LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Games were cancelled. Practice facilities were shuttered. A season ended unceremoniously for eight teams. The draft process was delayed, as was free agency. Some players tested positive for the coronavirus. Many more took to the streets and used their voices to demand justice and equality as racism and police brutality sparked a nationwide conversation.
The world has changed since the NBA stopped on March 11.
For 22 franchises, however, there is a goal that remains in place.
The NBA, at long last, is officially back. A re-opening night doubleheader inside the bubble at Walt Disney World awaits Thursday, when New Orleans takes on Utah before a matchup of the top two teams in the Western Conference — the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers.
Catch the Pelicans and Jazz LIVE on TSN1/4 at 6:30pm ET followed by the Clippers and Lakers at 9pm ET.
There won’t be any fans in attendance, health and safety protocols that were painstakingly written in response to the coronavirus pandemic will be paramount, and teams can’t even shower in the arena after games. But after 20 weeks of waiting, wondering and worrying, the 2019-20 NBA season is ready to hit the restart button with a champion scheduled to be crowned in October.
“Nobody’s life is pretty much how they planned it to be at this point with the pandemic, so you take it for what it is,” Clippers forward and reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard said. “Everybody is happy that a champion will be crowned this year, and if that’s the 2020 championship, then we want it. You know, that’s how I look at it. This is what the layout is, as far as to go out there and complete this journey.”
The field for the 16-team playoff bracket that will be finalized next month is already largely filled — 12 of the 22 teams at Disney have clinched spots and Dallas is on the brink of another one. It leaves three teams vying for two spots in the Eastern Conference, and six teams for one spot in the Western Conference.
For the front-runners like the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks and West-leading Lakers, the eight remaining games before the playoffs are about tuning up their games. For most of the other teams that have clinched berths, it’s about securing the best possible playoff seed. And for the hopefuls, it’s about finding a way to get into the field and stay at Disney at least a couple weeks longer than planned.
“We want to get back to work,” said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, whose Spurs will aim to become the first franchise in league history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances. “We want to do what we’re all used to doing. We want to do as much as we can, safely, to energize the country, to play the games we all love. And as long as we can do that safely, it’s a big win for everybody.”
Starting Friday and running through Aug. 14, there will be at least four and sometimes as many as seven games per day, spread out over a three-arena corner of the Disney complex. There will be many instances where three games are happening at once. And there will be days that have games running for more than 10 consecutive hours.
After no basketball for what seemed like forever, a hoops smorgasbord awaits.
“It’s the biggest and best AAU tournament ever,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said.
The biggest names are here: reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks, LeBron James of the Lakers, scoring champion James Harden of Houston, plus the reigning Finals MVP and All-Star Game MVP in Leonard. Of the 25 players on this season’s All-Star rosters, 23 are at Disney and a 24th — Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis — may return if his injured left foot heals.
Also here: the defending champions. Toronto lost Leonard and Danny Green to the Clippers in free agency this past off-season — more than a year ago now. And then the Raptors laughed off suggestions that they wouldn’t be good enough to make the playoffs. They enter the restart holding the No. 2 seed in the East, looking every bit like a team capable of another very deep run.
“We’ve been through it,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “We never got the respect before the last couple months of last season. We’re not used to getting pats on the back or flowers, so it’s not really that different.”
There are eight teams not here — Golden State, which went to the NBA Finals in each of the last five seasons before sputtering through an injury-plagued year this season, among them. The others whose seasons ended March 11: Minnesota, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, New York, Charlotte and Chicago.
Ratings for the games at Disney are expected to be big. Every game will be televised, as usual. A sprint to the playoffs is about to begin.
The longest timeout in NBA history is finally over. Game on, again.
“The intensity is going to start to pick up with the games just meaning much more,” Philadelphia forward Al Horford said. “This is the position you want to be in.”
More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Winners and Losers from Game 2: Morgan Rielly is having an elite playoffs – Pension Plan Puppets
The Toronto Maple Leafs scored a goal! They won a game! The clouds have parted over the GTA and anything is possible now. Let’s look back at Toronto’s 3-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in game two of their best-of-five series.
