This afternoon, ESPN NBA analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson discussed the 2018 NBA Finals on a conference media call.
ABC is the exclusive broadcast home of the 2018 NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James versus Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry. Game 1 is Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET.
Van Gundy and Jackson will join the voice of the NBA Finals Mike Breen, and veteran reporter and analyst Doris Burke, to call their ninth NBA Finals as a quartet. 2018 marks the 16th consecutive time ESPN has produced the NBA Finals on ABC.
For more details on ABC & ESPN’s coverage for the 2018 NBA Finals, click here.
To listen to the call, click here.
Below is the transcript from the call.
Q. Does the Rockets’ performance in the back-to-back third quarters say anything about their style of play and specifically about the play of James Harden in these critical games?
MARK JACKSON: To me, it says that they are right there. They have had a great season, an incredible coaching job done by Mike D’Antoni, MVP season for James Harden. Outstanding supporting cast, Chris Paul’s success in the playoffs.
I think overall, they have a lot to be proud of, and certainly put themselves in position to have an extremely bright future moving forward. It’s awfully tough to beat the Golden State Warriors. They are champions for a reason. They have no quit. I think it’s more of a testament to who they are, as opposed to anything negative to say about the Houston Rockets. It’s been a great, great year for them.
JEFF VAN GUNDY: I think when you take into account Chris Paul’s injury, missing 27 threes in a row, having a couple blatant — three-point shooting calls missed in the first half, you couple all those together, and they still were up double digits in both games in the first half.
It shows you that they are really good, and it’s not like Houston, their style is much different than Golden State’s in the fact that both rely on the three-point shot. One team shot 7-for-44. One shot 16-for-39.
So oftentimes, it comes down to making, and I think you do see the three-point field goal percentage go down. Both teams who lost at home in the seventh game, they shot a combined 14-for-83 in those two home games, and that’s a challenge to overcome.
Q. Most neutral fans give the Cavaliers almost zero chance. What do they have to do to have a legitimate chance to win this series?
VAN GUNDY: I think you saw it last night. It’s really difficult to play a slower player if you’re going to switch pick-and-rolls.
So Brian Anderson, in eight minutes, was at minus 12 because he’s switching on to Curry and that’s a challenging matchup for a guard, let alone a slower big.
So I think Cleveland, they have to make sure rotation-wise that they don’t compromise their lateral quickness.
Obviously James is going to have to be great, and just like the three-point shot was detriment to both Boston and Houston in their Game 7 victories, I think they are going to — you know, they are going to have been lights-out from the three-point line to have a chance to win a game.
But this is the biggest difference that I remember between two teams heading into the Finals in my time in the NBA. I can’t — I can’t think of a bigger gap from a team perspective.
JACKSON: I’m not going to say zero percent chance; they have the best player in the world favorite in the NBA Finals.
With that being said, Cleveland, one thing about Houston, majority of the series, they did a very good job defensively following game plan discipline. The Warriors will make you pay the price for making mistakes.
So if you are to have any chance of beating them at all, you have to make sure that defensively you’re one accord. But they are clearly the favorite, without question, but the luxury of having the best player in the world in that situation, anything can happen.
Q. Would you like to see if there’s a way somehow they can make it so two West teams could play for the title?
VAN GUNDY: Listen, I’m for the best teams meeting in the Finals. I’d be fine if they played the conferences for travel purposes through the year to minimize how many times you’d have to go cross-country.
But I’ve always been for the Top-16 records should be in the playoffs, and I would be absolutely fine if you then seeded 1 through 16, regardless of what conference you played in during the regular season.
You know, there’s no — we’re all going to try to paint a picture of there’s a chance that Cleveland could win, and when you get to the Finals, that’s really, really hard to picture in your own mind how a team could win; it’s a letdown. To me, Houston wasn’t just one half away from advancing to the Finals. They were one half away from winning a championship.
So it will be interesting to see how competitive LeBron James can make this Finals, but any game they get in this Finals would be a huge upset, to me.
