The NBA Finals tip off tonight
This year’s championship series features a lot of interesting characters and storylines for both avid and casual basketball fans. Here are a few things to know ahead of Game 1 between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat at 9 p.m. ET in the Disney bubble:
LeBron James is back — and facing his old team. After a one-year absence when the Lakers missed the playoffs in his first season with them, LeBron will play in the Finals for an incredible ninth time in 10 years and 10th time in his career. He made four straight appearances with Miami from 2011-14, winning the two in the middle. Then he ditched the Heat to return to Cleveland and reached the next four Finals (all vs. Golden State), going 1-3 to bring his lifetime Finals record to 3-6.
It’s also LeBron vs. Michael Jordan. Some basketball fans like to argue that LeBron is the greatest player of all time. Thanks to all those deep playoff runs, the 35-year-old has scored more playoff points than anyone in NBA history, and it’s not even close. He also ranks third all-time in regular-season points — two spots ahead of Jordan. But MJ is the all-time leader in points per game in both the regular season and playoffs, and he also leads LeBron in the all-important category of rings. Jordan went a perfect 6-0 in the Finals and, as that ’90s Bulls documentary series reminded us, James can’t touch him in terms of cultural importance. Some of that might be out of LeBron’s control, but the bottom line is that Jordan is still the GOAT. Though if LeBron adds another title (with his third different team), the debate will heat up again.
The Lakers have the two best players. LeBron was the runner-up to Giannis Antetokounmpo in MVP voting this year, and he has an MVP-calibre sidekick in Anthony Davis. The ludicrously skilled, unibrowed big man leads all Finals players with 28.8 points per game in this year’s playoffs. LeBron is second at 26.7. Both are also excellent defensively when they need to be.
But the Heat have more good players. If you drafted everyone in the Finals schoolyard-style, LeBron and Davis would definitely go 1-2. But L.A.’s roster really drops off from there. Mediocre Kyle Kuzma (10.5 points per game) is the only other Laker averaging double figures in the playoffs. Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and former Raptor Danny Green are recognizable names, but they’re just role players at this point in their careers. So in our hypothetical draft, the next four guys picked (at least) would be from Miami. Bam Adebayo is an elite two-way big man, Jimmy Butler is a fearless crunchtime scorer who also does a lot of the unnoticed things that help win basketball games, and veteran point guard Goran Dragic is averaging a team-high 20.9 points per game in the post-season. Plus, rookie Tyler Herro looks like a rising star off the bench. The ace three-point shooter scored a career-high 37 points in Game 4 of the East final and can carry the team for stretches when he gets hot.
Two Canadians are involved in the series (technically). Both are on the Heat, but it’s unlikely they’ll have much of an impact. Veteran big man Kelly Olynyk has seen his minutes cut from about 19 in the regular season to 12 in the playoffs. He’s averaging six points. At least you’ll see him on the court, though. Rookie Kyle Alexander appeared in only two games this season and hasn’t seen any action at all in the playoffs.
The Lakers are heavy favourites to win. Miami’s lineup is deeper, and it also has the edge in harder-to-measure stuff like toughness, team spirit and coaching (L.A.’s Frank Vogel is fine, but Erik Spoelstra is one of the best in the NBA). The Heat are also (sorry) red hot. Since entering the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the East, they’ve gone 12-3 — including a stunning five-game takedown of top-seeded Milwaukee. But the Lakers have been great all year. They had the third-best regular-season record in the league and are also 12-3 in the playoffs. Plus, having the clear two best players in the series is, historically, a near-unbeatable formula in the NBA. The betting line reflects that. Though it’s moved a bit in Miami’s favour, the market says the Lakers have around a 75 per cent chance of becoming champions of this very weird NBA season. Read more about the Finals matchup here.
The NFL postponed Sunday’s Titans-Steelers game because of a COVID-19 outbreak. This follows yesterday’s news that three Tennessee players (none of them stars) and five other team personnel tested positive. Another Titans player reportedly tested positive today. Luckily, no one has from the Minnesota Vikings, who played Tennessee on Sunday. But the NFL announced today that it will push back the Titans-Steelers game to either Monday or Tuesday to allow more time for testing. The league also leaked a memo it sent to all teams warning them to follow the mask-wearing rules and other health protocols or risk suspension and/or the loss of draft picks. Read more about the fallout from the Titans outbreak here.
The Genie Bouchard revival continues. For the first time since the 2017 Australian Open, the fallen Canadian tennis star is into the third round of a Grand Slam event. She battled back from a set down to win her second match at the French Open today. Bouchard is ranked 168th in the world. At 26 years old, she’s unlikely to return to the heights she hit in 2014, when she made the Wimbledon final and the semis of two other Slams and reached No. 5 in the world. But she’s having her second consecutive solid tournament after reaching a final in Istanbul earlier this month (caveat: the best players were playing in the U.S. Open at the time). Two other Canadian singles players can reach the third round of the French Open on Thursday: ninth-seeded Denis Shapovalov and 100th-ranked Leylah Annie Fernandez. Read more about Bouchard’s latest win here.
