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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Los Angeles Lakers will play their first playoff game in seven years Tuesday night — at a centralized N.B.A. site in the middle of August.
This Newsletter Tuesday, in other words, is a special occasion.
It was under these auspices that I decided to break from my recent once-a-season tradition to convene what is known as the Committee (of One) and assemble an emergency edition of my power rankings to assess the 16 teams that, after spending some 40 days in the N.B.A. bubble, have advanced to the playoffs.
The higher-seeded team won each of Monday’s first four playoff games, but many N.B.A. experts believe the 2020 postseason will be more unpredictable than ever because home-court advantage and the usual rigors of travel have been deleted from the equation. Everyone is playing and living at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., with only a few hundred virtual fans admitted to the games.
“I hate giving predictions, but especially in this scenario, where literally anybody could get upset,” Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors told me last week when I asked him for his N.B.A. finals picks. “I’m prepared for anything as a quote-unquote fan.”
As a reminder: The Committee computes the order by weighing what is happening in the present alongside each team’s big-picture outlook — guided to some degree by subjectivity and whimsy.
Teams were ranked ahead of Tuesday’s play, before East-leading Milwaukee’s chastening Game 1 loss to the short-handed Orlando Magic.
1. TORONTO RAPTORS
The Raptors did not quite match the unbeaten Phoenix Suns in the seeding games, but they looked more playoff-ready, at 7-1, than anyone else in the bubble. The Raptors also recorded more wins this season than the Clippers (53 to 49) even after Kawhi Leonard swapped Canada for Hollywood. Given Toronto’s versatility on defense, its towering confidence after last season’s title run and Coach Nick Nurse’s creativity, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Raptors win the East again — even without Leonard.
2. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The Bucks have such a favorable first-round matchup against Orlando that it made more sense to laser in on their mental state. Because Milwaukee’s No. 1 seeding in the East was all but assured before the team arrived in Florida, its intermittent focus was an understandable problem. Harder to understand was the impression that Giannis Antetokounmpo’s patience was already wearing thin, as suggested by a scuffle with the Nets’ Donta Hall and a head butt of Washington’s Moritz Wagner. The Bucks will have to spend nearly two more months here to win the franchise’s first championship since 1970-71. They haven’t enjoyed themselves much so far.
3. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers’ ceiling may still be the league’s highest, but it’s rather late and they still haven’t found that peak. More than a year after the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Coach Doc Rivers still seems to be waiting to have access to his whole roster. Maybe Monday night’s Game 1 win over Dallas was the first step, at last, to putting all those inviting pieces together.
4. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
LeBron James, like Kawhi Leonard, is bidding to become the first superstar to lead three different franchises to an N.B.A. title. Yet it can be argued that the season’s lengthy hiatus hurt LeBron’s Lakers as much as any title contender. This team was rolling when the coronavirus pandemic forced an indefinite shutdown. Now the Lakers face a tricky first-round matchup with Portland amid growing concerns about a lack of perimeter shooting and the defensive void created by Avery Bradley’s absence.
5. DENVER NUGGETS
The Nuggets barely had enough players available to get through a practice in the early stages of the bubble. Now? Denver isn’t completely healthy, but Coach Mike Malone has more options than ever thanks to the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol. Although Denver was a worst-in-the-bubble No. 22 in defensive efficiency in its eight seeding games, it sure looks like the West’s most credible contender outside Los Angeles when Jamal Murray closes games alongside Nikola Jokic the way Murray finished off Utah in Game 1.
6. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Even without its best James Harden defender (Luguentz Dort) for Game 1 and possibly longer, Oklahoma City has a real chance to upset Houston in the first round and continue a surge that would see the Thunder at No. 1 if we were ranking this season’s overachievers. Chris Paul predictably gets much of the credit in what has been a turn-back-the-clock season for him at age 35 — and his team got a classic subjective boost here from the Committee in recognition of Paul’s behind-the-scenes work just to make this restart happen.
