Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Finally time for the Finals!

The NHL is the most egalitarian league. If you make it to the playoffs, you have a chance. Not a chance only in a cliche kind of way - I mean, every team that makes the playoffs in every sport thinks it has a chance even though the opposite is true - but a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

Look at what the L.A. Kings, who finished sixth in the Western Conference during the season, have done to reach the Stanley Cup Final. They fell behind the Sharks 3 games to none but stormed back to win the series, taking Games 5 and 7 on the road. They then met the Ducks, the No. 1 seed, and fell behind 3 games to 2 before winning the last two games. Then came the defending Cup champion Blackhawks. This time, the Kings got the 3-1 series lead and let Chicago back in it before rallying from a late Game 7 deficit to win in OT.

On L.A.'s winning goal, Al Martinez flipped a soft 50-foot shot from the point. The puck appeared to nick somebody's stick in the shot, changing directions slightly. Its trajectory continued upward until it hit the shoulder of Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy. That changed the direction of the puck yet again, and it fluttered past goalie Corey Crawford and into the net. Wow!

When was the last time an NBA team made it to the Finals on a basket that deflected off an opponent's shoulder?

Whereas David Tyree's catch in the 2008 Super Bowl is considered one of the most miraculous (and fortuitous) plays in sports history, goals like Martinez's happen ALL THE TIME in the NHL. Luck is a bigger factor in hockey than in any other sport, as the puck takes wild bounces constantly. Then there's the goaltender factor - a hot goalie can (and has) carried seemingly inferior teams to great heights. There is no real equivalent in other sports.

So with the Kings getting great goaltending from Jonathan Quick - a native of my hometown of Milford, Conn. - and getting even greater bounces at the most crucial moments, they were able to win three Game 7s, all on the road. Amazing.

By comparison, the Rangers had an easy road to the Final, although the Eastern Conference's No. 5 seed did have to overcome a 3-games-to-1 deficit to defeat the heavily favored Penguins in the second round.

So the Final, which starts Wednesday, will pit the clubs that had the league's 9th- and 12th-best records.

Is it a total cop-out to predict that the luckiest team will win?

Yes? Tough, because that's the best I can do!


Meanwhile, it was far easier to predict what happened in the NBA, where the team with the best regular-season record (Spurs) will meet the two-time defending champs (Heat). What else is new?

I can't remember the last time the NBA produced a true surprise at this stage - and that's fine, too. We have the NHL for that. The NBA tends to reward teams for proven, sustained excellence.

I enjoy watching the Heat thanks to the amazing LeBron James. Plus, his second fiddle is Dwyane Wade, arguably the greatest basketball player in Marquette history.

Even with those stars, however, Heat games sometimes are boring because they can be slow-paced defensive battles. LeBron and Wade also tend to go 1-on-1 quite often, which leads to a lot of standing around by their teammates and a lot of 3-pointers jacked at the 24-second-clock buzzer.

The Spurs, on the other hand, are almost always a pleasure to watch. They share the ball beautifully and play sound fundamental basketball. They also are much taller than the Heat, helping to create even more of a contrast of styles.

The teams met in a memorable NBA Finals last year. The Spurs seemingly had the title won in Game 6 but a questionable coaching decision by the usually outstanding Gregg Popovich helped cost his team the game and, eventually the title. (Popovich inexplicably benched Tim Duncan down the stretch, leading to Chris Bosh grabbing key offensive rebounds, including one that set up Ray Allen's tying 3-pointer.)

Now Popovich and the Spurs get a chance at revenge ... and it says here that they'll get it.

The Spurs have homecourt advantage, which is always huge but is even bigger now that the league has returned to a 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Finals. The change (from 2-3-2) means the Spurs will be home not just for Game 7 if necessary but also for the always pivotal fifth game.

Beyond that, I just like the way the Spurs match up with the Heat. Popovich can go big and the Heat really can't answer that. Popovich can, however, match the Heat if both teams want to go small. Kawhi Leonard is an excellent defender who will make LeBron work for everything, and if Manu Ginobili's shot is on, he will cause big problems for the Heat.

And I just talked about two Spurs difference-makers without even mentioning future Hall of Famers Duncan and Tony Parker.

The Heat will need Bosh to justify his $100 million salary and also will need major contributions from several supporting players, most notably Allen, Mario Chalmers and a couple of bigs.

I'm saying Spurs in 6, and they won't even need a basket that deflects off of Udonis Haslem's earlobe to do it.

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