ESPN's Knicks-Pacers pregame show went wild with Stephen A. Smith. Screengrab via ESPN

ESPN is no stranger to criticism.

But very rarely is it as unanimous as it’s been following the network’s coverage of Game 7 between the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Sunday.

The critiques of ESPN’s coverage being too New York-centric began before the game even started and continued well into Monday. Not only was the Worldwide Leader lambasted by the likes of Dan Le Batard, Dan Patrick, but also on its own airwaves courtesy of the Indianapolis-based Pat McAfee.

In fact, the backlash against ESPN was so vast that it seemingly got lost in the shuffle that it was the Pacers who won the game — and thus, the series. As a result, Indiana fans won’t be able to cancel their cable package subscriptions in protest just yet, as ESPN will be the home of the Pacers’ Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Boston Celtics.


While many (most?) fanbases think the media is slanted against them, Pacers fans feel especially validated. Not only was ESPN’s coverage of Game 7 so slanted in favor of the Knicks that it was impossible to ignore, but they also have high profile independent arbiters (albeit ex-ESPNers) like Le Batard and Patrick agreeing with them.

The primary criticism being levied against ESPN is rooted in the perceived favoritism it showed toward the team that plays in the NBA’s biggest market at the expense of the team that plays in one of its smallest markets. It also didn’t likely help that Pacers coach Rick Carlisle had already played up such big market vs. small market conspiracies when discussing the officiating in the first two games of the series.

And as they head into a series against one of the league’s most storied franchises — which also happens to play in a big market — Indiana fans might want to prepare for more of the same.

While the Celtics might not carry the same fanfare the Knicks do — at least among ESPN’s on-air personalities — it will be interesting to see how ESPN approaches its coverage of the Eastern Conference Finals. Considering the criticism the network received for its coverage of the Pacers’ previous series, how it handles yet another matchup against a high profile team will be under a microscope for those looking to double down on their critiques.

Surely, there will be plenty to work with, as the reality of the situation is that the Celtics are the more interesting team in this series — at least in the traditional sense. For the past seven years, Boston has been a fixture of the playoffs with Jayson Tatum being one of the league’s signature young stars, but the Celtics also haven’t won an NBA title since 2008 despite reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in four of the last five seasons.

That’s not to say the Pacers aren’t interesting in their own right — they are! Tyrese Haliburton has solidified his own status as a star, Rick Carlisle is one of the NBA’s most well respected head coaches and the rest of the team’s roster is “gritty,” “defensive-minded” and all of the other clichés you’re supposed to say to make small-market teams more appealing than they might be otherwise.

Fair or not, however, most outside of Indiana will view this series through the prism of Boston being the heavy betting favorite. Any failure by the Celtics to live up to those expectations will surely be seen as a reflection of their own shortcomings as opposed to a credit to the Pacers.

With the recent scrutiny it has faced, it will be fascinating to see whether ESPN pushes forward with that approach or makes a concerted effort to give Boston and Indiana equal air time. An interesting wrinkle in all of this is the presence of McAfee, who happens to be one of the Pacers’ most famous fans — their version of what Stephen A. Smith is to the Knicks, if you will — but curiously hasn’t been utilized in ESPN’s NBA coverage this postseason to this point.

Will the recent criticism directed at ESPN affect its coverage of the Eastern Conference Finals, and if so, how? We’ll find out during Game 1 on Tuesday night. But it’s a safe bet that any adjustments that do happen will be too little too late for Indiana fans, who have justifiably taken to embracing their small-market status.

About Ben Axelrod

Ben Axelrod is a veteran of the sports media landscape, having most recently worked for NBC's Cleveland affiliate, WKYC. Prior to his time in Cleveland, he covered Ohio State football and the Big Ten for outlets including Cox Media Group, Bleacher Report, Scout and Rivals.