The conference finals have arrived in both the NHL & NBA. The hockey starts tonight and basketball will resume on Sunday. For our weekend report, we’ll take a look at all four series—Celts-Cavs and Rockets-Warriors in the NBA, along with Lightning-Capitals and Jets-Golden Knights in the NHL.
I’m one of those who didn’t think the decimated Celtic roster could get this far and I know I’m not the only one in New England. But the NBA playoffs are a time for veterans and Al Horford’s experience stood in sharp contrast to Boston’s first two opponents. Milwaukee and Philadelphia’s young stars were untested at this time of year.
I think it’s safe to say that won’t be the case against LeBron James and Cleveland. Do the Celts have a chance? I guess a chance, but I don’t say that with a lot of enthusiasm. LeBron just ripped the hearts out of the Toronto Raptors and beating him four times in a two-week span is just too hard, unless you’re Golden State or the Tim Duncan-era Spurs.
This is the series NBA observers have been wanting to see. Houston brings its 65 regular season wins and likely MVP James Harden to face the defending champs and their array of weapons. I’m not one of those who has been anticipating this series or will judge the Rockets based on it. The Warriors are the team to beat in this league, so long as Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all on the floor at the same time.
I expect Golden State to sweep this series. If Houston is going to win, the player to watch is center Clint Capela. He’s a great rebounder and shotblocker and playing the low post, he’s at the one spot on the floor where the Warriors are vulnerable.
Tampa Bay was the subject of a blog post earlier this week where I said I think they’re the best team left. The reason is depth. The Lightning have too many weapons offensively. The goaltending excellence they’re getting from Andrei Vasilevskily enables them to open up the ice, let the talent roam free and be confident the goalie can stop an odd-man rush the other way. Washington has two players who can match that, in the great Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. They have their own hot goalie in Braden Holtby.
If someone else can step up offensively for the Caps, a T.J. Oshie for example, it would level the playing field and make this a titanic battle. Otherwise, Tampa Bay just looks a little too deep. The X-factor in this series is what getting over the hump of the Pittsburgh Penguins will mean to this beleaguered Capitals franchise. Will it be cathartic and trigger a run all the way to the Cup? Or does it mean a letdown?
Both teams are novices at this stage of the playoffs. Obviously Vegas is, with this being their first year in existence. Winnipeg had never won a playoff series prior to this season. Now they’ve done it twice and taken out the best regular season team in Nashville along the way.
Golden Knight goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has put on a one-man show in the first two rounds of the postseasson. He’s in one of those zones where it’s just impossible to put a puck by him and the most valuable player of the playoffs thus far. At the risk of oversimplification he is this series right now. A goalie this hot at playoff time is unbeatable. But if Fleury “only” plays really well, instead out of his mind, he can be matched by Jet netminder Connor Hellebuyck and Winnipeg is getting much more consistent play up and down their lineup.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS
Not Vegas the hockey team, but Vegas the capital of the sports gambling community. The smart money doesn’t see either of the NBA conference finals being all that competitive. Golden State and Cleveland, in spite of opening on the road, are each solid favorites to advance and meet in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year. I see no reason to think the smart money is wrong.
In the NHL, oddsmakes expect a Tampa-Vegas final. With regard to the Vegas-Winnipeg series, I have to think though, that the odds are being tilted by a lot of hometown money coming in on the Golden Knights. I’d be curious what lines are being offered in parts of the country that doesn’t have a dog in the fight. But for some reason, illegal bookmakers don’t post their odds online and I don’t have any connections in the underworld to help out here.
Caps-Lightning (8, NBCSN)
Golden Knights-Jets (7, NBC)
Cavs-Celtics (3:30, ABC)
Caps-Lightning (8, NBCSN)
The Rockets-Warriors will open on Monday Night. If you’re looking to watch some baseball, the Nationals-Diamondbacks is the featured series of the weekend, going Saturday at 4 PM ET on FS1 and then on ESPN’s 8 PM ET Sunday night showcase. My own baseball focus has been on both the Red Sox-Yankees trading blows atop the AL East, along with a jam-packed race in the NL Central. Earlier this week, I took a closer look at the Pittsburgh Pirates, to see if they might have any staying power this season.