Though it lacked the seven-game punch of last year, Warriors/Cavs III packed enough fan interest into five games to make the series the most-watched NBA Finals since Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls were displaying hardcourt dominance in the late 1990s.

Last night’s 129-120 Warriors win drew 24.5 million viewers and a 16.0 household rating for ABC, according to overnight numbers from Nielsen. Those numbers represent about a 20 percent increase from game 5 of last year’s finals when the Cleveland Cavaliers began their improbable and historic championship run after being down three games to one.

It’s also the highest-rated and most-watched game 5 since Jordan and the Bulls — a team that included Golden State’s head coach, Steve Kerr — beat the Utah Jazz in the 1998 Finals. That year, the Jazz’s game 5 83-81 win over Chicago drew a whopping 19.8 rating and average 30.6 million viewers.

Two days later, 35.9 million people tuned in to see the series clincher, ultimately Jordan’s final game with Chicago.

Game 5 of the latest go-round between the Warriors and the Cavs was easily the most-watched of the series, besting the 11.3 rating and 20 million viewers who watched LeBron James and Cleveland blow a late lead to Golden State in game 3. The numbers were still less than last year’s game 7, which earned 31 million viewers. That remains the most-watched basketball game in the 21st century.

It’s certainly not surprising that the trilogy battle between two NBA heavyweights drew monster ratings. Last year’s finals were the highest at the time since ‘98. This year didn’t just pit the Cavs and Warriors against each other but added one of the best offensive weapons in NBA history with Kevin Durant joining Golden State.

It’s quite possible we watched five Hall of Famers (six if you include Klay Thompson, seven if you can envision Draymond Green ending up in Springfield). This series had a dynastic team, the NBA’s greatest player, some of the best pure scorers of all time and a lightning-rod free agent who jumped on board the best team in recent memory.

This year’s finals averaged 20.4 million viewers, up a shade overall from last year’s 20.3 average and the highest since ‘98 Bulls/Jazz averaged 29 million. It was the 10th most-watched finals in terms of average viewers since 1986.

Game 5 averaged a 39.6 in the San Francisco-Oakland market. In Cleveland, it did a 37.1. For comparison, last year’s game 7 earned a 46.3 rating in Cleveland and a 39.4 in the Bay Area. With Vegas already betting on a fourth straight finals meeting between these two clubs, those are numbers that may keep climbing next year as well.

[Photo courtesy of NBA.com]


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