7. MIAMI HEAT
The Heat are not quite the title contenders that Jimmy Butler has proclaimed them to be — not yet — but the Committee is higher on them than most. Coach Erik Spoelstra has playmakers (Butler, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo), shooters (Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro) and a variety of defenders to throw at Indiana’s T.J. Warren (Butler, Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder) — enough across the board to feel good about Miami’s first-round series with the Pacers.
8. BOSTON CELTICS
No one questions Jayson Tatum’s franchise-player viability, and Jaylen Brown continues to impress with both his on-court maturation and his off-court activism. But Boston, with its well-chronicled lack of dependable size, was already sweating its first-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers — before Gordon Hayward sprained his ankle Monday night, sidelining him for at least four weeks. The Celtics, who are also managing Kemba Walker’s longstanding knee problem, should find a way past the Ben Simmons-less Sixers, but that’s the most we’re prepared to promise.
9. HOUSTON ROCKETS
There were so many fit questions and so much skepticism when the Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook from Oklahoma City in July 2019. The big mystery now, amazingly, is whether Houston can survive a difficult first-round series against the surprising Thunder without Westbrook, who is out indefinitely with a quadriceps injury. With its ultrasmall lineups, Houston was supposed to be the most feared wild card in the West playoffs, but it may take all of Coach Mike D’Antoni’s tricks just to steer Houston into the second round — amid numerous questions about D’Antoni’s future.
10. INDIANA PACERS
The Suns’ 8-0 run in the bubble prevented the Pacers from getting the shine they deserved. Despite losing the All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis (foot) and coping with the ups and downs of Victor Oladipo’s spotty comeback, Indiana overcame its rebounding issues without Sabonis to go 6-2 and help Coach Nate McMillan secure a one-year contract extension. Best of all is T.J. Warren’s looming best-of-seven showdown with Miami’s Jimmy Butler after Warren averaged a ridiculous 31.0 points per game to finish third in seeding games scoring.
11. UTAH JAZZ
I was a big believer in Utah after the off-season acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic — so big that in October I picked the Jazz to reach the Western Conference finals. Sadly, that attempt at bold, out-of-the-box forecasting hasn’t aged well, with Bogdanovic and the key reserve Ed Davis sidelined and Conley most likely out until at least Game 3 after the recent birth of his son. The Jazz face yet another immediate challenge emotionally, knowing they wasted Donovan Mitchell’s 57 points in a crushing Game 1 loss to Denver.
12. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
After what Coach Terry Stotts described as “a nine-game series” just to get a playoff shot at the mighty Lakers, Portland theoretically should have a sharpness edge — at least at the start of the series. The Blazers, though, have considerable defensive issues, and they aren’t the healthiest — CJ McCollum (back) and Zach Collins (ankle) will try to play through injuries. The group also has to be weary after the exertion required to bump Memphis out of the eighth seed. Even with Damian Lillard on its side, Portland has much to overcome to produce the first-round shocker Charles Barkley has been touting on TNT.
13. DALLAS MAVERICKS
The euphoria that the Mavericks undoubtedly felt after reaching the playoffs in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis’s first full season together was surely tempered by the reality of facing the Clippers’ array of top-flight defenders. That, combined with Dallas’s defensive frailties, makes for a brutal Round 1 matchup. Doncic insisted before the series that the Mavericks had “nothing to lose,” but Game 1 played out in agonizing fashion, with Doncic blighting his 42 points with 11 turnovers and Porzingis getting ejected in the third quarter.
14. PHILADELPHIA 76ers
For fans of a certain age, there is still a majesty attached to the mere mention of a Philadelphia vs. Boston playoff series. Yet one suspects that these 76ers are not in much of a mood to romanticize after losing Ben Simmons (knee surgery) indefinitely and a Game 1 fade against the Celtics that highlighted so many of the Sixers’ familiar ills: Joel Embiid either wore down or didn’t see enough of the ball in crunchtime; Al Horford, last summer’s marquee signing, had minimal impact against his former team; and the usual wails about Philadelphia’s lack of perimeter shooting persist. The pressure is on the Sixers — especially Coach Brett Brown.
