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With Lakers out, will NBA ratings sag?

If the Lakers’ meltdown weren’t troubling enough, also threatening to upset the proverbial apple cart are the Boston Celtics. Trailing 2-0 in its series with the Miami Heat, Kevin Garnett & Co. on Saturday stormed back in Game 3 to keep hope alive in Boston. Should the Celtics falter, however, they would submarine deliveries in the No. 7 television market.

The good news for TNT and ESPN is that teams from several other high-ranked markets still remain in the running, as Chicago (No. 3) and Atlanta (No. 9) are knotted up at two games each in their best-of-seven series. From a big-market standpoint, perhaps the best result the NBA can hope for is a meeting between last year’s Eastern Conference champs, Boston, and No. 6 Dallas.

Simple momentum may also work in the networks’ favor. Through May 5, TNT is up 31 percent in total viewers, averaging 4.52 million fans per telecast. Together, ABC and ESPN are up nearly 27 percent versus the same time one year ago.

No matter which clubs advance to the finals, the prospect of topping last year’s Celtics-Lakers classic seems rather remote. The clincher scared up a 18.2 rating/27 share, making it the highest-rated NBA game since Game 4 of the 1998 Bulls-Jazz series (19.1/33).

That series marked Michael Jordan’s swan song with the Bulls and stands as the most-watched NBA Finals in history (18.7). In the instant classic Game 6, Jordan scored the game-winning jumper with 5.2 seconds left on the clock, giving the Bulls their third straight title and drawing a stellar 22.3/38 for NBC.