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NBA sees hopeful numbers in first year of new TV deal

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In the first season of a massive new $24 billion television contract, the NBA saw its combined domestic ratings for all networks stay even when compared to last season.

For Bill Koenig, the league’s president of global media distribution, that qualifies as a victory.

Long immune to the ratings tumbles that have plagued other television shows in the era of DVRs and cord-cutting, some sports leagues saw their viewership numbers dip in part because of a bombastic presidential election cycle. The NBA opened its season going head-to-head with a historic World Series matchup between the Cubs and Indians, but has emerged with what Koenig considers encouraging signs as the playoffs begin next week.

The combined U.S. ratings held firm at 0.8 for the season while the league had a 3 percent rise in unique viewers and a 6 percent increase in the total hours of game action fans have watched in a season, according to the NBA. Also, 19 more games were broadcast nationally.

“I think our game is very attractive to the younger, more technologically savvy, multicultural fan. Those numbers are growing over time,” Koenig said in a phone interview. “I also think there is a real emphasis here of promoting our game through traditional means, buying advertising, but also through social media.”

Koenig was at the forefront of negotiations for the record-breaking contract with Turner and ESPN/ABC that flooded the league with revenue this season. If the sheer size of the deal put more pressure on the NBA to deliver big ratings, Koenig isn’t telling.

“We worked with our network partners to drive tune-in, to make a compelling schedule and to use our digital and social media in ways that are an advantage for us,” Koenig said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any more important this year than it was in years past, but as time goes on we have more in our arsenal to help drive viewership.”

The NBA leads all U.S. sports leagues with 1.3 billion combined followers on social media and is feeding the appetite for content.

With the 19 additional national television games, fans have watched 37 million more hours of game action, the league said. The Christmas Day game between Cleveland and Golden State was the most viewed early game in ABC’s history, opening night on TNT was up 8 percent and the most-viewed curtain-raiser since 2013 and the Warriors-Cavaliers rematch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the most-viewed regular season game since 2013.

That contrasts with the NFL, which saw its ratings decline by 8 percent last season, while marquee games on Sunday and Monday nights were down 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

Compelling story lines including Russell Westbrook‘s pursuit of averaging a triple-double through an entire season, LeBron James‘ title defense in Cleveland, Kevin Durant‘s move to Golden State and James Harden‘s renaissance in Houston have helped drive interest.

In the second half of the season, the issue of resting star players has come to the forefront. Television partners have expressed concern when healthy stars sit out of nationally televised games. It will be a topic this week when the owners convene in New York for the Board of Governors meetings.

“I’ve been in touch with our national and regional telecasters on this issue. It’s something that’s very important,” Koenig said. “Obviously, the basketball people with our teams and our league are very involved in this process, too. We’re going to discuss it and try and come up with measures that we think will address the issue in a way that serves the various interests that we’re trying to serve.”

There will be discussions about streamlining replays and timeouts in an effort to make the game more “free-flowing” and enjoyable to watch, Koenig said. He did not anticipate any changes for next season, but the league has already installed clocks in arenas to try and keep timeouts from dragging too long. Broadcasters are starting to sprinkle advertising in during free throws and other slower times to try to avoid the full commercial breaks that can lead viewers to change the channel.

“We understand the importance of pure competition. We don’t want to do anything that will negatively impact that,” Koenig said. “I think that the basketball side understands the business reality and the importance of what we’re trying to do and we’re both working toward the same end.”

The television contract lasts another eight years, and Koenig’s work is hardly finished. The league is constantly experimenting with its presentation, exploring virtual reality, different camera angles for mobile viewers and other ways to appeal to a changing audience.

“We can’t rest on our laurels,” he said. “We want to evolve. We want to create something that is more compelling for today’s viewer and tomorrow’s viewer.”

This story has been clarified to show that the Warriors-Cavaliers game on MLK Day was TNT’s highest-rated regular season game since 2013, not just its highest-rated MLK Day game.

Bucks’ Khris Middleton, dealing with illness, misses practice

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — Bucks wing Khris Middleton missed practice with an illness that has been bothering the Bucks’ second-leading scorer (14.7 points) all week.

Middleton was 3 of 8 for eight points in 35 minutes in the 118-93 Game 5 loss in Toronto that gave the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said he didn’t think the illness was a factor, and that Middleton had good looks and played well defensively. He expected Middleton to start on Thursday and said he wasn’t pondering any lineup changes for Game 6.

The Bucks got a day off from practice then returned to practice Wednesday after a brief break from what has been an increasingly rugged series.

After getting blown out in Game 3 by the Bucks, the Raptors won the next two games in part by being more physical and slowing down Milwaukee.

Sometimes, a young team needs to learn from failure to get better.

Kidd hopes his players build on the lessons learned from a stinker of a Game 5 in their opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. They need to regroup quickly to avoid elimination when the Raptors and Bucks meet Thursday night at the Bradley Center.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Kidd said when asked about whether his players learned from the blowout loss. “Today, I thought guys were focused, understanding what we have to do. It’s not hard, but for us the process of being able to be consistent is the one thing that we struggle with.”

Workaholic forward Giannis Antetokounmpo might have been the only player who didn’t want a breather.

