Sunday, June 11, 2017

Seven Thoughts on the NHL/NBA Playoffs

Two teams are a game from winning their respective championships, the Golden State Warriors, still arguably slated as one of, if not THE, best team of all times and the Penguins, pushing to be the first to win back to back Stanley Cups in 19 years and solidify their position as the best franchise over the past two decades. Some thoughts on the playoffs so far in both leagues …

1.    Pittsburgh Uneven Performance Startling
The Penguins cruised 4-1 through what was supposed to be a tough first round series with the Columbia Blue Jackets, but were then pushed to the limit in their next two series, with a decent chance they will have to win Game 7 back in Pittsburgh to lift the cup for the second year in a row. In the second round, they won two games against the Caps that they probably should have lost and then somehow survived a resilient comeback to dominate and ultimately win Game 7. The Caps had all the momentum and home ice going into the clincher, but Pittsburgh found a way with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury delivering a momentous effort to shut them out 2-0.

In their next series, Ottawa was even closer, taking them to double overtime in Game 7 and having several chances to advance before the heroics of Chris Kunitz, 5:09 into that second OT. In Game 3 of that series, Ottawa won 5-1, before losing the next two 3-2 and 7-0. The series seemed over, but then Ottawa held on for a 2-1 lead in Game 6 and had their opportunities to take Game 7. Pittsburgh’s veterans were the difference in the end, but it was the second series in a row they arguably could, and should, have lost.

In the Finals, home ice has been king, with Nashville coming back to tie up Game 1 3-3 before two goals from Pittsburgh ended that night 5-3. The second game was an easier turn, with the Penguins winning 4-1, but Nashville road the home crowd to 5-1 and 4-1 wins that seemed to turn the tide of the series. That was until Pittsburgh got back home and absolutely steamrolled the Predators 6-0. Crosby was the hero, even without scoring, putting in three assists to take over the Finals scoring record from Lemieux at 20 (though it is only 4 goals and 16 assists) and Murray threw down a shutout of a Nashville team that was hot coming in. Malkin chipped in to continue his hot playoffs and Crosby, clearly the greatest player in the world at the moment, could add a third Stanley Cup to two Olympic Golds, a World Championship, Junior World Championship and World Cup of Hockey. Nashville could well win Game 6 on Sunday, but it would be hard to bet against this Pittsburgh side winning one of the last two, having overcome injuries, long series and momentum going against them to stand on the cusp of another Cup.

2.    NBA Playoffs Largely a Yawn
Golden State finally lost a game after sweeping through the first three rounds of the playoffs and the first three games of the Finals and, while Cleveland could argue that they could – and should – be knotted at two games apiece, it seems unlikely they will be able to overcome a 3-1 deficit this time around. The reality of these playoffs is that there have only been three competitive and entertaining series so far – the Celtics-Washington seven gamer, the Houston-Spurs series (4-2) and a Clips-Utah first rounder that also went the distance (even as LA had to play the latter part of that series without star Blake Griffin). Even in these series, there were a number of blowouts. Cleveland only lost once, to the Celtics, before the Finals and Golden State has only lost once all postseason, while the Spurs overcame slow starts to close their two series’ wins relatively efficiently.

The main problem has been the competitiveness of the series (only one has gone to 7 games and 5 have been sweeps) and the games themselves, which have more often than not been blowouts. Let’s move backwards from the Finals to look at the yawnfest in detail. With the exception of Game 3, when the Warriors roared back in the final 3:09 to steal the game, each of the other three has been decided long before the final whistle. In the two conference finals, the Cavs and Warriors crushed their opponent, with Cleveland winning their four games by an average of 25.8 points (including a 44-point decimation in Game 2) and Golden State by an average of 16, including a 26-point comeback after Leonard went down in Game 1. Moving to the Semifinals, Golden State swept by Utah in four easy wins (average margin: 15), the Spurs won four of the last five after getting blown out in Game 1, winning three of those games by a combined 75 points (with only the Game 5 OT win being close) and Cleveland made easy work of Toronto in a sweep with the average margin of victory 15.25. Only the Boston-Washington series was competitive, though two of those seven games came down to the wire (the Game 2 OT win for the Celtics (129-119 in the end) and the Wizards one-point win in Game 6). The first round was actually the most competitive of the entire playoffs, with the Celtics having to recover from an 0-2 home deficit to get past a Rondo-less Chicago, the Bucks and Raptors trading blows in the first three before Toronto ended it with three straight wins, Washington taken to 6 by a resilient Hawks side, the Spurs needing six to get by Memphis and the Clippers losing a tough seven-game series to Utah.