When it comes to evaluating the winners and losers from each game, it’s pretty much just arbitrary from me. I’ll incorporate some stats and narratives relevant to the series, but it’s mostly based on how I felt during the game. Let’s get into it, shall we?
The man of the hour, the one that broke the goose-egg, after five grueling periods against the Blue Jackets, of course it was Auston Matthews who got the Leafs off the line. This goal was several scoring chances in the making, the Matthews and Tavares lines were utterly relentless throughout the game and Matthews was the first to be rewarded after tipping in Zach Hyman’s leading pass to him.
It wasn’t an especially creative goal or one that took something special to go in. This was the result of volume. Surely at some point the puck was going to find a speed, direction, and angle that beat Joonas Korpisalo. While for much of the second period Leafs fans were dejected into believing Korpisalo was going for a second shutout — I think Arvind even described Korpisalo as having horseshoes up his ass on the latest B2E Podcast — eventually something was going to go in and it just happened to be this shot.
The numbers say it all for Mr. T. Captain John? John Blue? Mr. T.
At 5v5, five shots, seven shot attempts, six scoring chances, 0.51 expected goals. All top of the charts for the Leafs (both teams, actually).
Across all situations, JT put eight shots on net and had an expected goals of 1.21, a performance he matched only once this season in a game against the Flyers in early December where he also found 0.7 expected goals on the power play. Relative to playoff performances, this wasn’t even Tavares’ best performance in a Leaf uniform. He generated 1.32 expected goals in Game 1 against the Bruins last year on six shots. He scored once in the 4-1 win.
It was agonizing watching Tavares during the game, because we all knew in our hearts that he deserved a game and that it would be an utter tragedy if he didn’t get rewarded for his amazing effort all afternoon. So glad he got the goal, he was determined to get it one way or another. Did anyone else have their jaw drop when they realized there was no one in front of Tavares but the goalie? I was not expecting it at all.
The Leafs would not have won this game without the efforts of Morgan Rielly on several occasions. Among the players who did absolutely everything it took with a preschool supporting cast around him, Rielly was at the top of the list for both teams.
He dragged the second power play unit into the offensive zone and was even found behind the net a few times trying to create some offense while the top unit was on the bench resting up. He was much more active in the defensive zone than in Game 1, which is saying a lot. He was hard on the puck, diving to make plays in front of and behind Frederik Andersen. And then he scored the empty-net goal to seal it! Rielly really deserves every bit of credit you can give him and more.
By the numbers, Rielly led the Leafs in 5v5 minutes (15:52) and all-situations minutes (24:37), was a 61% shot share, 62% expected goals, and 67% of the scoring chances when he was on the ice. Including the Montreal game, Rielly has two goals and four points in his last three games.
All throughout the game you could see the effort Rielly was putting into his shifts and everything he was trying to keep the pressure on the Blue Jackets and give the Leafs good chances. It was heartbreaking to see him on the second power play unit because with all due respect to Jason Spezza and Nick Robertson, he deserves to be on the top unit. I don’t know if it’s politics or that we’ll realize Barrie is completely useless if he’s not on the top unit, but Rielly has earned that role on merit.
In summary, when the Leafs are full-send, Morgan Rielly is probably their best defenseman.
Morgan Rielly doesn’t get enough love in this town. Even if he gets a lot of love, he still doesn’t get enough.
— Hardev Lad (@HardevLad) August 4, 2020
Got the shutout! What more can we say? He had one job and he bloody did it perfectly. Four high-danger shots, 10 medium-danger shots, and six low-danger shots, all saved.
Two penalties and the worst Corsi in the game (28%) isn’t what you’d expect from the defensive specialist captain of the Blue Jackets. Foligno had an awful night. The only player with a worse expected goals than his 17% was linemate Alexander Wennberg who sports an impressive 8%. Big “L” for Foligno, who I felt embodied the Blue Jackets in this game; overwhelmed and easily exposed when they had to push.
