Monday Morning Update: May 22, 2017

The NBA’s second class deal with injuries, the NHL Conference Finals get nasty and the Raiders stay true to their roots

  1. The Celtics fight back…

If there is anything Boston loves more than a winner, it’s a team or athlete that absolutely refuses to give up, and tolerates no disrespect, even when they’re in a hole. The Boston Celtics delivered their fans a performance worthy of that description, and more on Sunday night.

It would have been easily for the Celtics to go down without a fight in this series, and I doubt anyone would have blamed or criticized them too much. There’s a major imbalance of power in the NBA right now, and the Celtics are on the wrong end of it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, their best player and de facto captain, who had overcome physical and emotional battles to lead the Celtics through the rest of the East’s also-rans, finally succumbed to the forces being continually thrown at him, and Isaiah Thomas will spend the rest of the series, and the season, on the bench. It’s enough to make anyone pack it in and get ready for summer vacation.

But the Celtics refused to, and to be frank, that should scare the Cavaliers, and should flatly terrify the rest of the Eastern Conference. Thanks to perhaps the most imbalanced trades of all time, the Celtics are set to get better next year, with the introduction of a #1 overall draft pick, the return of Thomas, and the assets to perhaps do even more, Danny Ainge is going to have Boston truly competing with Cleveland as early as next season.

While LeBron is likely far from worried about this series, and he shouldn’t be, there will be a threat for his crown soon, one that is getting better while Father Time, still undefeated, creeps closer and closer to the Chosen One. And, for the rest of the East, who have been patiently waiting for their turn to contend once again—you many want to step your game up.

I’m not usually one for moral victories. And there’s a great case to be made that this one is especially hollow and that the NBA should just be thankful the injury struck Thomas and not LeBron or one of his Cleveland comrades, which would likely render the entire postseason moot.

But for now, let’s focus on the future. There’s reason for the Celtics and their fans to celebrate and take joy in this win. If the Celtics keep on their current trajectory, it won’t be long at all before the Eastern Conference crown is once again more than a mere formality for Cleveland.

2. …and the Spurs don’t 

While Boston showed some fight in a series that may be predetermined, we saw the opposite in the San Antonio spurs through the first trio of games in the Western Conference Finals.

It seemed at first glance as though the Spurs were going to actually give the annointed Golden State Warriors a series. They were up big in Game One out of the gate, and looked to be in a position to take control of the series before it ever got started. Then the Warriors flipped a switch and stopped playing so, well, bad. Then during the comeback, Zaza Pachulia knocked Kawahi Leonard out of the game, perhaps the series, which was sad. Then Greg Popovich got mad, and now I can’t stop rhyming. So suffice to say, it’s been a rough series.

And it’s been made all the rougher if you watched any longer than that. The Spurs were a long shot to beat the Warriors with Leonard, and without him, they are a shell of what they used to be. They collapsed in Game 1 and have yet to truly compete since, losing games Two and Three in stunning, if somehow unsurprising, fashion. Tony Parker is on his last legs when he does play, and as we’ve learned, Lamarcus Aldridge is no Tim Duncan.

It may still be Greg Popovich at the helm, but for better or worse, even after embarrassing their in-state rivals Houston, it’s not the Spurs of old. These days, even Pop can’t keep up, and if that’s the case, the NBA may be more lost than anyone ever thought.

3. A not so friendly rivalry

The NBA postseason may be milquetoast at best, but over in the NHL Playoffs, it’s fair to say that things are a bit more heated. In case you missed it, the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks are spending much of their time

In case you missed it, the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks are spending much of their time either slash opponents, removing a stick they were slashed with by an opponent, or talking about slashing or being slashed. And while many were ready to anoint the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins as the NHL’s Cavs or Warriors, ready to easily dispatch with the Senators without so much as a win, the series is going back to Ottawa for a sixth game and could easily return to Pittsburgh for a seventh. And those teams have shown plenty of their own bad blood.

It’s certainly entertaining—Ryan Kesler and Ryan Johansen battled on the ice, had that spill into media time, and got anticipation levels for their next matting way up. The Senators have been unafraid to hit the fast Penguins, and now Dion Phaneuf and Evegeni Malkin are sparing in the press. But is it actually good for the games?

