Nuggets-Lakers Tilt Scores Record Crowd for ESPN

The NBA Western Conference Finals tipped off Tuesday night in Los Angeles in front of a record national television audience of 8.09 million viewers, making it the most-watched basketball game (college or pro) in ESPN history.

Compared to Game 1 of last year’s Western Conference showdown, the Nuggets-Lakers tilt was up 31 percent versus the 6.19 million viewers that tuned in to TNT on May 21, 2008, for the Spurs-Lakers opener.

Tuesday night’s game also out-delivered Game 1 of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals series between the Pistons and Celtics, an ESPN production that drew 5.43 million viewers on March 20, 2008, per Nielsen ratings data.

All told, the NBA Playoffs have put up big numbers on cable … So much so that the 105-103 Lakers victory wasn’t the most-watched contest of the week thus far. Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals drew 8.38 million viewers to TNT Sunday night, making it cable’s most watched pro hoops game of the last five years.

Through May 19, the NBA accounted for the three most-watched telecasts on ESPN in 2009. Other top draws for the sports net were Game 6 of the Lakers-Rockets series (7.35 million viewers on May 14) and Game 3 of that same Western Semis scrap (5.95 million on May 8).

Coverage of the Nuggets-Lakers series continues tonight at 9 p.m. on ESPN. National ratings for Wednesday night’s Cavs-Magic opener will be available later this afternoon.