The cord-cutter's guide to watching the NBA playoffs
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on April 17, 2015. This version has been revised and updated so that it’s relevant to the 2016 NBA playoffs.
Cord cutting brings particularly thorny challenges for sports fans, and they’re never more apparent than when the postseason rolls around. Case in point: the NBA playoffs, which start this Saturday. As in previous years, broadcasting of the postseason tournament will be divided between four networks: ABC, TNT, ESPN, and NBA TV.
Three of those are cable networks, but there are still ways for the enterprising cord cutter to catch most of the action. Based on the TV schedule available at press time, we’ve outlined your options for watching the playoffs without a cable- or satellite-TV subscription. By following our guide, you’ll be able to watch many—but not all—of the live broadcasts and see which team eventually lifts the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June.
Go with your antenna for ABC
ABC remains the only over-the-air (OTA) network broadcasting the NBA playoffs. The good news is you just need an antenna to watch the network’s games. As ABC has exclusive rights to the NBA Finals, you won’t miss a single layup when the best from the Eastern and Western conferences face off in June.
But your antenna will only get you so much game in the earlier rounds: According to the current TV schedule, ABC will carry four games in the first round, and possibly more if the Rockets/ Warriors, Blazers/Clippers, Pacers/Raptors, or Hornets/Heat matchups go seven games. It will also broadcast three games in the Semifinals, but in the Conference Finals, as those rights are owned by ESPN and TNT. Fortunately, there are online options for watching those games.
TNT Overtime is your ticket to TNT broadcasts
Though its full schedule wasn’t available at press time, TNT broadcasts more NBA playoff games than any other network. It currently looks to be broadcasting 11 in the first round—though that number will certainly go up if any matchups go more than four games—and it typically splits the bulk of the Semifinals with ESPN. Because it’s an even-numbered year, it will also exclusively carry the Western Conference Finals (per its contract, the network airs the Eastern Finals in odd-numbered years, swapping with ESPN).
The easiest way to see those TNT games without cable is with TNT Overtime, a second-screen site that brings “enhanced coverage” of the network’s NBA games—including the playoffs—to your computer, tablet, or phone for free.
TNT Overtime doesn’t stream the TV broadcast feed. Instead, it offers you a customized view of the game with your choice of four HD camera angles: the Backboard Cam gets you up close to the scoring, two Player Cams exclusively track individual players as voted on by fans, and the Action Cam gives you a court-level view of all the, well, action.
If you can’t decide on one angle, you can watch all four at the same time in Mosaic view. The site also posts highlight clips from each angle and offers a few social-media features, so you can connect with other fans during the game. What you don’t get: commentators, on-screen graphics, and commercials, which, depending on what you think of ads, might be a benefit.
TNT hasn’t yet announced how many of its games will be getting the TNT Overtime treatment, but last year it streamed three-quarters of its matchups here. Regardless, the playoffs are a great time to try out the service if you’ve never used it.
Get Sling TV for everything ESPN
Sling TV has been a godsend for cable-cutting sports junkies, and it’s downright essential during the NBA postseason. The service’s original $20-per-month subscription includes ESPN and ESPN2, which will account for 20 games throughout the first round and semifinals. ESPN also has exclusive rights to the Eastern Conference Finals.
On April 29, however, ESPN2 will be running coverage of the NFL draft. As it did last year, ESPNews will pick up the slack by carrying two of that day’s four first-round Game 6’s if necessary. To get ESPNews and catch those games, you’ll need to add Sling TV’s Sports Extra package ($5 per month in addition to the basic subscription).
SlingTV will also give you access to TNT. Sling TV streams live TV broadcasts, so unlike with TNT Overtime, you’ll be seeing exactly what you would if you were watching the games as part of a cable package.
Remember, Sling TV requires no commitment or contract. You can cancel as soon as the playoffs end—though with such other offerings as A&E, CNN, Food Network, and Disney Channel, you might find you want to keep it around.
A new postseason player: PlayStation Vue
Sony’s year-old PlayStation Vue service brings another streaming option this postseason, but its subscription price and what’s included is dependent on where you live. Its basic Access package offers a similar channel lineup to Sling TV, including TNT, ESPN, and ESPN2 (It also carries ABC, but on-demand programming only).
If you don’t live in an area where Sony has the right to carry live local channels, the cheapest plan costs $30 per month. If you do live in one of those markets (those markets being Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area), Sony’s least-expensive plan is $40 per month.
So that’s either $10 or $20 more per month than Sling, but Sony’s service delivers more channels and it will eliminate the need for an OTA antenna—if you live in one of the markets listed above. Either way, you’ll need to pay another $5 per month to get ESPNews (and some other channels that you might or might not care about).
If you already subscribe to PlayStation Vue, you can complement your OTA playoff viewing by catching the cable telecasts on your PlayStation console, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, or iOS device.
No NBA TV, no dice
Unfortunately, there’s no workaround for legally watching the NBA TV games without cable. The upside is NBA TV will carry only three playoff broadcasts, all in the first round: Games 2 and 3 of Pacers vs. Raptors, and Game 2 of Hornets vs. Heat. There’s a possibility you could miss a few more if any of the first-round matchups go to a Game 5, 6, or 7, as those games would be split between NBA TV and TNT. Still, if you’re an NBA League Pass subscriber, you can likely view the game replays in the archives.
Sports broadcasting still lags behind other types of TV programming in offering streaming options. But with the cord-cutting solutions above, we’re confident you’ll be able to tune in when your favorite team hits the hardwood this weekend.