Serena Williams’ window is closing. She dropped out of the French Open today because of an Achilles injury, meaning she’ll finish the year still one behind Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. With four of the world’s top 10 players opting out of the French, this was a good opportunity for Serena. So was the recent U.S. Open, where she lost in the semifinals of a depleted bracket and played like someone well past her physical prime. Williams turned 39 last week, which is ancient by women’s tennis standards. And by the time the next Slam rolls around (January’s Australian Open), a full four years will have passed since her last major title. Whether she matches Court or not, Serena will go down as the greatest of all time. But it’s looking more and more likely she’ll have to live without the record. Read more about Serena’s latest setback here.
It’s a do-or-die game for the Blue Jays. After dropping their playoff opener 3-1 to Tampa Bay yesterday, the Jays are facing elimination in the best-of-three series. Game 2 was just about to get underway at our publish time. Toronto ace Hyun-Jin Ryu is the starter after getting an extra day of rest to recover from some soreness.
The WNBA Finals are set. League MVP A’ja Wilson had 23 points and 11 rebounds to lead the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces to a 66-63 win last night in the deciding game of their semifinal series. The Aces will face the No. 2-seeded Seattle Storm in the best-of-five Finals, which start Friday night.
Need a goalie? Good timing. The New York Rangers bought out Henrik Lundqvist today. Besides ending his 15-year run with the team, the move puts another Vezina Trophy winner on the free-agent market. Washington’s Braden Holtby is also expected to be available when the signing period opens next Friday, along with 2019 Vezina finalist Robin Lehner. Other potential unrestricted free-agent goalies include Anton Khudobin, who just backstopped Dallas to the Stanley Cup final; Corey Crawford, a two-time winner of the Jennings Trophy for helping Chicago allow the fewest goals in the league; and Jacob Markstrom, who’s coming off a strong year for Vancouver.
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Hutchinson signs two-year contract with Maple Leafs – NHL.com
Michael Hutchison signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday. It has an average annual value of $725,000 at the NHL level.
The 30-year-old goalie was 5-9-1 with a 3.47 goals-against average, .888 save percentage and one shutout in 16 games (12 starts) with the Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche last season.
Hutchinson started one game for the Avalanche, making 17 saves in a 2-1 win at the Detroit Red Wings on March 2, after he was acquired in a trade with Toronto on Feb. 24.
He was the Avalanche’s third-string goalie entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs but was 2-1-0 with a 2.75 GAA and .910 save percentage in four games (three starts) after Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz each was injured.
Selected by the Boston Bruins in the third round (No. 77) of the 2008 NHL Draft, Hutchinson is 51-52-14 with a 2.80 GAA, .905 save percentage and five shutouts in 127 regular-season games (107 starts) with the Winnipeg Jers, Florida Panthers, Maple Leafs and Avalanche.
The Maple Leafs also signed forward Joey Anderson to a three-year, two-way contract on Friday. It has an average annual value of $750,000 at the NHL level.
Anderson, a restricted free agent, was acquired in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 10 for forward Andreas Johnsson.
Maple Leafs News & Rumors: O'Ree, Simmonds, Hallander & More – The Hockey Writers
In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll report on Willie O’Ree’s new book about his life and hockey. I’ll also update how two young Swedish prospects are currently doing in the Swedish Hockey League.
I’ll also share the news that Auston Matthews has invested in a Swedish rollerblade company. Finally, I’ll report that Michael Hutchison, a goalie most Maple Leafs fans certainly remember well – if not happily – re-signed with the team today. I’ll share reasons why the organization signed Hutchison later in this post.
Item One: Willie O’Ree Publishes New Book About His Life
An article in the Globe & Mail today contained a short review of Willie O’Ree’s new book Willie: The Game-Changing Story of the NHL’s First Black Player. What was most interesting to me was that Jarome Iginla wrote the foreword for the book, and the book jacket contains tributes to O’Ree from P.K. Subban, Grant Fuhr, and new Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds. (from “‘I’ve been blessed’: Willie O’Ree’s new book reflects on his time as the NHL’s first Black player,” Globe & Mail, 30/10/20)
Simmonds recalls learning about O’Ree when he was growing up in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. Simmonds’ parents made a special point of pointing out the history of hockey and especially teaching their son how important O’Ree was to the Black community.
As Simmonds put it, “With what he went through, for him to continue on the path to play, made him a trailblazer not only for Black players but for players of other ethnicities as well. He really means everything to me.”