While I’m tempted to answer yes, I’m not so sure. Look at the injury reports, and there are a litany of names, from injuries that proceeded this round, sure, but with plenty of casualties from Round Three as well.

While we all enjoyed the battle of the Ryan’s, it looks like it ended Ryan Johansen’s season, as he had surgery and is out for the remainder of the season. He’s far from the only one on the Nashville roster dealing with injuries, and Pittsburgh has been scraping the bottom of its barrel just to keep up with the guys missing time.

Hockey is a tough, physical game, and thats why so many like it. That intensity ratchets up to an 11 come playoff time, which helps make it perhaps the best sporting tournament in the world, hyperbole aside.

But if it goes too far affects the play on the ice, as we’re starting to see, it can have disastrous effects. Instead of watching the new guard of Nashville battle the royalty of Pittsburgh at full strength in theStanley Cup Final, the teams will be without their beset center and defenseman, respectively, before the puck even drops.

4. A hockey town is born

There are a few things everyone knows about hockey. It’s not popular everywhere, and never will be, thanks to geography and climate.  And if you’re a team in one of those areas, you’ll never fill your seats.

If you’re a GM in the Modern, salary-cap league, you may as well put away your blockbuster trade machine. With big contracts, restrictions and no move clauses, it’s basically impossible to work a 1-for-1 trade to improve your team these days.

Oh, and while die-hard fans may get excited about fresh faces, that’s it. You can’t market a team, or the league, on young players that have yet to prove themselves or win hockey’s biggest prize. That’s why the league relies on old legends and the same three or four teams anytime it’s time to breakout the marketers.

So what do we make of the Nashville Predators? The team has broken nearly every hockey rule in the book, and in the process is singlehandedly turning their southern country home into a hockey town.

The Predators and the only GM they’ve ever had, David Poile, invested in a fast-paced, exciting style of hockey, replacing Barry Trotz with Peter Laviolette and putting stock in smaller, skilled players like Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson. They’ve improved the roster time and time again via trades, landing aging stars like Paul Karyia in the early days of the franchise, and using the art of the deal to land big names like Ryan Johansen and PK Subban, who are leading their charge to the cup.

The result is the team’s first trip to the conference final, and a home crowd that is supporting the run with the team’s best television ratings ever. Fans are meeting the team at the airport and arena to welcome their heroes home and boost their spirits before a potentially deciding Game Six.

And again, this is not Montreal, or Toronto or Boston or Detroit or any of the areas that hockey is supposed to thrive. It’s in down-home Nashville, home to country music and graceland—not what you would call hockey country.

So let this be a lesson to the Arizona Coyotes, the Vegas Knights, and the sycophants that repeat all the NHL’s tired old lines of the perenial problems that plague hockey. You can build a hockey town from the ground up anywhere—you just need to take some chances, and win some games.

5. Staying stubborn

The Ottawa Senators are tired. They’re tired of being told they’re boring, tired of being told they have no chance against the Penguins, tired of dealing with scoffing and scrutinizing media and fans. They’re tired, and it’s beginning to show—and good for them.

That doesn’t mean any of these people, mind you. The Senators do play a boring brand of hockey and there are plenty of arguments for the league doing something to stop the madness and the trap. For as well as they have played these playoffs, they probably should be being beatdown by Pittsburgh, who is close to maximum depletion levels, especially on their blue line.

But the team isn’t offering any apologies for getting this far, or for how they’ve done it, and it’s nice to see. Bobby Ryan told the media he could not care less about the TV ratings, just about whether the team is winning. The rest of the Senators, including their coach have had the same answer. And when asked if he was going to change his goaltender as a result of the blowout in Game Five (which we’ll get to in just a moment) he laughed, and told the reporter to be smarter.

It’s enough to make a boring team pretty likable. If I was the Senators, I’d stay boring, and stay stubborn—it’s worked so far.

6. The Pittsburgh Paddling

While the Senators have stubbornly done their best and hung around in this series, using their signature brand of hockey to muck up the game and keep the high flying Penguins down, something went wrong in Game Six. That’s not good news for the Ducks or Predators.

After Game Three, it seemed as though time may finally be catchup with Crosby and the Penguins. After he and many other players played an unthinkable amount of high level hockey starting during last year’s training camp, continuing through a Cup championship, through the World Cup for the team’s best and now another deep playoff run, they were finally getting tired. Finishing off their nemesis the Capitals one last time drained them of anything that was left. Sid was banged up, Kessel and Malkin were fighting, and things were looking bad.

