The sports world is showing signs of returning to some semblance of normalcy. The professional golf tours have been conducting tournaments since June. NASCAR races have been run since mid-May. International soccer is underway, with professional leagues in the U.S. soon to follow.
Baseball leagues recently began their seasons in Korea and China, and Major League Baseball plans/hopes to have an abbreviated 60-game season starting on July 24. The NBA reboot looks to finish the regular season with a 22-team restart on July 30, while the NHL strategy is to conduct a 24-team tournament to crown a Stanley Cup champion.
Of course, normalcy is a very relative term these days. Games have been played in the absence of spectators, and the NBA and NHL playoffs will be played without fans present. Players face the spectre of being apart from their families for two to three months if their team advances far into the playoffs. Basketball teams will all be quarantined at the Disney World ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, FL, while the NHL will utilize Edmonton & Toronto as “hub cities” for playoff games. The MLB season will likely be played in virtually empty stadiums, while numerous inflatable dolls typically employed for other purposes served as a crowd at a Chinese league game. In other words, sports in the short term will be like nothing we’ve experienced before. If health conditions even allow any of them to take place.
Rather than count on the uncertainty of the next few months in the sports universe, I’m going to plunge ahead with my version of pro sports, unaffected by pandemic, which I began in May. After being subjected to Cornhole Championships on ESPN while working out this morning, I need the boost! Let’s see, where did we leave off?
The Denver Nuggets, down three games to two and on the verge of elimination, rallied to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7 and advanced to the Western Conference Championship round. Awaiting Denver was three-time NBA champion Lebron James, Antonio Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers were considered prohibitive favorites.
Los Angeles dominated the first two games at home, winning both by double figures as Denver looked overmatched by the size and skill of the Lakers’ lineup. But the Nuggets caught a huge break before Game 3 in Denver. As is his pre-game custom, James threw a cloud of talcum powder above his head as he prepared to take the court. Some of the powder settled in Lebron’s eyes, and he was forced to retreat to the locker room. The Nuggets took advantage of his first quarter absence, rushing to a 31-18 lead. Denver never looked back, getting back into the series with a 117-102 victory. They also held serve in Game 4 at the Pepsi Center, tying the series up with a 105-103 win behind 37 points from Nikola Jokic.
Momentum clearly seemed on the Nuggets side, but L.A. took Game 5, putting Denver in a do-or-die situation. Jokic and Co. rose to the occasion, rallying behind Jamal Murray’s 33 points for a 112-109 victory to force a decisive Game 7.
The playoff-seasoned Lakers got out of the gates quickly, but Denver hung in, trailing 58-51 at halftime. The Nuggets bench, led by Michael Porter Jr. and Jerami Grant, surged late in the third quarter to tie the contest at 83 apiece. Denver was 12 minutes away from the NBA Finals. Jokic and Murray played the quarter of their lives, combining for 26 of the Nuggets’ 33 points, as Denver stunned the sports world with a 116-114 series-clinching victory. With the game tied and the clock running down in regulation, the pair ran their patented pick and roll. Murray took a perfectly thrown behind the back pass from The Joker and converted on a reverse layup just before the final buzzer to advance to the first NBA Final in franchise history. Denver sealed the deal, knocking off the defending league champion Toronto Raptors in six games to capture the title.
The Colorado Avalanche emerged from their own conference championship battle with the St. Louis Blues in similarly dramatic fashion. Each team won all three contests on their home ice, setting up Game 7 at the Pepsi Center with the winner advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. Three periods would not be enough to decide the series, and the teams headed to sudden death overtime tied at 3-3. Nathan McKinnon, the Avs’ best player all season, took matters into his own hands late in the overtime. After a big save by Philip Grubauer, MacKinnon took possession deep in his own end. Nate the Great made his way up ice, gathering speed as he entered the Blues’ zone. MacKinnon put the puck through the final defender’s skates, deked around him and steamed in on goalie Jordan Billington. MacKinnon blasted a shot through the pads of Billington, and the Avs’ home crowd exploded in celebration as the red light signified a goal and series victory.
As the Nuggets had done a couple of days earlier, the Avalanche carried their wave of momentum to a championship and dual parade in downtown Denver. The Avalanche dominated the Boston Bruins, winning the Stanley Cup Finals four games to one to win the third championship in team history, and the first since 2001. MacKinnon took home playoff MVP honors.
The Colorado Rockies came out of the gate surprisingly strong, leading the NL West with a 28-16 record as of last writing. The club stumbled a bit in early June, dropping 10 of 15 games and falling three games behind the Dodgers. But the team righted the ship, heating up with the summer solstice. Behind the torrid bats of Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, David Dahl and Charlie Blackmon, as well as fine starting pitching from German Marquez, Kyle Freeland and Jon Gray, the Rockies went on a tear. A three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers gave the Rox a 57-39 record and 2.5-game lead over the Dodgers heading into the All-Star break.
The New York Yankees started the season on fire and haven’t really slowed down much since. Ace pitcher Gerritt Cole has lived up to his massive salary, going 12-1 with a 2.16 ERA, while leading all of baseball in strikeouts. Aaron Judge has clubbed 29 home runs, while DJ LeMahieu currently leads the American League with a .337 batting average. The Yankees entered the All-Star break with a 61-35 record, good for a five-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Hopefully, we have real games to watch and results that mean something in the coming months. Many variables will decide the course of sports going forward. But for now, I’ll bask in the imaginary championships of the Nuggets and Avalanche, and first place status of my favorite baseball teams. And yearn to hear the phrase “Play Ball!” ring out in Major League stadiums in the coming weeks.