The Nets lost so many players in the weeks before coming to Florida that they had no shortage of N.B.A. Twitter cynics asking if they should have even bothered showing up to Disney World. Then they went a spunky 5-3 on the way to the playoffs, rallying around the blossoming Caris LeVert and the steady Joe Harris to beat Milwaukee (with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup) and nearly eliminate a desperate Portland. They’ve been a great story here, even if Toronto sweeps the Nets in the first round — especially LeVert and the response Jacque Vaughn is getting from this group as the interim coach.
16. ORLANDO MAGIC
The Magic have been a curiosity for me from the moment they became the first team to arrive on the N.B.A. campus, because they had to travel only about 25 miles. Orlando’s staycation, though, is surely coming to an end soon. Milwaukee has too many weapons, and the Magic’s only realistic defensive counter to Giannis Antetokounmpo — Jonathan Isaac — tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in his second game here. Adding to Orlando’s problems: Aaron Gordon is still recovering from a hamstring injury.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
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Inside the Bubble
A fresh round of highlights and reflections from my fifth full week inside the N.B.A. bubble:
Goodbye to the good seats
Thursday night was emotional.
At least a dozen reporters were at AdventHealth Arena to cover the epic Trail Blazers/Nets game that went down to the last shot and sent the Phoenix Suns home despite their 8-0 record in bubble games.
One reporter — me — signed up to cover the last game at the Visa Athletic Center.
Orlando beat New Orleans in that meaningless game, which nonetheless meant a ton to me because it was my last chance to sit in the glorious courtside seats I’ve been raving about. The N.B.A. will not use the arena for any playoff games.
Last Wednesday, I was also the only reporter to attend the Washington Wizards’ final practice before leaving the bubble. I tweeted a picture of an empty Visa main court, so invitingly peaceful, as the Wizards practiced behind an adjacent curtain.
I know, I know: I am a basketball nerd in the extreme. But I miss that gym so much already. I’ve heard that it’s hard to tell the difference between any of the venues on television, but the convenience of the seating and the interview spaces at Visa will stay with me when I leave here.
A peek inside the Yacht Club
A rule barring the news media from the hotels housing teams was relaxed for one night after five teams left the Yacht Club Resort they shared with the Portland Trail Blazers. The league organized a Saturday evening dinner at the Yacht Club’s Ale & Compass restaurant, which is widely regarded as the signature attraction of the resort.
The Yacht Club, fair or not, got branded as a distinct third choice for teams behind the Gran Destino and the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, largely because hotel assignments were based on the standings in March. But the Blazers have thoroughly embraced the place.
When our two buses full of reporters arrived, Portland’s coaching staff was in the lobby, decompressing after a taut playoff play-in victory over Memphis that secured a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Welcome to the Portland Yacht Club,” Blazers Coach Terry Stotts said as he stood to greet me and my pal Chris Haynes from Yahoo and Turner Sports. Stotts looked quite pleased, but I think we were even happier by night’s end.
It was a real meal in a real restaurant — albeit very socially distanced with no more than two or three of us to a table — and it was scrumptious. (My main course: New York strip steak with truffle fries and a watercress salad after some nice appetizers.)
A new trail
After Game 1 of its series against the Lakers, Portland will move into the Grand Floridian, Disney World’s flagship resort. But who would blame the Blazers for wanting to stay at the Yacht Club after it has treated them so well?
Speaking purely for myself, after getting a glimpse of the Yacht Club’s lobby and its old-world nautical charm, I know I could quite happily stay there.
Just to be clear, though: Portland didn’t have a choice. The Yacht Club is scheduled to reopen to the public on Aug. 24. That’s why all teams from the sub-.500 sextet assigned to the resort knew from the start that they would have to relocate midstream, unappealing as that sounds, if they managed to slip into the playoffs.
We all scream
With no games Sunday night, reporters were greeted by a breathtaking sight: Open for business, without warning, was a full ice cream sundae bar in the meal room for the news media. I feel compelled to disclose that I did have one plain (but satisfying) scoop of chocolate.
