The Golden State Warriors blew the doors off the Houston Rockets on Sunday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, a 126-85 victory in which pretty much the entire second half was a moot point. Such noncompetitive games are becoming a trend in recent latter rounds of the NBA playoffs.
Over the 15 conference finals games played in 2017 and 2018, seven were decided by at least 20 points, five of them were at least 30-point blowouts and two margins of victory topped 40 points. Only two games were decided by single digits. The average margin of victory in those 15 games has been 20.9 points.
You could throw last year’s NBA Finals into that mix, as well. Three of the five games between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers were decided by at least 19 points, and the average margin of victory was 15.2 points. Yet people still tuned in: The series averaged 20.38 million television viewers, the biggest audience for ABC since it began airing the Finals in 2003. It was a slightly bigger overall audience than the 2016 Finals, which went seven games and drew a massive 31.02 million viewers for the Cavs’ series-clinching win, the third-largest single-game NBA Finals audience of all time.
Last year’s conference finals — Cavs-Celtics and Warriors-Spurs — did take a bit of a ratings hit with all the blowouts: According to Sports Media Watch, the five-game Eastern Conference series averaged a 3.7 rating and 6.3 million viewers on TNT while the Western Conference series, a Golden State sweep, drew a 3.9 rating and 6.5 million viewers on ESPN and ABC. It was the first time since 2007 that neither conference final averaged a 4.0 rating. But things seem to have bounced back this year:
— Game 1 of the West finals last Monday night between the Warriors and Rockets averaged 8.8 million viewers, TNT’s most-watched West Game 1 ever and a 38 percent increase from TNT’s coverage of East Game 1 in 2017. It was the most-watched show on all of television during that time. The Warriors won by 13.
— Warriors-Rockets Game 2 on Wednesday, a game Houston won by 22, drew an average of 7.5 million viewers, again the most-watched show on TV. Over its first two games, TV ratings for the Western Conference finals increased 41 percent from last year’s Celtics-Cavaliers series on TNT and 16 percent from Warriors-Spurs last season on ESPN.
— The Celtics’ 25-point win in Game 1 of the East finals was the highest-rated East opener since 2015 and the most-watched since 2014.
— Ratings for Tuesday night’s Game 2 of the Cavs-Celtics East rematch on ESPN — a 13-point Boston win — were up 71 percent from the comparable game the year before.
At least in terms of television viewership, the NBA seems to be blowout-proof. The reasons are varied: There’s the presence of LeBron James, plus one superteam that plays a compelling style of basketball (the Warriors) playing another superteam (the Rockets) that compiled the NBA’s best regular season record and was created specifically to stop the Warriors. This year’s conference finals also feature three teams from top 10 television markets: Houston is the seventh-largest market in the country, according to Nielsen, while San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose is eighth and Boston ranks 10th. There’s also the not-insignificant fact that the NBA is in the midst of an upswing in popularity.
Nevertheless, the NBA and its television partners would rather that translate into watchable games and more live content, which is one of the few reliable commodities left in television these days. Last season’s conference finals and NBA Finals produced only 14 out of a possible 21 games, and few of them were actually close. That trend has continued this year, and one has to wonder how long fans will continue to pay attention at such consistently high rates.
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