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How the NBA is tapping a Facebook Messenger bot to serve up custom replays

Fans can get their favorite player's highlights just by asking the league's bot.

These days, everyone is all about bots — little bits of software that tap the Internet to automate various tasks. Google has a platform for bots, as do Facebook and Microsoft. There are bots for getting news, booking a hotel room or ordering a pizza.

Even the National Basketball Association is looking to get in on the act.

The league wanted something simple to try out the idea in time for this month's NBA Finals. They brainstormed on what might be a single feature that was both useful and doable in the roughly one month they had to create an integration with Facebook Messenger. The video above demonstrates how it works.

"We've obviously heard a lot about bots," Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, the NBA's SVP of digital media, told Recode in an interview.

In the end, the NBA settled on a feature that lets its millions of fans on Facebook request highlights from their favorite player or team. Powering the NBA's bot is a technology the league itself has been using to generate way more highlights packages than had ever been possible before.

The way it works is that anyone who is a fan of the NBA's Facebook page can send a message and request highlights of his or her favorite player. If the highlights have already been prepared, the bot serves them up immediately. If not, the clips are offered up when ready.

And the process is wicked fast.

Before Stephen Curry could get to the post-game press conference Monday to talk about the 33-point win over Cleveland, a query for "Steph" already turned up the key plays from his 18-point performance. A query for "Iggy" showed Andre Iguodala and his stifling defense of LeBron James, while packages of reserves Ian Clark and Mo Speights showed their highlights as well.

Generating so many highlights so fast is the purview of WSC Sports Technologies, an Israeli tech company that the NBA has been partnering with over the past two years. By automatically parsing and categorizing each play, WSC is able to churn out a far greater range of highlights than was possible through manual tagging of videos.

The NBA initially used the technology to broaden the collection of replays it offers on its own websites around the globe. The automated technology ensures, for example, that fans in Australia can get access to highlights from countrymen Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova.

As for the Facebook bot, Brenner says the on-demand highlights are just the beginning of what's possible.

"We realize it's still primitive," she said.

Other possible features include ordering tickets or merchandise or serving up statistics in addition to video clips.

The NBA plans to take the bot back offline after the finals are over and see what makes sense for next season.

Those who still want to try it out have a little more time, but perhaps not much given the way that Curry and the Warriors have been playing. To try it out, just friend the NBA page on Facebook, send a message to NBA on Facebook and then type in a player or team name. And there should be fresh clips after tonight's Game 3.

Screenshot by Recode

It's a different approach from the one the league and the Warriors took earlier this year when they broadcast an entire Warriors game in VR.

On Sunday, the NBA posted a 360-degree clip of Steph Curry trying his tunnel shot, hefting a three-pointer from crazy far away. And while he missed the shot, the clip lets you feel like you were inside Oracle Arena for pregame warmups.

And it's not just the league aiming to capitalize on all the attention around the NBA Finals.

The Warriors are beta testing a new indoor mapping feature inside their team app, which the team hopes to have publicly ready for Game 5, if there is a Game 5.

Chinese smartphone maker ZTE, which sponsors both teams, is using the league finals to generate some buzz around its Axon 7, a higher-end model than the company typically has released in the U.S., and one that is trying to compete without backing from a major carrier.

ZTE's U.S. chief, Lixin Cheng, was at Game 2 on Sunday, handing out an Axon to one lucky fan while talking up the device to reporters and league officials. Cheng and the company will head back to Cleveland to pitch that city's basketball fans on the Axon.

Cheng has bet a huge amount of the company's marketing budget on sponsoring three NBA teams: the Warriors, Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets. Considering two of those teams are in the finals, it's fair to say that, at a minimum, Cheng has a knack for knowing which teams to bet on.

Update: The NBA says it will leave the current bot up after the finals while it evaluates other features to add.

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