You ask; I answer. Every week, I’ll field three questions sent in to email@example.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: You recently bemoaned the lack of recorded stats to consult on Michael Jordan’s dunk history, but not Wilt Chamberlain’s? — David Machlowitz
Stein: Fair point. Because dunks were not tracked until the later stages of Jordan’s career, starting in the 1997-98 season, we have no true feel for how much dunk damage Chamberlain did each game or each season.
But there are other key statistics that were not recorded in Wilt’s time that would have been even handier to have.
Chamberlain’s last season as an active player, in 1972-73, was the last season that the N.B.A. did not track blocked shots and steals as official statistics. Wilt’s shot-blocking numbers presumably would have been the most prolific in league history.
Q: Can you answer this? Is the N.B.A. declaring division winners? — @TedDibiase77 from Twitter
Stein: The league indeed recognized division winners this season as it would in any other season, even though teams played anywhere from a low of 64 games (Minnesota) to a high of 75 (Dallas).
Your division champions: Toronto (Atlantic), Milwaukee (Central), Miami (Southeast), Houston (Southwest), Denver (Northwest) and the Los Angeles Lakers (Pacific).
Leave it to Tim Reynolds, my pal from The Associated Press, to have looked up that the N.B.A. championship has been won by a division winner in each of the past eight seasons. The last non-division champion to win it all was Dallas in 2011.
Q: I write this as someone much older than you — nothing screams “old man” more than you referring to your “trusty BlackBerry.” — Dan Whalen (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
Stein: Two things, Dan.
1. BlackBerry insults bounce right off me. I love my physical keyboard and will defend the virtues of it all day. There’s a decent chance I will die with a BlackBerry in my hand, so there’s no such thing as a negative connotation, to me, with this phone.
2. I don’t mind being branded as “old.” I was the youngest traveling beat writer in the league (or thereabouts) when I started — so young, at 24, that various Los Angeles Clippers staff members at the time referred to me as “Junior.” I have made it into my 50s and pray that I have the good fortune to keep covering this crazy league for another 27 seasons — or as close as I can get. So I see it as a privilege to make it to “old man” status.
The sample size remains small, but playing without fans has not adversely affected “home” teams in the bubble. They won 49 of the 88 seeding games, for a winning percentage of .556. That falls right in line with the season from October through March, when home teams went 535-436 for a winning percentage of .551.
In the bubble, the “home” designation really only gives teams control of uniform choice and the various acoustical touches in the arena my colleague Scott Cacciola just wrote about. Of course, given the very wide spectrum of approaches teams used during seeding games, tracking this statistic now that the playoffs have begun will be a more worthy exercise.
Zero current N.B.A. players were active in the league in 1997-98 when the San Antonio Spurs began a playoff streak that lasted 22 seasons and finally ended last week. Alvin Gentry, who was fired Saturday by the New Orleans Pelicans, was coaching the Pistons in 1997-98 and, until his New Orleans dismissal, ranked as this season’s only other active coach besides the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich who held an N.B.A. head coaching job when the streak started.
Portland’s Gary Trent Jr. has always been a player of high interest here at Stein Line HQ because I (gulp) covered his father as a Dallas Mavericks beat writer more than 20 years ago. In the bubble, Trent Jr. announced himself to the N.B.A. community at large by more than doubling his pre-bubble scoring average (7.7 points per game) to 16.9 points per game during Portland’s 6-2 run.
There have only been 295 players listed as left-handed shooters in N.B.A. history, according to Stathead. This is the league’s 74th season.
So many of my good southpaw stats over the past few weeks were additionally researched by the Warriors’ tireless Darryl Arata. Among them was the following gem: Four of the 50 lefties in the N.B.A. this season were only 19 years old when the season began: New Orleans’ Zion Williamson, Oklahoma City’s Darius Bazley, Cleveland’s Kevin Porter Jr. and the Knicks’ RJ Barrett. All four players have turned 20 since May.
