On a media conference call Monday, ABC’s NBA Finals commentator team – Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy – joined Mark Gross, ESPN senior vice-present and executive producer, to discuss the start of The Finals (Game 1 Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC). An audio replay is available at ESPN Media Zone: replay.
Here is the transcript:
MARK GROSS: I appreciate everybody getting on the call today. We’re obviously thrilled with the Eastern Conference Finals, and even more thrilled and looking forward to the NBA Finals having the Heat and Thunder with the star power and the exciting play. You can’t ask for anything more. So we’re really fortunate and everybody’s looking forward to getting it started tomorrow night.
We will debut tomorrow night a new Finals open – an evolution of what we used to have that will only air on ABC during the Finals – so that will be one of the first things you’ll see as we come on the air.
All of our games are on the WatchESPN.com with ESPN3, where people will be able to watch The Finals whether they’re at home, whether they’re on the train, and wherever they have a smartphone and/or a tablet.
I don’t want to short change Doris Burke, who is tremendous on the sidelines, and I think everybody would agree with that. She’s right place, right time, and right questions and is just terrific with Mike and with Jeff.
As far as Kia NBA Countdown, we’ll continue the same model, so there is no standard host. That is the model that we’ve been using all year with Magic Johnson, Jon Barry, Mike Wilbon and Chris Broussard. We’ve had a lot of success with that during the regular season, and we look forward to building upon that for The Finals.
Q. Jeff, Oklahoma City’s a smaller market than San Antonio, and San Antonio was a ratings flop in their last three titles. Can you create a scenario where you can paint Oklahoma City as a team that is more capable of grabbing casual viewers nationally? They’re more exciting, more interesting, and the personalities of the players better developed than the San Antonio players were in ’03, ’05, and ’07?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: It’s hard to make the case that the players are more developed or have even established themselves like those guys have because Duncan had already won a title in those years. I don’t know if it will be ‑‑ I think a little bit of the ratings at that point were their opponents too. I think it was New Jersey one year and Detroit one and Cleveland. I think smaller markets in both cities made it tough.
But I’m confident this year with Mike Breen, Lebron James, and Kevin Durant the ratings will soar (laughter).
Q. Mike, you want to take that one?
MIKE BREEN: Do I need to be on this call, really (laughing)? Yes, I’m going to veer from the norm and really try to be outlandish and controversial.
Honestly, I never understood the lack of interest in San Antonio. Duncan wasn’t exactly the flashiest player, just one of the greatest. One of the greatest winners, and under the radar. But Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were dynamic, exciting players to watch, and I never understood why it didn’t catch on. Obviously, the small market has something to do with it, but I never understood why that team never caught on with fans.
The real basketball fans loved what they’re about and whether they conducted themselves. It was all puzzling to me why that wasn’t a team that basketball fans fully embraced.
Q. Do you think Durant and Harden’s beard are factors that can elevate Oklahoma City?
MIKE BREEN: Durant has ‑‑ what do they call it when they do those ratings? He has the “It” factor. There is something about him. He’s got charisma. He’s the humble superstar, also just the way he plays. He’s nearly 7 foot and can shoot from anywhere. He’s a special, special player.
He seems to have that charisma that people are attracted to that even aren’t basketball fans.
Q. Mark, how would you evaluate your pregame show group especially this postseason using both the scales of editorial and entertainment value?
MARK GROSS: I think it’s been really steady. We got off to a good start on Christmas day, and took it through the regular season. I think entertainment, informative, there’s a lot of chemistry out there with the four guys on the set. We’re really pleased with how it went all season, steam rolling into the Finals. So I think it’s just basically exceeded our expectations.
Q. Mark, I know decisions are made and evaluations are made after seasons. But at least from what your gut says right now, would you be leaning towards once again doing a pregame and postgame show without a traditional host?
MARK GROSS: Yes.
Q. Mark, could you talk about what went into the decision about adding a referee to the mix for the coverage and how that might help what you guys are doing?
MARK GROSS: Sure, Steve Javie. We hired, a former NBA official for 25 years. Actually called games 1 and 6 of the NBA Finals last year, so he’s going to be in the studio or in Philadelphia for every NBA Finals game. We just thought that so much attention during the playoffs and the regular season to a certain degree has been officiating. It’s been a story line throughout the season. We just thought that we’d be a little smarter and make our viewers a little smarter if we had a former official there.