So I think it’s — I would love to see it go to a 1-through-16-seeded scenario.
JACKSON: I’m an old school guy. I’d probably prefer for it to remain the way that it’s because the end of the day, it plays itself out. There’s times when the Eastern Conference was dominant and now we’re going through a process where the West, led by the Warriors, are obviously more dominant.
I think that they are clearly the favorite, clearly, and I think it would be a major upset if the Cleveland Cavaliers were to win The NBA Championship.
With that being said, I think we are not giving the Cavs and Ty Lue, LeBron James and the supporting cast enough credit. They marched through the Eastern Conference. I’m not so sure that they are not the second-best team in the business, and we’ll see how it plays out.
At the end of the day, these are the two teams standing, rightfully so, and I think it makes for a great story, fighting each other for the fourth consecutive year.
Q. Hypothetical question. Assuming you’re coaching a team that for whatever reason, just comes out of the halftime locker room like gangbusters and over comments every deficit and just plays phenomenally. Are you afraid they can drift into a mindset that they can coast as long as they want to, knowing they think they can turn it on at the drop of a hat?
JACKSON: I think you would be concerned about that, and I’m sure that Steve Kerr is preaching the same message; that they can’t continue to fall into these traps where they find themselves down at halftime to the point where they have to turn it on and play with a sense of urgency and climb back; and to credit, they do have that in their arsenal where they have the ability to make the proper adjustments, not panic and then take care of business.
But what you don’t want as a coach and what you don’t want as a player is to continue to dig yourselves in those type of holes because at some point, whether it be during that season or four seasons later, whenever, it’s going to get you. I’m sure that’s the right message to be preached, and fortunately they have such superior talent where they have been able to win these ballgames.
VAN GUNDY: Absolutely it would be a concern. I think Houston defensively, as Mark mentioned earlier, was so good for so much of this series that they made it really difficult, and it’s hard to get up double figures on Golden State without your second-best player.
I mean, that they did it two games in a row, had a 17-point lead in Game 6 and a 15-point lead in Game 7 in the first halves I think speaks to how good Houston is.
But the ability to overcome a tough start and as Mark said, with superior talent and shooting and abilities to figure it out, two consecutive games, is a credit to Golden State, and I’m sure the leadership of the team, coaches and the best players, are going to try to figure out before the Finals what’s plaguing them in some of these starts.
Q. After the Cavaliers clinched the other night, was it necessary for LeBron James to defend his teammates the way he did in that post-game press conference?
VAN GUNDY: I don’t know if it was necessary. I’m sure it was appreciated.
I don’t see it as the way he sees it. I don’t see it as teammates getting run down. I think what people who don’t have an affiliation with their team are saying is that it’s an impressive accomplishment for a team led by James to have made it back to the Finals, when you look at the trade of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love then being out.
Two of their top three players from last year, for them not — Kevin Love wasn’t particularly effective in the Boston series prior to his injury, but for them to win, with him being out the last two games, Irving trade, that really in the series, you know, Larry Nance played a good roll in one game, as did Clarkson. George Hill played better the last two games.
But I think it’s not running them down. It’s speaking to what they overcame and what a great accomplishment it is for James and his teammate. When you say that they are not a superior, talented team, you can take that as a slight, or you can say that they did — they found ways to win, which is a skill unto itself, and I have great admiration for that team, not just James, coaching staff and the rest of the players, that I don’t believe they — they were the best team, but they won. They found ways to win, and that’s a terrific accomplishment.
JACKSON: I totally agree with everything that Coach just finished saying.
I think it was soewhat necessary for LeBron to make that statement, and rightfully so. The reason why he’s so — as all the love is pouring into him and his greatness, and rightfully so, he is showing an appreciation for the things that his teammates and his coaching staff has been able to do that put him in position to go to his eighth straight Finals.
So it was the right decision by him, but it’s also the right decision by us that are covering that have the ability to cover and witness what’s taking place, as far as the supporting cast. It’s no knock to them, but it’s just speaking the facts. They have done a great job of putting themselves in position to go to the Finals.
