Updated Thursday, June 11, 2015
As much as America loves Cleveland’s LeBron James and Golden State’s Steph Curry, two of the most watchable athletes over to grace the sporting stage, the NBA Finals have lacked basketball excellence – even by the superstars.
In Game 1, James scored 44 points but his teammates shot blanks.
Game 2 was a brickfest (many by James and the always deadeye Curry), combining with ridiculous turnovers and moronic fouls, several that somehow were uncalled. Quick-draw Steph played like a blind man. He missed 18 of 23 shots. He did not return to MVP until the fourth quarter of Game 3 in Cleveland. Not quite in time to stop the heavily unfavored Cavaliers, who almost blew a 20-point lead but hung on to go up 2-1.
So we debate the significance of Cleveland All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving being injured. Tristan Thompson and Matt Dellavedova are vastly less talented, but so tenacious on defense that the team in this Finals matchup is better with the backups. Dellavedova tumbles and claws for every loose ball. Exhausted by his hyperactive 39 minutes, in which he scored 20, he spent Tuesday night hospitalized for dehydration.
What the overachieving scrubs have done is push the Warriors out of their beautiful game. Instead of Splash Brothers racing down the court and floating their feathery 3’s, they have to grind for every step, with and without the ball. There’s always a hand in the face, hand on the chest, elbow in the ribs.
And no one grinds like LeBron, 6-8, 270, looming over the court, moving everyone around like it’s his personal chessboard.
No one has ever dominated a playoff series in so many ways. For three games he’s averaged 47.3 minutes, 41.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.8 steals. Like a freakish combination of Wilt, Oscar and Magic. With his megaworkload his shooting is heavy-handed, a godawful 40.2%. That would be more troubling if Thompson weren’t hugging the glass to convert his misses. So we get a Finals with little artistry but a ton of grit.
More pleasing to the eye, if not the heart, is the Stanley Cup Final. Although the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning are the fastest-skating teams in the National Hockey League, the main story there is goaltenders, good, bad, and mysteriously ailing.
Chicago’s Corey Crawford played flawlessly in the opener, truly “stealing” a game, 2-1, that Tampa should have won at home. But the annoyingly inconsistent Crawford was passive and unfocused in Game 2, as the Lightning won 4-3 to even the series.
The winners had their own goalie issue. Ben Bishop left the ice twice in the third period, missing 9 ½ minutes. No explanation given. The usually engaging coach, Jon Cooper, said: “I hate to be that guy, but I will not answer a question about the goaltending.”
And I hate to be that guy, but Roger Goodell is better than Gary Bettman at preventing teams from concealing injuries.
Bishop, who was born in Denver, played, heroically, every minute of Game 3, even though he favored his left leg as if suffering from a pulled groin. The Lightning did not want the Blackhawks to know, for fear they’d attack his left side. As it turned out, Bishop made almost every save possible from both sides. In the 3-2 win by the underdogs he stopped 36 shots. At 6-foot-7 he left little net to shoot at.
Though known for its explosive line, The Triplets, the Lightning is more than flash. In Game 3, Victor Hedman, 6-6, 220-pound Swedish defenseman, blocked 5 shots, cleared the slot of screens, lasered a 120-foot pass to set up his team’s first goal and set up the last one, the game-winner, with a rush up the ice and a feed to Cedric Paquette. Cooper called it a “coming-out party” for Hedman, 24, “a monster out there tonight.”
Chicago won 2-1 Wednesday to pull even, with all four games decided by one goal. Bishop sat out Game 4, and who knows about Saturday night in Florida. His backup, 20-year-old Andrei Vasilevsky, played solidly, while Crawford delivered his finest effort of the series. He saved 24 of 25, withstood a flurry of pucks in the last two minutes.
The ’Hawks knew they were lucky. They’re seeking their third Cup in six years, but their opponents are bigger, stronger, faster. And younger, possibly starting their own dynasty.