Then the Penguins found their game. They went out and won what suddenly tuned in to an almost must-win Game Four, they countered with an even more impressive effort in Game Five, setting themselves up to avoid a winner take all Game Seven, even if it is in Pittsburgh.

As a hockey fan not in the Steel City, I should hate Crosby—and as an Islander fan, I do, most of the time. But the amount of hockey he’s played at a freakishly high level over the past two years is astounding, and its beginning to feel as though the only way to end such a great run is with one more celebration.

7. The King gets his crown

Everyone wants to go out on a high note when the season ends—but it seemed like there was a little extra catharsis for Team Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist after he won a shootout to give his country the Gold Medal at the year’s IIHF World Championships.

I’ve written about this before, but I have a soft spot for King Henrik. he’s seemingly the one player that isn’t effected by my animosity towards all things Rangers. He’s classy, competitive, and incredibly talented. Watching the Islanders and many other teams struggle between the pipes, while also watching the Rangers time and time again squander perhaps the best goaltender of my lifetime,

After this year;s playoffs, it truly feels like the window for the Rangers to win with Henrik has closed. Their path, as the Senators have shown, was fairly manageable this year until the Conference Final, and with the Penguins hurt and the West wide open, it seemed like there was a chance for the Rangers, even the depleted version that stands before us today, to finally push through.

But it was not to be. The Senators stunned them, and the season ended, along with the Rangers tenures for more than a few players. It’s the end of an era for the Blueshirts, and time to turn the roster over. And it’s beginning to wonder when that process will reach Henrik, and whether he’ll have a chance to be this generation’s Bobby Orr and win a cup, even if it’s elsewhere, before it is too late.

8. The Cubs “comeback” shouldn’t be a surprise

Say it with me, everyone! “Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint!”

This happens every year, and maybe it’s just me, nut it seems like the early expectations crowd has been even more vocal than ever before this year. Even though it’s not Memorial Day yet, the Yankees rebuild has been decided as a complete success, and ahead of schedule to boot. And the Cubs have already relinquished control as champs, it seemed, with many an analyst asking what was wrong with baseball’s best team.

Maybe the simpler explanation for both the Yankees and the Cubs is just a weird first month. Sure, the Yankees and their fans have reason to be excited by this success, and there’s plenty to suggest that it may be more sustainable than perviously thought. And sure, Cubs fans were probably nervous their team was enjoying last year’s title too much to build the dynasty they’re destined to be.

But it’s still May, folks. We’ve got the whole summer of baseball ahead of us, and something tells me things will look much different by the All-Star break, much less the playoff hunt. So settle in an enjoy the oddities of the 162 game season, which produces hot starters like the Yankees and struggling contenders like the Cubs perhaps more than we realize—just don’t read too much into it.

9. Just sin, baby!

As we now know, the NFL’s realignment out west is continuing, with the Raiders following the relocation leads of the Rams and Chargers and moving out to Vegas, Baby!

And while it’s sad to see a team as synonymous with its home city as the Raiders were with Oakland leave, there’s a definite silver (and black) lining here. If there was ever a team better suited to play in Sin City than the Oakland Raiders, I haven’t seen it.

There have been, and will continue to be, no shortage of jokes and observations around that theme, so I’m not trying to break the mold with that comparison. But when you wake up on Monday morning to news that the city of Las Vegas wants to allow mobile betting inside the Raiders’ arena, during games? It deserves to be brought up again.

Sports are coming to Vegas, for better or worse, and by the time the next decade starts, there will be at least two teams there (the Raiders and the NHL’s Golden Knights.) I know there will be plenty against it, but I don’t think the leagues should be afraid of gambling. They obviously want to avoid even any appearance of impropriety, but all the more reason to deal with this logically and sensibly. Embrace your location, and do it openly and above board, so we can be more sure that there’s noting being hidden below a green felt table and a fit of faux-outrage.

Either way, might as well let the good times roll.

Have a good week everyone! To keep up with the latest on ChinMusicPod.com, Like our new Facebook page. For more from Brendan, follow him on Twitter @MurraySportTalk

 

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