Q. So the Warriors still use the strength-in-numbers catch-phrase on a lot of things, and that was certainly true of their 2015 team, and it’s not like they have a lack of talent now but it seems like any time they get away from their core five guys, things fall apart a little bit. They don’t seem to have that reliable bench that they had at one point in these runs. With all these third quarter explosions, how much of it is halftime adjustments and how much is it being able to reset their rotation back to the core guys and maybe get some rest for Steph so he has a physical reset, and then sort of a second part to that is, how big of a lead do you think the Cavs would need to have at halftime for you to think the game’s actually over?
VAN GUNDY: I always laughed at the strength-in-numbers thing. I always said, strength in stars.
You know, their star quality has always been terrific, and when they added Durant, it came off the chart. Their roster construction this year is a little bit top-heavy when it comes to centers. I think the injury to McCaw and to Iguodala furthered that concern, so that they just didn’t have the numbers of perimeter players.
I don’t look at rest as a major thing. After teams lose or struggle, I think the media right now, they instantly go to fatigue as an excuse versus the other team is trying hard, too, and they got really good players.
So I just don’t — I think because of their injuries right now, they are just not as deep perimeter-wise, and I’m going to be interested to see from a center standpoint, do they go back to playing different centers, especially if Tristan Thompson continues to start, and they go back to a McGee or somebody like that, or do they just stick with, you know, Looney and stay smaller and quicker. I’ll be interested in that.
JACKSON: To answer your question, I don’t think it’s a rest factor at all. At the end of the day, when you look at what Houston was able to do in Game 6 and 7, being up huge in the first half, it wasn’t because of resting their star players. They was thoroughly outplayed and at times, had a lack of discipline.
I think at halftime they made the adjustments, came out and played much better, and that’s the difference. When Steve Kerr says at the end of the first quarter, that was all of basketball, he’s not referring to the second unit. He’s referring to the entire group that’s been on the floor.
They are not as deep as they have been and I’m in agreement with Coach that it’s top-heavy. When you have players that put you in position to mix-and-match, keeping those guys on the floor — so it will be very interesting to see the rotations that take place, whether they start a big or who plays or the rotations that Steve Kerr decides to go with in trying to match the Cleveland Cavaliers, because they are a different team than the Houston Rockets.
Q. You got Draymond early in his career, and this is my first year on the beat, but it seems like they talk about earlier this year about his mind and how he can remember a whole bunch of different things at one moment and how that’s been really helpful for both the team offensively and defensively. Did you see that early on with him, and how did that help you as a coach when you were coaching him?
JACKSON: Well, to their credit, it wasn’t just Draymond. They have a bunch of guys, high-IQ guys, that have the ability to recognize situations, plays and make adjustments and communicate their way through it.
You look at a guy like David Lee, they were outstanding at being students of the game, understanding the game. The one thing about Draymond from day one, he was a leader, and that is something that was lacking with the team, somebody that would speak up and be vocal.
At that time we had great leaders as far as their abilities, but not in the locker room, and he was a difference-maker from day one as far as that was concerned. It was a perfect situation for him, and he brought something in the role.
Q. How different is this Finals going to be than if it had been, say, Boston and Houston?
VAN GUNDY: I think no matter who came out of the West and who came out of the East, the Western Conference winner would have been the prohibitive favorite, for many different reasons.
You know, Boston had a tremendous year. They have got a tremendous future because of their young players, their draft choices. They have got a lot of huge upside.
And then, you know, Houston, like I said before, to me, they were one half away from winning a championship because even with the Paul injury, I think they would have won in the Finals, no matter who they played coming out of the East.
It’s going to be — it’s the same old, same old, but Cleveland is so different than they have been in the past. It’s going to have the Cavaliers’ name on it, on their jerseys, but the different teams, the four different teams, that James has brought to the Finals these last four years, are all so very different.
JACKSON: I think it would have been different because you have guys that would have been champions for the first time, if it would have been Houston and Boston.