Blue Jays' latest implosion shows big changes are needed – The Globe and Mail
The book on the 2020 Toronto Blue Jays went like this – mercurial, prone to gaffes, will surprise you.
They managed all three on Wednesday, especially the last one. Because even the greatest Jays cynic (raises hand) could not have seen this collapse coming.
Toronto is one of those teams that puts a great deal of faith in the big-numbers theory of baseball. Make this little move or that little change and you increase your odds incrementally over time, which may result in 0.15 more wins.
We saw this approach in Tuesday’s Game 1 when cruising starter Matt Shoemaker was pulled early because a computer somewhere said so.
That loss set up for a more mundane approach in Game 2 – roll out your best pitcher, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and pray.
When the Jays spent US$80-million last summer on Ryu, it was a statement of intent. After several years of giving up, they were going to start trying again.
For the most part, Ryu performed as advertised. You could say of him the best thing you can say about any superstar free agent – he earned his money.
But on Wednesday, when it actually mattered, Ryu wasn’t bad. He was much, much worse than that.
Throwing a fastball that drifted toward the plate like a spiked beachball, Ryu could not consistently get north of 90 miles an hour. Without that effective deterrent, Tampa ran wild on all his offerings.
Ryu’s resultant boxscore read like a pitching coroner’s report – seven runs on eight hits in less than two innings, including two home runs.
That was that. All that remained was for the rest of us to spend two hours listening to the homers on the Sportsnet broadcast trying to convince themselves that a seven-run disadvantage against the best team in the American League isn’t that bad. It ended 8-2.
“That’s what happens in the playoffs,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said afterward. “Not always the good players hit.”
Amazingly, Ryu was not the worst Blue Jay in this game. Because while he was ineffective (which will occur), Bo Bichette was careless (which shouldn’t).
Bichette made two terrible errors in the early going. The second of them killed the Jays – extending an inning that should have been over and setting up a Tampa grand slam.
“It happens,” Montoyo said.
Bichette is the future of the Blue Jays, but on the evidence of Wednesday afternoon, he isn’t the present. That’s a tidy way of summing up where the Jays are right now.
Is this team good? Yes.
Is it good enough? Not even close.
The risk now is letting one weird season obscure that reality.
The main thing the Jays did this year was changing their fundamental question.
For most of the Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins era, the question was, ‘When will this team be good?’
Management devoted most of their effort to obscuring the answer. They loved talking about their processes and talent-acquisition stratagems and performance maximization. Anything to avoid giving a deadline.
This year, the question became, “How good can we be?”
During their run at the Yankees in early September, they looked very good indeed. But baseball isn’t about the streaks. What matters is aggregate performance over the longest season in sports.
At what point this year did the Jays seem like a team that could regularly dominate the opposition? That point never arrived.
The team is young, and it plays that way. The players don’t know what they don’t know. They win games they shouldn’t and lose others they should.
In the midst of all this to’ing and fro’ing, Montoyo carries himself like a guy who still can’t believe he’s got the top job. Perhaps because it often feels as though he hasn’t. You think it was Montoyo’s idea to pull Shoemaker in Game 1? Because no fully empowered manager does that.
Do you work well when you feel micromanaged? People who are pressed on too hard are erratic. They may perform in spurts, but they have a tendency to crack when it matters.
How else would you describe what happened on Wednesday? The Jays didn’t lose. They imploded.
“Sky’s the limit,” Montoyo said, sounding far too happy for a manager who’d just lost the way he’d lost. “We’re just kids.”
“Days like today happen,” Bichette said.
There’s no point in self-flagellation, but a few light lashes might’ve suited the result better. It’s great they have all this perspective, but they did just get wiped out.
In the long run, it can be a good thing. That learning experience so-so teams always talk about when they’ve been run over by a much better team. But some things have to change.
For one, this club needs room to breathe. A good first move in that regard would be letting Montoyo do his job without a bunch of baseball-ops wonks sitting in his lap as he does it.
Second, investment. The expansion of the playoffs has widened the contention window for every team in baseball. But it does not follow that every team will do well in this new free-for-all.
