very well. I think the challenge is an experience for this year. I do think it’s been very helpful in some ways, with my only concern being when you get everything at the end of the games, whether it’s a challenge or a replay, that slows the momentum. That should be the most exciting time, not the time where you keep having stoppages. I think, overall, the replay system has been very good down here.

From a broadcast standpoint, the referees having a microphone and announcing to us, and announcing to the television audience, what the call was and what they’re doing, that’s been fantastic. I really hope we’re going to use that going forward, and I think it’s been a great tool for the viewers at home.

In regards to NBA coaches in the bubble, it’s hard. Mike Malone has two daughters and a wife he misses terribly. Erik Spoelstra has two little boys that I’m sure he misses terribly. Being here for months, it’s an enormous sacrifice, especially when you have small children. The league is trying to do the best they can. They could only allow a certain amount of people here, but hopefully they can change that. The situation is far from perfect, but they did the job the best job they possibly could. And with more teams being eliminated, hopefully they’ll allow the coaches to have their family members here.

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Jackson: I definitely feel like the coaches should have their families there. Once you open it up to allows players and referees to have family members, it only makes sense. Hopefully they come to an agreement that allows the coaches to have their families here.

As far as the challenge system, if you decide to keep it moving forward, there is one thing I would definitely change. If you are successful with your challenge, you should keep it. That makes it easy for a coach to challenge a call early on that you know is wrong, instead of waiting until the fourth quarter. If you lose a game by one point, that blown call in the first quarter is just as important as the one in the fourth.

Van Gundy: Let’s start with the replay. The whole thing about trying to get calls right is great, but to me, there are many things that are now starting to seep in. Flopping is coming back in. We haven’t been vigilant enough with trying to penalize the floppers, and we’re being tricked too often. And there is now an over-reliance on replay at the expense of the flow of the game. Listen, everybody wants to get every call right. But if we really want to do that, then shouldn’t we just replay every call? The over-reliance is absolutely crushing the flow of the game. Every time a player makes a circular motion in front of their head, it’s like we feel compelled to go over there. That takes away the drama of late-game situations.

And with the coaches, I applaud Michael Malone for speaking out. Coaches have always, in my time in the NBA, been under-appreciated and over-blamed. Why are coaches not treated like every other member of the team? I applaud Michael for having the courage of his convictions to speak on what is right.

bucks-heat-game-2

Barrasso: As of right now, which team has surprised you most thus far in the playoffs?

Breen: I think you have to say Miami. They swept a really good Indiana team, and now they’re up, 3-0, against Milwaukee. It’s incredible what they’ve been able to do, and some of the performances have been dominant. I’m not surprised that the Heat have been good, but I am surprised they’ve been this good.

Jackson: The Miami Heat. I wouldn’t have been shocked if they beat Milwaukee in the series, but they have been dominant. Up three-zip, you have basically put your stamp on the series. That’s been the most surprising thing to me so far.

Van Gundy: I’ve thought, since we started watching these teams in the seeding round, that the Clippers were the best team to me. But I didn’t have as great an appreciation for how good the top four teams in the East are. After watching them in the seeding rounds and in the playoffs, it’s underrated how good those top four teams in the East are playing. The West certainly has the greater depth, but I think the top four in the East is as good in the top four in the West.

Barrasso: After calling the games on Sunday, will the three of you share a meal together?

Breen: The second game doesn’t start until 8:30, so it will be too late to eat. We’ve been ordering UberEats, and we’ll do something in between games.

Jackson: Jeff just learned about UberEats, that’s true. You’ve got to forgive him, he just got rid of his flip phone not too long ago. He’s a work in progress.

Van Gundy: I didn’t know about UberEats until I came here, but that’s been one really good thing. I’m really good on UberEats now.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.