NBA PlayoffsTip OffThis Weekend On ESPN, ABC, TNT

The NBA playoffs begin this weekend with a quartet of games on both Saturday and Sunday.

ESPN tips off the post-season Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (ET) with the Cleveland Cavaliers hosting the Washington Wizards, followed at 3 p.m. by ABC presenting the Phoenix Suns's invasion of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. The total sports network is back in the mix at 7 p.m. with Dallas Mavericks visiting the New Orleans Hornets, while the Saturday hoops quadrupleheader concludes with a rematch of last year’s opening-round series, the Utah Jazz play at the Houston Rockets.

On Sunday, TNT jumps into the fray at 12:30 p.m. with the Toronto Raptors taking on Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic. At 3 p.m. Kobe Bryant and the Western Conference’s top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers will look for an "Answer" against Allen Iverson’s Denver Nuggets at 3 p.m.

The "drama network" returns at 6 p.m. with the Philadelphia 76ers at the Detroit Pistons. The weekend’s playoff action finishes with the upstart Atlanta Hawks flying up to Boston to take on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the rest of the top-ranked Boston Celtics at 8:30 p.m.

For its part, the league’s network, NBA TV, will air up to nine playoffs, starting with the second game of the Magic-Raptors series at 7:30 p.m., followed the next night at the same time with the second Pistons-Sixers affair.

Oveall, the pro hoops league enters its post-season on a Nielsen high, as national and regional carriers dunked strong ratings during the recenly concluded campaign.

For ESPN, the 2007-08 season marked its best since re-entering the NBA games arena in 2002-03. Over 70 games, ESPN scored a 1.3 cable household ratings average, translating into 1.5 million viewers, gains of 18.2% and 12.7%, respectively, from the averages accrued over 71 games in the 2006-07 season, according to Nielsen Media Research data. ESPN’s growth was fueled by a 39% leap among men 18 to 34 to 410,000 of those watchers on average, from 295,000 the prior season.

This year, ESPN recorded two of its five best regular-season audiences of all time. The Suns-Lakers game Feb. 20 with 3.6 million viewers and Suns-Celtics tilt Feb. 22 with 2.8 million ranked third and fifth of all 404 NBA regular-season games ESPN has televised since 2002, according to network officials.

Broadcast brethren ABC, meanwhile, netted a 2.2 national rating and 3.2 million watchers for its 19 telecasts, 10% and 10.2% amelioration over its 2006-07 slate.

TNT’s exclusive Thursday night NBA doubleheaders helped the service net double-digit gains in a number of ratings metrics during the 2007-08 regular season.

The drama network averaged a 1.1 national rating over 52 games, according to Nielsen data, a 13% advance from the 2006-07 campaign. As for its cable count, TNT delivered a 1.3 household ratings average, up 9% from a 1.2 the prior season. That translated into a 14% increase in households to 1.21 million and a 12% gain in viewers to 1.47 million on average.

On the demographic scorecard, TNT posted at least a 25% increase across a slew of metrics: 29% among adults 18 to 49; 25% against adults 18 to 49; 26% with adults 25 to 54; 37% among men 18 to 34; 29% against men 18 to 49; and 26% with men 25 to 54.

TNT's top game: a 1.9 mark for the March 18 contest in which the Celtics halted the Rockets’ 22-game winning streak, the second-longest skein in league history.

At the regional level, the NBA was also on the uptick. FSN regional sports networks, through April 10, netted a 9% average increase to a 2.56 household ratings mark from a 2.34 mark last season within the services’ respective DMAs, according to Nielsen data.

Among the 15 FSN networks measured (Nielsen data was not available for Dallas Mavericks games on FSN Southwest), FSN Southwest set the ratings pace with its Spurs’s coverage, garnering a 2% increase to a 7.16 average within the San Antonio DMA, versus 7.01 in 2006-07.

FSN Arizona was second, as Suns’s game shone to a 5.91 average, up 5% from a 4.97. FSN Detroit was third with the Pistons, growing 20% to a 4.44 average from a 3.70. FSN West was fourth with the Lakers, jumping 27% to a 4.39 mark. FSN Ohio was next with LeBron James and the Cavaliers at a 3.95 DMA rating, even though the number declined 18% from a 4.79.

Elsewhere, FSN Bay Area scored a 60% rise with Golden State Warriors games to a 2.62 DMA rating, as Don Nelson’s squad fell just short of a second consecutive playoff appearance.

Up in Boston, the revitalized Cs produced a 107% surge to a 3.48 average rating for ComcastSportNet New England. Before the 'Big Ticket's' arrival, Doc Rivers’ 2006-07 team only produced a 1.68 mark fpr the RSN.

In New York, the on-court action was quite disappointing for the New York Knick and New Jersey Nets, as were the results for the RSNs that carry their games. Madison Square Garden was off 31% to a 0.98 mark from a 1.42 with Isaiah Thomas's underachievers, while Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network managed just a 0.44 average with the Nets, a 41% decline as the squad failed to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. That was the lowest DMA average for any of the measured RSNs with NBA contests, according to Nielsen.

Results for Altitude Sports & Entertainment, which covers the Nuggets, and Cox Sports Television, which televises Hornets action, were not available.