This would seem a good moment to cover sports topics of the moment, as there is much that is just about to happen, and I just can't resist analyzing these imminent events.
NBA Finals - Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors - (starts Thursday) - Though I don't have any particular rooting interest, this finals matchup intrigues me more than any for several years. We seem to be entering a new era in the battle at the highest level for basketball supremacy, with new teams among the several contenders (besides the two finalists, the Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, and Washington Wizards all emerged), and this may be the first of a series of epic confrontations, in the manner of Bird vs. Magic in the '80's. Lebron James and Stephen Curry are that good, if their drive, skill, and health persist.
The historical perspective suggests strongly that the Cavaliers and Lebron should be heavily favored: they have far more playoff experience, and teams that rely so heavily on the 3-pointer as the Warriors do have rarely, if ever, won the NBA championship. Sooner or later, such teams run into an opponent who can shut down their offense. Yet, I hesitate to simply follow that conventional wisdom. Golden State had the regular season's best record by a fair margin, and it has cruised fairly easily through very tough competition to win the Western Conference title. Curry has a unique ability to hit the long ones even when fully covered on defense, and he makes good decisions with his ball handling and passing. He has good options in his backcourt partner, Klay Thompson, and volatile, injury-prone center Andrew Bogut, who is playing well. Finally, in Harrison Barnes they have an young, athletic forward who can stay with Lebron and make everything difficult for him on offense. Unfortunately, I don't think James' supporting cast is strong enough this year, with Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao out and Kyrie Irving's health undependable. There is, of course, James' indomitable will to be overcome, and he has a determination to bring the championship to his home area. He may have to be patient for another year.
Belmont Stakes - Can American Pharoah Complete the Triple Crown? - (Saturday) - How many times have we been here since 1978? Twelve? When will it end? As always, there are plenty of reasons to back the colt that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and reasons to doubt, as well. For the latter, past history is convincing. The Triple Crown is like a Triathlon, but one in which everyone starts evenly in the second and third phases. And, like the marathon at the end of the Triathlon, the final phase is the greatest challenge.
It does seem as though the field opposing American Pharoah is not too strong, from what I can see.(By the way, I love the misspelling of "pharaoh", if that's what it is, and not merely a trick to avoid duplicating a name previously used--a requirement that is always a challenge with naming thoroughbreds.) There are a couple of horses who have not been defeated in the previous rounds, skipping those races, which often in these circumstances has made for a fresher horse at the finish of the endless, lung-bursting stretch run at Belmont. Apparently Frosted is a horse that surges late, which could make for a thrilling finish. American Pharoah looks as though it will go off as an even-money favorite, reflecting some healthy skepticism, but that doesn't seem like a bargain betting price, either. Having not seen either of the first two races, I will hope for completion of the triple but eschew a prediction.
French Open Quarterfinals - Djokovic vs. Nadal - (in a few hours) - This looks to be one of the great tennis showdowns of the decade, not diminished by the fact that it is occurring in the quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal was seeded 6th for this tournament because injuries limited his appearances last year, but he has an incredible record in the French: he has won the tournament nine times and has only lost once there, ever. Novak Djokovic is playing as well, or better, than he has ever done, and this year he seemed to be targeting this, the one major tournament he has not won.
The first set will be the feeling-out period, as Djokovic will want to test to see if Nadal is fully healthy (he has been playing his way back into shape, and actually lost a couple of times--on clay!--in the warmup tournaments). The outcome of the first set will not be critical, though, as both players are ones in which the best shot to get a set from them is early. If it goes five sets, I would pick Nadal, but my bet would be on Djokovic in four.
The rest of the tournament is hardly an afterthought for the winner, as difficult opponents await in the two rounds which will remain (probably Murray, who is also in top form, in the next round); however, the winner of this match will already have made history.
Stanley Cup Finals (Hockey) - Chicago Blackhawks vs. Tampa Bay Lightning - (starts in a few minutes) - I can't pretend to be a hockey fan, but I am excited for the town of my primary residence these days, as the Blackhawks go for their third championship in six years. Winning will not make this quite a dynasty, but would make comparisons to the NBA's San Antonio Spurs appropriate, for their resiliency and ability to deliver when the chips are down. It has been a difficult road for the Blackhawks, but they have shown the ability to rise to the occasion on the road, as they did in Game 7 of the last round. They will need to do something comparable, as Tampa Bay has the home ice advantage. Still, the Blackhawks are favored, based on their experience and having a healthy squad.
Champions Cup Final (UEFA--that's "Football") - Juventus vs. Barcelona - (Saturday) - The European club championship will take place in a neutral stadium, in Berlin this year. Juventus won the Italian league easily this year, which allowed it to concentrate on the challenge of head-to-head, home-and-away matchups through the last three rounds. Its success against Real Madrid in the semifinals was very impressive, and will allow it to go into this final with the confidence needed for this challenge. Barcelona has remained at the top level for several years and has regrouped this year as strong as it ever has been; it held off Real Madrid to win the Spanish league title this year. Barcelona's strategy will be the same as always: maximizing ball possession, looking to set up Lionel Messi to cut through the opponents' defense and find an open player with a perfect pass, or take the shot on goal himself. When it comes to defense, Barcelona's theory is that there is no need to worry about that while they have ball, but they have improved their ability to contain the counterattacks that the top teams can muster. Barcelona should be favored, but the outcome of a single-game final is always uncertain. The key for Juventus will be to ride out the pressure in the first 30 minutes, then find a goal which can give them a chance to hold on for the win, or even open a bigger lead if Barcelona overcommits on offense. (a/k/a The Chelsea Strategy)
Baseball - As is usually the case with the sport, there is less urgency with regard to baseball. The regular season will be one-third over in the next couple of days; certainly long enough to detect the significant emergence of some teams and declines of some from which more was expected. The biggest surprise has been the faster-than-expected rise of the Houston Astros, which have led most of the way in the tough AL West Division with a cast of good young stars. They have an abundance of power; their pitching may not be enough to sustain them. Similarly, the Chicago Cubs have come forward as a contender in the NL Central; they are packed with top prospects now arriving, and the surprise is that they have all come up and are doing so well, so quickly. The Cubs also have to contend with a tough division, as the St. Louis Cardinals continue to overcome all adversity--and have the best record in the majors so far--and the Pittsburgh Pirates are also likely playoff contenders. An even bigger surprise is the Minnesota Twins, who are currently on a hot streak and have a narrow lead over last year's AL champions, the Kansas City Royals. I had none of those three (Astros, Cubs, Twins) making the playoffs in my preseason predictions; I will stick with those predicted outcomes, but I accept they are teams to reckon with for the future.
The two eastern divisions look like dogfights of mediocre teams: the Washington Nationals have been inconsistent, despite having more talent than any of their rivals in the NL East. The AL East is a five-team race at this point, all the teams hovering around the .500 mark. The two teams that have been the greatest disappointments so far are the Oakland Athletics, in contention for the worst record in the majors, and their division rivals in the AL West the Seattle Mariners, who I picked to win the World Series this year. They are the only team of the ones I picked for my final four (those in the two League Championship series) which I have reason to doubt, though it is not too late for them yet (the others are the Cardinals, and the Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers).
Of course, my primary preoccupation is the Cincinnati Reds; their performance has been a little worse than the mediocrity I expected. Cincinnati hosts the All-Star game this year, and its manager, Bryan Price will be honored as an assistant coach for that game if he lasts that long. I had some doubts in the past couple of weeks,when it looked as though they might never win again, but a weekend series sweep of the Nationals has relieved his worries on that score--he will probably make it to the end of the year before getting fired.