Many have complained about the Los Angeles Lakers getting so many nationally televised games this season, but those cries have mostly centered around the team struggling so mightily rather than the broadcasts themselves.
One of the main voices behind the next next two Lakers' games (Friday, March 4th at 7:30 PST against the Atlanta Hawks on ESPN, and Sunday March 6th against the Golden State Warriors at 12:30 PST on ABC) will be legendary play-by-play man Mike Tirico, who will call the action alongside his analyst, broadcasting icon Hubie Brown.
Tirico was kind enough to take time to join host Harrison Faigen in the Lakers Lounge to discuss the upcoming contests, what he thinks of the Lakers' younger players, Stephen Curry's unbelievable hot streak, and the legacy and farewell tour of Kobe Bryant. You can listen to the podcast here, and below is an edited transcript of the conversation:
What have you thought about Julius Randle this year?
"It's funny, we did Julius on opening night, and just watching him here over the last few weeks and I think this is going to be an important 20-game stretch for Randle, for D'Angelo Russell, we're not sure about Clarkson because he got banged up last night [against the Denver Nuggets], so we'll just keep to those two guys for our purposes, because I think they've really gone through that rookie phase of understanding what the league takes, and what it's all about. Being part of this Kobe farewell tour, and all of that, now they've got 20-games where they can be the lead, front-court player, and an elite back-court player.
"You know, D'Angelo has put up as many 20 point games here in the last four as he did all season, Randle is up there leading them in rebounding, and I think, I won't know until we see Byron [Scott] tomorrow, I think they are going to start getting the minutes commensurate with being 'the guy,' to see 'can you be an elite, elite player at these positions, and part of this future?' So I think it's huge.
"I like that Randle has made, I don't want to say the adjustments, the steps you would expect a rookie to take in his first year of meaningful time, because last year obviously was such a wash ... I mean here you are, you're playing, and starting about two-thirds of the games ... his minutes are in the upper twenties [currently 27.7 minutes per game for the season], they're going up. He's averaging ten boards, you know I don't care who you are or how poor or how good your team is, when you're averaging ten boards a game, you're doing work. And his numbers have improved as we've kind of gone through, especially from the field, in March, February, getting to the line and making free-throws, so we're seeing an increase, and I think those are the positive things you can see from a young player. So huge month for him but I think this is the arc of what you can expect from a good player in his first few seasons."
How much of D'Angelo Russell's rookie season have you been able to watch, and what do you think of his recent five-game stretch?
"I caught up on the games a couple of nights ago, and then watched him play last night. So I watched him play two games in a row. I get lucky, so this is the time of the year when I turn more to the NBA, because I do the Big Ten [college basketball]. I start off doing a lot of NBA, then I'll jump in to the Big Ten, for really January through mid-March, and then I'll jump back into the NBA, I'll do some NBA games along the way. But what that has done for me is that gave me the chance to watch D'Angelo Russell play, in-person, at least a half-dozen times last year, and I probably saw, whether in person or on TV, I'd say two-thirds of D'Angelo Russell's Ohio State games. And for me, for my eye, doing a college game and then an NBA game, back-to-back sometimes, or certainly within the same week, I get a really good feel if this guy's skillset can translate to the NBA.
"I felt that right away about D'Angelo Russell. I loved him as an NBA prospect when he was at Ohio State. For the sake of the college game I wish he would have stayed longer, but he obviously was ready, and I think now he is from a maturity standpoint, and I mean basketball maturity, ready to handle the role he is in now. He's going to be their lead option here, whether Clarkson is playing or not, I think we're watching the ball be put in his hands for the last quarter of the season, and I think he's up to it. His confidence in his shot last night in Denver really looked like the confidence I saw him play with in games where he had big first halves.
"He had a huge first half in his first Big Ten game on the road at Minnesota, and I said 'oh my God, this guy can play anywhere.' And I saw that kind of confidence in his complete game last night, and that wasn't there early in the season. I think the stage was big, I think the talent jump was big, but I think he's figured it out. I have a really good feeling that the Lakers have the right guy here in D'Angelo Russell."