It would have been tremendous stories all throughout the Finals, recognition of coaches, recognition of players, and appreciation for the long, hard struggle to get to this level and then to finally get there.
But at the same time, I think even though with these two teams, it seems like we have seen that movie before. The difference is, you have guys on both of these teams that are locked Hall of Famers and they are chasing guys in that special room, and that’s the difference. That’s to be appreciated and recognized in my opinion.
Q. Is there a way you guys have to approach this from a game perspective in terms of talking points, because some of the things about these teams are so similar this year.
JACKSON: I think you come in with points that you’re thinking about and you’re watching, but at the same time, our job is to tell the story, so the story will be on full display, and we will try to accurately describe the action and tell the stories.
The luxury that Jeff and I and Doris have working with who we believe is the best in the business in Mike Green, who should be in the Hall of Fame right now without question, and he does a great job of leading us and being our point guard.
VAN GUNDY: Yeah, obviously the coverage is going to be star-driven, like it always is. So we’re going to tell the same stories about James and Durant and Curry that some may just be hearing for the first times and others may be sick of hearing.
And as Mark said, beauty of it, for us, is we can just talk about what’s going on during the game. I echo what he says about Mike. I didn’t realize he had not been put into the Hall of Fame yet, either as a — I don’t know what you call it, a Curt Gowdy winner, the media award, or just being put in. I mean, this is a guy that has given his professional life to basketball at the highest level and does it with class and integrity that should be recognized.
Q. I know you guys aren’t in the marketing department, but how do you sell this thing coming out of the gates and get people excited about this? What do you say to people that are saying, here we go again?
VAN GUNDY: I don’t think it’s up to us to try to excite people. The games will either excite people; the results will either excite people. If James and the Cavaliers win Game 1, you know, the interest is going to skyrocket because they are going to have done what they — very few except for them maybe think they can do, which is win at Golden State.
If they get blown out both games, it doesn’t matter what we say. People aren’t going to be as excited. To me, it’s all about — it’s not about what we say, it’s about what happens on the floor and the results that the teams get.
And if it’s a competitive series, it’s going to be great for the NBA because one, obviously it’s the Finals, but two, I think it’s going to be an unexpected competitive series if it is truly competitive.
JACKSON: I agree with everything Coach just said.
VAN GUNDY: You should just say that all the time by the way (laughter).
Q. Do you think this is good for the league, or would it have been better for the league to have the Rockets or the Celtics in there?
JACKSON: I think it’s great for the league to have the two best teams make it to the Finals, and that’s what took place, the two best teams in their respective conferences are representing them.
It’s great when you look at the Warriors team filled with great, great players and a great coach and been able to accomplish what they have been able to accomplish. You look on the other side, a great coach and all-time great player, it’s a tremendous story. It’s awesome for the league to have tremendous star power on the biggest, brightest stage.
VAN GUNDY: I agree. LeBron James being in the Finals is never bad for business, and obviously the Warriors are such a team of superior talent that Durant, Curry, Thompson, you know, they are going to always be a big draw.
I think it’s up it other teams; if we want to see a different Finals, then we’ve got to have other teams win or we’ve got to set up a different system and not make it Eastern Conference and Western Conference, but make it based upon the records.
Q. Are there any things that you feel that Cleveland can take that they could have learned watching Houston in this series? Understanding it’s a completely different roster, but is there anything that they can take and put into action that they would have learned from watching the Western Conference Final?
JACKSON: I think any time you defended and were disciplined and didn’t make mistakes, you give yourself a chance, and that took place in the Houston series. When they were not and they did not take care of the basketball, you can forget about even having a chance.
But to me the first thing you have to do is be disciplined defensively, be tied together and then offensively, you must take care of the ball, because that is a tremendous offensive team that will make you pay the price when you make mistakes.
VAN GUNDY: I think Cleveland, with all the switching that Golden State does, as well, you’ve got to put out guys who can make plays off the dribble. That’s a challenge.
