Tag Archives: playoffs

Critical Mass: The Indians Playoff Fate Will be Decided This Week

Approximately 10 days ago, the Indians were just 4.5 games back from the second wildcard spot held by Texas. In front of them were the Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins.

Today, the Indians remain 4.5 games back of the second wildcard spot held by Houston. In front of them are the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Angels.

In 10 days and 9 games, the Indians haven’t made up any ground and the Twins and Angels have effectively traded places.

Such is baseball I guess.

Two of the four games against the Tigers were postponed and the Indians split the Sunday doubleheader with Detroit. The Indians then split their four game series with the Royals 2-2 and followed that up with a series win against Chicago winning 2 games and dropping just 1.

After an off day on yesterday, the Indians begin a critical three game set at Minnesota which could decide if the Indians are in or out by the week’s end. Houston continues its series with Los Angeles and, as much as it pains me to say it, the Indians need Houston to sweep the Angels. In doing so (accompanied by an Indians sweep of the Twins), the Indians and Angels will swap places and effectively turn the run for the second wildcard into a two man race: Astros vs Indians.

After the Astros play Los Angeles, they play a critical series against Texas. In this series, it is important that the Indians hedge their bets on Texas. The Indians have 0 stake in the AL West. Therefore, it makes sense for the Indians to root for any team that knocks teams ahead of them out of the wildcard.

In this case, that means Texas.

If Texas can pull through and sweep (or take 2/3) from the Astros (combined with a favorable outcome between the Indians and Royals), Cleveland may enter the final week of the season either in the second place wildcard spot or battling tooth and nail for it with the Astros.

The latter scenario is predicated upon the idea that the Indians do what is necessary when it is necessary. Unfortunately, especially this season, that has not really been the case.

On to more interesting talk though: the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year race:

Several weeks ago, the race looked to be all but locked up with Astros rookie shortstop Carlos Correa. A recent push by Francisco Lindor (at the plate) has made things much more interesting. Correa maintains a slugging percentage north of .500 and currently boasts 19 HRs and 12 SBs in 88 games. Lindor is holding steady with an OBP of just over .350 with a batting average higher than .300. Throw that on top of his gold-glove worthy defensive play at shortstop, and it becomes clear why Lindor remains neck and neck with Correa. Correa is a decent player defensively, but he is nowhere near the level of Francisco Lindor. If Francisco Lindor can continue to hit the ball at the clip he is at currently, it will come down to the last at-bats of the season to decide who wins the Al ROY award.

The next 6 games of baseball, for the Astros, Indians, and Angels, are critical. Depending on how things play out, the Indians could be in a neck and neck race for the second wildcard position or sitting 6+ games out of the second spot.

It’s all a matter of time. The focus should be on the game at-hand. Looking ahead could cause critical missteps that could endanger the run the Indians are on. Tito has had the boys here before (2013). If he can maintain their focus and keep them loose, I sincerely believe they can make a run for the 1 game playoff at New York. The problem becomes the position they’ve placed themselves in by not winning enough earlier – having to rely on others (namely Texas) to come through.

In one week, I will be able to tell you where we stand.

Hopefully I bring good tidings.

The Tribe is Alive!

The Tribe is alive. I can’t believe it either.

The Cleveland Indians are just 4 games back of the second wildcard spot entering the final month of the season.

A month ago, I, and many others, were counting the Tribe as out. The bats were dead, the starting pitching wasn’t keeping the game in check and the bullpen was suspect. Add to that the lack of moves by the front office at the deadline and our suspicions weren’t unfounded.

This season was over, in every sense of the word.

And then, slowly but surely the Tribe won a few games.

Then the won a few series and then, they got a sweep.

The bats have been working lately, the starting pitching has been keeping opposing hitters at bay, and the bullpen, when they’ve been needed, have delivered.

The defensive play has been the hidden lynch pin to the Indians streak of success as of late. Who would have known that the addition of Abraham Almonte (seriously?) in centerfield and the return of Lonnie Chisenhall in RF along with the play of Francisco Lindor and Giovanny Urshela on the left side of the infield.

After the current series with the Blue Jays, the Indians have games within and only within the AL Central. Those games include 6 against the Tigers (3/3 Home/Away), 6 against the White Sox (3/3 Home/Away), 7 against the Royals (4/3 Home/Away), and 6 against the Twins (3/3 Home/Away). They are going to need to win approximately 80% (20) games to cement themselves in the wildcard playoff for the American League. There is no chance anyone in the American League Central will catch the Royals. Currently, they are 13 games ahead of the second place team, the Minnesota Twins and 16 games ahead of the Indians.

The next month of baseball could be very interesting. Undoubtedly, memories of 2013 have begun to whimsically drift into the back of my head as I reminisce about one of the greatest months of baseball in recent memory.

While the next month will be interesting, the big Indians-related news of the week occurred late Sunday night

Shapiro back, back, back and gone to Toronto

Reports surfaced last week of an impending offer of the Presidency/CEO duties of the Toronto Blue Jays to current Indians President Mark Shapiro. The collective interwebs and social media were aflame with ifs, ands, and buts about the whole thing before it went quiet for a few days.