What is the biggest adjustment that you've seen him make from college to the NBA?
"The number one adjustment is always the quality of the opponent night in and night out. When you're on a team like this without a ton of talented players, you're very high up on the scouting report, and they're ready to take away things that you never knew could be taken away from you. So I think it's just that natural rookie progression.
"So I think for him, and he's always been a terrific player at playing a pass ahead, or playing a couple of passes ahead, and that's the part that he needed to get going. was 'could he be the player like he was in college, to be two passes ahead?' And what I mean is see the next one getting it to the next guy ... Knowing where the ball can go to get to a place where it can finish. I think he's doing that better. I think defensively is where he needs to grow, as with all young players. There were examples last night where [Emmanuel] Mudiay, he just lost him, and he got lost watching. And you know, all you need is one half, or one full second, and they're going to take care of business against you, so there is still a lot of room to grow on that end.
"But this was an interesting balance, because of the whole Kobe factor. You're deferring, and you should be to Kobe, you want to give the ball to Kobe every opportunity you can based on the scenario for this season, but there is a balanced reality to it of 'hey, this is me trying to find my way through life in the NBA.' So a big learning curve, a unique circumstance, but a supremely talented player at the college level, who I think is now showing those talents at the NBA level. I think he's going to continue to grow, and just kind of in summation, this last quarter of the season is huge because other than the nights that Kobe is going, the ball is in his hands and he's gotta be the guy to carry this team from the perimiter."
Does Russell have the highest ceiling of the Lakers' three young players (Russell, Randle, and Jordan Clarkson)?
"Yeah I would say that. [But] let's see what Julius does. Like what is this game now? This is such a perimeter based game. So the one thing you want to have in this game is a great guard, so I think because it's so perimeter based, that [Russell] can be the best of the three."
Are there any under-the-radar Lakers who have impressed you?
"We're giving a lot of credit and a lot of conversation to a team that really isn't all that good at this point, and is in major rebuild mode. I don't want to over-do it, but I was just watching, and I don't want to give him this much credit, but Tarik Black is an interesting player for this team. A guy who can provide some energy, you know the last eight games his minutes have gone up, he's given them good rebounding. This is a situation where you can earn jobs, and I thought he was a good energy player the last few games I've watched. I'll watch with interest for him and see how he does in these roles.
"And this is such a far cry from what the Lakers have been for so many years. It's laughable in some ways. When you look at them, when you take Kobe out of this lineup, and who they have, and who's playing.
"I'll give you one other guy, if you want to do a quick one along with Tarik Black. I want to see the rookie Anthony Brown from Stanford. Can he, if Clarkson's out and given more minutes, find some place where he can find some comfort in his game. I think in the last three or four games he's been a 25 or 30 minute guy [29.9 minutes per game over the Lakers' last 4 games], which he's only played 28 games in the league, he's been kind of up and down this year ... And you're a rookie, and you're trying to learn, and 'hey do these things, but don't do what Kobe does' [laughs] because he can get away with it after 20 years ... Those two players, Tarik Black, and his energy and opportunity now, and then to see Anthony Brown if Clarkson's out, not knowing Kobe's shoulder and how long he can hold up. Let's see those guys try to make some more of their opportunity."
Does the chance of a blow-out, given how mismatched the Warriors and Lakers are, change your preparation process?
"Well, you know, one you always do the game, that's the most important thing. And I've got Hubie Brown there with me, so we'll stay to the game, and Hubie will bring great perspective ... He's the best. But just with all the comments about defending Steph, and the 'defense is the same,' and the old set of rules and things like that. Hubie has seen the NBA in person, whether as a coach or a commentator since 1973. And that's 43 years of staying as current as anybody on the games, so I'll take his perspective over every other voice I've heard chime in so far.
