ESPN broadcasting grumpus and future Knicks head coach Mark Jackson joined play-by-play man Mike Breen as color commentator for Wednesday’s Game 6 of the Celtics-Raptors second-round playoff series. Viewers who heard Breen’s usual introductions and reflexively muted the broadcast may still not know that Breen and Jackson were not joined on the call by irritable third-wheel and fellow future Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy, who’d been carved out of the trio in order to provide color commentary for Game 4 of the Nuggets-Clippers series. I think I speak for basketball fans everywhere when I say unto ESPN decision makers: Let not man join back together that which God hath put asunder.
It’s not super uncommon for Jackson and Van Gundy to work a game without the other—it’s happened semi-regularly over the course of the last few regular seasons—but breaking them up during the postseason is not something ESPN would do under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, as a spokesperson confirmed via email Thursday morning. Due to bubble restrictions and a limited roster—86-year-old Hubie Brown was left out of the NBA’s Orlando bubble and Doris Burke is taking his usual spot as the primary analyst for radio broadcasts—ESPN has had to spread broadcast commentating responsibilities around. Hence, just days after working both ends of a Sunday doubleheader, Jackson and Van Gundy were split up to cover two pivotal second-round games on a Wednesday night. It’s happened twice already in these playoffs, and in a kinder universe it would happen a lot more often.
It has long been the case that Jackson and Van Gundy encourage each other toward grumbling and eye-rolling, leaving a sweaty Breen to thrash around at the thankless, countervailing task of, you know, closely monitoring the game and daring to be excited at its highlights and momentum swings. This dynamic was on full display in the second leg of that Sunday doubleheader, a rollicking Game 2 between the Rockets and Lakers, when Van Gundy and Jackson sounded like two guys who would rather be eaten by a Jungle Cruise alligator than spend another minute talking about bubble-ball. The game itself had plenty of drama and fun, not that you’d ever have known from listening to its color duo. Huge shots were met with irritable silence. A gorgeous putback jam failed to knock Van Gundy out of a gripe about soft modern defense. Minutes later you could practically hear his eyebrows tiredly grinding up his forehead after a Robert Covington three-pointer capped a big comeback and put the Rockets in front in the third quarter. Part of this was undoubtedly fatigue from a long work day, but it is also all too familiar a routine from the Jackson-Van Gundy duo. This is how their chemistry works. They delight in being miserable together.
Which is what made Wednesday’s games such a pleasant deviation. Jackson was fine and even good during his call of the Celtics-Raptors thriller. He blew the score at one point, and then blew the margin at another point, and gave Brad Stevens credit for dialing up Kemba Walker isolations during what might’ve been the worst scoring performance of Walker’s postseason career. But his energy was fine! He seemed to broadly enjoy the action on the court, and wasted exactly zero minutes provoking Van Gundy into fits of whining disapproval, and left plenty of space and cool air for Breen to react with unbridled enthusiasm to the game’s many, many huge plays. Jackson himself did no hooting and hollering, but neither did his sour curmudgeonry make it impossible for anyone else to hoot or holler. He was fine.
(I have no idea what happened in the second game, called by Jeff Van Gundy and possibly Mark Jones. The Nuggets were already having their buttcheeks karate-chopped off by the time the Raptors secured the overtime win, and so I watched Alien: Covenant instead.)
So, is this a new thing? Can we look forward to lots of games with Mark Jackson or Jeff Van Gundy, and fewer games with Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy? Sadly, ESPN confirmed via email Thursday that the Breen-Jackson-Van Gundy trio is scheduled to work the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals together. Until first one and then the other of these grouches accepts James Dolan’s money to lead another doomed Knicks team to a 33-win high-water mark, a better NBA broadcast will have to remain a pleasant dream.