To Mark’s point about defensively against them, I think you have to try to play your fastest, toughest, smartest guys, whoever they are, because the challenges individually are absolutely overwhelming, and they put you in different situations; if you’re not — if you’re not a smart group out on the floor, you’re going to make mistakes.
So I’m really interested to see who they play, how many they play, and in what combinations they play them because again, these are going to have been lower-scoring games for me to believe Cleveland can win.
They are going to have to be in the 90s because I just don’t think Cleveland has the firepower to win shootouts, and so going to have to be grinded-out games where the tempo is controlled and to do that, you’ve got to have smart, tough guys on the floor.
Q. What untold storyline did you see coming out of the Finals that has not been talked about or asked about that you think should be talked about?
VAN GUNDY: I think when you’re going into a second occupation like I did with broadcasting, sort of stumbled into it, I think it’s more about the people you work with. I really enjoy the people I work with, not just Mike, mark and Doris, who I know so very well from my past, but Tim Corrigan, our producer, is a dear friend now, as are some of the others on the team. So I think that’s interesting. It’s just a privilege to be able to get paid to watch basketball, actually, and talk about it.
To me, how much switching 1 through 5; to me, the game became — the switching made everything about one-on-one basketball, how little post play is prevalent in the game.
I think a lot of these guys, because of the switching, are going to have to work on their post games, because you have to be able to punish smaller plays for switching, either on the offensive board or just being able to shoot a basic jump-hook. It was absolutely appalling at how little game some of these bigs have when guarded by a small player.
I think all teams in their player development programs are going to have to add that part back into the game to be able to take advantage of some of these switches.
And then I think we talk a lot about head coaches. I would like to see more on the other — on the assistant coaches, because they do a lot of the actual work and get very little attention. I would love to see somebody do an in-depth piece on the assistant coaches.
JACKSON: I agree with everything Jeff said as far as the privilege, the honor, to be able to be on the call, calling a Finals.
I was a kid dreaming of being a coach, dreaming of being a player, dreaming of being an announcer, and to have the privilege and the blessing to be able to do that, and on top of that be able to work with people that I consider friends for a long time now, it’s a dream come true.
Jeff talked about Tim Corrigan, who is in my opinion and both of our opinions, the best in the business. His calming effect, his professionalism has an impact on all of us and we’re grateful for that.
To answer the second part of your question, I agree again with Jeff. I think Ty Lue did an outstanding job of in the initial press conference, one of the first things he did was shouted out his entire staff, recognizing that if it wasn’t for those guys, they don’t make it to four straight Finals.
And the thing that I love about it and is refreshing, those guys aren’t beating their own drum. They are not blowing their own horns. They are not doing fake hustle stuff and pieces being done on them to make them bigger than they are. Those guys just go about their business, they do the job and I was appreciative of how grateful Ty Lue was to them at a big-time moment for him, shouting them out.
Both of these teams deserve a lot of credit for their staffs and the jobs that they have been able to do.
Everyone last night was watching the Rockets miss 27 threes in a row and shoot themselves out of it. You were I think on the bench for the Knicks in the ’94 in our Finals as John Starks had that rough 2-of-18 night. Just wondering, when you’re in the team infrastructure and you’re watching the entire team or someone in particular have a rough shooting night like that, what is it like to see up close and to go through it?
VAN GUNDY: I think the first thing as a coach is you always second guess yourself after the fact — because I was an assistant on that, and I read many years later that Pat Riley still beat them receive up over the decision to keep playing John.
I immediately called him and told him I totally disagree with that. You’d kick yourself if you took out the guy who you knew could make in a heartbeat who was a great competitor and had the chance in any six-minute stretch to get it going, and so your belief in them doesn’t change.
You read a lot after the fact where critics say, well, the 3 wasn’t going, do something else. But to me the player has to play to his strengths and play his game and play his role, and it’s up to the coach, if he feels the misses are impacting your team negatively and he has a better option, it’s his job to substitute.
So last night, really Game 7 in Boston, I felt for both Smart and Rozier, having just awful nights shooting the ball. I felt the same way for Ariza last night. Ariza I don’t know well, but I know him somewhat. Have so much respect for him as a competitor, a player and a person.
