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The Knicks' season was mercifully put to rest weeks ago, but at Standings, a popular Manhattan sports bar, the NBA is still so alive and well that owner Gary Gillis has been staying open late to accommodate patrons who want to watch the end of the Western Conference playoff games. The postseason has also kept eyes glued to the big-screen televisions at Major Goolsby's, a Milwaukee watering hole where the fans don't care that the only shots the Bucks are taking these days are with golf clubs. "The games have been so exciting it's a joke," says owner Jon (Bingo) Berta. "One customer said, 'I don't even like NBA basketball, but these games are changing my mind.'"
After years of bashing the league for being boring, low-scoring and short on charismatic players, viewers across the country are rediscovering the NBA, thanks to the most entertaining postseason in the post-- Michael Jordan era. All three networks televising the playoffs are enjoying a healthy bump in viewership compared with last season. Ratings for ESPN telecasts are 16% higher, ABC's have increased by 13%, and TNT's are 7% better.
Clearly, word is spreading at the grassroots level that the NBA is watchable again. The playoffs have provided such compelling theater that suddenly it doesn't matter that the postseason lasts longer than a Hollywood marriage. Although it's too soon to suggest that its popularity is back to the level of the 1980s and early '90s, the league has at least reversed the trend of the last several years, when it seemed that the only passionate fan discussions about the NBA centered on how far it had fallen.
The playoffs have helped the league reconnect with fans in a way that marketing strategies and image-cleansing attempts like the dress code for players haven't. Concerns that inked-up, bling-heavy African-American players were driving white fans away from the game have been, if not erased, at least temporarily lessened. "The game has always been the thing," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "You don't have to worry about ad campaigns or how many tattoos the players have. If you put a quality product on the floor, the fans will be there."
The dramatically increased Nielsen numbers have been the result of a perfect storm of attention-getting factors. Start with drama: 24 of the 78 games played through Sunday have been decided by five points or fewer, including 14 in which the final margin was under three points. Five series went seven games, including three of the four second-round matchups.
Star power has helped too. LeBron James's first playoff appearance undoubtedly caused more fans to tune in, and he didn't disappoint them. James had a pair of buzzer beaters in the Cavaliers' first-round victory over Washington before he nearly toppled the Pistons in Round 2. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, made his return to the postseason after missing it a year ago. Along with the suddenly highly entertaining Clippers, he helped bring the Southern California market back into the NBA fold.
Of course, tight games played by big-market teams led by household names won't happen every year, but the brisker pace of the game promises to keep fans from drifting away again. Gone for the most part are those tedious affairs in which defenses clutched and grabbed, offensive players stood around watching isolation plays and the winning team was lucky to break 80 points; they've been replaced by games with a more fan-friendly style. "It's taken some time, but the elimination-of-the-illegal-defense guidelines have been helpful," says commissioner David Stern. "The game has become a little bit faster, with a better flow to it."
The seeds of change were planted in 2001, when Stern charged Jerry Colangelo, then the Suns' owner and chairman of the NBA Board of Governors, with putting together a panel of experts to revitalize a stagnant game. The resulting rules changes reduced the amount of hand checking and bumping defenders could use to impede cutters, dribblers and shooters. The benefits are on display every night, especially in the West, where the Suns are a fast-breaking, three-point-shooting delight. Phoenix's three playoff series, against the Lakers, the Clippers and the Mavericks, have been high-scoring, must-see TV. In the Eastern finals even the Pistons have added zip to their defensive style with crisp ball movement on offense, and the Heat stresses slashes to the hoop by Dwyane Wade over low-post banging by Shaquille O'Neal.
There's no guarantee, of course, that the spike in popularity will last. But the league might have learned something from this postseason. Its prodigal fans weren't waiting for the next Jordan, the next ad campaign or for the racial composition of the league to change. They were just waiting for the next good game.
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