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TNT Bulls Into Eastern Conference Finals

Chicago-Miami opener draws record cable crowd

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The NBA Eastern Conference Finals got off to a blazing start on TNT, as Game 1 of the Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls series earned the largest audience ever for a cable pro hoops telecast.

Sunday’s series opener delivered 11.1 million viewers on TNT, up 56 percent from Game 1 of last year’s Western Conference Finals (7.11 million).

Chicago’s 102-83 pounding of LeBron James and the Heat broke a record that had stood for eight years. TNT’s coverage of the 2003 NBA All-Star Game drew 10.8 million viewers on Feb. 9 of that year, or about 280,000 viewers shy of the new record.

With Sunday’s deliveries, TNT now holds title to seven of cable’s 10 most-watched NBA games, while ESPN boasts three.

When network broadcasts of non-championship matchups are factored in, TNT’s Bulls-Heat numbers put it fourth on the all-time TV list. NBC owns the top three spots, including Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals (Lakers-Kings), an overtime thriller which drew a whopping 23.8 million viewers.

Sunday’s game also eclipsed another of Turner’s major sports properties, sailing past Game 1 of last year’s American League Championship Series on TBS. The opener of that Rangers-Yankees meeting drew 8.11 million viewers. That said, the Bulls-Heat battle fell short of the deciding Game 6 of the 2010 ALCS, as the Yankees’ ouster was seen by 11.9 million viewers.

Big ratings and an engaged audience translate to big ad bucks. According to Kantar Media, the 2010 NBA postseason network partners took in $417.7 million in total ad sales revenue. The going rate for a 30-second spot in the Championship Series: $402,000 a pop.

Meanwhile, the elimination of the Lakers from this year’s dance may have had an impact on ESPN's numbers. Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals delivered 6.98 million viewers, down 3 percent from the comparable telecast a year ago (7.16 million, Celtics-Magic).

Coming off a nine-day layoff after dispatching the Lakers, the Dallas Mavericks took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder by a 121-112 margin.

Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki put up 48 points in the winning effort, shooting 12-for-15 from the field and a perfect 24-for-24 from the charity stripe.

ESPN’s coverage of the Western finals resumes tonight at 9 p.m.