The Jays have an opportunity this off-season to marry some experience to their surfeit of innocence. A few steadying hands on the roster might eliminate all the late-game collapses and post-season detonations.
Third and most important, the Jays oughtn’t kid themselves into feeling satisfied. If coming in third in the AL East is cause for celebration, the club should give former managers such as Jim Fregosi, Carlos Tosca and Tim Johnson a call. Someone in Toronto owes them a Champagne shower.
The only way this Jays season can be considered a success if it’s the beginning of actual success in the seasons to come. Not theoretical seasons years from now. Next season.
The short-term goal should be turning that institutional question into a statement: “We’re good.”
How will we know when that’s happened? When this team stops talking as though there’s nothing wrong with losing as long as you’ve won a little bit more than everyone expected.
It's LeBron vs. his old team (and Michael Jordan) in the NBA Finals – CBC.ca
This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.
Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:
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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Lundqvist's former backups praise him with Rangers era ending – NHL.com
There was concern, and goalie Steve Valiquette said he remembers getting an email from Rangers assistant general manager Don Maloney.
“He was asking me to come back from Russia on a contract because Henrik wasn’t having a great training camp and they weren’t 100 percent sure about him,” said Valiquette, who played for New York in the 2003-04 season and from 2006-10. “They wanted a little more assurance to have a guy that was around. They probably would have used me if they were thinking he needed time in the minors to back up Kevin Weekes for a bit.”
Lundqvist started the 2005-06 season with the Rangers anyway.
“And, sure enough, Henrik, his second start, I remember him standing on his head against [the] New Jersey [Devils],” Valiquette said of Lundqvist saving 20 of 21 shots in a 4-1 home victory Oct. 13, 2005. “It was off to the races from there.”
The Rangers bought out the final season of Lundqvist’s seven-year, $59.5 million contract ($8.5 million average annual value) on Wednesday, making the goalie known as The King an unrestricted free agent for the first time after playing all 15 of his NHL seasons with New York.
Lundqvist will be free to sign with any team when free agency begins Oct. 9, marking the end of the most successful era for a Rangers goalie.
The 38-year-old is 459-310-96 with a 2.43 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and 64 shutouts, and 61-67 with a 2.30 GAA, .921 save percentage and 10 shutouts in the postseason. Lundqvist, sixth on the NHL wins list, is New York’s leader in games played (887), wins, shutouts, saves (23,509), and time on ice (51,816:19), along with starts (130), wins, shutouts, saves (3,567) and time on ice (7,935:25) in the postseason.
Valiquette, Weekes and Martin Biron, who each backed up Lundqvist in New York, spoke to NHL.com and shared insight into the goalie’s distinguished career with the Rangers.
Legendary work ethic
Biron said that by the time he joined the Rangers, he already heard enough about Lundqvist’s work ethic to know what to expect. Or so he thought.
“I got on the ice and I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is times 10 what I expected his work ethic to be and I already expected it to be high,'” said Biron, who was with the Rangers from 2010-14. “It was unreal.”
Weekes recalled Lundqvist’s affinity for facing breakaways in practice. He said most goalies shy away from the shootout drill unless it is required because they risk getting exposed, but Lundqvist was different.
“He wanted them, and requested them,” Weekes said. “Why? He had that much fire. He wanted that 1-on-1 challenge.”
Lundqvist is the NHL leader in shootout wins with 61. He has played his entire NHL career with the shootout, which was implemented in his first season, and without tie games.
“When we’d go to a shootout and Hank was in net, I’d just get ready to leave the ice like, ‘This is done,'” Valiquette said. “I’ve already seen him for 20 minutes the day before in practice and the day before that and the day before that shut everybody down. He was just different. When I was playing with him as a practice partner, I’d be keeping score on the drills we’d be doing so I could try to meet his level, and it was so difficult to ever get close to him.”
Celebrity status, ‘obsession with hockey’
Lundqvist became an A-list celebrity in New York, where Biron recalls seeing him dine with John McEnroe, and even play guitar onstage with the tennis legend on another occasion.