The Leafs Power Play
The power play went 0/5 in this game, and while Tavares and Nylander really led the way with some high-value chances, they still need to find a way to break through. Get the puck low and stop pissing around with shots from the edges. Tavares can do it, Nylander can do it, Matthews can do it. Get the puck to them and see if skilled chaos reigns. Oh, and don’t let Tyson Barrie shoot. Or just put Rielly back there. Please.
With Don Cherry finally run out of town, Mike Milbury currently holds the trophy for biggest loser in the NHL. Congratulations.
Mike Milbury asked if Jake Muzzin was staying down on the ice in order to get his team a whistle. He followed it up with “But I don’t want to question his integrity.”
Muzzin had to be stretchered off the ice.
Mike Milbury should not have a job in hockey, @NHLonNBCSports.
— Melissa Burgess (@_MelissaBurgess) August 4, 2020
Sportsnet: Maple Leafs tie series, but Jake Muzzin’s health more important – 680 News
In a moment like that you think only of the father, the son, the husband and the friend.
The quietest Stanley Cup Playoffs in history fell silent in those 10 minutes from the moment Jake Muzzin fell awkwardly to the ice until he was removed on a stretcher. You could hear absolutely everything inside an empty building, including medical personnel that were able to communicate with an alert Muzzin while instructing him to lie back and remain still.
Then there was the clank of sticks on the ice and boards from the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets, who still had nearly two minutes to run off in a 3-0 Toronto victory on Tuesday afternoon that squared up their qualifying round series.
“It was nice to close it out for him,” said captain John Tavares, who delivered his most memorable performance yet as a Leaf. “But certainly tough to see, especially just how much we love that guy.”
Muzzin is an easy guy to love. There’s an unassuming quality to the way he goes about his business that turned him into a dressing room favourite almost immediately after arriving via trade with Los Angeles in January 2019.
And until there’s a more definitive word on his condition — Muzzin was alert and moving all limbs while being transported to hospital, according to the Leafs — it’s difficult to put the situation in proper perspective.
He was injured on an awkward play. Muzzin was skating behind the net when he got cross-checked by Pierre-Luc Dubois and crashed head-first into Oliver Bjorkstrand. The veteran defenceman initially tried to stand up, but never got back on his skates.
The delay in getting the stretcher out to the far corner of Scotiabank Arena and loading Muzzin on to the spinal board gave everyone a little too much time to think.
“I was beside him there when he did go down and stayed down,” said Leafs forward Mitch Marner, a good friend. “Obviously it’s a little worrisome when you see the stretcher come out, you know a lot of things run through your mind.”
There was certainly a pall cast over a performance the Leafs had good reason to be proud of. They were smothered in Game 1 by Columbus and delivered on their objective to create better opportunities in the offensive zone, controlling more than 60 per cent of even-strength shot attempts and eventually breaking through Joonas Korpisalo’s brilliance in net.
Even if the scary nature of Muzzin’s exit turns out to be precautionary, the Leafs may need to finish this series against the Blue Jackets without him lining up on their matchup pairing with Justin Holl.
Games 3 and 4 go Thursday-Friday and a series-deciding Game 5 would be played Sunday, if necessary.
We are still getting a feel for how things work in this rapidly unfolding playoff tournament. Muzzin had to be removed from the NHL’s secure zone to go to hospital and it’s unclear exactly what kind of quarantine, if any, he’d face in the event he’s able to return inside the Toronto hub.
Protocol dictates that the NHL Event Medical Director has final say on that, although a source suggested that public health authorities would ultimately make the call based on how long he was gone, where he went and how much coronavirus risk he was exposed to.
Playing without Muzzin would rob Toronto of its safest 5-on-5 defensive option and a key penalty killer, not to mention a steadying presence in an emotional time. He’s one of two players in the dressing room already in possession of a Stanley Cup ring and has quietly taken on a leading role behind the scenes, organizing a team trip to a Buffalo Bills game, for example, at the end of training camp.
The 31-year-old was initially unsure about his move to Toronto — “I was living in a hotel with three dogs and a pregnant wife,” he said earlier this year. “Yeah, there was a lot of s— going on” — but wound up signing a $22.5-million, four-year extension with the Leafs back in February rather than pursuing free agency.
