Comments on the 2014 Playoffs

Over the past couple of years, I've dedicated individual pages to both the NHL and NBA playoffs and finals. I broke down power plays/penalty minutes/free throw advantages/etc. in part to show the manipulation within both leagues. By now, I think many fans of this site get the idea. So call me lazy, but I'm just not going to do that again. Plus, I've been working with Lance Williams (co-author of the book Game of Shadows about Barry Bonds and BALCO) on an article about a fixed MLB game over the past year which is in its final stages prior to publication as well as working on pieces for Sports On Earth.

That doesn't mean everything is a-ok in both leagues' playoff seasons.

Normally at this time of year, the talk of the NHL is the number of overtime games and how "there's nothing as exciting as playoff overtime hockey." In fact, the first round saw 14 games go into OT. But that's not the story this year. No, this is the year of the comeback, especially those of the 2-goal (or more) variety. In 11 of the 57 games (19.3%) played thus far (as of May 6th), the winning team has erased a 2-goal or more deficit. "Oh, it's just playoff hockey," fans will say. Right. Never mind that the percentage of games with such a comeback is nearly twice that of the regular season. It's just an anomaly.

Speaking of comebacks, one would be remiss not to mention the LA Kings comeback over the San Jose Sharks. Down three games to none, the Kings managed to win the final four games of the series, a feat which has only be accomplished three other times in NHL history. Of course, it didn't happen without controversy:

The question to ask yourself is: who did the NHL prefer advance to the next round to face the Anaheim Ducks? The Sharks or the media darling (and still financially shaky) Kings?

Finally, there is the alleged "French referee conspiracy."

Basically, the conspiracy is that French Canadian referees favor the Montreal Canadiens, especially on their home ice. This, some would say, was evident in their playoff series vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning which they swept 4-0. Now the Canadiens sit up 2-1 over the President Cup winning Boston Bruins. I fully expect to see the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not necessarily because of this "conspiracy" but because of another one: namely the $5.2 billion dollar deal the NHL cut with Rogers Broadcasting for the rights to Hockey Night in Canada. It's the largest deal in league history. The Canadiens themselves just inked a new 12-year broadcast deal with RDS which included naming rights to their arena. I think perhaps it's now time for the Stanley Cup to come "home" and reinvigorate Canadian viewers. Follow the money...

The NHL is learning more of the NBA's tricks with each passing season: all four Round Two playoff series in the NHL was guaranteed to go at least six games. In the end, three of the four went the full seven: NYR-PIT, BOS-MON, and LA-ANA. That's a very good thing for the NHL and its broadcast partners, the NBC Sports Networks. 

This will leave the Conference Championships with two TV friendly match-ups featuring perhaps the league's four top media markets: LA-CHI and NYR-MON. That's the two most recent Cup winners facing off  in one series along with two of the hallowed "Original 6" teams in the other. As mentioned previously, I still foresee the Canadiens in the Finals, if not winning it all. Which team is a better story at this point?

The Rangers have now advanced to the Finals, thanks in part to the injury of Canadiens goalie Carey Price who left Game 1 after an illegal (and unpenalized) hit. This killed my "conspiracy prediction" of the Canadiens reaching the Finals, yet at the same time, another conspiracy was born. Thanks to former player turned NBC commentator Jeremy Roenick, we know now the networks wants a Rangers-Blackhawks Finals. With the Blackhawks winning 2-1 in Game 6 (which, if the score holds, will lead to a Game 7 in Chicago), perhaps Roenicks let something slip he shouldn't have.

Well, NBC got half of what they wanted: the New York Rangers made the Finals. The Blackhawks, however, couldn't over come the comeback Kings (which has been the running theme of this year's playoffs), putting LA in the Finals. That only gives NBC/NHL a New York v. Los Angeles match-up, something I'd guess every league/media outlet would love as it pits the two largest media markets against each other. As for who the league might want to win, I doubt it really matters as long as the Finals go at least six games, all will be well.

Ratings for the LA-NY Finals may have been down from last year's Boston-Chicago match-up, but NBC was still #1 in the nation thanks to Game 1. The Finals have also been quite good business for both the Kings and the Rangers. Game 1 for LA was a financial windfall, resulting in team records for ticket sales and merchandise sold. And though the Rangers may be down 0-2 (thanks to a Saturday night, double OT loss), it hasn't hurt business in NY either as ticket sales for Game 3 were reported as "record setting."