For those who might be interested in reading the book, it is filled with O’Ree’s stories as told to Canadian journalist and filmmaker Michael McKinley. It shares O’Ree’s journey from growing up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to his NHL play, and then to his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
It also places O’Ree’s life and story squarely into the middle of the history of the civil rights movement by covering his experience facing segregation in the United States, including both the cheers and also the tirades from racists who attended NHL games.
In the end, after the difficulty of his life, O’Ree, who now lives in San Diego, California, shared his goal of working with McKinley to write the book. O’Ree noted: “In the book, I wanted people to know more about my hockey career. I wanted them to know what I have been involved with.”
Looking back, he summed up his life, “So many wonderful things happened in my lifetime, and I had never had an opportunity to share them. I’ve been blessed.”
It should be a good read.
Item Two: Two Young Maple Leafs Prospects Playing Well in the SHL
Even though most hockey in North America is on hold, the Maple Leafs have prospects playing in Europe as a way to continue their development. Two of these are young Swedes Filip Hallander and Pontus Holmberg.
Maple Leafs fans will recall that Hallander was a player general manager Kyle Dubas was seeking at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. However, Hallander went to the Pittsburgh Penguins as the 58th-overall selection. Dubas was able to retrieve him when Kasperi Kapanen was traded this offseason.
Hallander is a 20-year-old left-winger who’s now playing with Lulea (SHL). This season he started slowly, but he’s beginning to warm up on the score sheet. He’s shooting a ton and now has scored a goal and four assists in nine games. His reputation is that he’s good at puck possession and is willing to shoot the puck on net. He’s also known to have a high hockey IQ and is also good defensively. He plays with intelligence on all three zones of the ice.
Hallander will be coming to North America to start playing with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies soon – perhaps even this season. He fits a typical profile for a young Swedish forward – he’s smart, skilled, and is sound on both offense and defense.
It might take him a number of seasons, but the Maple Leafs will need to replenish its core of forwards sooner or later. It will be no surprise if Dubas sees Hallander as a valuable future roster piece.
Like Hallander, Holmberg was selected in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, but he was a Maple Leafs selection during the sixth round (156th overall). Holmberg is a 21-year-old left-winger who also plays some center.
He’s currently skating with the Vaxjo Lakers and is suddenly beginning to score, which has been unusual. He now has four goals and two assists in 11 games this season. The entire last season, he only scored seven goals and 17 points in 52 games.
Part of his success can be attributed to the fact that Vaxjo has a much stronger team. Part is that Holmberg is more comfortable in his role with the team. Right now, he’s playing for an NHL entry-level contract. However, he needs a good season for that to happen. Not every late-round draft choice is offered such a contract.
Maple Leafs fans will see if Holmberg’s scoring can be sustained. It obviously helps when a team isn’t constantly on its heels trying to protect against an offensive onslaught from a superior team game after game. When a team can mount some offense, positive things can happen.
Holmberg’s shown he’s a decent hockey player, but can he put up some points? If he can, he might become a good depth player in the Maple Leafs organization.
Item Three: Auston Matthews Is Getting Entrepreneurial
Yesterday, Elliotte Friedman tweeted that Maple Leafs star player Auston Matthews had become an investor in the Swedish roller-skating company Marsblade. He’s known to have put up between $1 and $1.5 million.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
It seems as if Dubas is preparing the organization for the Seattle Expansion Draft scheduled for June 2021. Today, there was news the Maple Leafs had re-signed Michael Hutchison to a two-year contract. There’s no doubt that Hutchinson probably won’t play for the Maple Leafs anytime soon because he’ll be the organization’s fourth-string goalie. However, it’s interesting to see what the organization is thinking about these days.
It also, to my mind, shows some humanity on the organization’s part. Hutchinson was facing a season without a paycheque. Now he has one, so it’s a win-win for both the organization and for the player.
Everything has a purpose. If you’re a Maple Leafs fan and you’re scratching your head about why Hutchison was signed, think no further than it’s a temporary set up for the expansion draft.
Report: Hinch, Tigers progressing on deal – TSN
A.J. Hinch might be getting another chance.
The Detroit Tigers and the former Houston Astros bench-boss have made progress in finalizing a deal, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney.
The Tigers have made progress in finalizing a deal with A.J. Hinch to be their next manager, although the agreement is not yet completed.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) October 30, 2020
The report comes just a few days after Hinch’s season-long suspension stemming from the Astros sign-stealing scandal concluded when the World Series ended on Tuesday night.
Hinch spent five years as manager in Houston, going 481-329 in the regular-season and claimed a pair of American League pennants.
The Astros captured the 2017 World Series under Hinch, and registered three straight 100-or-more-win seasons.
At the age of 35, Hinch was named the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks and spent parts of two season there in 2009 and 2010.
He was fired after losing 123 of his 212 games.
Hinch had a seven-year playing career as a catcher in the MLB and suited up 27 times for the Tigers in 2003.
His career also had stops in Oakland, Kansas City and Philadelphia.
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