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The Drama Keeps Building In The NHL Conference Finals

The NHL conference finals are providing springtime the drama that the NBA has mostly failed to give us. The New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks each tied up their series at 2-2, with the Blackhawks again going multiple overtimes to get the W, and this time turning back a stunning third period surge from Anaheim.

Chicago had just gotten what seemed like an insurance goal with 12:22 left to take a 3-1 lead. The Blackhawks had mostly controlled the flow of play with the lone exception of a sustained Duck attack late in the second period that produced their only goal. Then the madness started.

Anaheim quickly got a goal from Ryan Kesler to make it a game. Twenty-three seconds later, a foolish Blackhawk turnover led to a tying Duck goal from Matt Beleskey. While the turnover was bad and Beleskey’s shot a beautiful rocket to the upper left corner of the goal, it’s also fair to say that Chicago goalie Corey Crawford should have made the play. Nothing was blocking his vision.

Fourteen seconds later a goal that Crawford can’t be blamed for put Anaheim ahead. Two great players, Chicago’s Duncan Keith and Anaheim’s Corey Perry were positioned in front of the net as a shot went on goal. It was akin two basketball players fighting for position in the low post.

As Crawford made the save, Perry won the battle and got inside, able to poke in the puck on the opposite side of the net. Just an outstanding play from an outstanding player and the Ducks had the lead.

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Do The Rockets & Hawks Have Any Hope?

The Houston Rockets are putting up noble fights and coming up just short on the road to the best team in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks are playing poorly, getting hurt and losing big at home to a team playing without its second-best player. But what they have in common is more notable than what separate them, and it’s that finding a reason that either will come back from their 0-2 deficits to make either NBA conference finals compelling is difficult indeed.

Let’s start with the Houston-Golden State series, which has at least produced good basketball games, even if it’s the Warriors who consistently make plays to win. Game 2 was another great battle between James Harden and Steph Curry. Harden drilled 38 points, while Curry poured in 33 and each shot 13-for-21 from the field. But Harden’s turnover on the game’s final possession is what’s remembered in the 99-98 Golden State win.

The focus is on the turnover itself, where Harden put the ball on the floor in literally the closing seconds and Curry got his hands in there and prevented a shot from ever getting off. But I think the bigger mistake Harden made came just seconds earlier when he briefly passed the pass to Dwight Howard at the top before receiving it back.

At the moment of the pass, Harden had space to hit a step-back jumper. I was fully expecting him to take the shot and shocked when he gave up the basketball. Just let it fly, it was a clean look.

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Ducks & Lightning Each Grab Game 3

Anaheim went into the United Center in Chicago and got a win, while Tampa Bay held serve at home. Both teams took 2-1 series leads. Here’s a look at how they did it…

Anaheim 2 Chicago 1: I thought the Ducks were very fortunate to get out of this one with a win. It’s not that they were drastically outplayed—shots on goal were close to a wash, at 28-27 for Chicago—and Anaheim’s Corey Perry started getting more aggressive, taking four cracks at the net. Perry didn’t score, but his inability to get shots was noted in this space after the Game 2 triple-overtime loss.

But the reason I thought Anaheim was fortunate is that watching the game unfold, it seemed like quality of Chicago’s looks was much higher. There were too many times when a Blackhawk player got ready to shoot and it seemed like there was a lot of open net to look at. One of those times came with three seconds left and Patrick Kane just missed a game-tying shot to the right.

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Injuries & Game 1 Wins Put Golden State & Cleveland In Firm Control

If you’re just waiting for a Golden State-Cleveland matchup in the NBA Finals then the conference finals openers of the last two nights didn’t give you any reason for pause.

The Warriors got a stiff challenge from Houston, who played as well as you can expect on the road. The Cavs were tied at the half on the road in Atlanta. Both Golden State and Cleveland still won and their opponents suffered key injuries that could turn both of these series into very abbreviated versions.

GOLDEN STATE-HOUSTON

Steph Curry and James Harden put on a tremendous show. Harden distributed the ball well early and then once his willingness to share was established, he put on a dazzling one-on-one display, from a beautiful running back to a step-back jumper that was a work of art. Harden was 11-for-20 from the floor and finished with 28 points.

But as was emphasized in this space prior to the series, Harden can get his numbers, do it efficiently and Houston can still lose. Curry more than answered Harden, dropping 34 points of his own and hitting 6-of-11 from behind the arc. He also hit a brilliant moving jumper to close the first half, and a second quarter where Golden State came from 16 down to take a three-point lead in the blink of an eye.

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Triple-OT Magic From Blackhawks Ties The Conference Finals

The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning have each evened up their NHL conference finals series, both winning road Game 2s. And it’s tough to imagine Chicago’s 3-2 triple-overtime win over Anaheim being much more dramatic.

The simple fact the game went three extra sessions—and deep into the third OT no less, with less than four minutes remaining when Marcus Kruger scored the game-winner—can suffice as explanation enough for why it was memorable. But consider the following…

*In regulation play, Chicago with more offensive firepower than any team in the NHL, had Anaheim in a 5-on-3 power play. They not only failed to score, they failed to generate any really good looks. If the Blackhawks would have lost the hockey game, this is the sequence that would have most stood out to me.

*Anaheim has their own set of regrets, although it’s mostly about bad luck—they had shots hit the pipe three different times in overtime play.

*And the game’s most memorable play wasn’t even a goal. Blackhawk center Jonathan Toews head-butted a puck into the net for a presume game-winner. But it didn’t stand up on review—Toews obviously did it deliberately and if you score with anything other than the stick, it has to be incidental contact.

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NBA Conference Finals Preview

The NBA playoffs has never been known for its upsets and underdog magic and this year is no exception. The 1-2 seeds in both East & West have advanced to the conference finals. Here’s a look at the keys to both the Atlanta-Cleveland and Golden State-Houston matchups.

ATLANTA-CLEVELAND

This is how well LeBron James is regarded by oddsmakers—in spite of the Cavs being the lower seed, missing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving’s health being a question mark, Cleveland is still a hefty (-230) betting favorite to win the Eastern Conference finals. That’s respect.

And though it’s respect well-earned through his past performances and his current playoff averages of 27 points/10 rebounds/8 assists, LeBron is struggling shooting the ball. He’s 42 percent from the floor for the postseason and was hounded into a rough series against Chicago by Jimmy Butler. It won’t get easier with Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll, the Hawks’ best player in the playoffs, chasing him around.

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NY Rangers & Anaheim Grab Game 1 In Conference Finals

The New York Rangers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the teams with the best regular season records in their respective conferences, each held serve at home in Game 1 of their conference finals matchups. New York nipped Tampa 2-1 in a good battle at Madison Square Garden, while Anaheim got an early lead on Chicago and won 4-1. Here’s a brief look back on both games….

NY Rangers 2 Tampa Bay 1: A brilliant team-wide defensive performance by the Rangers was the key in what was an aggressive fast-paced game that should have favored offense, but both defenses repeatedly broke up passes and prevented crisp passing and clean rhythm.

Tampa Bay, the more talented offensive team, only got 24 shots on goal. Someone has to put out an APB for Steven Stamkos, who seems bound and determined to replace Alex Ovechkin as the best regular season offensive player in the NHL, with all the “damning with faint praise” that’s implied.

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