Despite the Cup ending up 4-1 in favor of the Kings, the NHL got their money's worth for the shortened Finals (which, coincidentally, ended just prior to the start of the World Cup). A pair of double OT games, a very hype-able LA v. NY match-up (despite the fact that the Rangers didn't deserve to be there), and solid ratings/ticket sales. Not too shabby for a near sweep.

Let's put this LA Clippers/Donald Sterling controversy aside for the moment. Well, not entirely. It's worth noting the lag by the NBA's media partners in even mentioning the brewing "scandal."

Perhaps to soothe the wounds of Sterling's comments, the NBA treated its fan to not one or two Game 7 match-ups, but five of them (and were just one point shy of have a sixth). Needless to say, this helped spike the NBA's ratings during the usually dull first round. It's interesting to note that despite these five Game 7's, not one resulted in an upset; the favored team - Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Pacers, and Nets - won each of their respective series. Sure, one could argue that the Raptors were favored over the Nets since they were the higher seed, but as Tim Donaght pointed out, there was no way the NBA was going to allow the Raptors to face the Heat in Round Two when there was a much better story line brewing with a Nets-Heat match-up. (By the way, if you follow that link and read the story about Donaghy note that (a) the writer was incorrect stating Donaghy served time for fixing games - he was never even charged with that crime - and (b) his argument against Donaghy is simply that he's a convicted felon, therefore, untrustworthy.)

Speaking of NBA officials, apparently the higher ups within the NBA have an issue with coach-turned-broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy criticising NBA referees. According to Van Gundy, the league went to his bosses at ESPN to get him to tone it down. So much for unbiased media coverage.

As the NBA reaches its Conference Finals, we get more of the same ol' same ol' in Spurs-Thunder and Heat-Pacers. Two made-for-TV productions to hype. Of course, the Clippers had to be eliminated for this to occur (which was made easier with a nice free throw advantage for the Thunder in the final two games of the series: Game 5 FTs: OKC 32-36 LAC 16-20 Game 6: 29-33 vs. 12-20), which was no surprise given the Sterling fiasco which is still playing out. But the NBA can move that off its front page with the Conf. Finals. So who do the Heat play next?

Luckily for the NBA, both the Heat-Pacers and the Thunder-Spurs reached a Game 6 (much like both series in the NHL). But the Pacers needed a bit of help to push their series that far vs. the Heat. Thanks to Lebron James' seven-point plus fouling out performance as well as a mere 8 free throws attempted by the entire Heat team in Game 5, the Pacers escaped with a three-point victory (coming on the heels of the Pacers Paul George complaining of the referees' "home cooking" for the Heat in Game 4)...only to get hammered and eliminated in Game 6.

With the Spurs knocking off the Thunder in their series, this gives the NBA a much-hyped rematch of last year's Finals between the Spurs and the Heat. Does the NBA care who wins this? I doubt it (though the Heat winning might move a few more hats and T-shirts with the "3-peat" logo on them). Much like the NHL, as long as this series is stretched out to six games, the ultimate winner doesn't matter much.

Game 1 of the Heat-Spurs rematch was a boon for TV. It averaged nearly 15 million viewers, and was the most talked about TV show on Twitter (note: ESPN called Game 1 a "TV program" not a "game"). This might have been thanks in part to LeBron James' now infamous cramp. One would think a top level athlete could handle the fact that the AC went out in the arena, pushing the temps inside to 90 degrees, and still play an entire basketball game. To add a bit of conjecture to this incident, remember the Biogenesis scandal tied to MLB, Ryan Braun and ARod? Recall that more athletes than those of MLB were tied to this performance-enhancing drug merchant...including NBA players...including a rumored LeBron James (both LeBron and Biogenesis were/are based in Miami). Having never taken steroids myself I can't say if this is true or not, but I have heard that a side-effect of such drugs is an increased chance of cramping up during exercise. Could this explain LeBron's Game 1 collapse? Who knows, because the NBA - and its intrepid field of reporters - never bothered to look into the pandora's box known as Biogenesis.

The Spurs easily put away the Heat 4-1, smoking them in their wins. The Heat's only win was a 2-point squeaker. Coincidentally, just like in the NHL, the NBA's Finals ended just prior to the start of the World Cup. Maybe there was a reason that LeBron and Co. didn't seem to show up, especially given the international flair the Spurs victory took. Now, NBA fans are left to deal with LeBron's "Decision II." That should make for a entertaining off-season, right?