clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Big Three of NBA Broadcasting, Plus Other Playoff Observations

Mike Breen, Ian Eagle, and Kevin Harlan are at the top of their games in these playoffs. Plus, we need a name for when players get hit in their “midsections.”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA playoffs might be the most hectic time to do my job. Every night, I hear announcers reset their story lines. I hear them search for synonyms for “midsection.” I hear them try to describe a game that’s moving incredibly fast. Sitting forward on the couch, I allow myself to entertain thoughts like, “Is Grant Hill not saying anything because he’s running for U.S. Senate?”

It would be a shame to waste such ideas. Here are five thoughts about how the NBA playoffs have looked and sounded on TV.

1. The Big Three

I’m leery about declaring a golden age of anything. But these playoffs have been really fun to listen to. This is partly because the NBA has three great national play-by-play announcers: Mike Breen, Ian Eagle, and Kevin Harlan. They’ve got big assignments: Breen on ESPN, Eagle and Harlan on TNT. They’re all in their announcing primes.

There have been a lot of really good basketball play-by-play announcers in my lifetime. But in terms of national TV types, I don’t remember the NBA going three deep. You could argue the league got close in 2005, when Al Michaels called the Finals for ESPN, Breen was on the network’s roster, and Marv Albert was the lead announcer on Turner.

This big three has certain advantages. They’re not just NBA announcers but announcers whose sounds were formed by the NBA, whose rhythms were hitched to the game at an early age. Breen and Eagle started calling Knicks and Nets games, respectively, in the early ’90s. In 1982, on the day Harlan graduated from the University of Kansas, he got a message at his frat house offering him the radio play-by-play job with the Kansas City Kings.

Listening to a basketball announcer is like riding in the passenger seat of a car on the highway. Can I trust you to put your foot on the gas at the right time and take it off at the right time? Can I relax, or will I worry we’ll go careening into an embankment?

Night after night, what you notice about the big three is how they navigate the flow of a game. On Tuesday, Harlan exploded when Tyrese Maxey’s 3-pointer helped finish off the Celtics: “Maxey, triple—gooood! Oh, what a big hit!” The call has probably already been forgotten. But it was a nice piece of driving.

Breen, Eagle, and Harlan are very different. Harlan sounds like the dad in a button-down who gives you the firmest handshake at the Sunday barbecue. Eagle is a student of media, an amalgam of comic influences ranging from Catskills pros to Letterman to WFAN drive time hosts. Breen is hard to pin down in a sentence. He can be funny and, at times, emotional. But as Breen gets ready to call his 18th NBA Finals, I have started to think of his work this way: What if excellence were its own style?

Basketball writers and podcasters have nudged us to appreciate just how fun it is to watch LeBron James and Steph Curry trade roundhouses in the playoffs. The way these series are called is fun, too. Enjoy it.

2. You Call That the Midsection?

“We’ve seen a lot of hits to the groin recently,” Steve Javie, the referee turned ESPN analyst, declared last week. For once, Javie was right. This has created a crisis in announcing.

For the entirety of these playoffs, and for most of my adult life, I’ve heard announcers try to describe blows to this region with the delicacy they deserve. They often settle on overly broad terms like “midsection.” Or the inadvertently comic “groin.” “He threw it right into the—the groin,” Turner’s Spero Dedes said last month.

What we need is a league-friendly term that everyone can agree on. When I asked for nominees on a podcast recently, listeners had some good ones. The hosts of the No Dunks podcast call this injury getting hit “in the Hibberts,” after Shane Battier kneeing Roy Hibbert during a playoff game in 2013. (“You call that midsection?” Steve Kerr, then an analyst, asked.)

“In the Hibberts” may be a touch too obscure for fans who don’t live on NBA Twitter. The Men in Blazers pod calls such injuries getting hit “in the down-belows.” That may be a touch too British. Ditto the term listener John Mackay informs me is a favorite of English cricket announcers: “amidships.” I’d love to hear Eagle say, “Looks like James Harden got hit … amidships.”

Listener Brian McKenna had the best idea. Call it “the restricted area.” The term is already in circulation. It’s delicate without being obscure. It even hints at the flagrant 1 that’s likely to be called after the video review. An announcer can arch their eyebrow and move on. Problem solved.

3. “BA” Stands for Basketball, Too

Breen-Eagle-Harlan don’t have a monopoly on the playoffs. The first and second rounds are a chance for other announcers to perform in front of some of the biggest audiences they’ll get all year. Last spring, TNT’s Brian Anderson sounded like he was doing baseball. Anderson calls Milwaukee Brewers games. That baseball sound—remote and stately, coming from a high-up booth rather than a table at courtside—crept into his basketball calls.