I’d really like to hear Jeff’s comments on Steve Javie and officiating as well. We just think it’s going to make people smarter. I just got off the conference call with the guys in Bristol about what we want to do tomorrow. We want to understand flopping and understand the different things that Steve can offer from being in the league for 25 years. What is he talking to the players about? What is he talking to the coaches about? Is he talking to them about anything before the game? So on and so forth.
Just something we wanted to try, and we had Steve on last week in SportsCenter, it worked well. He’ll be in the studio tomorrow night.
Q. So just before Jeff weighs in, do you have logistically do you have the capability of him talking during a game or is it strictly going to be pre‑imposed?
MARK GROSS: We have the capability if the news warrants it if we really need it. I think if we don’t and there’s a question about officiating, we can certainly pick up the phone in the truck or do something at halftime or whatever it might be. Do something that may not be on TV but he can still provide some added value and information to.
If news warrants, we could certainly have him as part of the game. That’s not really part of the plan right now, but we’ll be flexible.
Q. Jeff, what do you think of this addition?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, I’ve said this before; I think Steve Javie is one of the finest officials of all time. He was a superb play caller, and unfortunately his ‑‑ he had to retire because of a knee injury and bothersome knee injury. I’ve said this too. I’d rather put Steve Javie on a segway and still have him officiating than not have him there because he’s that good.
I would love to have the chance to talk to him myself, just to get a better feel for what officials talk about in their pregame meeting between games if they work better chemistry-wise. What would be better served to work with the same guys all the time in the Finals, or it makes no difference if they get mixed together like they do now. I think having them there to be able to answer within a game is great.
But I also think to go back and look at after each Game 5, 6, 7 calls and really teach the fans what the officials are looking for. If Steve and I looked at the same play, we would debate some calls back and forth and he got after me a little bit. So I want my chance for redemption and to be able to strike back.
But, no, he’s a heck of an official. I always say the greatest compliment I could ever give an official; I would give to him in this way. I always wanted to see him on the road and never wanted to see him at home because he never, ever was influenced about a crowd, ever.
Q. Jeff, I know you’ve been out of coaching a few years now. Do you miss it at all? How do you rate your performance as an analyst?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, I do miss coaching particularly the competition and camaraderie. I think it’s hard to have coached that long and not miss those two elements in particular. I think it’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle, because you’re so entrenched and your schedule is completely dictated by the schedule of the NBA. And in that way, I do miss it.
As far as grading myself, I really don’t think about it like that. I just try to do the best I can. If Mark doesn’t fire me after a game and I get to do another one, then I’m doing fine. I sort of let others critique and understand that they have a job, and some will like you, some you’ll annoy, and others will down right detest the sound of your voice. But just trying to do the best I can and be as fair as possible.
Q. Jeff, if you were the Miami Heat, how do you defend Westbrook?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, Russell Westbrook is a dynamic athlete. His ability to work you in multiple ways, as far as steals into the Open court. He’s an excellent rebounder and then pushing the ball. When he’s playing in transition or semi‑transition, just speed and quickness on to the basket make him a tough cover. Plus in transition now he’s got a more consistent 17‑ or 18‑foot pull‑up, which is very difficult to stop. Three‑point shooting has improved as well.
But the main thing you have to try to do is keep them in front, make him shoot it over the top. When he does put his head down and try to get to the rim, he’s got to see a wall of bodies and try to force him into some mistakes.
But seeing that he’s making less and less mistakes with the ball, the game is slowing down for him.
Remember now, this guy didn’t come into the NBA as a point guard. He’s making the toughest conversion there is from a college two to an NBA point. The improvements he’s made have been rapid and dramatic.
Q. Jeff, I don’t know if this was asked about the two coaches in the series, how you break them down stylistically, Scott Brooks versus Spoelstra. Also I was trying to get your thoughts on the Knicks hiring or rehiring Mike Woodson and not going after Phil Jackson?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: I thought the Mike Woodson hiring was the right move for that team. Obviously, Phil Jackson has been the most successful coach in NBA history, but I think Mike Woodson is the right fit at the right time. I thought his team performed especially well in the regular season.
Then obviously a difficult match‑up between the Heat in the first round. Got it handed to him in game 1, but after that, I thought they played well, and I thought they acquitted themselves well. They still have some problems maneuvering to make where they want to go. But I thought they showed a good amount of growth over that last 24 games in the regular season and into the playoffs.