And you hate to see one person shoulder the blame for a bad shooting night when there was a lot of things that he did so very well this year. They would have never been in this position to advance if he had not played so well.
So from Starks, I always admired how John handled it head-on, didn’t run from it. As assistant coach and teammates, we never regretted Coach Riley’s decision to leave him in because to this day, I still believe that gave us our best chance to win.
Q. It seems like Kevin Durant is overshadowed by LeBron James, everybody in the league. Can you talk about how great Kevin Durant is, his offensive and defensive abilities? And I know this has been talked about a lot, but there’s been a comparison between Kobe and Michael Jordan and now LeBron James is in there but who in your opinion would you say is the best player in the history of the NBA or would it be some other player besides those three?
VAN GUNDY: Just because LeBron James is talked about in such glowing terms as a player, does not detract at all from what Kevin Durant has done as a player in his time in the NBA. His offensive talents at his size are just absolutely overwhelming.
The ability to make tough shots, or actually bad shots; we saw oftentimes last night just absolutely 9-1-1 bail-out shots that he’s able to drain: The long 2 in front of Rockets’ bench, the 3 off the dribble. Just absolute daggers.
I don’t think he gets overshadowed at all. I think everybody respects Durant, his love of the game and I think also his improvement. His handle has improved dramatically, his passing has improved and defensively he’s gotten much better. Yeah, I think everybody really respects him.
And far as who’s the best, to me, there’s two different questions within that: Who would you take to win one game, quote, the best player that you’ve ever seen, and who has carved out the best career.
As far as LeBron James, to me he’s on his way to carving out the very best career that’s ever happened in the NBA, and right now, I think the very best career that’s ever happened in the NBA is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; the standard he set after — right off the bat, winning a championship, MVP in his rookie year, all the way through, all the records he set.
I think oftentimes because we are about the present, we forget about his greatness and absolute dominant force with the most indefensible shot maybe in NBA history and the sky-high hook. I think he gets overlooked far, far too much.
JACKSON: Answering about Durant, the guy will go down as an all-time great. He’s an incredible scorer who has been able to score from day one. Questions early on was about his size and people said lack of strength. He has proven those doubters wrong. He’s a champion and played a star role at winning the Championship.
There’s no question about his greatness, and I think he doesn’t get overlooked. People give LeBron the credit he rightfully deserves, and at the same time, you can have an appreciation for Kevin Durant and what he’s been able to do.
I’m in agreement with Coach for what he said. I thought he put it as good — as well as it could possibly be put. It’s two different topics, two different discussions, and in my opinion, is two totally different answers if you put it that way.
But there are guys that we continue to overlook, when you talk about all-time greats. Obviously you mentioned the guys today. Obviously we know Michael, we know Kareem, we know Wilt. There’s no wrong answer, but there are truly all-time greats that we are witnessing today, and LeBron, in particular, putting himself in discussion, for anybody that’s ever played.
Q. The player that might be the hardest to defend, would you say that Durant is up there with the greatest and who else would you say in the history has been the hardest to defend?
JACKSON: I think you can put, you know, several guys in that discussion when you talk about Michael Jordan and what he’s been able to do, was able to do all those years, just absolutely unstoppable; Kareem with the one shot that nobody had an answer for; Wilt scoring 100 and averaging 50 in 25; Shaq in his dominance; Kobe in his dominance, you can go on and on and on. I think it would be unfair to pick one guy but there are certainly a group of guys that there was no answer for.
VAN GUNDY: For me it’s a difference between inside players and perimeter players. I think everybody would agree, that Kareem was impossible to defend.
And then, you know, Jordan, I still just marvel at — I know people talk numbers, but if you actually saw him and the rules were so much better for the defense back then, how much contact, you know, how much little — lesser shooting was on the floor so there was not as much space; I have no doubts that he was the best individual offensive player from the perimeter position that I have ever seen and I think ever will see in my time in the NBA.
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