LeBron James may not be in NBA Finals, but he is making an impact

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What I’m Hearing: Jeff Zillgitt says that despite losing Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Warriors are feeling confident they can bounce back in Game 2.

TORONTO — When Game 1 of the NBA Finals tipped off Thursday, a superstar was missing from the league’s marquee event for the first time in almost a decade.

LeBron James. 

As the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors commenced play, James’ absence may have gone unnoticed in Scotiabank Arena but probably not in TV and NBA executive offices.

James was rendered a spectator for the first time since 2010 — that’s eight consecutive Finals — after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

When James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, it opened the door in the Eastern Conference for a different team to advance. It was the Raptors who capitalized, earning their first trip to the Finals in their 24-year existence.

Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry couldn’t even say James’ name during Tuesday’s NBA Finals media day. “I’ve run into one guy for a while. We were given the opportunity – he left – and we beat a really good team in Milwaukee.”

The Warriors faced James four consecutive times in the Finals, losing to the Cavaliers in 2016. 

“It’s weird not playing against him,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “For so long, he was the hurdle we had to get over. It’s weird being somewhere else other than Cleveland in the Finals.”

It’s a good bet the NBA is trying to assess how James’ absence will impact TV ratings –which have dipped during this year’s playoffs – and how his potentially extended absence from the Finals has reshaped the narrative.

Meanwhile, fans have watched as other players have made headlines.

“I haven’t thought about it at all to be honest with you,” Charles Barkley, an analyst for TNT, told USA TODAY Sports before Game 1. “No disrespect to LeBron. Everybody knows he’s a great player.

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“(But) Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry, their emergence, that to me says it all. Go back to the beginning of the playoffs. It started with Giannis (Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks), the second round had Kawhi and then you thought Portland had a chance to get to the Finals when Kevin Durant gets hurt. Steph goes crazy.

“There have been some amazing story lines, and that’s all I’ve been thinking about.”


SportsPulse: The Raptors quieted the experts who felt this would be a quick series by beating the Warriors in Game 1. Now we have to ask: Is Golden State desperate to get Kevin Durant back?

Viewership down for playoffs

The NBA is armed with data showing this hockey-mad country actually cares about basketball, too. According to Canada TV ratings supplied by Numeris:

► More than one-third of TV viewers in Canada watched Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Raptors and Bucks.

► The 2018-19 NBA season was the most-watched NBA regular season in Canada, with viewership up 29% year-over-year across Sportsnet and TSN.

But the TV audience so far in the playoffs on ESPN, TNT and NBA TV has averaged 3.95 million viewers, a 16% dip from 2018 over the same period, according to Nielsen.

Thursday’s Game 1 had an overnight rating of 10.1, making it the lowest-rated Finals opener since 2009 and down 18% from the first game of last year’s final. The average audience estimate for the broadcast on ABC is expected to be released later Friday.

The drop, however, can’t all be attributed to

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