As far as Scott Brooks and Erick, the similarities are mixed, tremendous coaches with humble demeanors. They have gotten their players to play at an even keel, even when they’ve been down. Miami responded exceptionally well to being down 2‑1 in Indiana, and down 9 in Game 4, came back two and a half straight great games. Then being down 3‑2 to Boston and being down in Game 7 in double figures in the first half, tremendous job of staying the course and finding a way.
I think Oklahoma City against a dominant team in San Antonio winning 20 in a row, down 2‑0, to come back and Scott made some very good defensive adjustments to allow them to guard San Antonio a little bit better. For their team to play that hard and that well for that long I think showed just how much respect both teams have for their head coaches. These guys are young, smart, and have great teams. They’re a big part of their team.
Q. One of the obvious story lines here is that you have the league MVP in a guy who was second in the voting, and here is a chance to kind of settle this on the court. Do you buy that? Is it that simple? Is it a chance to find out which guy is better?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, it’s certainly a great match‑up. You can make a compelling argument for the two best players in the league. But what can’t be argued is that they’re the two best small forwards in the league. Whenever you have such greatness at one position that is going to match‑up head‑to‑head, it’s certainly intriguing.
But this is going to be about which team plays better. I think one could actually outplay the other, and let the other team win. Both guys carry a heavy burden for their teams, but not the only burden.
I think that Oklahoma City’s coming in here hungry and healthy with incredible speed, quickness, length and athleticism led by one of the most humble stars in any sport in Kevin Durant. Then I think Lebron James, how he held that team together through the Bosh injury and through the up and downs two of incredibly tough series against Indiana and then Boston, how he held it together showed just what a great, great leader he is, as well as a great player so I think it’s going to be a great individual match‑up for the fans to focus on. But the teams are only focused on the end result.
Q. Jeff, can you talk more about Erick Spoelstra? What are the signs that you see from him in his second NBA Finals rather than maybe last year? Are there subtle changes that you’d like to see from him?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, I’ll say this, as a coach, I think I have the advantage of analyzing other coaches, because knowing the unique challenges and I don’t think anybody ‑‑ they always talk about the positives of coaching greatness, but there are difficulties in coaching greatness too.
I think Erick’s demeanor with his team is so good in that he’s intense, he’s focused, but he’s also open. One thing you never see him do, which I’m sure because he’s taken such unfair at times criticism, he’s never lashed out.
He’s never blamed others. All he’s ever done is internalized it and gone back the next day with the same demeanor of work, of preparation, and when you look for what a well‑coached team looks like, what you look for is do they guard?
Well, Miami guards hard with very little size. They are the best defensive team I’ve seen without any size. That’s number one. Two, do they share the ball? Which Miami does exceptionally well. Do they space the floor correctly? Do they get their best players high quality shots? On all accounts, Erick Spoelstra gets an A.
Within the coaching circles in the NBA, Erick Spoelstra is thought of extremely, extremely highly. They know just how fortunate Miami is to have him. But as a head coach of a team that’s advanced this far for the second year in a row, he is fully aware of the fact that on every loss, the coach will be blamed until you get a Championship.
Once you get a Championship, the media no longer analyzes you the same way. You’re above reproach and criticism. But until that time on every loss will come the normal refrain that it’s the coach’s fault.
Q. Is that similar for Brooks as well?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: No doubt. You saw it in the San Antonio series. A San Antonio person wrote this huge, scathing column after Game 1 how he had been out coached and they were going to lose. It’s the overreaction.
You don’t get to this point in the season with a team unless you’re an outstanding, outstanding coach.
The four coaches who made the Conference Finals, you have Greg Popovich, who in my opinion is the best coach in my time in the NBA. And Doc Rivers who is off the charts good, and then Scott Brooks and Spoelstra who are absolutely outstanding basketball coaches.
Yeah, Scott Brooks did the same thing Spoelstra did, which is unfair criticism because they lost a game that somebody expected them to win. So who is to blame? On Oklahoma City, it always falls the same way. When they lose, it’s Brooks and Westbrook. When the Heat lose, it’s James and Spoelstra.
Q. Jeff, number one, did I hear you say you consider the Miami Heat a better defensive team than Oklahoma, or an undersized better defensive undersized team? I guess my question is which is the better defensive team, Oklahoma or Miami? Who is the third best player on the floor in this series?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, I meant when I was talking that Miami is the best team I’ve seen in my time in the NBA who doesn’t have a lot of rim protection, they’re very small. Sometimes that gets overlooked and they’re doing it without the size you usually see.