Announcers can change. As the Warriors went on a 14-0 fourth-quarter run against the Lakers in Game 1, Anderson’s voice sounded urgent, ground level, full of delighted surprise when Curry’s game-tying 3 went in (“the magic of Stephen Curry!”). Anderson sounds like he’s doing not just basketball but playoff basketball.

4. His Partner, on the Other Hand …

Stan Van Gundy is an interesting work in progress. Van Gundy is like Fox’s Greg Olsen was at the beginning of the last NFL season. He has a lot of interesting things to say about basketball. His problem is that he’s trying to say them all.

Van Gundy loves to take a possession just completed and dissect it as the ball goes the other way up the floor. Nothing wrong with that. But he can’t coach us up on every possession. He especially can’t do this in the fourth quarters of playoff games, when the drama of the next play is more interesting than a teachable moment.

The fourth quarter of Lakers-Warriors Game 1 found Van Gundy determined to pull out his dry-erase board no matter what was happening in front of him. With a little over eight minutes to go, Van Gundy made a point about the Lakers’ team defense. One problem: LeBron James was shooting at the other end of the floor.

Van Gundy tends to go long with his points or else repeat them over and over. In the same fourth quarter, Van Gundy noted that the Warriors offense opened up when they let Curry handle the ball. Then he made the point again. Then he made it a third time.

In the final minutes of a tight game, I like basketball analysts to drift into the corner like P.J. Tucker. With a little over a minute left in Game 1, Van Gundy was talking about how Curry exploded when the Lakers’ Jarred Vanderbilt was on the bench. The problem was not the point, which was astute enough, but Van Gundy’s timing. As he spoke, Curry was getting swatted by Anthony Davis.

Two possessions later, the Lakers got the ball with a three-point lead. There were a little more than 40 seconds left in the game. Here was a time to sit back and watch James go for the dagger. As James dribbled, Van Gundy launched into a spiel about how James was draining the clock rather than looking for a good shot. Van Gundy was still making the point as the shot left James’s hands!

James missed, the Warriors’ Jordan Poole missed a way-too-deep 3 at the other end, and the Lakers got the ball with 4.7 seconds left, now virtually assured of the win. Then, Van Gundy repeated his point about James milking the shot clock! Coach, they’re gonna win. Can we talk about this tomorrow?

In Game 4, Van Gundy was better in crunch time, until the final meaningful possession. The Warriors, down by three, had the ball with 15 seconds left. Again, Curry’s attempt to tie a huge playoff game on the road is its own kind of drama. “Now, two questions here for the Lakers,” Van Gundy said as Curry inbounded the ball. Two questions? Right now, when the questions are being answered in real time? Van Gundy was still talking when Draymond Green threw the ball away.

The podcast era has allowed more sophisticated analysis to seep into NBA telecasts. Hooray for that. But it’s a mistake to interpret that as an invitation to regale us with such analysis, all of it, no matter what’s happening on the court. Van Gundy’s problem isn’t the worst one to have. I’d rather ask an interesting announcer to say less than a dull announcer to say more. But he’s got to pick his spots.

5. Are We on TV Right Now? I Don’t Know.

When I talk about the basketball we watch on TV, I try not to sound like a complete crank. But I happily embrace crankhood when I say there are too many commercials stuck in the final seconds of playoff games. Call them garbage timeouts.

CBS and Turner created an industry standard for such timeouts during March Madness, but Turner has raised its game during the playoffs.

One typical example: During Game 4 of the Knicks-Heat series, Turner went to a break with just over 11 seconds left in the game. The Heat were up eight points. The game was over. What were we pausing for? Pete Davidson and an ad for the NBA app, it turned out.

I know producers need to squeeze in these ads. I’ve sat in TV trucks and watched as they’ve reacted to unexpected stoppages in play like Donald Trump claims large men react to him on the street.

But it makes for strange, awkward TV. The practice reached its comic high point during ESPN’s telecast of Warriors-Lakers Game 2. When the Warriors challenged a charging call on Andrew Wiggins, the network wedged in a commercial.

After the ad, ESPN’s announcers asked Javie to weigh in on the review. Before Javie could muster an answer, you could hear the PA announcer telling the crowd the call had been reversed. Poor Javie was left to predict a verdict that had already been rendered. I felt bad for him. It’s the TV equivalent of getting hit in the restricted area.