After a bit of a rocky start in places, the 'bubble' experiment in pro sports is going pretty well. (It's even found time to stand up for social justice!) In particular, the NHL and NBA are nearing the end of their 2020 playoffs.
In hockey, the Stanley Cup Final was set last night as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the New York Islanders 2–1 in overtime. (This was after losing by the same score in double overtime on Tuesday night—what a wild series!) They will face the Dallas Stars, who are in their first final in 20 years.
Meanwhile, Canadians might have felt a bit sad about the defending champion Toronto Raptors getting eliminated by the Boston Celtics, but they shouldn't feel like they have nothing left to root for. Because while Denver may not be in Canada, their team's star player Jamal Murray is a Canadian. And he's taking the NBA playoffs by storm.
NHL: Lightning attack meets 'Big D'-fense
When the Stanley Cup Final gets underway Saturday night, it will feature two very different teams on paper.
On one hand, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the NHL's best teams for the past decade, and favourite pick to win the last few Cups. They're fast, full of talent (especially Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and captain Steven Stamkos) who can score tons of goals, and have arguably the best defensemen (giant Swede Victor Hedman) and goalie (nearly-as-giant Russian Andrei Vasilevskiy) in the whole league.
On the other hand, the Dallas Stars are a team that is firmly in the very-good-but-not-great category. They certainly have their All-Stars, like forwards Tyler Seguin and captain Jamie Benn. They have a really impressive set of defenders in John Klingberg and Mikko Heiskanen. But across the board, they don't match up with what Tampa has to offer. No teams do, really. So advantage Lightning, right?
Maybe. But the playoffs are funny that way. Right now, Dallas is well rested after beating the highly-rated Vegas Golden Knights in five games. What's more, they did it using their backup goalie, Anton Khoudobin, after their starter, Ben Bishop got injured. Meanwhile, the Lightning just got done with an exhausting series against New York. Point has been nursing a small injury that kept him out of two games (both of which they lost) and Stamkos hasn't even played a single game these playoffs thanks to injury.
Bottom line: Dallas has already used exceptional team defense to beat two teams—the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas—that experts said were much better than them. What's a third? Tampa is a real powerhouse and they should win this year's Stanley Cup. But in the playoffs? What should happen often doesn't.
NBA: Jamal's time has arrived
Just ask Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers. After winning last year's championship with the Raptors and being named playoff MVP, Kawhi was on a mission to do the same in his hometown. He had a deep team built around him and a fellow superstar, Paul George. And his team had a 3–1 series lead over the upstart Denver Nuggets. You could practically book the tickets to an all-L.A. showdown between him and rival LeBron James' Lakers.
Three games later though, Denver had won a trio of contests and ended Kawhi's dream of a repeat. It is them, not the Clippers, that will face the Lakers. It was a team effort, for sure. But two players have stood out. One is surprisingly agile Serbian centre Nikola Jokic. The other? Canadian guard Jamal Murray.
The native of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario has been a bright light for the Canadian national team for a little while now, but he hasn't got the same press recently as other Canadians like Andrew Wiggins and R.J. Barrett. That has changed.
This playoffs, Murray has proven that he is 'clutch'. He has the rare combination of cool demeanour under pressure and sublime skills that make him a game changer when the game is on the line. Not only did he help his team back from 3–1 down in the Clippers series, he did the same in the previous round versus the Utah Jazz.
Now Murray, Jokic, and the Nuggets are playing the Lakers and Lebron 'King' James. As in the only player to maybe seriously challenge Michael Jordan for the title of greatest basketball player who ever lived, LeBron James. It will be their biggest test yet. But with a trip to a first-ever finals for Denver on the line, you can bet that Murray will be giving it all he has.
And he will probably find that he has most of the basketball fans in this country pulling for him, too!