Oklahoma, they’re a different defensive team. Their numbers aren’t the same. But Oklahoma City’s such a great, great offensive team; they don’t need to have the same defensive numbers. But I think they’re an outstanding, ever improving defensive team they play with great speed, intensity, and their length causes turnovers and deflections which gets them out in the Open court where they’re absolutely devastating.
As far as who is the best player on the court, it’s going to be fun to watch because there are so many people that could be. Wade, Bosh, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, and a lot of guys you could pick from. I think that’s why this Finals match‑up is going to be so fun to call.
Q. Jeff, you recently made some comments that were perceived around northeast Ohio that this area should get over what happened with the decision?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: I heard what you said. I made my comments and then what about?
Q. They were perceived here in northeast Ohio that the area should just get over what happened with the decision. What can Lebron James do to be rid of that criticism related to that decision? Does winning a Championship help nationwide?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: You know, when I said that I probably should have said other than for the Cleveland Cavalier fans because I understand Cavaliers fans, their lingering bitterness and animosity because in the best player in the game, and the best player in the world leaves you, that’s difficult.
I guess I was more so addressing what I find just the casual NBA fan from other teams who I really don’t understand. This guy’s a great player. He plays very hard. He’s very unselfish. If the biggest mistake he’s made in his life is how he announced that he was exercising his free agency decision and then the celebration that ensued because of it, I really don’t get by the casual NBA fan or fans from other city, why that has provoked such bitterness or animosity. Particularly that it’s lasted this long.
I really do believe in many ways the way he goes about his business, the way he plays the game, he’s a model for how you want your players to play the game.
Q. What could he do to fix that perception nationwide?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: I think ‑‑ one thing I think that’s helped him is he stopped trying to fix it. He’s come out, I believe, and said he probably should have done it a little bit differently. So to me he’s apologized.
Now I don’t think he should try to do more. I think realizing that some people are going to always find fault is the way of the world. Social media to me has played a major role in that. To get past that and just keep doing what you’re doing and be accountable to yourself and those you care deeply about, that’s all you should worry about.
I think he’s done some great things on and off the court in Cleveland and in Akron I understand why they keep harboring resentment. But other than that, I don’t understand any other fan. I just don’t get it.
Q. Jeff, I want to talk about Scott Brooks and the fact that you coached him. Did you see him becoming a coach and succeeding this quickly? Was there something in him as a player that maybe this doesn’t surprise you?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, when you’re coaching players it’s hard to really see anybody as a coach right off the bat, because they’re so consumed with trying to stay in the league and prolong their career.
But he always had the intangible quality that you would associate with a coach. He was tough, physically and mentally, he worked exceptionally hard at his skills, and he was deeply, deeply committed to the team that despite fluctuating in playing time.
Scott always impressed me when I was an assistant in the ’94 Finals against Houston and he had lost his playing time to Sam Cassell who had come in as a rookie. While that was a bitter pill to swallow, I always remember he and Chris Gent incredible on the bench.
That’s why we brought both in. We thought they were extremely good competitors, very capable players but now how to fit into a team. Scott was such a bless to go our team the year he was with us and a very capable player. When he finally did decide to retire, I thought he dipped his toes into the water initially to try to figure out if this coaching was for him. What he found out quickly, seemingly was not only did he enjoy it, but he was great at it.
The career he carved out as a player has to make him awfully proud, undrafted and to be around as long as he lasted and to play for so many quality teams. But he’s on the path to surpassing what he achieved as a player now as a coach. He has a chance with the team he built to, if everything goes right, to be a team that can sustain success for a long, long time.
A lot of the credit for how quickly they’ve developed as a team has to go directly to Scott Brooks.
Q. Mike, I’m wondering if your sidekick’s choice of designer eyewear has influenced sartorial styles of NBA players at the podium?
MIKE BREEN: Russell Westbrook earlier today gave him an advantage grade for how he looked. I think he appreciated the attempt, but gave him an average great grade. Jeff has always been at the forefront of fashion, both when he was a coach and now as an analyst that I don’t think really anything’s changed.
Q. Because it does look like it tends to look more like Van Gundy, that is my impression. I was just wondering if it had been discussed in larger circles?
MIKE BREEN: I think it’s just a desperate cry to call attention to one’s self.