Then on Sunday, the hammer was dropped. Multiple well-known and respect sports journalists reported that Mark Shapiro would accept the offer from the Blue Jays effective at the end of the 2015 season. Soon after, the team confirmed it and a press conference was scheduled for Monday afternoon.

At the presser, Mark said he was excited about the opportunity for growth in Toronto and addressed (barely) issues he faced here in Cleveland. When asked about attendance, he side-stepped the issue and moved on to other topics of interest.

Direct reports to Shapiro will now report to Paul Dolan and Dolan also stated he will not look outside the organization for a successor for Mark. It would appear that the next era of the Cleveland Indians Presidency will take effect from within the organization and speculation has begun about who that individual will be.

When looking back over Shapiro’s impressive 24 year career in Cleveland, one can’t help but feel bad for the guy.

When John Hart left the organization in 2001 and Shapiro ascended the GM throne, he was left with a very bad situation: a fan base used to winning and winning a lot, a minor league system devoid of any serviceable talent ready for the majors, and owners who didn’t want to spend much money on talent.

With that, Mark began the process of shaping the Indians from the ground up into the team he envisioned. Unfortunately for him, his drafts were awful. In the early to mid-portions of the first decade of the 2000s, you would be hard-pressed to name one decent major leaguer that came up through the Indians farm system (and no, Matt LaPorta isn’t decent. At all). Where Mark really shined was in his ability to leverage current team assets towards futures of other teams’ farm assets.

Case and point: the Bartolo Colòn trade of 2002:

In 2002, the Cleveland Indians were out of contention and Shapiro pulled the trigger on a deal that sent staff ace Bartolo Colòn to the Montreal Expos for Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, and Brandon Phillips.

I don’t need to tell you about the contributions and accolades that group of players have garnered over the course of their MLB careers to prove to you how fantastic that trade was.

When Shapiro stepped aside for Chris Antonetti to assume the role of GM, he took over as team president and was able to turn his attention things outside of personnel and baseball operations. His role in the new construction at the ballpark which debuted this season and his work in making Progressive field more fan and family friendly have been enormous. I love what has been done to Progressive field and I feel way more connected to the team and the game when I’m at the stadium than when I was younger.

Mark Shapiro has been around the Indians organization for longer than I’ve been alive. He has been there with us during the highs (1994-2001), the lows (2002-2006), and the playoff runs and appearances (1995-1999; 2001; 2007, and 2013). He has felt the heartache we’ve all experienced at one point or another. He’s felt the exhilarating highs of Tom Hamilton’s walk off calls in the lazy summer evenings and the lows of a Matt Underwood curse before an opposing player does something great.

Sure he’s a part of the organization, but he is also one of us. He did the very best he could with the resources he had, and I for one, can’t blame him for anything. He’s going to a great organization north of the border with deep pockets and a handful of great hitters. I wish him nothing but the best, and hopefully, he’ll come back around Cleveland from time to time to check in on us.

Tristan Thompson is Panning Out for the Cavs

“With the fourth pick in the 2011 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select Tristan Thompson from Toronto, Canada and the University of Texas.”

Tristan-ThompsonThat sentence was said by David Stern on June 23, 2011. What followed after it was years of debates on the merit of the pick.

There were plenty of ups and downs in the first three years of Thompson’s career. To be fair, there were more downs than not. Thompson’s rookie year had its fair share of promise if you could look past the 43.9% shooting from a power forward. Thompson wasn’t an incredible rebounder at that time, but he was pulling down 3.1 offensive rebounds in only 23.7 minutes per game.

It is possible that Thompson took unnecessary heat because of how high he was drafted. Being taken only three selections after rookie phenom Kyrie Irving probably set expectations way too high for a raw rookie big man with upside.

A look at the shooting of Thompson throughout his career shows an upward trend. His rookie year was atrocious offensively. A big man who takes 70.1% of his shots from less than 5 feet from the basket who only converts on 49.4% of them and who shoots 43.9% overall is the definition of raw.

Tristan Thompson's rookie year was less than idea;.
Tristan Thompson’s rookie year was less than ideal.

Despite his early years, there has been a steady display of offensive improvement that is promising. Thompson switched shooting hands in a well-documented offseason move in 2013. The results did not improve his offense exponentially, but the fact that he successfully did it is not only unprecedented, but gave reason for hope.

Tristan Thompson has always made a career out of doing the dirty work. He was never drafted into the NBA to be an elite scorer, playmaker or to be a star who a team can depend on to make big plays on offense. He was drafted because of his motor, work ethic, offensive rebounding ability and because he is willing to do that non-glamorous things that championship contenders need. It was hard to see that when he was drafted by a 19 win team who needed as much star power as possible. It was difficult to see the big picture and it is coming to fruition now. Playoff teams are double-teaming him so he doesn’t get an offensive rebound. I have been watching basketball for a long time and I have never seen that happen as regularly as it is with Thompson. His mere presence on the court in late-game situations where he is being double-teamed off the ball can wreak havoc on offense and he isn’t even touching the ball.

Thompson's shot chart is much improved in the playoffs.
Thompson’s shot chart is much improved in the playoffs.

Thompson’s stats have drastically improved even though he’s not on the team to produce numbers. For example, in 2011-2012, Thompson’s rebounding was not having much of a positive effect on the Cavs. The Cavs pulled down 50.9% of all available rebounds with Thompson on the court. With him on the bench, it was 50.4%. A net difference of only 0.4% is not as impressive as one would want from a fourth overall selection when rebounding is what they hang their hat on. In the most recent season, the Cavs are securing 52.1% of all available rebounds with Thompson on the court and 50.1% without him. A net difference of +2.1% is much more respectable. Offensive rebounds have always been where Thompson does most of his work. The Cavs secure 32.2% of all offensive rebounds with Thompson playing. That is at +5.4% better than the 26.9% with him on the bench.

Dwight Howard led the NBA in rebounds at 14.0 per game, which is a lot more than Thompson’s 8.0. The raw numbers for Thompson are not that impressive, but the Cavs simply play better with Thompson than without him. To put it into perspective, the Houston Rockets secured 51.4% of all rebounds with Howard on the court and 48.8% without him. In other words, the Cavs rebounded better with Thompson than the Rockets did with Dwight Howard (who was supposedly the best rebounder in the NBA last season).

It wasn’t always pretty. Thompson’s struggles from under the basket in his first few years were well-documented. He had almost 17% of his own shots blocked in his sophomore year, which was an all-time NBA worst. None of that seems to matter now. Thompson is contributing big for the Cavs and the national perspective has changed on that draft pick.

The Cavs are Mentally Tough

lebron-james-nba-playoffs-cleveland-cavaliers-chicago-bulls3-850x560It is well-documented that the Cleveland Cavaliers were 19-20 after 39 games. For a team to be below .500 despite having three all-star caliber players is beyond disappointing. The team simply was not good. It is fun to take things that people said about the team back in January when they were playing uninspired basketball and to call them out on their “hot takes,” but to do so is ignoring the fact that the Cavs were as mediocre as possible.

David Griffin made some trades, LeBron James got healthy, David Blatt got better at his job and the roster developed better chemistry. These things were not destined to happen and the Cavs could have remained  boring and mediocre.

Fortunately for the long-suffering Cleveland fan base, they did.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Cavs advancing to the conference finals is not that they did it, but how they did it. The Cavs were missing Kevin Love for the whole series, they lost JR Smith for the first two games, were counting on a hobbled Iman Shumpert, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and even LeBron James. The team, which looked incredibly fragile in the first half of the season, has developed an embarrassment of riches in the mental toughness category.

Perhaps they were mentally tough because of what they had gone through early in the season. Whatever the reason is, they proved that they were a better team from top-to-bottom than the dreaded rivals in Chicago. The Bulls were battling their own injury concerns themselves, but they appeared to use them as an excuse as opposed to the Cavs who took each moment of adversity by the horns and simply continued to win. A lesser team would have crumbled after losing at the buzzer in game three. A lesser team would have felt overwhelmed at the prospect of playing game 2 while down 0-1 in a series without two starters. A lesser team would have lost game 4 when they were down by double digits late in the game.

A lesser team would have lost the series. They had plenty of opportunities to do so, and they didn’t.

Cleveland’s relationship with this team is interesting. There was plenty of chatter during the first half of the year where people were saying that they simply didn’t feel a connection to the team. Even when the team turned it around and started winning, it didn’t feel like people were having as much fun this time as they were during the first LeBron James era. Perhaps it could be something as simple as Cleveland fans having a hard time reconciling the fact that they were now rooting for the exact type of team we hated for years. Cognitive dissonance is a difficult thing to feel comfortable with.

Being a young child who was obsessed with the Cavs was frustrating. To this day, I am convinced that the late 80s and early 90s squads had everything that it took to win a championship. Unfortunately for them, they played in the same conference during the Michael Jordan Bulls era. To experience beating the Bulls this year while knowing the pain of what it felt like to repeatedly lose to Chicago was cathartic. It felt like a big weight was lifted off of my shoulders. Every playoff loss to the Bulls hurt more than the last. To go into Chicago in a pivotal game 6 and repeatedly have the next-man-up blow out Chicago was one of my all-time favorite sports memories. Especially in a series where a lot of pundits, experts and fans expected the Bulls to be better than the Cavs when they were at full strength.

To put it into perspective, the Cavs team that was led by Mark Price went 6-17 against the Bulls in 5 playoff series. The Bulls were 5-16 against LeBron James in the 5 different postseasons.

Having #23 on Cleveland’s side is great and we should not take it for granted after knowing all-too-well the pain of having a very good team but not being able to get to the Finals because of one guy’s dominance.

LeBron James is an amazing player. Not only because of his talents, but because of how good his presence alone makes a roster. The fact that the Cavs were able to win by 20 points on the road despite LeBron James shooting an abysmal 30.4% is the type of thing that teams that are destined for great things do. The fact that the bench was able to 40 points in that game despite missing key players is also impressive.

It is hard to determine which team will advance to the Finals in the east. The Hawks play a very solid brand of basketball and will be hard to beat, but it’s difficult to pick against the Cavs after seeing how well they handled business in the previous round. LeBron James has won a road game in 20 straight series. It’s easy to imagine it becoming 21 in the next few weeks.

The Cavs are dealing with more than their fair share of injuries, distractions and adversity, but they keep winning. It is curious to see how they handle the next round.

No Favorite in the East

With round one of the playoffs in the rear view mirror the NBA’s best eight teams now battle it out for the conference final spots. But is there really a favorite in the league to already be pencilled in the conference final? Well, maybe Golden State for the West, but the East is wide-open.

I’m sure I will get some heat for that for “disrespecting” the Hawks as holding the top spot in the East with the best record, but after dropping two games to a very inferior Brooklyn team then losing its home opener in the second round to the Washington Wizards, it’s a fair argument to make.

The Hawks struggled to get by non-intriguing and ever aged eighth seeded Brooklyn with a 4-2 series win, but no win was as dominating as you would probably expect except for the final win to close out the series. The struggles and question marks flooded after the series win with most concerns involving Al Horford‘s hand and Paul Millsap‘s shoulder. If the two bigs can’t play at a 100% level each game the Hawks’ monumental season could be cut short in the conference semi-finals.

Switching over to the Hawks’ opponent, the Wizards have been phenomenal in the playoffs starting off 5-0 sweeping the once called equal Toronto Raptors convincingly then stealing a game in Atlanta to start off the quarterfinals. Good news: Washington has shown maturity with past experience in the playoffs and are considered as a real contender to represent the wide-open Eastern Conference. Bad News: John Wall‘s wrist/hand injury is not a wrap it up and go play type injury and is serious enough to keep him out for this series and the possibility of one(s) to come.

Ramon Sessions will need to grow up quick, but has some playoff experience filling the same role as he stepped in for Derek Fisher and the 2011-12 Lakers having a playoff career average of 20.5 minutes, nine points, and three assists per game entering the third game of this series. His first rodeo in the second game of this series he played 40 minutes and recorded 21 points and four assists and was 60% from behind the arc. Sessions played well enough to win (though they lost), but the Wizards will need more efficient and effective play from sharp shooter Bradley Beal and veteran Paul Pierce to get this series on their side.

The most intriguing series in all of the NBA playoffs is Chicago and Cleveland and both games to open up the series have been, well, kind of weird and lopsided so to speak. In game one Cleveland was just all out of whack and LeBron James played as he was being held back for some unknown reason and Chicago hit basically every shot having one of their better shooting performances of the year.

Photo Credit: Jeff Haynes/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

Game two was the same scenario just flip-flopped in Cleveland’s favor, but the x-factor was Iman Shumpert knocking down four threes early to finish he night with 15 total points. Shumpert finished the night with a +19 complementing every other starter with a positive +/- ratio (highest: James +31; lowest: Mozgov +6).

Consistent bench play could ultimately decide this series (could say this about any game/series) as both teams have key bench players that can produce enough offense and defense to help spur their team to victory.

Key Chicago Bench Players Game One: Taj Gibson: 28 minutes, eight points, five rebounds; Kirk Hinrich: 15 minutes, six points. 

Key Cleveland Bench Players Game Two: James Jones: 22 minutes, 17 points, two rebounds; Matt Dellavedova: 36 minutes, nine points, nine assists

The East is wide-open, so the real question is who are you betting on?

The Cavs Will Miss Kevin Love

lebron-james-110214The Cavs were dealt a crushing blow this past week when it was announced that Kevin Love would be out for the remainder of the playoffs due to having surgery performed on his left shoulder. To compound matters, J.R. Smith was suspended for the first two games of the series against Chicago. If that wasn’t bad enough, the league turned a blind eye to the dirty play of Mike Dunleavy Jr. and he will not be suspended for his dirty play to the neck of Michael Carter-Williams during the sixth and final game of the Bulls and Milwaukee series.

Kevin Love’s fit on the Cavs and his disappointing numbers have been discussed ad-nauseum. His numbers don’t matter as much as we’ve probably discussed. It will forever be odd to me that he came to Cleveland and that his talent alone didn’t dictate that he would be the second option. The LeBron James and Kevin Love tandem didn’t appear to have the best on-court chemistry during the regular season. In fact, 26.9% of the passes LeBron James made were to Kyrie Irving. That’s significantly higher than the 22% to Kevin Love.

The James and Love pick-and-roll was supposed to be devastating. It left a lot to be desired during the regular season. In fact, it didn’t happen nearly enough. The Cavs were an ISO-heavy team and it was maddening to watch the team employ James and Love and to not have them take advantage of his size, ball-handling, quickness and passing coming off of screens set by Kevin Love.

It is hard to say what kind of impact Love’s absence will have on the team. On the one hand, they still have the two best players in the series. They also have good complementary role players in Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. Losing Kevin Love hurts a lot, but they are still favored by Las Vegas to win the series. In fact, Las Vegas has the Bulls as third most likely to win the east after the Cavs and Atlanta Hawks.

The Cavs are going to be forced to replace Kevin Love with a committee of players. The obvious choice is to play LeBron James at the power forward position. It is well-known that James does not like to play power forward, but the team is in dire straights and will need him to sacrifice to make the Finals. Asking James to play power forward during the regular season is a probably asking too much out of him at this stage in his career, but the Cavs can do what the Washington Wizards did with Paul Pierce and move him to the four since they have been saving his body during the regular season.

The Cavs are going to have to get creative. During the regular season, the net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) for Shawn Marion was -1.9 points per 100 possessions. This is significantly better than Mike Miller (-13) and James Jones (-16.6). The Cavs are going to have to leave their comfort zones during the Bulls series if they want a chance at winning it. Simply replacing Kevin Love with James Jones, Shawn Marion or Mike Miller is not going to be putting them in a position to succeed.

The Cavs were dealt an unfair blow when Kelly Olynyk took Kevin Love’s shoulder out of the socket. The frustrating thing about it is that it happened during the first quarter of game 4 of the series. It would be more palatable if the Cavs did not take the Celtics seriously and they coasted their way to a game 6 or 7 and had it happen then. The Cavs took care of business and were well on their way to a blowout sweep of the Celtics when Olynyk hurt Love early on in game four.

The Cavs are going to have to go into the Bulls series with more focus than they originally thought. The team faced a crushing blow, but they still have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. They can win the series and the east, but it will be a lot harder without the spacing and rebounding of Kevin Love. You’d rather have Kevin Love than not, but it should be noted that David Blatt repeatedly went with lineups without Love for entire quarters that the Cavs played well in. It’s not easy or preferred, but it’s certainly possible.

LeBron James said that in northeast Ohio, nothing is given and everything is earned. It’s time for the team to demonstrate that he meant that when he said it.

The Cavs Grew During the Boston Series, but at what Cost?

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 7.34.59 PMCleveland fans have not witnessed a playoff series since 2010. Many of us tuned out when the Cavs were not in the postseason. Others, like myself, would watch the playoffs but not as closely. From 2011 until 2014, I would watch Heat games and hope that they would lose. This was the extent of my emotional investment in the NBA playoffs during those years.

Rooting for a team to lose is still fun, but not as fun as when there is a legitimate cheering interest. I’d rather root for the Cavaliers than the Mavaliers.

Much has been made over the fact that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love lack any postseason experience heading into the 2015 playoffs. It is easy to watch the NBA and question how different playoff games really are than high-intensity regular season games, but the intensity of the playoffs is night-and-day.

It was funny when Kyrie Irving asked Mike Miller during the second game of the regular season if that is what the playoffs are like. On the other hand, it demonstrated his naiveté over playing meaningful basketball.

The playoffs are more intense because the officials swallow their whistles more. In addition, teams change their game plan from day-to-day. Boston coach Brad Stevens was unhappy with his team’s rebounding in game 1 of the Cavs series and the Celtics responded by changing their game plan and they out-rebounded Cleveland 39-35. LeBron James was unhappy with his high turnovers in games 1 and 2, so he made the necessary changes and only had 2 in game 3.

In addition, there is bound to be moments of chippiness that carry over from one game to the next. Rivalries are born in the playoffs. If Jae Crowder says to Boston media that the Cavs do not have anyone on the roster that intimidates him during the regular season, it may be a month or two before the teams meet up again. Hard fouls are delivered and retaliated against from game-to-game.

The Cavs swept the Boston Celtics in their first round series. Cleveland’s margin of victory in the sweep was +9.25 points per game. None of the games were terribly close, but the young and inexperienced Cavs most definitely learned first-hand how intense the playoffs can be.

It has been a while since Cleveland fans have experienced a game as intense as game 4 against the Celtics. The officiating was dubious and the game spiraled out of control for Tony Brothers and his officiating crew. Kevin Love’s shoulder was dislocated due to a non-basketball play by Kelly Olynyk which set the tone for the rest of the game. Kendrick Perkins set an unreasonably hard screen on Jae Crowder, which resulted in a flagrant 1 foul and double technical fouls on Kendrick Perkins and Jae Crowder. J.R. Smith reverted back to old habits and hit Crowder on the head, which resulted in an ejection for Smith (with a potential suspension in game 1 of the conference semi-finals) and a knee injury to Jae Crowder.

Despite the sweep by the Cavs, the series was quite intense and it should do the young Cavs a lot of good to have experienced it. Having an easy 4 game sweep against another team would have made things more difficult when they inevitably face the Chicago Bulls in the next round.

The team’s playoff picture is a moot point if Kevin Love is out for the rest of the playoffs. His injury did not look good and it is hard to imagine him not missing significant time, but he sounded optimistic about playing in game 1 of the next series during the post-game press conference.

On the one hand, it is a good thing that the Cavs played such a tough and physical series. On the other, it may have cost the team its chance at competing for a title. Kevin Love is not the 26 point and 12 rebound player that the Cavs traded for, but his presence is imperative for the Cavs to contend.

Kevin Love missed the game against the Chicago Bulls on February 12. In that game, the lack of spacing was evident. The Cavs shot 25.8% from three and Irving struggled en route to an inefficient 17 point outing.

The only thing that we can do is hope for the best when Love’s diagnosis is revealed on Monday. Until then, it’s probably best to take solace in the fact that the Boston Celtics have gone fishing and that Kelly Olynyk cannot hurt anybody else.

Hockey’s Second Season… For All Teams

SCOTTSDALE, AZ…This past weekend saw the end of the season for some teams and the beginning of the “real season” for others. For some of the teams that ended their season on the weekend it was the start of a changing of the guard. After yet another miserable season and their 48th without a Stanley Cup the Toronto Maple Leafs cleaned house, garage and backyard by parting company with General Manager Dave Nonis, Interim Head Coach Peter Horacek and the entire coaching staff. Many of the scouts were also let go. Will it help? Only time will tell and that time won’t come for at least two years as the rebuilding job is massive. President Brendan Shanahan has sat back for a year assessing what he inherited, decided he didn’t like it and now the changes start, both on the ice and off the ice.

Similarly, the Buffalo Sabres announced that Ted Nolan won’t return as Head Coach. This hardly seems fair as the Sabres were one of the teams that appeared to be stripping down their team with a hope of getting Connor McDavid in the upcoming Amateur Draft. In doing so they further weakened an already inept team on at least two occasions during the season by trading their goaltender and trading for an injured player (Evander Kane) who they knew would not be suiting up for them this season. To blame Nolan for their lowly standing is completely unfair. Even Scotty Bowman with Toe Blake and Al Arbour as his assistants could not have won with the team management put on the ice. Management may have made the decision to waive the white flag during the season but Nolan didn’t.

Others will follow with their own changes, but these two teams decided the changes should happen right away.

We saw the lowest total points for a scoring champion in the post expansion era, as Jamie Benn got two points in the last two minutes of the Dallas Stars last game to win the scoring title with 87 points. Benn did this while knowing that once the season was over he would be undergoing hip surgery. Keep in mind that as well as the point totals being low, the last time the scoring title was won with 87 points (1967-68), teams played 74 games. Now they play 82 games.

For many years the Western Conference has been the home of the league’s better teams and without a doubt it has been the stronger conference. While the gap is not yet completely closed, the Eastern Conference went a long way this year to closing it and while the West is still home to many of the league`s better teams, the East is gaining ground. For several years the only Eastern Conference teams considered strong enough to keep pace in the West were the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins. This year the Penguins made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and the Bruins missed the playoffs completely.

We saw the Calgary Flames and the Ottawa Senators make the playoffs in a season where most hockey people would have said they would be in the battle for a lottery pick at the Amateur Draft. We saw the New York Islanders look like a reasonably competent team, also making the playoffs after years on the outside looking in. The Nashville Predators suddenly became a scoring team and for most of the season were in the hunt for the President`s Trophy as the top regular season team until faltering in the last 15 or so games. We saw the defending Stanley Cup champs miss the playoffs. For several years the Los Angeles Kings have left their playoff run late, just squeezed in and then twice played so well in the post-season that they won the Cup. This year they left it too late so we are guaranteed a new champion.

Yes, it was a strange season for a lot of reasons, but once the first week of April comes, 16 teams believe that their time has come and two months of good, solid hockey could get them to the pinnacle. Perhaps more than ever this year, the race for the Stanley Cup is wide open. Six of the eight first round series involve teams from the same division. As we know, parity is a big factor in today`s NHL so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the first round is very likely to provide an upset or two.

Looking at the eight first round series, each one has its own story and each one has something unique.

Starting out west, the top ranked Anaheim Ducks are paired with the eighth place Winnipeg Jets. Playoff hockey returns to Winnipeg for the first time since the mid 1990`s when the original Jets packed up and moved to Arizona. Looking at the standings, one would assume that the Ducks would be heavy favourites, but for a team than won 51 games and had 109 points, their plus-minus in goals for vs. goals against was only ten. If you do the math, that means that in the games they won they were at least plus 51, so a lot of their losses (24) were by big scores and that isn’t the way playoff hockey is played. The Ducks may find it hard to simply turn it on and off once the playoffs begin. I don’t see the Jets pulling it out, but they will make it tough on the Ducks and the Winnipeg crowd will be like a seventh player for the team in the games scheduled for Winnipeg.

The St. Louis Blues will face off against the Minnesota Wild. The Blues can’t settle on a goaltender and the Wild rely on Devan Dubnyk who has become the story in Minnesota. When he was acquired in January, hardly anyone thought the transaction was anything other than the Wild picking up an experienced goalie while their first two regular goalies got healthy. All Dubnyk did was start thirty-plus games in a row and lead them to the playoffs. If he stands on his head for another two weeks, the Wild may be able to sneak one out. The Blues would appear to be too strong overall but it won’t be a short series.

The Flames and the Vancouver Canucks meet in one of the two all-Canadian series and they always have close series. Neither team was expected to be playoff contenders but here they are with a chance. While the Flames and the Edmonton Oilers are from the same Province, the Flames real rivals are now the Canucks, especially since the Oilers have been so inept for almost a decade. On paper, it says that Vancouver should win but it has been a special year for Calgary, they have overcome a lot and an upset is very possible here.

The final western series pits Chicago against division rival Nashville. These two teams finished third and fourth in the west, but face each other as a result of the changes to the playoff format last year. Nashville has home ice advantage but Chicago has a knack for winning key games on the road in the post season and Jonathan Toews always comes up big when needed. If Patrick Kane is able to make it back as suspected, he could be the boost the Blackhawks need to get it done. A long series, but I wouldn’t count out Chicago.

Moving east, the series are just as compelling. The first place Rangers draw the eight seeded Penguins. The Penguins left it late, but the Rangers will have their hands full. You can’t count out any team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury on its roster but home ice should be enough to get the Rangers through. Word of warning to the Rangers: The President’s Trophy winners rarely win the Stanley Cup.

Montreal and Ottawa participated in a rough series a couple of years ago. Both teams have gotten here on goaltending. The Canadiens are a good team that has become a better team because of the unbelievable season Carey Price has had. The Senators were a lottery contender as recently as January, but rookie goaltender Andrew Hammond came out of nowhere and led them to the playoffs. It will all depend on goaltending, but the Canadiens should move on because of their depth and the extra home game.

Tampa Bay and Detroit know each other very well and they should. In addition to being division rivals, Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman was the face of the Red Wings for many years, captaining them in their late 1990`s-early 2000`s Stanley Cup years. He has used the Detroit model to build the Lightning so look for another long series. The Lightning should have enough to get through, but it won’t be easy.

The final Eastern series involves two teams, the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders that got here under different circumstances. The Islanders started out strong and have hit hard times the last six weeks or so. The Capitals have done the opposite. They started out slow, were out of the playoff picture for a long time but have been hot the last six weeks or so and now find themselves with home ice advantage for this series. A six or seven game series, which should see lots of goals. Tough one to pick, but the edge goes to Washington because defense takes over in the playoffs and new coach Barry Trotz has the capitals playing more responsible defensively.

It has been a strange season in many ways and the next two months won’t be any different. Sit back, settle in and enjoy some good hockey as 16 teams start on the journey to try to win the toughest trophy to win in sports. The real season is just starting.

Monday Night Football, Where 5-8 Doesn't Add Up

Some things just don’t add up. Sure, after Monday night’s contest at Soldier Field, the Bears, Saints, and everyone else in the NFL had played 14 games, but the logic with numbers stops there. In New Orleans and wherever else Saints fans might reside, they watched their 5-8 team on Monday Night Football, with the hopes their beloved Saints would jump the 5-8-1 Panthers for the division lead in the NFC South. Meanwhile, the hometown crowd just hoped Jay Cutler and the 5-8 Bears wouldn’t embarass their city on national television.

Cutler hasn’t been much of a favorite with the home crowd, or any crowd, except maybe the Green Bay crowds, since being traded to the Windy City in 2009. Under Lovie Smith, he was just expected to be better than Rex Grossman or whatever other void has lined up under center for the Bears this century. In other words, he just needed to do enough to let the defense win them ball games. Now, enter offensive-minded Marc Trestman, add Cutler’s favorite weapon from his Denver days, plus a big physical receiver, and the role has changed. Nobody was asking for leadership from the Vanderbilt product, just good quarterback play and an attitude that reflects the opposite of what you might consider a douchebag.

The Bears haven’t gotten that, but they also haven’t had a losing season, since going 7-9 in Cutler’s first year with the team. It’s for that reason and possibly a legitimate fear of not being able to upgrade the position that a decision was made to commit to Cutler for the next seven years after his contract expired at the end of last season. It didn’t take long for what we assume would be buyer’s remorse to kick in with Cutler’s play in 2014, even if mitigated by key injuries in his supporting cast. The Bears wear their 5-8 with shame, while their fans look to the NHL, NBA, and Major League Baseball chapters in town for some sports salvation.

Meanwhile, the Saints are far enough removed from both their World Championship run of 2009 and the scandal that plagued in 2012 that they have both expired as factors for the 2014 Saints. They did, however, still enter their Monday Night game with an identical 5-8 record to the Bears, who are, by every definition of the word, broken. However, hope springs eternal in the Bayou, as there hasn’t been a more perfect year than this to be medicore, or even slow, out of the gate in the NFC South. Entering play on Monday, the division was a collective 17-37 in the Win-Loss Column.

There’s no criteria to flex out of Monday Night football, but if there was, this was the one to kick to the curb. Maybe someone could have sold you on the idea that the Saints weren’t as bad as their sub-500 record might have suggested, but it’s countered by Chicago is probably worse than their 5 wins might insinuate. The Bears might have stolen a few and New Orleans probably gave a few away, but the bottom line is, you are what your record is. Come to think of it, both of these teams were ranked in the bottom 5 of many pertinent defensive categories across the National Football League. You expect teams like this to lose more games than they’ve won, but somehow the Saints still control their own destiny to host a playoff game.

It only took two plays from scrimmage from each team to demonstrate to anyone who has dismissed either participant in Monday’s game that they’ve done so with merit. Cutler’s first pass was ridiculously incomplete, and in a “I should probably tell everyone I was throwing the ball away, only I wasn’t throwing it away” kind of way. His second pass was picked off. The Saints didn’t fare much better. After a nice run to move the chains, Drew Brees hit his tight end, Jimmy Graham for another first down, inside the 10, but didn’t protect the football and the Bears defense had quickly bailed Cutler out for his first mistake of the night.

The two teams stalemated for 15 minutes, but the Saints opened up the scoring in the second quarter, and eventually took us to the fourth quarter with, really, a less than impressive 24-0 lead. The Bears did salvage some points to go through the motions, but ultimately looked exactly as sloppy as you might have expected in a 31-15 defeat. There’s out-of-order, there’s dysfunctional, and then there’s the 2014 Chicago Bears. They host the Detroit Lions next week, and you can expect to see some empty seats. You can also expect a lot of talk about eating eight figures in guaranteed money that Bears ownership might decide to eat just to rid themselves of another six years of the headaches that #6 brings to the table and the locker room.

It’s a different story for Sean Payton‘s team, going forward. As tough as the sledding has been for the Saints, they know that they’re in the playoffs with wins at home against Atlanta, and in Week 17 at Tampa Bay. They won’t even need the win over the Bucs if the Browns beat Carolina and they hold serve against the Falcons, but it gets a little messier with a loss to Atlanta, who also controls their own destiny at 5-9. If the Saints do win their last two games against their division rivals, they would finish 8-8, like a handful of division champions before them, and it’s a non-story.

If the Saints lose in Week 16 or 17, we’d have our second playoff team with a losing regular season record ever, whether it’s a 7-9 team or the 7-8-1 Panthers. On the bright side for the NFC South, at least the Saints know all too well that a team with a losing record isn’t doomed to be one and done in the postseason. In 2010, the 11-5 Saints visited the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks as the top Wild Card team in the NFC, and left the emerald city with a 41-36 defeat, which prematurely began their off-season.

It’s funny how we talk about trends early in the year, as soon as Week 2 or 3 sometimes, and how doomed a 1-2 team might look when stacked against teams of the same record historically. You might think a Week 15 battle of 5-8 would spell doom a little more boldly, and for the Bears it does. In this case, the winner is sitting pretty, and 6-8 equals 14 games just the same, but it just doesn’t add up. I’m not sure it ever will.

The Seminoles need to begin games the way they’re ending them

Earth to Florida State… If you play with fire, you will eventually get burned. The Florida State Seminoles have trailed at halftime in 5 of their previous 8 games, with a few of them being a couple of possession games. While it is encouraging that this team has repeatedly been able to overcome these deficits, this is not a formula that consistently gets you victories. Nor is it a formula that will impress the playoff committee, proven by the #3 ranking that the Seminoles currently hold.

This season for Florida State, other than their record, has been the polar opposite of last season. Last season, the Seminoles won by an average of 41 points, with Jameis Winston coming off the field in the 3rd quarter in most games. This season, there have been four games that have been decided by one possession. This isn’t a damning thing to the Seminoles, just not ideal. The reality is that it doesn’t matter how the Seminoles win, they just need to continue to win, which I don’t believe will be a problem until the playoffs begin. However, once the playoffs begin, if the Seminoles continue their season long trend of surrendering halftime leads to the opponent, the Seminoles will get burned.

I won’t sugarcoat it, the Seminoles haven’t had a particularly tough schedule this season, so while these comeback wins show an impressive unity and character with this team, it’s not like these comeback wins have been against impressive teams. If the Seminoles are losing to a team like Alabama, Oregon, Mississippi State, or the other playoff contenders, the Seminoles won’t be able to simply flip the “Play Good” switch as easily as they have been able to against teams like Louisville, NC State and Miami. However, like a said earlier, this is not all negative. Last season the Seminoles never had a game up to the National Championship game where their backs were up against the wall like this season. When the Seminoles went down early to Auburn in that game, Seminoles fans weren’t sure how the Noles were going to respond, specifically because the Noles had no experience in games like these last year. This year, we know how Florida State will respond to adversity, but once again, if they keep playing with fire, they will eventually get burned.

To this point we know how the Seminoles will play in the second half of games, Jameis Winston will show up to play, their defense won’t consistently miss assignments and the overall team will play more aggressive, the Seminoles just need to get their act together in the first half of games. So, Earth to Florida State… Stop playing with fire!