Well, the cycle of sports is coming to a crossroads in the next few weeks. The maelstrom of March Madness ends on Monday, the NBA playoffs are fast approaching, the NHL’s regular season is about 10 games away from ending, and the NFL draft is the only football-related thing to really look forward to until August. (Wait, did I just say that out loud? Depression mode, engage.)
Some are looking at this upcoming stretch and thinking, “Great. Now all I get to see is baseball all freaking day. All the geezers will stay happy but I’ll be bored out of my mind.” But I’m here to tell you that this time is one of the best in sports and one of the most unique.
Due to the extended game of chicken between guys in suits this past fall, the NHL has turned in a truncated product that has been surprisingly entertaining. 48 games. That’s it. If you think hockey’s boring and “I can’t find the puck” and “This sport’s just for Canadians and weirdos in Minnesota”, you’re missing out. In case you’ve missed it so far, Chicago had the best run to start a season in NHL history (21-0-3), Anaheim and Pittsburgh have been so hot, their facilities crews are working overtime (the latter racking up 15 consecutive wins), and teams like Columbus, Edmonton, and Winnipeg have surprised everyone by being right there in the hunt for a previously unheard-of playoff spot. If you’re a sports fan and storylines like that don’t interest you, you seriously need to find a pulse. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Commish Dave Bettman planned the whole thing to make a more interesting season. Wait….
The NBA playoffs are coming up too and are as good as ever. Although my Cavaliers are in the eternal struggle, having dropped 10 straight to fall to 22-52, the teams that do have hope for the second season are reaching the homestretch. All roads that lead to a title will inevitably wind through the sunny (and oft-bandwagon traveled) streets of South Beach, Florida and American Airlines Arena. Any team out there that thinks they can beat Miami not once, but 4 times, more power to you. LeBron unbelievably seems to be still on the upper slope of his career trajectory (as much as the bile rising from my stomach seems to disagree) and doesn’t show any signs of stopping. The question that everyone is asking going into these playoffs isn’t “Who’s going to win the NBA title?” but rather, “Can anybody in the league beat Miami?”
That kind of perspective is something that we as sports fans haven’t asked about a team since the Kobe/Shaq Lakers threepeat of 2000-2002 and more notably Jordan’s Bulls. But let’s go down the list of contenders, starting with their Eastern Conference brethren:
- New York. (48-26) Although it seems they’ve raided the nursing home for roster members (6 players at 35 or older), their trey-happy and Mel0-centric style of basketball has led them to the second seed in the East. Though any reasonable NBA fan knows they may not be any kind of title favorite because of their streakiness, I definitely see them as the kind of team that puts a little scare into Miami or Indiana.
- Speaking of Indiana (48-27), Frank Vogel’s defensively-savvy Pacers allow the second-fewest points in the league and have the highest rebounding margin in the league (+5.4 pg). They’re obviously not scared of Miami after their testy six-game series last year and aren’t afraid to fight with anyone.
- San Antonio. (56-20) The second best record in the league for probably the most underrated franchise in sports. They’ve had 14(!) consecutive seasons of 50 or more wins. 14! Even though their core is aging, they’ve integrated young stars like Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and Danny Green into a powerhouse edition of a great franchise.
- Oklahoma City. (55-20) Last year’s Western Conference champions are back, even without their third amigo, James Harden. The pain of losing to the Heat in last year’s Finals still resounds with this team that is tied for the league lead in scoring and outscores their opponents by almost 10 points per game (106.0-96.8). Scott Brooks has this squad on a mission to return to the Finals (presumably against Miami) and finish what they started last year.
- Denver. (55-24) George Karl has this team flying high (See that? An altitude pun!) Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee, and a surprisingly good Kosta Koufos have created a seriously entertaining product. The loss of Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL is concerning, though. His shooting and athleticism was key to the success of the Nuggets this year and his absence may be the factor that stops them from reaching the promised land just yet.
- The Clippers. (50-26). Lob City is resurgent and having a historic season, taking the franchise to unprecedented heights. Chris Paul, the league’s best point guard, has almost completely revolutionized this team and put them in the right direction. Pieces like Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Blake Grffin, and DeAndre Jordan are going to take this team to new heights. Maybe not championship heights just yet.
- Golden Hou-phis. This amalgamation of the Warriors, Rockets, and Grizzlies are a trio of teams that know who they are (the first two being scoring factories that are lacking on the other end of the floor and the last having the opposite problem) and can put a scare into a higher seed. None of them will truly win four 4-of-7 series in a row but have enough talent to not get swept.
Well, this is my first real post. Any questions, concerns, debate topics, and hate mail can be directed to the comment portion of the blog. Hope you liked it and you’re a better sports fan for it.
(All stats can be found at ESPN.com)