Q. Jeff, people were saying the real final was between San Antonio and the former city. Why do you think people don’t appreciate the Eastern Conference as much as the Western Conference?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: I think the true basketball knowledgeable people understand just how good Boston is and Miami. It was truly a classic series. I think that Miami, even though they’re a slight underdog coming into this series, has the full attention of Oklahoma City. Because I think Oklahoma City, they know just how good Miami is.
With Bosh coming back and being as productive as he was in Game 7, they’re facing a team that not only has extreme confidence, but they are also healthy for the first time since Bosh got hurt in Game 1 against Indiana.
Q. And everybody is saying that Oklahoma is the favorite. What is the factor for the Heat with the hopes?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: It’s not me saying they’re the underdog. They are the underdog by the odds. I think the game of baseball is always decided by the same things. It;s defense, rebounding, keeping your turnovers down getting to the free‑throw line and making.
Obviously the three‑point shot is a huge factor in each game. I think it’s fairly evenly matched series. I think Oklahoma City has greater depth up front in their big positions. But when you trot out James, Wade and Bosh, you surround them with a lot of three‑point shooting and you’re as well coached as Miami is, you’ve got a great chance to win it all.
Q. Following up on that, do you think it will be easier for Lebron to play as an underdog? Everybody’s expectations for him since he went to Miami are through the roof. But now his team is an underdog, do you think it will be easier for him or not?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: I think we always ask those psychological questions I have no idea, I guess, is the bottom line. I don’t think anyone else does. I think the easiest thing to do is wait for the results and then analyze it backwards because if that’s what he’s had to deal with, and I think it’s unfortunate, sometimes with all the extra analysis of James is that the people watching are sometimes missing what is one of the most incredible careers that we’ve seen. A guy coming out of high school, winning MVP three out of four years, getting into the Finals for the third time and still chasing that ring.
Unfortunately, people don’t think enough about not just about what you do to win or how you play, it’s who the opponent is and how they’re playing. When his team lost to the spurs, the Spurs were clearly the better team. Last year Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t have played any better in the Finals.
So James is a special, special talent. I think we’re going to be able to watch him against some other guys that are very gifted as well.
Q. Mark, have you guys announced who will be handling the trophy ceremony after the winners have become known?
MARK GROSS: Stuart Scott.
Q. Jeff, I wanted to know for the casual female basketball fan, any key things you think they should know between the OKC and the Miami game?
JEFF VAN GUNDY: Well, I think the focus for all fans will be on Durant and James. But if I was the casual female fan, I would be focusing in on James Harden and Chris Bosh. Because I think both of those guys when they play exceptionally well, their team just is so much more dynamic offensively.
I think James Harden would be a starter on almost any team in the NBA. But the amount of sacrifice that he’s made so that they start a better balanced lineup, and that his ego allows Scott Brooks to bring him off the bench. And the same with Chris Bosh, a guy who is a max salary player coming back from injury instead of demanding to go right back in the starting lineup, allows his coach to play him off the bench to better balance their lineup against Boston, these type of sacrifices to me are often overlooked. But I would think very much appreciated by the casual female fan.
Q. Mike, regarding the Heat and the Thunder, are there any guys on these two teams that you and Jeff have a particularly interesting relationship with, maybe they’ve gone up to you before games or after games? I wonder if there is anybody on either of these teams who stands out, for if nothing else, coming over to you guys either before or after the game?
MIKE BREEN: First off, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for letting me participate in this call by somebody finally asking me a question.
For Jeff, there are guys that played for him. Shane Battier, Jeff will go on and on and on about how he’s one of the great teammates and great professionals that he’s ever coached. So there is an interesting relationship there. Guys like Howard who we played, same type thing. He’s got great relationships with those guys. They played for him, and did everything for him, and he really loved what they stood for.
For me, one of the guys that I love and he’s been one of my favorite players for a long time is Kendrick Perkins. You people see him on the court as this mean, surly, always‑in‑a‑bad‑mood player, and he’s just the opposite off. He really is a thinking man’s player. He’s very smart. He’s polite and nice and actually funny, and people don’t get that. That is one of the reasons I root for him because he gets on the court, and all he cares about is winning. If he had a point or a rebound, he just wants to win. He takes on a different demeanor like that.
For me, he’s the guy that I really like, and I wish fans knew that side of him. Like I said, Jeff’s got a bunch of guys that he coached that he knows so well.