This all leads to a troubling question …

3.  Verdict Still Out on Whether Kevin Durant Broke the NBA
Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton, to name three, might have chosen the same path as Kevin Durant if provided with the opportunity, but super teams used to be built from the ground up, with good drafts, smart trades (Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish for Joe Barry Caroll, anyone?) and strong team chemistry. Sure, the Lakers and Celtics seemed to stockpile talent during their long successful runs, but neither in my memory ever added a Top 3 talent to a side that had won a title two seasons previously or lost a close one the year before. Durant wants the ring(s) and can’t be blamed for giving himself the best chance to do so, but could that victory be a little bittersweet, knowing he was never able to accomplish it with OKC, that his old side really should have beaten the team he joined in last year’s playoffs and that other opportunities might have kept his cred more intact (say the Celtics?).

Blaming Durant himself, though, is beside the point. Hearkening back to point #2 above, the real problem is that a dynasty in the making added a tool that makes them all but unstoppable. Until the Game 4 defeat to the Cavs, Golden State had lost once since April, a stretch of 31 games. That is absurd and shows how top heavy the league has become. No two teams have played in three straight finals in the history of the NBA and one wouldn’t be surprised to see these two going at it again next year. Sure, Golden State lost the Finals in 7 games last year and figured they needed to improve to get past LeBron again, but taking one of the top three players in the league seems beyond the fold, particularly on the back of the best regular season in history.

The irony is LeBron can partially blame himself, helping to craft a new collective bargaining agreement that allowed a signing like this to happen in the first place. Remember a few years back when the league actually blocked the Lakers from signing CP3, forcing him to move on to the hapless Clippers instead? Well, look how that turned out … the Lakers have been one of the worst teams in the league the past three seasons and the Clips one of the better in the regular season, even as their playoff collapses and bad luck have become as predictable as a Super Hero sequel, prequel or reboot. In any case, barring some change in this series or the team over the next few years, a dynasty might well be in the making, but one built like never before and that threatens to undermine the competitiveness of the entire league – along with its entertainment value (even as rating are sky high at the moment).

4.  Ovechkin Continues to Underperform in Playoffs
Ovechkin could never get to the conference finals, much less win a Stanley Cup, and still retire having had an admirable and Hall of Fame worthy career. But his inability to perform in the playoffs will mar memories of his professional career if he fails to take that next step and lead his team to the Cup. After a poor start to the Pittsburgh series in Round 2, Ovechkin helped keep his team alive and actually bring the momentum into a Game 7 on home ice. Yet once the game got going, it became clear the Caps attack was well below par and Ovechkin, unlike Crosby, or other greats of the past, failed to lift his team to victory. In 12 seasons with largely quality regular seasons, Ovechkin has been unable to get his team two series wins in any playoffs so far.

The career playoff numbers aren’t bad, actually, with 90 points (46 goals and 44 assists) in 97 games, and a plus/minus of 5, along with 6 game-winning goals. However, this year, surrounded by probably the best supporting case he has ever been offered, was far less impressive, with only 8 points in 13 games, including 5 goals and a measly 3 assists, a -4 plus/minus and no game-winning goals. In his NHL career, Ovechkin has scored more than a point a game (1,035 in 921 games, an average that puts him 17th all time), 554 goals (27th at present – though 5th all-time in goals per game (.626) and 20th in game winning goals (88). Some of the greats never do it in the playoffs and there is a chance Ovechkin might well join that group, though he still has some years to right that gaping hole in his resume. It might be with a new team, though, as rumors are swirling the Capitals might move on for their talisman of over a decade. Stay tuned for next season …

5.  No Lead Safe in These NHL Playoffs
While Ovechkin will be disappointed, alongside a host of others, the NHL playoffs have far outstripped those of the NBA this time around. The Finals are heading to Game 6 with every chance of going the distance, the Conference Finals were six and seven games, respectively, with the Eastern Finals going to double OT to decide, with 11 series going at least six games and three the full seven.

What has been more impressive is the number of improbable comebacks, including these finals, where the Predators scored three straight to erase a Penguin lead early in the third, before Pittsburgh stormed back to win 5-3. The Rangers blew two leads in their series with Senators, but came back to win one, and two earlier in the playoffs. Anaheim scored three late to actually win a game outright and had several other impressive comebacks and Pittsburgh scored two in the last three minutes to force OT in a game they ultimately lost to the Caps. The result is no lead of less than four games seemed completely safe and pulling the goalie reaped rewards far more often than in the past. With one or two games left in the season, these have been the best playoffs I’ve witnessed in many years, even with the more lopsided wins for both sides in the Finals.

