We’ve rounded the corner into the second round of the NHL Playoffs, while the first round of the NBA postseason hits a fever pitch this weekend. That’s the focus of TheSportsNotebook’s weekend report…
FRIDAY NIGHT HOOPS
Three series go to a sixth game tonight. Toronto and Cleveland will look to close out first-round wins on the road, at Washinton and Indiana respectively. Oklahoma City-Utah is the most intriguing of the three games though. This is the Jazz’ one chance to close out at home, and it comes after they blew a 25-point third quarter lead in closeout chance at OkC on Wednesday. It’s difficult to see Utah bouncing back if this series gets to Sunday, whereas Toronto and Cleveland still have a potential home Game 7 in their back pocket.
The highlight of the past week was LeBron James’ late-game heroics in Cleveland’s 98-95 win in Game 5 on Wednesday. He first blocked what looked to be a go-head layup by Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, then hit a walkoff trey to break the 95-95 tie. It was unsurprising though, that LeBron got away with goaltending on the blocked shot, something that was later conceded by the NBA office. The league also made sure to point out that Indiana was erroneously awarded the ball on an out-of-bounds play with 27 seconds left. It’s hard to imagine the league’s sensitivity over any accusations of favoring LeBron being more obvious.
But those accusations are out there and given the NBA’s history of operating with its star players, that’s entirely fair. It’s also entirely fair when you consider that any team other than Cleveland coming out of the East is a ratings disaster for the Finals, and the Cavs losing in the first round would probably inspire mass depression in the offices of ABC/ESPN.
The league is now on track for an Eastern Conference Finals of Cleveland and Philadelphia, featuring the game’s best in LeBron and it’s brightest young star in Ben Simmons. The emergence of Simmons as a great all-around player is the highlight of what the 76ers piously term “The Process” when it comes to their rebuild. I had some less sophisticated words to use for it earlier this week—legal corruption being one of them. You can read more here.
Moving further into the weekend, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks go to a seventh game on Saturday night. It will be the second Game 7 for the Garden in four-day span. In hockey, the Bruins erupted for four goals to put away the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night. It’s a great time to be a ticket scalper in the Hub.
The late show on Saturday night is the opening of the second round, when New Orleans visits Golden State. The Pelicans dominance of Portland, as a 6-seed sweeping a 3-seed, was the most impressive display of the first round. Has New Orleans finally arrived, six years after drafting Anthony Davis? I break down the New Orleans strengths and weaknesses and assess both their short-term prospects in this series and long-term prospects for the future in this blog post.
Sunday’s league schedule is completely up in the air. Nothing is officially set, but if any of the series that play tonight go to a Game 7, they will be settled on Sunday. It’s safe to assume that if any other second-round matchups gets determined tonight, they probably open on Sunday. If Utah wins their home Game 6, that sets them up to go to Houston. Toronto and Cleveland are on track to play each other. Philadelphia’s series with the Boston-Milwaukee winner will start next week.
NHL DIVISION FINALS
Form mostly held in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and that’s unusual. All four teams that finished first in their divisions were able to advance and three of the second-place teams were. At the outset of the playoffs, I wrote that history told us that eight of the teams were serious Cup contenders. Seven of the eight advanced, and that was the max possible, as Toronto and Boston were playing each other.
That means some really compelling matchups are ahead, and in two of them action began last night. Here’s the rundown…
Boston’s defense is the key to how this unfolds. They nearly blew a 3-1 series lead to Toronto, including trailing the seventh game 4-3 going into the third period. The last three games of that series were marked by Maple Leaf players repeatedly beating Bruin defenders to good position close to the net. Tampa Bay is the most prolific offensive team in hockey and if Boston can’t give Tuuka Raask some protection, it’s going to be over quickly. Game 1 is on Saturday afternoon.
Yesterday on the blog, I wrote that I find the Capitals’ futile pursuit of a Stanley Cup—particularly in matchups against the Penguins–to be the most compelling story in all of sports. Thursday night’s Game 1 provided a vivid illustration. Washington had a 2-0 lead in the third period. Pittsburgh promptly scored three goals in less than five minutes, won the game and essentially announced to the world that they’re toying with Washington. The game did show why it’s time to stop blaming Alex Ovechkin for the Capital failues—he scored a beautiful goal in the third period to get the 2-zip lead, picking the top far corner of the net on a shot past Matt Murray. I’m not sure what more Ovechkin is supposed to do. Game 2 is on Sunday afternoon.
The Predators won the President’s Trophy, for best regular season record and were able to eliminate overmatched Colorado in six games. Thye’ve got a well-balanced offense and the second-best scoring defense in the league. But that defense is entirely predicated on goalie Pekka Rinne playing great in a style that exposes him to a lot of shots. That nearly haunted the Preds in a Game 5 loss where they gave up two late goals and threatened to let the Avalanche back in the series. Winnipeg isn’t an opponent that has media juice, but the Jets are an awfully good hockey team. You can read here why I think Winnipeg wins this series. It opens tonight and Game 2 goes on Sunday.
San Jose was the one team not on the original list of eight teams that were serious Cup contenders, and they showed why last night. Vegas unloaded for four goals in the first period and won 7-0. I think the Sharks’ Martin Jones is a good enough goaltender to help them get back in this series—let’s not forget that Toronto was crushed by Boston in the first two games of that first-round series and the Leafs got all the way to Game 7 with a third-period lead. We’ll find out Saturday night if San Jose can start bouncing back.
The complete TV schedule for Friday, Saturday and Sunday is below, with the games listed in order by start time, regardless of whether it’s basketball or hockey.
The NFL Draft also continues, and I had some reactions to the first round selections on Thursday night. Looking ahead to next week, we’ll be talking about the Kentucky Derby. Yep, the Run For The Rose is a week from Saturday. And even though there’s not a lot of baseball talk on TheSportsNotebook yet, it doesn’t mean MLB isn’t being watched carefully. Figured I’d let the teams get some games under their belt before overreaction. But we’ll be starting to sort through some of the early returns next week.
Everyone have a good weekend!
NBA Game 6: Raptors-Wizards (7, ESPN News)
NBA Game 6: Cavs-Pacers (8, ESPN)
NHL Game 1: Jets-Predators (8, NBC SN)
NBA Game 6: Thunder-Jazz (10:30, ESPN)
NHL Game 1: Bruins-Lightning (3, NBC)
NHL Game 2: Sharks-Golden Knights (8, NBC)
NBA Game 7: Bucks-Celtics (8, TNT)
NBA Game 1: Pelicans-Warriors (10:30, TNT)
No NBA games currently scheduled, but any Game 7s created on Friday will end up here. It’s also likely that a Game 1 of potential series between Utah-Houston or Toronto-Cleveland would be here as well.
NHL Game 2: Penguins-Capitals (3, NBC)
NHL Game 2: Jets-Predators (7, NBC SN)