"So that's a great opportunity, in an afternoon prime-time game for people to hear that. On the flip side of that, we're on the last 15 or 20 times for Kobe, and for a lot of fans outside of Southern California, they may only see him play three or four more times in his career. So just the perspective on how good he is, and what he's done, I think those are the things that you have.
"And the third point, back to the Warriors, is this run. Not just how important is this run, but is there a toll for this run? This team seems to get energized by the deeper this run gets, but the reality is, we are three months [from the NBA Finals]. The finals start three months from yesterday. That's a hell of a long time. And we know, those of us who covered the Finals last year, and have covered it in the past, you know the Finals take on a life of their own in terms of effort and emotion. So I'd love to discuss and talk with Hubie about that.
"So there are places to discuss what's going on if the game in front of us becomes lopsided, as many of the Warriors' games have this year ... And that's a challenge I think any night that you go into a Warriors' broadcast, but, their skillset is so magnificent ... Let me go back to college. I love watching the Warriors' influence on teams. Their willingness to share the ball and the joy that passing brings. The Warriors are making that cool. The outside shooting. The deep shooting. The confidence in finding that open shooter, the confidence in Steph. You know, you watch Steph Curry if you're a basketball player, it convinces you you can get in the gym and get better. Because there is a lot of God-given, born-with terrific DNA in that body, but there are also thousands and thousands and thousands of shots taken. And there is a craft that has been absolutely mastered, and how energizing that is for people around the country..."
On Stephen Curry's historic season:
"Steph Curry looks like a lot of other people who are walking around. LeBron has this size, they go like 'oh my God you're an elite professional athlete.' So ... I'm sure that is part of the connectivity of America with Steph, and people want to see, people want to touch it, and people want to experience it. They don't get sick of watching him shoot, what he did on Saturday night has added to the legend. And I don't know if I'll bring this up, but I've always thought about this: Why did people come to the TV in record numbers for golf when Tiger Woods was doing what he does so well? And that's because there was a chance with the next shot to see something you haven't seen done before. He would hit some great bunker shot in Canada, some incredible chip at Augusta. It's like 'man, I want to make sure I don't miss what the next thing is.'
"And what Steph has done is he's elevated himself to that level. That's the way it was with Bonds and Sosa, you wanted to see who was going to hit a homer deeper? Who was going to match that moment, with Brady and those comebacks. That's what makes those guys superstars in terms of connectivity with the American sports fan. And that's what is so appealing to me about Steph and this Warriors team in general. You just want to see what they are going to do next because it's better than what most other people do."
On what it's like to call a game of Kobe Bryant's farewell tour:
"Well I've had them early, before he made the announcement, haven't had them since but I'll have them three times here down the stretch. So I don't necessarily know what the path is, but I think if he's playing and playing well, there's an appreciation. If he does what he did last night in Denver [Bryant played around 11 minutes and attempted two shots before sitting out the second half], which is play a little bit and not continue, and Anthony Brown sees his minutes, then it's another set of circumstances. And if he doesn't play at all, then you just talk about that reality that there are very few games left in one of the greatest NBA careers of all-time.
"Steph is awesome, and this is a great run, but Steph has done this for about five minutes compared to Kobe. Kobe's sustained excellence for two decades is the reason he's up there with two other guys in terms of all-time points scored in all of the history of the league. So a player like that deserves a farewell tour like this, and there have been nights on this farewell tour that he has really played well. And I think that those moments are elevated by the presence of other greats. Like Steph, LeBron, LeBron goes back out there for another game in a couple of weeks, you know Kobe is dying to play in that game. Oklahoma City he's got one more time,
"So those games matter, and it's been fun to see how a guy who has been booed in opposing cities for many years has been just cheered with appreciation for a career well-played on this whole tour. So I might discuss all that because the national attention goes to Steph and the Warriors, it goes to the Spurs, obviously it'll go to Oklahoma City and the Clippers, and Cleveland here as well, down the stretch.
