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With Lakers out, will NBA ratings sag?

Cheap shots, flagrant fouls, and rumors of an internecine feud: In the end, the Los Angeles Lakers went out like chumps. And as a result of Kobe & Co.’s early exit from the NBA Playoffs, the league’s broadcast partners may also find themselves on the losing side of history.

On Sunday, the Dallas Mavericks embarrassed the defending champs by a score of 122-86, sweeping L.A. and bringing an ignominious end to Phil Jackson’s storied coaching career with a series of ugly flagrant fouls that resulted in ejections for two key players, forward Lamar Odom and center Andrew Bynum.

If it was an ugly end to the Lakers’ season, the blowout may also signal the end of the NBA’s ratings momentum. (Clearly, many people enjoy seeing L.A. in distress; per Nielsen overnights, the elimination game on ABC drew a 6.5 rating, up 27 percent from comparable coverage of a Boston-Cleveland game a year ago.)

Along with representing the nation’s No. 2 market, the Lakers are also a hard habit to break. Since 2000, the team has appeared in seven NBA Finals matchups; five of these series averaged household deliveries of 10.0 or greater. Not for nothing did NBA commissioner David Stern in 2004 joke that his dream matchup for that season’s championship round would be the Lakers versus the Lakers.

The highest-rated NBA Finals broadcast not featuring the Lakers aired on ABC on 2006, when the six-game Heat-Mavs series averaged an 8.5 HH delivery. That showdown represents the least-watched finals since 2000.

Over the course of the truncated series, the Lakers were shadowed by rumors of a falling out between team leader Bryant and Spanish big man Pau Gasol. In a subplot worthy of a Sweet Valley High novel, Gasol allegedly blamed Bryant’s wife after he’d been unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend, professional dancer Silvia Lopez Castro.

The Lakers’ camp remained silent on the matter, although after Game 2, Bynum muttered darkly about how “trust issues” were tearing the team apart.

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.