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NBA, NHL Playoffs Remain Wide Open

By Bill Peterson · May 31st, 2006 · Sports
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Jerry Dowling



Playoff season isn't very full of surprises this spring, except for the surprises we usually expect. At this point in the proceedings, one still hopes the NBA playoffs elaborate the story of professional basketball so as to throw the league wide open. Right now, that could mean nearly anything.

And one wants the NHL playoffs to end in hockey towns. Right now, that means Edmonton and Buffalo.

Why hope for basketball playoffs to tell a good story? Because they can. A season that began with the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons as the last two champs and presumptive favorites has revealed seven or eight worthy aspirants, four of which remain.

Two of the vanquished, the Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, face parallel challenges of re-tooling and just tooling. Behind LeBron James, the Cavs came within a whisker of the Eastern Conference Finals with their seven-game semifinals loss to the Pistons.

The Cavs have come a long way in the past year, but they need to add one or two reliable scorers. Presumably, outside shooting would be more helpful, but James is so versatile offensively that he can improve upon whatever the team adds.

Other paths for improvement lie within James himself. He's not really the next Jordan unless he turns into a shutdown defender.

The Dallas Mavericks have set themselves up as the new state of play in the West, leaving the old war horses from San Antonio to consider a future that demands they become younger and faster in a big hurry. In his first full year as a head coach, Avery Johnson has assembled a flexible roster, making the Mavericks into whatever team the situation demands.

After the Spurs added veterans Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley last offseason, Dallas unmasked them as an old, slow team lacking the depth or scoring options to win a rugged series.

We're in for a fascinating summer as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and his front office suits change their roster to match wits with Johnson, the Pop protegé who ran point for San Antonio's first title in 1999.

The Pistons still might win it all, but they're struggling way too much, needing seven games to off Cleveland's one-man team and falling behind Miami in the Eastern Finals. Laying in wait all this time, it seems, is the largest monster ever to win a championship. Maybe, when it's all done, Miami's Shaquille O'Neal won't be such an afterthought anymore.

Why hope for hockey playoffs in hockey towns? Because that's where they belong, in front of hockey fans and communities that actually live the game rather than for the casual pleasure of retirees and upstart Sun Belt towns taking the express train to big league sports.

One who wants the NHL teams to thrive most in hockey towns probably isn't doing the hockey business a great favor. If the NHL wants to be in suburban Southern California or sunny South Florida, the league has to do what it must to grow the game.

But if you're a kid in Orange County, you don't get to play hockey unless your parents are rich. If you're a kid in the Canadian Midwest, you play hockey because the ice is free.

Who in Raleigh, N.C., cares about the Stanley Cup, really cares about it? Maybe some day they'll care about it after they've had a taste. But are kids in Raleigh growing up with dreams about winning the Stanley Cup? And, really, will they ever?

North Carolina built a rich athletic culture around racing and college basketball. Hockey is just trying to horn in there.

Do little kids in South Florida wake up early on cold December mornings to catch a skate before school? How many kids in Dallas really hitch their stars to Mike Modano, imitating his every move every day, standing on the shoulders of a giant for a compelling view of the future? More likely, any kid with ice time in Dallas has his eye on Dad's commercial real estate book.

Hockey really counts in some parts of the world. It's part of the natural landscape, a rite of the local culture, the path boys walk on the way to becoming men.

That doesn't make it wrong to play pro hockey in the Deep South. If the NHL can succeed there, thus is given all the more opportunity for kids in Canada and the northern United States to live their dreams. But it would be nice if those dreams were amplified by a neighboring Stanley Cup.

The Stanley Cup hasn't been to Canada since the Montreal Canadiens won it in 1993. It hasn't even been to Minnesota, Massachusetts or upstate New York since then. It's been to Denver and Detroit a couple times each, and three times it's been to suburban New Jersey. But the last cup went to St. Petersburg, Fla. Enough already.

As usual, the Cup playoffs are defined by upsets, though they mostly took place in the West, where the bottom four seeds beat the top four seeds in the first round. Form held in the East, where the top four seeds advanced.

The way Edmonton blasted through the West, one would believe the Oilers are the conference's dominant team. In fact, Edmonton entered the playoffs as the eighth seed. But they opened the tournament with a six-game win against top-seeded Detroit, including two victories in Hockey Town.

The Oilers are waiting on Buffalo and Carolina, a representative Eastern semi pitting the two teams that tied with Ottawa for the conference lead in regular season wins with 52. Like Dallas in the NBA, Buffalo lost its division to a top seed, Ottawa, then took out the top seed in the conference semifinals.

Carolina is led by Eric Staal, the only scorer from the regular season top 30 still playing. Staal led all postseason scorers with 20 points, followed by Buffalo's Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, along with Edmonton's Shawn Horcoff and Chris Pronger, all with 17. Buffalo's Ryan Miller is the leading goalie left in the playoffs.

But the playoffs have worn on Miller, as they've also worn on all the goaltenders, meaning no one is especially hot right now. So the Cup playoffs, like those in the NBA, remain wide open.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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