“He doesn’t talk about it a lot and he doesn’t go out and promote himself in that way,” Biron said of his former teammate’s celebrity status. “It’s just him, it’s the way he is, and it works for him. He is comfortable in who he is.”
Lundqvist also became known off the ice for his fashion sense. Weekes said Lundqvist was ahead of the fashion curve when he arrived in New York from his native Sweden in 2005, both with the clothes he wore, specifically the skinny suits, and with how he wore his pads.
“He was an innovator in terms of his strapping on his pads, the way they were configured, the way he wore his pads, the functionality of how the pad was set up based on how he played, his stance,” Weekes said. “If you stand up straight and you roll your ankles to the outside, that’s how his feet looked if you were behind him. That didn’t make sense because, if anything, you’d want your feet to be straight or more inward so you have inside edge, but I don’t know, it was so different from what I had seen and what we had really seen.”
Valiquette said Lundqvist’s celebrity, his style, the suits, the hair, the custom pads and his own crown logo all created a misrepresentation of who he really is and what he cares about.
“People can think that he’s more into fashion or the distractions become too much with the celebrity around him, and it’s never the case,” Valiquette said.
Valiquette recalled having dinner with Lundqvist one night in Pittsburgh, where the conversation turned to hockey, the Rangers and goaltending. It was then that he realized how much Lundqvist loved the game.
“I was floored by his knowledge of how our defensive zone should be structured around how he needs to see the puck off the release,” said Valiquette, a Rangers studio analyst for MSG Network. “He was talking about how the player defending in front of him, if the pass came from below the goal line to the slot area, that he needs our player to go at their player on the body so the shooter couldn’t shoot across the net but he only had to protect that strong side. He was bringing out napkins and moving the salt shakers around, and it really dawned on me that this guy really had a massive obsession with hockey and he wanted to become a master of all things.”
Biron said, “He was very critical. He thought he could save every one of the shots he would face, and really that’s the good quality of every great goaltender. There would be goals he would say, ‘I should have had that.’ I’d look at him and say, ‘You know what, you and Dominik Hasek maybe, but the rest of us mortals would say that’s a pretty good goal.'”
Weekes watched closely how Lundqvist handled this season, navigating through the changing of the guard to Igor Shesterkin once the rookie was called up by the Rangers from Hartford of the American Hockey League on Jan. 6. Lundqvist started four of New York’s final 29 games before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, then started and lost the first two games against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers because Shesterkin was unfit to play. The Rangers were swept in the best-of-5 series.
Weekes called it a master class in professionalism and grace but said he knew the reduced role was eating away at Lundqvist inside.
“He never had that type of adversity,” said Weekes, an NHL Network analyst who played for the Rangers from 2005-07. “He didn’t have to worry about contracts. For the most part until the latter stages nobody was messing with his ice time or playing games with him. No PR people are going to give you the wrong address when you’re going to a team function. The organization for him was always red carpet. So what’s happened in the last couple years for him, I can’t imagine how hard it’s been because all of a sudden you’re not treated the same way.
“The reality isn’t the same and you don’t have the ability to override. The automatic decision isn’t, ‘Hey man, this is yours because you’re you.’ Publicly he’s shown a lot of grace. He’s a first-class person, a Hall of Famer, philanthropic. But I’m sure his heart and his soul and his psyche are broken in a thousand pieces because this was a very different reality for him.”
It’s an even stranger reality now that Lundqvist knows he won’t be back with the Rangers next season.
He could sign with another team and continue his quest to win the Stanley Cup. He could retire from the NHL, return to Sweden and play a few more seasons, maybe team up with his twin brother Joel Lundqvist, a center for Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League. Or he could hang up the pads for good.
Whatever happens, the goalies who played with him, who saw his rise to royalty in New York, have a shared perspective on why Lundqvist will one day have his No. 30 retired at Madison Square Garden.
“He’s going to leave this game as the most respected guy that any of us ever played with,” Valiquette said. “That goes a long way. That’s a legacy. That’s not a one-off thing. You’re talking about a legacy.”
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