He’s started making a home here. And he spoke during the COVID-19 pause about the silver lining of spending more time with one-year-old daughter Luna and wife, Courtney, which is the kind of thing you remember when they bring the stretcher out in an empty arena.
“There’s a lot of bigger things than hockey, especially outside this world,” said Leafs forward Mitch Marner. “His family’s definitely a major priority and you’ve got to make sure you’re able to play with your kids.”
Flames flip switch on series, recent playoff fortunes in Game 3 vs. Jets – Sportsnet.ca
EDMONTON – Early in the second period of a game and series that could’ve gone either way, the Calgary Flames flipped a switch.
A switch that could ultimately mean lights out for a battered Winnipeg Jets club that was dominated in Tuesday’s Game 3 by a Flames team that turned back the clock to remind everyone why they were good enough to win the West last regular season.
Tied 1-1 in the series and after 20 minutes of play, the Flames pieced together a seven-minute stanza that saw relentless pressure from its top three lines and power play that resulted in four goals.
One was ultimately taken away by a challenge, but by the end of their flurry the Flames were well on their way to a dominating 6-2 win that has them on the brink of eliminating a team for the first time in five years.
Livestream the Flames in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, plus every game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Sportsnet NOW.
This, for those who forgot, was the exact moment everything fell apart for the Calgary Flames last playoffs, losing by an identical 6-2 score in Colorado and getting punted in five.
“I think the best way to learn how to win at this time is to go through it,” said Matthew Tkachuk, whose goal was a significant part of the Flames second-period binge.
“I’ve had two quick exits and in my first two playoff series that I was a part of, we were 1-8. And last year, for example, we were on our high horse after Game 1. They got momentum from Game 2 and never gave it back to us. So, the momentum shifted after last game. The Jets came out with a big push and played really well and deserved to win. It was up to us to answer their push from last game and to get ourselves back into the series.”
The first answer came 18 seconds after the Jets opened the scoring, when Elias Lindholm redirected the first of three Flames power play markers on the day. Resilient.
The breakout fans have been waiting for all year came five minutes into the middle frame when Andrew Mangiapane’s steal from Connor Hellebuyck behind the net fed Mikael Backlund for an easy finish that kickstarted an onslaught.
One minute later, a Milan Lucic goal was disallowed due to goalie interference by Dillon Dube, followed by a Sean Monahan power play goal one minute after that.
More bounce back.
Andrew Copp and Tkachuk traded goals within the following few minutes for a 4-2 lead the Flames easily protected from there.
“In the second I thought we took a big step and separated ourselves from the Jets,” said Backlund, whose line with Tkachuk and Mangiapane dominated all night long, racking up five points and 11 shots.
“I thought we took charge. Pretty even first period, and I felt everyone wanted to take charge then. We sat back more in Game 2 and today we got back to the aggressive mindset we had in the first game.”
The top line added seven points and nine shots as Lindholm, Gaudreau and Monahan did the bulk of their damage with the extra man.
Lucic eventually scored one that counted on the power play, capping an effort from the third line that included plenty of punishment dished out, including a hit on Mathieu Perreault that knocked him from the game, joining Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Mason Appleton on the sideline.
So complete was the effort, Geoff Ward couldn’t name his best skater when pressed.
“I thought our goalie was our best player,” said Ward, whose club didn’t need many big saves from a quietly efficient Cam Talbot, who made 33 stops.
“You take a look at our top two lines, they were all in on scoring. I thought our scoring was balanced through our lineup. I would have to say that all of our key people were big contributors for us today. So it’s tough for me to pick one. We certainly got it done by committee today.”
Added Tkachuk, “the guys expected to score scored, the guys expected to make great plays made them, and the guy expected to make the saves made them.”
Nothing was missing, which is saying plenty for a team known for failing to elevate its game when it matters most.
Tuesday’s effort was as good as any the team pieced together in this long, crazy season.
It was eerily reminiscent of the team that topped the West with 107 points last year – a club that could roll with any adversity by scoring with anyone, clawing back against anything and stopping almost everything.
Unlike this juncture last year, this day there would be no adversity – just dominance.
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