Supercharged by Sunday’s fractious Brooklyn-Boston opener and the Splash Brothers’ triumphant return to the postseason, the NBA playoffs are off to the hottest start in 11 years.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the weekend suite of games averaged 4.02 million linear-TV and out-of-home viewers across ABC, ESPN and TNT, up 40% versus last season’s analogous two-day stretch (2.87 million). The eight-game block marks the biggest TV turnout for the inaugural weekend of the NBA playoffs since 2011, which was roughly forever ago. (That same year, LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosch for his first postseason in Miami, while Carmelo Anthony celebrated his first full season as a Knick.)
The weekend’s top draw came courtesy of Sunday afternoon’s Nets-Celtics thriller/hatefest, which averaged just shy of 6.9 million viewers on ABC. That now stands as the most-watched opening-weekend game in 20 years, trailing only the April 21, 2002 Blazers-Lakers game (8.37 million). On a day in which a bird-flipping Kyrie Irving scored 39 points, Jayson Tatum stole the show, powering Boston to a 115-114 win with a buzzer-beating layup.
The Easter TV crowd was up 80% versus last year’s Celtics-Nets opener, which drew 3.82 million viewers on ABC. The delayed start to the season pushed the 2021 playoff tip to the weekend of May 22-23; in a normal year, that’s about when the fourth game of the Conference Finals gets underway.
Sunday’s game peaked at 9.85 million viewers from 6 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. EDT.
Irving’s willingness to wear the black hat whenever the Nets visit TD Garden has added a little kick to an already spicy burgeoning rivalry, and certainly helped boost ABC’s deliveries. Regardless of how tiresome it may be for the rest of the country, any iteration of the age-old blood feud between New York and Boston will draw a crowd in the Eastern time zone, which also happens to be home to 48% of all U.S. TV homes.
The point guard’s logo stomp at the end of Game 4 of the 2021 playoff series not only cheesed off a crowd of 17,226 C’s fans, but also drew the ire of former stars like Kevin Garnett and Glen “Big Baby” Davis. More to the point, Irving’s size-12 diss of Lucky the Leprechaun capped the most-watched cablecast of the Nets-Celts series, as TNT averaged 3.47 million viewers.
Even if the NBA fines the finger fight out of Kyrie, the Boston-Brooklyn series should continue to put up big numbers by virtue of it being the most compelling first-round matchup. But the NBA won’t live or die solely on the strength of the peevishness of the Funny Accent Corridor; per Nielsen, the Warriors and Bucks are also moving the ratings needle.
Game 1 of Golden State’s 123-107 win over Denver averaged 4.52 million viewers on ABC, while the Bucks’ 93-86 victory over the visiting Bulls on Sunday drew 4.77 million viewers to TNT. Both telecasts out-drew the most-watched game of last year’s opening weekend; on May 23, 2021, the Suns beat the Lakers 99-90 in front of an audience of 4.43 million ABC viewers.
The Warriors’ Saturday night victory marked the first time the club’s core triumvirate (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) have suited up for a postseason game since 2019. In a nod to protecting his gimpy left foot, Curry started the game as a spectator, taking a seat on the bench behind Jordan Poole. The 22-year-old guard scored 30 points in his playoff debut, while Curry put up 16 during his 22 minutes on the court.
The NBA’s early playoff deliveries follow the league’s strongest regular-season showing since 2018-19. With an average draw of 1.6 million viewers across ABC, ESPN and TNT, NBA ratings were up 19% versus the delayed 2020-21 season.
If the first stack of Nielsen data is particularly encouraging for the NBA and its network partners, the big spenders who support the league with their ad dollars are just as enthused. When the dust settles on the 2022 postseason, marketers like State Farm, Google, Taco Bell, Geico, AT&T, American Express will have spent upwards of $750 million to $800 million on in-game ad inventory.