Can we get serious for a minute here, please? Enough about your busted NCAA bracket, your baseball panic attacks 1 percent into the season and your seared retinas from watching overtime NIT semifinals. It’s playoff time, people. We are two short weeks from some of the calendar’s best action. And every day before then, teams are battling for finals spots or falling out of the race. You’ll read about the Wolves fading and the Wild striving to clinch a spot on our other pages. Here, we asked our lead NHL and NBA beat writers, Michael Russo and Jerry Zgoda, to give us an early look at their favorite emerging playoffs story line.
NHL: Blackhawks down?
This is the year the Chicago Blackhawks could lose in the first round.
The Blackhawks, as close to a dynasty as there can be in today’s overly expanded, parity-driven, loser-point-galore NHL, have won two Stanley Cups in the past four years.
But lately, they’ve looked tired, bored and now are beaten up for the first time, losing Patrick Kane and heart-and-soul captain Jonathan Toews to injuries in recent weeks.
In the new playoff format in the NHL, the Blackhawks are staring at the young, hungry Colorado Avalanche in a first-round matchup.
That is not an enviable task with Patrick Roy behind the bench, Semyon Varlamov in goal and one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL.
Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly lead the way, although one of the best in that crew, Matt Duchene, could miss the first round with a knee injury.
This will be Colorado’s first trip to the postseason in four years, and the Avs know they can play with the Blackhawks, beating them in four of five meetings.
San Jose-Los Angeles may also be a battle of titans, but in the Western Conference, this likely Avalanche-Blackhawks showdown could be the most intriguing.
NBA: Pacers peak too soon?
A month ago, the Indiana Pacers were 46-13, owned the NBA’s best record and the only question left simmering was whether they or the two-time defending champion Miami Heat would advance out of the Eastern Conference.
Times sure do change.
They had lost six of 10 games — including six of their past eight — entering Wednesday’s game against Detroit, and ever so quickly the Pacers have morphed from dominant to suspect.
Are they simply a talented team bored with the season’s dog days and still serious about taking the next step beyond last season’s seven-game loss to the Heat in the East final? After all, the Pacers were good enough to beat a Miami team that obviously has their attention by a point at home last week.
Or is there real reason for concern that, just like that, the magic is gone from a team whose offense now primarily looks jumbled, impatient and selfish? Or at least it did in three losses — at Cleveland, Washington and a 103-77 thrashing at home from streaking San Antonio — that followed that Miami victory.
Blossoming superstar Paul George isn’t playing so much like one, distracted too often by feeling he’s not getting a superstar’s respect from the officials and abandoned recently by his shot, too. A trade-deadline deal — Danny Granger for Evan Turner, essentially — has failed to provide either depth or improved chemistry, and a pre-emptive strike to sign enigmatic center Andrew Bynum has brought nothing so far.
Is some success, at least for now, just too much success?