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How different the NHL and NBA are, in their sports, and their followings, and, to some, in their level of excitement. But this spring, the playoff rushes in both sports turned out to be surprisingly similar.
In the NHL, there is no question that every round was crammed full of exciting play from puck-drop to final horn. And as often as not, that final horn didn’t come until after overtime.
The NBA playoffs were far less enthralling, until the end.
The big difference between the two leagues is that if you asked 100 knowledgeable followers of pro basketball who the top two teams were, and who would be favored to reach the finals, it might have been unanimous that the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs would be meeting for the title.
In the NHL, most observers probably would have picked Pittsburgh in the East, and...well, maybe Chicago, or St. Louis, or Anaheim, or maybe San Jose, all ahead of the Los Angeles Kings in the West. Count that as Surprise No. 1.
In the NBA, the Miami Heat, with the dominant Lebron James and a strong supporting cast, mowed down their opponents, although they had some trouble along the way. Each time they faltered, James would storm back with a strong performance to lead a comeback victory. That worked, all the way to the finals.
The San Antonio Spurs, meanwhile, are the epitome of the word “team.” Sure, Tim Duncan can be dominant, and he’s as smooth and consistent as he is humble and quiet. In the playoffs, the Spurs charged through, seeming to unify even more as each round progressed. And reaching the finals seemed anticlimactic, although most still picked the Heat to win the showdown.
In Game 1 in San Antonio, it was prophetic that the Heat fell apart, because the heat in the arena was stifling. It was 90 or so outside, and the air conditioning turned the place into a sauna. Lebron James went out with a serious case of leg cramps, and couldn’t play down the stretch in the fourth quarter, when the Spurs turned a very close game into a blowout.
Once again, Lebron James led the way and the Heat evened the series in Game 2. Then it was off to Miami, but if the Heat was confident, that went away when the Spurs shot 86 percent in the first quarter, scoring 46 points to take command, and winning easily. Once again, it was anticipated that Miami would come back in Game 4 and send the series back to San Antonio at 2 apiece. No chance. The Spurs crushed the Heat once again, sweeping the two games in Miami and going home to take a shot at Game 5.
In that one, the Heat gained the early lead behind James, but San Antonio awoke with a 16-point deficit in the first quarter and romped to a 47-40 halftime hold. Lebron James had 20 of those 40 points. But San Antonio never let up, moving the ball with quick precision and raining down shots from all over the court. In the end, the Spurs eased off with a 20-point lead and won by 15. Of that margin, the Spurs were so much more astute at hitting 3-point bombs that the difference was only 2 points without the cushion in 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, back in the NHL, the Los Angeles Kings turned convention, smart-money, and expert opinions upside down. In the first round, the Kings lost the first two games to San Jose, as Jonathan Quick yielded 7 and then 6 goals. For good measure, San Jose also won Game 3. Incredibly, the Kings got it together right then, and won one game, then another. When they won their third straight, you could almost feel those Sharks jerseys getting a little tight in the neck, and sure enough, the Kings won Game 7 to take the series.
Same thing in the second round, when the Kings trailed Anaheim -- the overall season leader in NHL points -- three games to two. But the Kings won Game 6, then snatched Game 7 from the Ducks, just as the Chicago Blackhawks were beating the Minnesota Wild in a superb series.
Tired and weary, the Kings went to Chicago and lost Game 1 to the rested and ready Blackhawks. But they bounced back to win Game 2, after trailing 2-0 halfway through the game. Out in L.A., the Kings came from behind more than any normal team could hope to, and beat the Blackhawks. Then they continued to fall behind, rally, and win the overtime marathon series in the seventh game.
The New York Rangers, meanwhile, beat Montreal to gain the final, and many picked them to beat the “no-name” Kings from the Left Coast. But the Kings won twice, dropped Game 3, but bounced back in Game 4 for a 3-1 lead in games. Then they went home and captured the Cup in Game 5 before their home fans.
It was a remarkable, and remarkably close, triumph. But when you check the stats, you see that Jonathan Quick was fantastic after that shaky start six weeks earlier against San Jose. Anze Kopitar and new linemate Marian Gaborik formed a slick duo, with Kopitar leading the entire playoff in points, and Gaborik leading the entire playoff in goals, with 14 -- including the game-tying goal at the end of Game 5. Justin Williams was the third-leading scorer, and Jeff Carter fifth. Then came Jonathan Toews of Chicago, followed closely by defenseman Drew Doughty of the Kings -- meaning LA had five of the top six scorers in the playoffs.
They gave the MVP trophy to Williams, who scored some key goals in the finals. That’s one NHL tradition the Kings couldn’t upend, which is to give the MVP award to a player who excels in the final series, forgetting the first three rounds. In the case of the Kings, you could have picked Kopitar, Quick, or Doughty as quickly as you picked Justin Williams. If ever the MVP should have been a team award, this was it.
And if the Kings weren’t conclusive evidence about that, those NBA San Antonio Spurs offered more of the same.
John Gilbert has been writing sports for
over 30 years. Formerly with the Star Tribune and WCCO. He currently hosts a daily radio show on KDAL AM.