By Don Wanlass
The four teams that are still alive in the NBA playoffs are putting on quite a show. Both conference finals are tied at 2-2 and it is possible that each series will go to a seventh game, which means it might be Memorial Day before we know who will be playing in the finals.
I had expected the Golden State Warriors would be playing the Boston Celtics, especially after the Celtics jumped off to a 2-0 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers. But after watching the first four games of each series, all four teams have the chance to advance. It depends how the breaks and the officiating go.
In the east, Boston is the better team, but LeBron James is the great equalizer. James is proving he is still the best player in the game today and worthy of comparisons to Michael Jordan and any of the other former players you want to rank as the greatest player of all time.
After falling behind 2-0, the Cavaliers have done a great job of slowing down Al Horford to get back in the series. Going into game five, the Celtics were unbeaten at home in the playoffs.
The most favorable matchup for the Celtics against the Cavaliers is coach Brad Stevens against Ty Lue. The Celtics weren’t supposed to get this far without Gordon Hayward — injured in the season opener — and Kyrie Irving — out with knee surgery. But Stevens has pushed most of the right buttons and the Celtics have relied on Horford, second-year player Jalen Brown, rookie Jayson Tatum and guards Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart to outshine most of the Cavaliers.
Stevens now needs to figure out how to force someone other than James to score for the Cavaliers.
Lue has made one good move in the series, putting Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup to slow down Horford, but it has been James that is keeping the Cavaliers alive as he tries to make it into the NBA Finals for the eighth straight time.
James is averaging 33 points, nine assists and 8.7 rebounds a game in this year’s playoffs. He has got some help from Kevin Love, Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith, but nothing you want to rely on down the stretch.
The Cavaliers want to keep the Celtics close and let James take over at the end to win it. The Celtics need to jump off to an early lead, keep the pressure on James and the rest of the Cavaliers into the fourth quarter and hope they have enough to withstand the onslaught James is going to put on them in the fourth quarter.
I see the Celtics winning a decisive seventh game in Boston Sunday night to end James’ NBA finals streak at seven.
The Western Conference finals has been another fine series with lots of offense and enough scrappy defense to keep things interesting. Though both the Warriors and Rockets like to move the ball and shoot quickly, this series has gotten extremely physical and probably will continue that way.
The Warriors have the better overall team. They also don’t have Chris Paul, which gives them the advantage. I expect them to upset the Rockets in Houston in game five and then advance to their fourth consecutive finals with a home win in game six Saturday night.
Look for Paul to make a crucial turnover down the stretch if either game is close. If James Harden is smart, he will keep the ball out of Paul’s hands down the stretch.
The finals begin May 31 at Houston or Golden State, whichever team wins the west.
A BRIGHTER OUTLOOK: What a difference a week makes. The Dodgers have won five of their last six games and all of a sudden things are looking brighter.
It helps that Arizona Diamondback centerfielder A.J. Pollock broke his thumb, sending the Diamondbacks into a tailspin that saw them fall out of first place earlier this week.
The Colorado Rockies moved past the D-Backs and are 4 ½ games a head of the Dodgers with four long months to go in the season.
Justin Turner has returned to the lineup at third base and all of a sudden the Dodgers are hitting better. The bullpen has survived another Rich Hill blister and is starting to get hitters out on a regular basis and Dodger fans are no longer looking for tall buildings.
There are reasons to remain optimistic for the Dodgers. Rookie pitcher Walker Buehler is about ready to become the second best starter in the rotation, once Clayton Kershaw comes off the disabled list next week.
Matt Kemp still has something left four years after being exiled to San Diego.
Kenley Jansen has returned to being Kenley Jansen, solidifying the bullpen.
The Dodgers still have some weak spots. Anyone who knew who Max Muncy was April 1 can tell me why he is the regular first baseman (because Joc Pederson hasn’t hit consistently, prompting Cody Bellinger to move to center field).
And Dave Roberts still gives the ball to Pedro Baez in pressure situations. Baez drew the loss May 21 when he entered the game after Buehler went a strong six innings. Baez walked a batter, who promptly stole second and advanced to third when Yasmani Grandal threw the ball into center field.
The run came home on a throwing error by Chase Utley, meaning that Baez was not charged with an earned run. But you can’t leadoff an inning with a walk in the eighth inning of a 1-1 game and Baez does that too often.
Manager Dave Roberts needs to find someone else to rely on instead of Baez. Roberts also needs to do something about the Dodgers record at home. They are 9-14 in Dodger Stadium so far this year. They didn’t lose their 14th game at home last year until late July.
Buehler is the best thing that has happened to the Dodgers all year. The team’s top draft choice in 2015, he had Tommy John surgery shortly after being drafted and spent the rest of 2015 and most of 2016 rehabilitating his arm.
After a fine season in the minors last year, he was called up last September, but had an earned run average of 7.71 in eight games.
This season he is 2-1 in six starts with 40 strikeouts in 34 innings. And he has the poise of a veteran when he is on the mound.
In his latest start, he went a career-high seven innings, yielding only one run and two hits while striking out six. He deserved more than a no decision for his work.
The Dodgers didn’t hit much that night, but bounced back the next night to win when Chris Taylor and Yasiel Puig hit back-to-back home runs in the sixth inning to propel the Dodgers to a 5-3 lead.
Things are looking up for the Dodgers, but there are still four months to play.
NICE SENDOFF: Cerritos College gave retiring football coach a nice sendoff May 20. More than 200 former football players showed up at the college stadium for a barbecue and a retirement party.
Among the former players attending were Herb Welch, who played for Mazzotta at both Warren High and Cerritos College, before going on to UCLA and the NFL.
Welch told the group of former players and program supporters that Mazzotta help him regain his love for football after a trying freshman year at the University of Wyoming.
“I came back home and was going to get a job, but coach told me I needed to go to school and get a degree,” Welch said.
Welch returned to school and gradually Mazzotta convinced him to give football another shot. After playing at UCLA he was a 12th round pick of the New York Giants in the 1985 Draft. He played with the Giants through 1987, winning the Super Bowl after the 1986 season.
Mazzotta and his former players gathered for a group picture in the stadium at the end of the ceremony.