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NBA, NHL playoffs back on equal footing

For the first time in three years, the NBA playoffs are interesting. They always are somewhat intriguing simply because it’s the postseason, but this year, they’re actually worth paying attention to and sitting down to watch.

The past two years, there were really only two questions heading into the playoffs. No. 1, who will play Golden State in the NBA Finals, and No. 2, how fast that opponent would lose to the Warriors.

I’m usually invested just as much in the NBA postseason as the NHL’s, but in 2017 and 2018, it became more of an obligation to tune in rather than a desire.

This year is different, though. As I write this, the Warriors, who are still the best team in the league, just got through a dogfight with Houston and are now facing the Portland Trail Blazers, who remind us every year that Oregon somehow has an NBA franchise.

Portland is searching for its first title since 1977, which is when Bill Walton was with the team, and are in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 20 years. The Blazers have gotten through Oklahoma City, which has kind of fallen off since Kevin Durant left, and Denver, which is on the rise for the first time since Carmelo Anthony was there.

The Blazers’ seven-game series with Denver was an impressive performance by Portland, especially that 17-point comeback in Game 7. However, the Blazers might’ve hit a wall to start the current series after getting blown out in Game 1 in California and dropping a close one in Game 2.

Not only that, but it’s hard to get four wins over Golden State, even if Durant’s health status is up in the air for the rest of the series. If Portland manages to pull the biggest upset of the NBA playoffs and take down the mighty Warriors, this could set up an even more enticing NBA Finals, even though league commissioner Adam Silver and his crew may dread the TV ratings.

In the East, Canada’s team, the Toronto Raptors, has a chance to make the NBA Finals for the first time ever. With all of Canada’s NHL teams out of the playoffs, the country has gotten behind its lone NBA franchise and it’d be entertaining to see how our neighbors to the north handle the idea of an NBA championship.

It’d be the nation’s first major-four title since the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993, which just sadly reminds me that I’m in my 30s now.

But perhaps the best storyline of all is what Milwaukee is doing. Yes, the Bucks have become the team to beat in the East, a statement I never thought I’d utter. They’ve got a potential Hall of Famer in Giannis Antetokounmpo and the way they rolled over Boston after getting blown out in Game 1 of the semifinals was the most impressive achievement of the playoffs.

The Bucks came back to win Game 1 of the East Finals, but the Raptors are more than capable of bouncing back and ending what could be a dream season for Milwaukee. And Wisconsin in general.

Over in the NHL, what looked like two compelling conference finals series have turned into what appears to be a red carpet for Boston. The Hurricanes — aka “The Bunch of Jerks” — had been the talk of the latter stages of the regular season with their fun postgame antics and their ongoing rivalry with hockey analyst and angry old Canadian Don Cherry.

After upsetting the defending champion Washington Capitals and then a surprising sweep of the New York Islanders, the ‘Canes were unable to solve Boston, making the Bruins look like they’ll be hoisting the Stanley Cup in a couple weeks.

This is unfortunate because the Hurricanes had become a fan favorite, while Boston has become the villain. The last thing Boston needs is yet another championship after the Patriots won the Super Bowl and the Red Sox won the World Series in the past six months.

There was a good question posed on Twitter wondering if Boston would actually enjoy this Stanley Cup win or would they just focus on rubbing everyone’s nose in it. It’d be the latter and it wouldn’t be close. Not only that, but cheap shot expert Brad Marchand has become the league’s most hated player and despite heaps of evidence showcasing Marchand’s antics, Bruins fans will defend him and then go into frustrating “whataboutisms.” When you combine all that together, a Bruins Cup victory would be mentally brutal to behold.

While Boston is currently making most people outside of New England nauseous, the Western Conference has come down to two teams that haven’t won a Cup, but are notorious for coming agonizingly close to doing so.

There’s the San Jose Sharks on one end, who with the talent they’ve had over the years, should’ve at least won one title by now, but have only been to one Cup final where they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

They beat Vegas in a thrilling Game 7 in the first round this spring and then beat Colorado in seven games in the semifinals. Needless to say, San Jose knows how to deal with a long series, and on paper it looks like the West Finals will be the same story.

Their opponent is the Blues, who haven’t been to the finals since 1970 where they lost to … sigh … Boston. You know that famous photo of Bruins legend Bobby Orr flying through the air? That was the Cup-winning goal against St. Louis that season.

The Blues surprised Winnipeg, a legit Cup contender, in the first round this spring and then came back to beat Dallas in seven games.

This series has the capability of going the distance, a full seven games, but neither team is particularly exciting to watch.

San Jose’s and St. Louis’ pitch for your fandom is we’ve failed to win a championship, so please root for us. That’s a far cry from last year’s Cup Final where people were enticed by the expansion Golden Knights’ postseason run and the question of is this the year when Washington star Alex Ovechkin wins a championship.

It was must-see viewing, where this year the story is can the Sharks and Blues get their act together or will Boston get another championship.

As much as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would’ve hated to have Carolina in the finals due to the ratings, it at least would get non-hockey fans to tune in thanks to the Hurricanes’ fun-loving ways and marketing brilliance.

For me, given the choice of watching this year’s NBA Conference Finals or NHL Conference Finals, it’s a pretty easy decision. Three fun storylines with Milwaukee, Toronto and Portland beats the NHL’s out of the water. That’s something I wondered if it would happen again and also if that will be the case next year.

However, for at least this year, the NBA postseason is just as good as the NHL’s in entertainment value and as a fan of both leagues, that’s great to see.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.