6.  LeBron Still Building Case for GOAT
Even if the Cavaliers fall short on Monday night, and LeBron’s Finals record falls to 3-5, he continues to rack up numbers and records that will keep the debate of Greatest of All Time up in the air. In Game 4 Friday night, he moved to third on the all-time finals scoring list, behind only Kareem and Jerry West and surpassed Magic Johnson for the most triple-doubles in Finals history (9 to 8); with the next closest chasers all stuck on a measly two. He is already the leading scorer in playoff history (with 6,122 points) and seventh in all-time scoring, though still almost 10,000 behind the inimitable Kareem. He is the first player to go to seven straight finals and, over the past few seasons, seems to play his best when the season is on the line. In these finals, even with talented scorers like Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and JR Smith, the Cavs have been dominated when LeBron is off the court. In Game 3, which turned on three misses down the stretch by the Cavs, as they went the final 3:09 without a single point, LeBron was +7 on the court, and before that game-ending 11-0 run by the Warriors, that was a +18. This has been true all season and was the case again in Game 4.

Many will point to that 3-5 record in Finals if the Cavaliers do not follow up being the first in NBA Finals history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to become the first ever to come back from a 3-0 deficit, but it is important to acknowledge that his side has been the underdog in all but two of their Finals and that this was the case last year. The Cavaliers should be tied 2-2 in this series, but for misses by Korver on an open three, Irving on a fade away and, to be fair, LeBron on a tough shot with the clock running down. Yet a player’s career is not defined only by Finals wins, as can be attested to by greats like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Wilt and West himself.

Many will look at the 6-0 record of Michael Jordan in Finals and I still think there is a strong case to be made he is the best ever, but LeBron can play any position on the court, a feat only matched by Magic Johnson, who had much better teammates top to bottom throughout his career. In the end, the GOAT question is impossible to answer, given changes in the game, the difficulty in comparing different eras and the subjective nature of the questions itself. But those who refuse to field the question simply on the basis of number of Finals won fail to recognize the incredible performance of LeBron over all these years, the workload he sustains – which far surpasses any of the others in that conversation – and the pressure that has followed him throughout his career. GOAT, maybe not yet, but add another Championship and he might close the book on that debate.

7.  Underperformance of Steph Curry Largely Under the Radar
While LeBron continues to sparkle, even in defeat, Steph Curry has been far below his best in the Finals going back to Game 5 of last season. In last season’s finals, Curry’s numbers dropped precipitously, from 30.1 ppg during the regular season and 26.7 in the Western Conference playoffs, to 22.6 in the Finals. His assists per game dropped even more precipitously, from 6.7 to 6.1 to a measly 3.7, while his rebounding was also down (5.4, 5.9, then 4.9). The most troubling drop was in his shooting efficiency, though, as his overall field goal percentage dropped from 50.4 to 40.3 and his three-point efficiency from 45.4 to 40. Behind these numbers were some troubling trends, including attacking the basket much less frequently (with more pull-ups (48 vs. 43.7 percent) and less shots from within 10 feet (26.6 vs. 29.8 percent), throwing up more contested jumpers (54.8 vs. 47% of his shots were “defended tightly” in the Finals), dribbling too much and then the costly turnovers at the backend of the series, particularly in Game 7.

Moving forward to this season, Curry looks poised to add a second Championship in three years, maybe as early as tomorrow night. And yet it is hard to ignore the drop-off in performance this series. He is actually shooting lights out from behind the arc (42.5 percent), but that percentage is higher than his overall FGP: 42.3. To put that in perspective, he shot 46.8/41.1 during the regular season. This decline was particularly noticeable in Game 4, where he shot 2-9 from behind the three-point line and 4-13 overall, though he did chip in with 10 assists and 5 rebounds. In fact, to be fair, he has been far above his season average in assists (9.3 vs. 6.6) and rebounds (8.5 vs. 4.5) in the four games so far.

But there is a sense that he has become more of a defensive liability over the past two games, that he is taking bad shots a little too often and that his overall efficiency has declined in maybe 6 of the last 8 Finals games. Some will disagree, and others will argue having Durant by his side means that his numbers are likely to decline. But one could argue that the addition of one of the best scorers in NBA history should actually lead to more open looks and thus better performance overall. Whatever the reason, it might become a minor storyline if the Warriors finish the job, either Monday or in any of the next four possible chances.

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