The Finals for both the Stanley Cup and the NBA go in prime-time this weekend, on Saturday and Sunday respectively. The French Open is starting to pick up steam as it heads towards next weekend’s finals. And the NCAA Baseball Tournament starts on Friday at 16 regional sites across the country. Here’s a look at what’s ahead this weekend…
In Thursday morning’s blog post, I asked the question that seems to be controlling most of the media narrative around this series, along with some private text threads—do the Cavs have a chance? You can find support for the idea that they shouldn’t be 6-1 underdogs and after going to overtime in Game 1, that sentiment has probably gained steam. But—and it’s a big “but”–you can’t find anyone who will actually say that Cleveland is going to beat Golden State in this series.
I fall within that same general thought pattern—my regard for LeBron is high enough that I give him better than one chance in six to pull this off, but would still give him less than a 50 percent chance. I think what happened last night in Oakland was a disaster for the Cavaliers.
LeBron had a historic game, dropping 51. Kevin Love attacked the glass and keyed a decisive rebounding advantage for Cleveland. Kevin Durant had an off-shooting night for the Warriors, going 8-for-22. And the Cavs still lost. What’s going to happen when LeBron “settles” for his pre-Finals average of 34 and Durant goes off?
A lesson we learn every May and June is that is really hard for the inferior basketball team to win four times in a seven-game stretch. This isn’t baseball where the pitching matchups change each night. It isn’t hockey, which has a much tighter margin for error and a puck careening off a skate can change a series. The NBA championship is the most demanding marathon in professional sports.
I’m in wait-and-see mode on the Cavs, the same way I was with the Celtics and Rockets in the conference finals. I’d like to see if they can split the first four games and if so, we’ve got a series on our hands. Boston and Houston pulled it off and even went ahead 3-2 before proving the point about how hard it is to still ultimately win a best-of-seven in basketball. I’m not really sold on how powerful Golden State is, but after J.R. Reid’s late-game screwup cost Cleveland this one, it’s harder to find where the two early wins come from.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
The Washington Capitals have to feel pretty good about where they’re at. They got their road split in the first two games at Las Vegas, but more than that, the Caps became the first team to put a serious dent in Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. The Vegas goalie had dominated the Western Conference playoffs. There was one brief blip in the conference finals—Winnipeg got him for three goals in the first period of Game 1 and won that game. But that was after a long layoff. Once Fleury dusted the rust off, he took over the rest of Game 1 and dominated the next four, all Vegas victories.
When Washington got Fleury for four goals in the Finals opener, it was impressive, but they still lost a good game, 6-4, due to an inability to play defense and leaving their own goalie, Braden Holtby, in some impossible situations against close-up shots. As one who’s rooting for the Caps, I was in a bit of despair—it looked like they had blown their best chance for a road win and I was waiting for Fleury, again coming off a longer layoff than his opponent, to round into form.
But that didn’t happen in Game 2. Fleury certainly wasn’t bad, but he was human. Holtby, on the other hand, made several great saves to keep him team in it early, then got a 3-1 lead and then made a spectacular stick save in the final two minutes to preserve a 3-2 win. If the goalies are going to be even in this series, Washington is better everywhere else.
NL CENTRAL SURPRISE
The main subject this week on the blog was the race in the NL Central. The Milwaukee Brewers were expected to be contend, but it certainly counts as a surprise that they’ve got the best record in the National League and have opened up some space with a 4 ½ game lead. We took a closer look at the Brew Crew this morning, along with the more credentialed challengers, the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, earlier in the week.
FRENCH OPEN COMEBACKS
Comebacks are the order of the day. On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic hasn’t won a major tournament since he was here at Roland Garros two years ago. That period has been tumultuous professionally, as he’s changed up his team around him and it’s been trying physically—he went through elbow surgery that cost him most of the 2017 season. Djokovic is only ranked 20th, but reached the Round of 16 earlier today. A possible finals matchup with top-seed Rafael Nadal would be something to see
But the most special comeback is that of Serena Williams, playing her first major tournament since giving birth. Serena is unranked, with no one quite sure what to expect. So far she’s made the Round of 32.
NCAA BASEBALL TOURNAMENT
64 teams qualify for the NCAA Baseball Tournament, which traditionally announces its bracket on Memorial Day. The format seeds 16 favorites and sets the up as hosts of separate four-game double-elimination tournaments. Those will take place over the next four days. The survivors will play head-to-head in eight separate best-of-three “Super Regionals” next weekend and those eight winners will advance to the College World Series in Omaha.
College baseball has a reputation of being a sport ruled by the south and the west, due to the ability to play baseball year-round. One look at this bracket confirms that—14 of the 16 sites are in the south. Of the two exceptions, one is in northern California (Stanford). Congratulations to the Big Ten champion Minnesota Golden Gophers, the one truly northern team to be hosting. We’ll see if they can survive UCLA, the second-best team in their draw.
For those of us that follow the Big Ten, it was nice to see four conference teams make it—Indiana, Purdue and Ohio State also qualified and will all play on the road. Even nicer was that Army got in. I was able to see an Army-Navy baseball game earlier this year at Fenway Park, a fundraiser for Wounded Warriors. I’ll be pulling for the Cadets to win it, though it’s unlikely they’ll survive the weekend.
Speaking of weekends—you all have good ones. Next week will be a big one at TheSportsNotebook—both Finals battles will be careening to a conclusion, along with the finals of the French Open, the Belmont Stakes and the super-regionals of NCAA baseball. To say nothing of the usual regular season baseball. This weekend has the feel of one to take some time off, and I think I’ll get some rest.