Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: NBA Playoffs look just fine without LeBron

So this is what the NBA Playoffs look like without LeBron James.

Anyone who thinks James is the only star in the NBA needs to watch the playoff action. James may still be the best player in the game (Kevin Durant can give him a good run for his money), but there are plenty of talented players still alive in the playoffs.

This will be the first time in nine years we won’t see James in the finals, but that doesn’t mean the playoffs aren’t worth watching.

The NBA has always been a star-driven league and there have always been plenty of stars shining, especially in the playoffs. This year, though, there are more young stars getting their first time to shine in the spotlight.

They include Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers, Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, and Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets. All are getting their chance to showcase their talents for the first time.

Then there are the established stars who are showing us why they are stars. Kawai Leonard and Kyle Lowry of the Raptors, Kyrie Irving of the Celtics, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, James Harden of the Houston Rockets and the all-star contingent on the Golden State Warriors of Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

The Rockets-Warriors series has been fascinating to watch. Harden, Durant and Curry are scoring machines who can seemingly score whenever they want to, no matter who or how many people are guarding them.

The Rockets have lost two close games to start the series and are complaining about the officiating, which is what teams do in the playoffs, hoping that the close calls the next game go their way.

Harden is the best player South L.A. has turned out since Paul Pierce, but he would be better off passing the ball more often. He missed considerable action in Game 2 after getting a finger in the eye in the first quarter.

He still hit nine of 19 shots for 29 points, but he had only four assists.

Steph Curry shook off his own injury (a dislocated finger on his left, non-shooting, hand) to score 20 points, joining Thompson (21) and Durant (29) with more than 20 points for the Warriors.

Shaun Livingston continues to shine off the bench for the Warriors. He scored only six points off the bench but they came in succession in the fourth quarter after the Rockets had closed the Warriors lead to three points.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 15 years since Livingston was drafted as the fourth overall pick by the Clippers in the 2004 draft. A tall point guard out of the Chicago area, Livingston had superstar written all over him until he suffered a severe knee injury in 2007 that took him more than 18 months to recover.

Livingston bounced around to seven different teams before he found a home on the Warriors in 2014-15. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the Warriors started their string of title runs when Livingston arrived.

At 6-7, he can guard most players on the court. He still can run an offense and seems to be in the right place at the right time more often than not.

The two Eastern Conference matchups are intriquing. The Bucks had the best record in the league all year, but the Celtics handled them easily in game 1, 112-90.

The Bucks bounced back in game 2 with a 123-102 victory, led by Antetokoumpo with 29 points and Khris Middleton chipping in with 28.

The Celtics’ two stars, Irving and Gordon Hayward, combined for 14 points (a combined five for 23 shooting) and don’t expect that to happen again.

The Raptors and 76ers also are tied at 1-1. Game 7, if necessary, will be in Toronto and that could be a decisive factor.

At this writing, Denver leads the other Western Conference series against Portland. The difference in the series could be that Denver has a healthy big man in Nikola Jokic. Portland lost their top big man, Jusuf Nurkic, to a broken leg at the end of March. Nurkic averaged more than 15 points and 10 rebounds a game this season and will be missed in the series.

There are still a lot of games to be played in the next six weeks. Can anybody stop Golden State? I doubt it, but the Rockets will definitely have something to say about that.

Whether anyone in the East can handle the Warriors remains to be seen, but it will be a fun ride awaiting the outcome.

APRIL’S BEST: As the month of April ended, the Los Angeles Dodgers had the most wins in baseball. With a 20-12 record, three teams had a better winning percentage than the Dodgers: Tampa Bay, Minnesota and St. Louis, but with a 10-3 win over the Giants April 30, the Dodgers were the first team to the 20-win mark.

They never give out the most valuable player award after one month. If they did, Cody Bellinger would win it for sure. Through April he led the majors in hitting, slugging, runs scored, hits, total bases and runs batted in. He was tied with Christian Yellich with 14 home runs.

Bellinger is doing all this hitting while playing great defense in right field. Over the weekend he snuffed out a potential rally with a throw from right field to third base that would have given the Pirates runners at first and third with no outs.

Instead it was one out and a runner on first and the Dodgers escaped the inning.

In Milwaukee the week before he robbed Yellich of a home run by timing his leap perfectly.

The Dodgers are going about this season the same way they have the last three years. They are using a lot of different lineups, manager Dave Roberts is using a lot of relievers and the Dodgers are infuriating their fans who can’t seem to figure out that no one wins every night.

One player having a good season so far is a player the fans love to get on: relief pitcher Pedro Baez. Baez is 2-1 with an earned run average of 3.94. He has struck out 16 and walked only three.

Called in to a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the eighth inning with the Dodgers leading 3-1, Baez got the first two hitters to pop up before striking out the third hitter.

He pounded his chest after the strike out and left the mound to a standing ovation from the same fans who used to boo him the moment he stepped out of the bullpen.

Outfielder A.J. Pollock, the only notable free agent acquisition of the off-season, has already hit the disabled list with an infection in his elbow, but rookie outfielder Alex Verdugo will get a chance to play every day with Pollock out, which will only help Verdugo develop.

Verdugo is hitting .333 with four home runs and 16 runs batted in. Finding room for Verdugo in the lineup every day is a nice problem Dave Roberts has.