ESPN's Sage Steele Reveals 7 Things to Know About the NBA Finals

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The "NBA Countdown" host tells THR what to watch for when the Miami Heat face the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 on Thursday, and secret signs that viewers show look for during the pre-show.

The Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs will meet in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year when they play in Game 1 on Thursday.

Rather than the matchup being like a sporting Groundhog Day of the 2013 Finals when LeBron James and the Heat won in Game 7, ESPN host Sage Steele tells The Hollywood Reporter why fans should be fired up about the showdown sequel -- and the secret signs they should be looking out for during NBA Countdown.

1. A Rare Finals Repeat Matchup is More Exciting For Fans -- and ESPN's Hosts

"What makes this year different is it is so rare to have a repeat matchup in the Finals, it has been 16 years since we’ve had that in '97-'98 with the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz," says Steele. "It think the fact that it never happens throws the 'rematch, this is boring argument' out of the window, as this is something fans rarely get to see.

"It also means that these are two team who really know each other -- there is not going to be a feeling out, 'lets see what they throw at us,' as they know from last year, so that is really unique. We will see some of the best games immediately, as they are going go at it right away from Game 1. We never talk in our meetings about who we want to win, but this matchup has provided a great storyline."

Last year, San Antonio's Danny Green set a NBA Finals record against the Heat scoring 27 points in three-point shots. "I remember screaming every time he hit one, it was so much fun!" says the self-confessed sports fan, who adds: "I am really looking forward to seeing [the Heat's] Dwayne Wade and see if he can continue on the path he’s been on."

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2. Sage Steele is "Captivated" by Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich

"The best part of this repeat matchup is that coaches Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra know each other so well. Popovich has talked a lot this season about how they just can't get past what happened in Game 6 when Ray Allen hit that shot and they were a rebound away from winning the championship -- that's how quickly it can happen," explains Steele. "Popovich is an ultimate competitor, and you know none of those guys have forgotten about that. That makes the Spurs even hungrier.

"I am captivated by Popovich and could watch him all day long. His post-game interviews are always entertaining, as he does things intentionally with the media during the game. It is all one big game to him -- he is brilliant in every way," she says.

"I had to interview him after they lost last year, and I had never met him before, so I was scared to death," the experienced sports reporter recalls. "The first two questions were typical short answers, then for the third one, I asked him about Duncan -- I didn’t know that was the go-to question to get a good answer! -- then he warmed to me and was as nice and polite as anyone I've met." 

As for Heat coach Spoelstra, "He isn’t in the conversation as much as he should be in terms of being one of the best current coaches in the game. For four straight Finals, to be able to manage all of those egos, and to be doing it in the shadow of Pat Riley," she explains. 

3. Keep  an Eye Out for Secret Signs on NBA Countdown

NBA Countdown airs on ABC before each game during the Finals, but Steele warned that because timing is restricted, she has to run a tight ship with analysts Jalen Rose, Bill Simmons and Doug Collins. "We have half an hour for pregame and after commercials, that is about 17 minutes. We are greedy and want all the time we can get because I work with three awesome analysts who have a lot to say, so we are going to have to condense and be really precise about our content," explains the host. "My biggest challenge is remembering that I am on TV and not just sitting in a bar talking with these knowledgeable guys."

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To ensure that the broadcast doesn't run over, Steele has created a secret system with her colleagues. "Jalen and I have this new thing where we tap each other on the hand or he'll hit me in the knee or I'll hit him when to shut up. We're figuring out all these signs, and I am getting bruised in the process!" she laughs.

"The seating is also difficult. Jalen has the hardest time, as he's sat next to me and has to acknowledge me and my questions, then he turns to Bill and Doug as they are the analysts having the meat of the conversation, so he tries not to turn his back to me."

4. How to Tell When Bill Simmons Wants to Keep Talking … and Talking

"Bill is on the far end [of the desk], and he and I have established some sign language too, I always know when he has more to say as he lifts his head and chin up in a 'what's up' kind of motion, then I look at his eyes and he looks back hard at me," she explains. "I am proud of myself for mastering the art of sign language with Bill Simmons!"

"Sometimes the producer is just talking to just me, or sometimes he is talking to all four of us but I don't know if he is," explains Steele. "Then I will do the shake off to Bill so that he knows we're going to break," and has to stop talking!

Fortunately for the chatty crew, "The post-game is going to be really awesome and continuing live on SportsCenter for as much time as we want. ESPN will make the time and the coverage will be nonstop," she adds. 

5. Their Broadcast Team is Perfecting Their Own Chemistry

"It takes time to establish chemistry and read people. This is our first season and it is obviously very different on the road and difficult to hear in the stadium," explains Steele. "But I like it with the energy and the chaos.

"We've come a long way this season. I knew Jalen before but I had never met Bill or Doug," she says of her co-workers. "I was hosting the daytime SportsCenter coverage before, so I was in a completely different world. It's like I am a freshman high school.

"I love the spontaneity of it all. Our job is to bring the fans as close as possible to being in the arena and it is so exciting -- I am already nervous. This is huge!"

5. The Heat's Opportunity to "Three-peat" Adds Even More Fuel to the Rivalry

Having won the last two NBA championships and making it to the Finals in 2011, where they lost to the Dallas Mavericks, the Heat have the opportunity for a "three-peat," which hasn't been done since the Lakers in 2002.

"LeBron said if he was any more motivated he would explode. He is at the peak of his career right now, and I love that they are the best of the best and they are still so driven, we have the chance to see history. LeBron is heading into his fourth straight Finals," Steele tells THR.

"I think the novelty of a three-peat will draw viewers in when they realize how rare this is, even people who hate the Heat. Love them or hate them, people will watch," she says, predicting that ratings may be even higher than last year.

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6. It's Time to Forgive LeBron James -- and Move on From "The Decision"

"I love LeBron James, as a basketball fan, you have to because of how he carries himself. He is a machine," says Steele. "He is 29-years-old but seems older with his maturity level and his leadership. When he turns it on, it is a beautiful thing to watch and you wish he was on your team.

"People have softened to him," she thinks. "There is still going to be the hate out there, but LeBron kind of thrives off that," she explains. "He's talked about the 'Decision' and leaving Cleveland and his regrets, but more importantly, fans should respect how he has handled himself. He has been classy, he doesn’t make negative headlines, he is a clean-cut guy, he is as human as someone in his position can be," she reveals. 

"It is much harder to dislike LeBron then it was three years ago."

7. She Won't Speculate About LeBron's Free Agency Plans ... And Hopes Tim Duncan Doesn't Retire

With James in a position to test free agency in the upcoming off-season, and Spurs star Tim Duncan possibly retiring after being with the team since 1997, this could be the last time fans see either team in their current states. "There is so much speculation about LeBron and what will he do, if he will leave. You never know what will happen in the off-season.

"I think he loves what he has in Miami, he loves playing for [Heat owner] Pat Riley. I don't pay too much attention [to trade rumors] because there is so speculation; it is all people guessing, so who knows what happens with the team moneywise and with the salary cap.

"The Cleveland thing is overblown, but he is a loyal guy and still has a mansion in Akron. Nothing would surprise, me but lets live in the moment and enjoy what we have," says Steele.

As for 38-year-old Duncan, "I don't think he will retire, I say one more -- but I am terrible at that stuff. My hope is that he continues playing. He is so humble and so refreshing and seemingly honest too. He also has three Finals MVPs, and that is rare." However, "If they win, I think he says goodbye, and I wouldn't blame him one bit," she adds.

Game 1 on the NBA Finals tips-off on Thursday at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET on ABC.


Twitter: @debemery