Sage Steele Talks the NBA Playoffs and Why There Isn’t Enough Love in Cleveland

The NBA Countdown anchor thinks the players should stop whining about the length of the season and just play the game. 

Sage Steele has watched a lot of basketball over the past few years. As an anchor for “SportsCenter“and now the host of “NBA Countdown,” the University of Indiana alum has a Hoosier’s love of the sport and an enthusiasm that’s matched only by the length of the NBA playoffs. Maxim caught up with Steele this weekend to discuss the beginning of the NBA playoffs, balancing real life and sports, and the disappointment that has been Kevin Love’s time in Cleveland. 

What were your thoughts on the first weekend of playoff basketball, especially when it comes to the younger teams like the Bucks and Pelicans?

It was a really great set of games. I always wanted to be a great athlete and never was, so I live vicariously through these guys. I was nervous yesterday for them — it’s pathetic, I know — but I was so pumped up for them to be in the playoffs. With the Pelicans, when you look back at how their season ended and that scene in the locker room, the joy of it, with Monty Williams jumping around — he made sure they maintained perspective. Made sure they didn’t feel lucky to get in. There’s a part of you that roots for the underdog, and the Pelicans did fall behind big early on, but they came back and pushed and showed some grit. They were able to build a lot of confidence against a team that many believe are the best in the league. I don’t think this will be a blowout of the series — the Warriors are the better team, but now they know that they have some serious work to do.

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Look at how quickly it has happened with the Bucks. They went from the absolute worst record in the league last year to the playoffs. They didn’t squeak in — it wasn’t like Brooklyn or the Pelicans, they earned that spot. What Jason Kidd has been able to do, I don’t think that has been talked about enough. It takes the right environment, and last year in Brooklyn was not the right environment. It’s obviously the right situation for him now. Defense wins championships, and what the Bucks were able to do defensively all year was incredible. But they gave up too much defensively to the Bulls on Saturday.

Injuries play such a huge role in the NBA playoffs. Thinking about the length of the season and proposals like eliminating back-to-back games, and covering the season so closely like you do, what do you think would be the best way to address the grueling status of the season?

As a fan, I would love to see going back to the shorter first round series. I would rather it be best of five than best of seven. Right now, as the schedule stands, the playoffs start on April 18th, and if we go seven games in the finals, then the playoffs go all the way until June 19th. That is two full months. However, the more basketball the better!

Yes, 82 games is a long season. But they have 82 games in hockey. That’s another physical sport where injuries are apt to happen as well. I’m not one that is nitpicky with the amount of games than with the playoff seeding. If there’s going to be a change, I’d rather it be with the seeding. All the resting of players, and maybe I’m old-fashioned, but this is their job. There are 82 games and hopefully more. Go do your job. Go kill it 110%. I hate the resting thing. I understand it, but I hate it. The guys I watched back in the day would never rest. You’d have to drag them kicking and screaming off the court. Jalen Rose says it all the time, he says “hey, I wasn’t a Hall of Fame player, but I was going to try to be one every night.” Forgive me, but I don’t have that much sympathy for shortening the 82-game schedule.

Whose your MVP pick for this season?

I vote for Steph Curry. I struggled — I was one of those that waited until the last second to cast my vote. I don’t think there’s a wrong answer. Steph and James Harden, and Russell Westbrook especially, the numbers he was putting up was crazy to watch. But with Steph Curry, leading up to the All-Star game and all the way until the end of the season, people don’t give him credit for stepping back and accepting a new head coach, even though he was a huge fan of his former coach Mark Jackson. He stepped back and he trusted and he learned a new system and way. I don’t think that’s easy to do at all. To not only learn a new system, but get better every single night? That’s incredible. He never rested. Steph Curry is old-school. He practices – what a concept!

Going into this season, the Cavaliers were the big story. What was the biggest surprise for you about that team over the course of the year?

I was not surprised that they struggled at first. You go back to that first year in Miami where everybody panicked, eventually they got their act together, but at first, they really struggled. What did surprise me was Kevin Love. He just hasn’t fit. It will be interesting to see how the playoffs play out and whether each player on the Cavs can accept their role. How many times did you see Kevin Love sitting in the fourth quarter? I’m surprised at the inability of Kevin Love to really be integrated properly to this team on both sides of the ball. He never got into a rhythm. It’s so different when you have a LeBron James on a team and I would love to be a fly on the wall to see how these team meetings go — you know that none of them are best friends. You don’t have to be. But the chemistry is totally lacking. Maybe they can turn it around during the playoffs. They all want to win. They’re just trying to figure out how to get there with these parts.

The length of the playoffs is intense not only for the players, but also for the sportscasters who endlessly have to discuss these games. How do you keep yourself fresh and ready to talk basketball?

I don’t talk basketball when I’m off the camera. I escape in between shows because it’s eight full weeks of work. I have three kids, I have a really busy life away from work. Home allows me to keep things in perspective. When the games are over, I want to be away from it. I want to be yelling at my kids to clean their rooms, I want to be making dinner, and having a glass of wine with my husband, I want to do everything but basketball. It’s allowed me to be totally fresh and on it when that red light goes on.

Who do you think wins it all this year?

I have struggled with this so much. I think it will be a Western Conference team. There’s a part of me that wouldn’t be surprised one bit if the Spurs repeated. They turned it on at the right time. To come in as the sixth seed and be favored over the three seed, it’s typical San Antonio Spurs. At the end of the day, I’m going to say that The Spurs are going to be able to repeat. I think that they’ve been Golden State’s nemesis for too long. I really hope that the Warriors win the title, but I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if they couldn’t get past the Spurs one more time. The Spurs timing just always seems to be perfect. My heart is with the Warriors, my head says the Spurs one final time.

Photos by Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images