"But other than that, I think if there is one national story in the NBA, it'll be 'hey, I'm able to see Kobe Bryant play basketball three more times.' I don't know if people are seeking out the Kobe games on League Pass in the numbers that they are the Warriors games. So you know the opportunities are limited and you'd like to see the farewell season I think."
On the most memorable games he's called featuring Kobe Bryant, and what his memories of him are:
"I would just say any of the games for the Finals that I called on radio for ESPN Radio, just to watch him perform in the Finals. So there's not necessarily one, but the moments he would just take the game over stick out. I think for me, when I think of Kobe, it's not one. I remember watching the 81-point game, it was funny because I always remember that was after the two AFC/NFC Championship games, the NFL conference championship games. And it was late Sunday night, and the last thing you're thinking of watching on the satellite package, and you see Kobe's got all these points and you get suckered in to that.
"But for me, what sticks out, when we started doing the NBA at ESPN fourteen years ago, I was assigned to West coast games every Friday night. So I'm seeing six, eight, ten Laker games a year, being on that West coast crew. That was fun, because they were at the height of it at that point. And they were coming off the back-to-back championships, and then you had the team that they put together for that run against Detroit in the Finals where they were supposed to sweep, and they lost in five.
"But it's not one night. It's a collective group of games where he took over the game and hit impossible, ridiculous shots that I think still have a fingerprint on the best players in the league. Because those are the step-back shots LeBron takes. Steph, Klay [Thompson], all these guys who are making those shots now, if they were just too young when Michael [Jordan] was doing it, they saw Kobe doing it for their high school years, their college years, and they at different times in their lives have carried their team the way Kobe did.
"And that's the part of Kobe that I'll take away with me forever. That incredible desire to grab the wheel and take over at key moments of any game, and never back down from a shot. Win or loss. Those are the things that will stick with me for a long time."
What are the similarities and differences between calling a Stephen Curry scoring explosion and a Kobe Bryant one?
"I think it's similarities as opposed to differences. You know when those guys want to take the game over, and [I have] the best seat in the house there. Mid-court, first row, where you can truly see into the eyes of the players, which you don't get calling other sports. You can see it in the faces of these guys. They want the ball, they want to initiate offense, they want to dictate tempo, and there's no back down. I love being able to see that, and I think there's a similar look to the players when you know that they are absolutely just going to take the ball and take over. And I love watching that play out. I think that's the parallel I have of those guys in action during a game."
Anything else people should be talking about going into Lakers vs. Warriors on Sunday?
"I think it's going to be really interesting here, over this month, to see how realistic this 72 [win record that the Warriors have a chance to break] is going to be. Every day, any doubters seem to slide over and say 'hey it can happen. It can happen. They can do this.' And now we're going to get to, these are not known as the dog days of the season, but to me these are the dog days of the 72. Because if they can get through this month ... The April game count is seven, with just [one] back-to-back on the road. So if you get to 65 [wins] by the end of this month, then it's real. If you can get 66 by the end of this month then it's very real.
"So that's where I'm excited to watch what happens over the next three weeks. It's a big month to win 12 games. But with all of these home games, like with Orlando, like Utah, and Phoenix, and New Orleans, those games, Philadelphia [and] Washington still on the schedule. I mean April 1st they play Boston, and if they're sitting on 65 or 66 when they get to the end of March, they're going to have such an unbelievable NBA Finals type feel to the last couple weeks of the season. And I think this becomes the key stretch here. Get through these dog days, because then the conversation is not going to be pie-in-the-sky for anyone, it's very realistic, and very front and center.
"And the final four is going to be happening, and we're going to be talking about 'hey the Warriors are six away, and five away, and it's going to turn into a countdown, instead of a count up. So that to me is the great intrigue of the next three or four weeks with the Warriors. "
Silver Screen and roll would like to thank Mike Tirico for taking the time to talk with us, and make sure you catch him calling the games on Friday and Sunday.