“I don’t know, for me, I didn’t need an off-day. But for sure some guys played a lot of minutes, their bodies are sore,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think for some guys it’s good to get some rest so we can bring more energy tomorrow.”

For all of his athleticism, the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo lacks playoff experience when compared to the postseason-tested Raptors.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton are playing in their second career playoff series after the Bucks lost in six games to top-seeded Chicago in 2015. Antetokounmpo’s role has changed now that he’s the focal point of the offense, so he faces more defensive scrutiny.

The team surrounding Antetokounmpo and Middleton has been almost completely made over since then, with injured forward Jabari Parker and center John Henson the only other holdovers. Henson has only played three minutes against Toronto.

Two other starters, guard Malcolm Brogdon and center Thon Maker, are rookies. Even center Greg Monroe, a seven-year veteran who provides scoring punch off the bench, is making his playoff debut. Fourth-year players Tony Snell (Bulls) and Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers) joined the Bucks this season, brought to Milwaukee in part because of their postseason experience.

In contrast, the Raptors have been through about every conceivable playoff situation after losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Led by one of the best backcourts in the game in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, Toronto is no stranger to adversity.

“You definitely see that experience come into play and we just understand the moment probably a little bit more than them. That’s not to take away (anything) from them,” DeRozan said. “They are a great team, a young team and this is definitely going to be an experience they will learn from and carry over but for now it’s something we have to keep in mind and understand the moment of going into every single game … to try and close this thing out.”

Milwaukee’s transition game is off track with 31 turnovers over the last two contests.

“That’s the physicality part, because it’s the playoffs, because it’s more intense. You get away with slaps, holds, grabs and that’s a trick of the trade,” said Jason Terry, a 17-year veteran who is averaging about 10 minutes a game off the bench for the Bucks this series.

“If you haven’t (been) through that, you don’t know it until you face it,” Terry said. “I think for us being a young team, now that we’ve seen it four or five games consecutively, hopefully now we can adjust.”

NOTES:

 

Jimmy Butler hits contested deep buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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Shooting buzzer-beaters is especially difficult because the defender knows your deadline to release the shot. The threat of a pump fake, drive to another location or pass disappears as the seconds tick down.

On the other hand, Jimmy Butler is very good.

Wizards’ interior defense, transition buckets earns them 103-98 win, 3-2 series lead over Hawks

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It’s one of the core tenets of the NBA analytics movement that aligns well with old-school thinking — get your buckets from the places it’s easiest to score. The ones where teams shoot the highest percentage, where they are most efficient. Basically, shoot close to the basket or corner threes.

Feeling comfortable back home, Washington took those shots away from Atlanta Wednesday night — the Hawks shot 43.6 percent inside eight feet of the rim, were just 18-of-41 in the paint (43.9 percent) and were 0-of-6 on corner threes.

Combine that with 27 points from Bradley Beal, 20 points and 14 assists for John Wall, and some transition baskets (20 fast break points) and you get a 103-98 win for the Wizards. Washington now has a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Atlanta Friday night (if necessary, Game 7 would be Sunday).

Washington always seemed to be the better team in this one, but they could never get a comfortable lead — when Washington would get up double digits, the Hawks would close the gap again and hang around.

A lot of credit for that goes to point guard Dennis Schroder, who had 29 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and was 5-of-6 from three, to lead the Hawks. As it has been all series, the Wizards game plan with Schroder was to go under every pick and dare him to beat them with his jumper — and he almost did. Schroder also had 11 assists on the game.

While he played well and Paul Millsap was his usual impressive self inside (21 points, although on 8-of-19 shooting), the Hawks wings were a mess. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 13-of-41 (31.7 percent) and they were 3-of-18 from three (Hardaway had all the makes).

Meanwhile, Beal had one of his best games of the playoffs, and he deserves some credit for the struggles of the Hawks’ wings.

“I think (Beal) is one of the best two-way players in the league,” Brooks said. “He’s not going to tell anyone he’s a great defender, but his coaching staff, his teammates know he locks up defensively.”

Washington also got some help from Otto Porter (17 points) and Bojan Bogdanovic off the bench with 14 points. Both of them made some clutch shots.

Scott Brooks threw some new wrinkles at the Hawks that worked for stretches — using Wall to double Millsap at times, or going for a stretch with Markieff Morris at the five. Morris still had foul trouble despite the help, the veteran Millsap knows how to get calls. Still, the tweaks worked well enough to get Washington some buckets, and the win.

The question becomes will the Wizards be able to do that on the road — the home team has won every game this series. If the Hawks’ wings feel more comfortable and hit some shots, if Atlanta can get some more easy points inside Friday night, we will be watching Game 7 of this series on Sunday.

No. 1 pick in WNBA draft LAUNCHES shirt deep into stands at Spurs-Grizzlies game (video)

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If the Cleveland Browns are still considering a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft tomorrow, maybe they ought to take Kelsey Plum.

Plum, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft, will play for the San Antonio Stars. First, she went to San Antonio for last night’s Spurs-Grizzlies Game 5 and showed off her arm by launching a shirt far into the crowd.

And she’s witty: