The NBA and NHL Finals

Tim Thomas with the Stanley Cup

Mid-June has come, and with it the end of every major sport but baseball, which is just kicking into gear. Let’s take a look back at the finals predictions for both the NBA and the NHL, and see just where they all went wrong, and drop some Final(s) thoughts on the outcomes that everybody wanted.

Grading the NHL

Luongo Sad Face

Aww....sadface 😦

(1) Vancouver Canucks vs. (3) Boston Bruins
Prediction: Canucks in 6
Actual Result: Bruins in 7
This series began as a toss-up, both in terms of who might win, and who I might root for. I didn’t particularly like either team, finding the Canucks to be a cheap and dirty bunch of underachievers, and the Bruins to be the kind of scrap-tastic, “hard workin’ hockey” team that really shouldn’t be able to win anymore since the NHL updated its rules to make the game watchable again. It was all to come down to the goaltenders, and I quote myself:

“Roberto Luongo of the Canucks doesn’t have to be great, but he can’t be terrible. Tim Thomas will have to be great.”

Tim Thomas was, indeed, great, and deserved the Cup and the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP. Luongo was alternately very good and beyond terrible, to the point that when it was finally over after Thomas outplayed him in the final game, he was being called “LuBrongo.” He probably doesn’t deserve that, but he also didn’t deserve to win, and neither did his team. They played dirty, and it backfired—if the biting incident wasn’t enough to fire up the Bruins, the dirty hit on Nathan Horton in game three sure was. That was the series’ turning-point. From then on, the Bruins took it to the Canucks physically and on the scoreboard, sending Luongo skittering in the games in Boston and beating him enough in the final decisive game in Vancouver. Boston deserved the title maybe a little bit more than Vancouver didn’t.
Grade: F

Grading the NBA

LeBron and Wade Press Conference

"Would it be worth ending a long friendship to get them to trade you for Dwight Howard?" thinks Wayne Dwyade.

(3) Dallas Mavericks vs. (2) Miami Heat
Prediction: Heat in 7
Actual Result: Mavs in 6
Even though my NHL prediction was incorrect, I at least got the concept correct—the goalies would decide it. I, like many others, got the NBA all wrong. I lauded the Heat’s defense from earlier playoff rounds, and the fact that they, LeBron included, had finally found out how to close games. And series.

Wrong.

Instead, the mantle of playoff softness has been passed from Dirk Nowitzki to LeBron James fully, with writers upon writers piling on LeBron for both his inability to bring it when it counts, and his attitude after losing. There’s no need to rehash all that here, other than it seemed the Heat had it together, finally, when these Finals started, and they very obviously did not.

That, and the Mavs played great. Nowitzki and his cast of veterans and misfits played their asses off, scored when it mattered, got stops when it mattered, and took what was actually a very close series and won it in such a way that it didn’t even seem close by the end.
Grade: F

So what does this all mean? Much has been written, especially in the case of the NBA Finals, that it’s about a “team” beating a “group of individuals.” Both the Stanley Cup Finals and the NBA Finals can, reductively, be chalked up to a universal narrative of choking and clutchness. In both cases, the more “blue collar” team was the winner, and everyone seems really goddamn happy about it.

Dirk with Champagne

Chugging a bottle of $80K champagne is so blue collar!

It’s not that simple, though. Boston was only the more “blue collar” team in a hockey sense in that they had less scoring skill going in. That doesn’t make their win any more admirable—this was a hot goalie taking over the playoffs and winning it for his guys. Everyone contributed, sure, but there’s no grand lesson about softness or “bringin’ the lunch pail” in to work everyday. Most hockey players are hard workers who play injured and take an unprecedented amount of punishment in a playoff run. Vancouver didn’t win this time, but it’s not all on Luongo, on the Sedins (who, since they’re European players, must be soft, right? Wait…the defense pairing who shut them down, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, are both European too. Sorry, Mike Milbury) or on the fact that they were a skill team facing a non-skill team. It wasn’t the kind of team they were that lost them the series. Boston won it.

And the Dallas Mavericks were no more “blue collar” than the Heat were. The only team with a higher payroll this year than the Mavericks was not the Heat—no, it was the Lakers. The Big Three are obviously glamour boys, and it was satisfying to see them fall, but it’s important not to get too carried away with the “hard-working team defeats ego-driven superstars” narrative. As much as the type of sportswriter who pens narratives about how that 6-4-3 double-play he just saw reminds him about how his father never hugged him wants to make this about good and evil, right and wrong, it’s not. It’s nice that the Mavericks won. But it doesn’t mean the “right way” has been validated and the “wrong way” has been eliminated. It just means that the team America wanted to win did. That’s it and that’s all.

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2 thoughts on “The NBA and NHL Finals

  1. I think there’s a discussion to be had here about ways “right” and “wrong” to win a championship, but not in the overcooked sportswriter patois that you slice up so correctly here. Every executive on every team should pay attention to every championship in every spot, because you can learn something. I can’t speak on hockey, but the Heat’s collapse should be a healthy check for any owner or GM who thinks they can dupe the league via a bizarre free-agent market and assume the new employees, galactic and wealthy ego sponges with very fine physiques and a childlike trade to ply, will keep themselves in line from day one. The Mavs’ success should be a lesson that, hey, sometimes a crazy goofy guy in charge is the best thing, if money is no object and his affection for the game and his employees is clear. The anecdotes suggest that Cuban kept Nowitzki in Dallas with nothing more than a heart-to-heart. “I want this as much as you,” or some such, “we’re gonna do what it takes.” And they did.

    Hey, remember when Mark Cuban tried to buy the Cubs and was shut out by MLB and its owners? Bud Selig is the worst commissioner in history.

  2. For a tiny second, there was discussion of Mark Cuban buying the St. Louis Blues. Obviously, it was an insane wishful thinking rumor, but that would have been fantastic.

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