Playoff outlook different after opening round?


Playoff outlook different after opening round?

My, how the postseason landscape has changed since the playoffs first started. A big part of that is due to the earlier-than-anticipated exit of the Bulls, who were fully intact at the beginning of the opening round, then had to endure the devastating season-ending injury to Derrick Rose in Game 1 of their first-round series against Philadelphia and a severely sprained ankle to Joakim Noah that left him out of commission, eventually leading to their ouster by the 76ers.

Ostensibly, that makes Miami's road to a repeat NBA Finals appearance much easier, though they should still have their hands full with a big and physical Indiana team, as well as a potential conference-finals matchup with a veteran Boston squad that should take care of the young Sixers in the second round. Whether the Celtics have enough in the tank to make another run to the Finals is an interesting proposition, but given the way they handled Miami in the regular season, it's certainly feasible.

The Western Conference has mostly held serve, save for the Clippers' mild upset of the Grizzlies in the first round. After last year's postseason run, the Grizzlies were expected to be a spoiler in some circles, particularly with power forward Zach Randolph in the lineup and a potential rematch with the top-seeded Spurs, whom they upset a year ago. However, now a clash of the old guard and the new school is on tap, as San Antonio's aging corps, like Boston's in the East, will look to make one more trip to the promised land, with the All-Star duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin standing in their way.

Then, there's the Thunder-Lakers grudge match, coming on the heels of the late regular season elbow heard around the world, Metta World Peace's concussion-inducing blow to the head of Sixth Man of the Year winner James Harden. Subplots aside, the young Thunder, led by three-time reigning league scoring champ Kevin Durant and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, will be tested by the Lakers' interior size -- if Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol come to play every night, something that didn't always happen in their first-round series against Denver, in which a deep and athletic Nuggets squad took them to the limit -- as well as the annual playoff exploits of one Kobe Bryant.

With the way the Thunder dispatched the defending-champion Mavericks in four games and how the Spurs were all business in sweeping a young Jazz team, plus added rest as they waited for the second-round opponents to get through grueling seven-game opening round series, the West's top two seeds should move on, setting up a fantastic conference finals, one which Oklahoma City, if indications that they're ready to make the leap from good to great are real, should survive behind Durant's brilliance. Despite the Celtics' experience, how they appear to click on all cylinders on certain nights and All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo's masterful offensive orchestration, the sheer dominance of new league MVP LeBron James simply can't be accounted for, which give the Heat a second straight crack at the Finals, an opportunity they're unlikely to squander again.

Bears Talk Podcast: What's next for Bears at QB after Brian Hoyer suffers broken arm?


Bears Talk Podcast: What's next for Bears at QB after Brian Hoyer suffers broken arm?

Lance Briggs, Alex Brown and Jim Miller break down where the Bears go at QB following Brian Hoyer’s injury and evaluate the defense’s gutsy performance on Thursday night against the Packers despite numerous injuries. Plus, a look at the big picture and who can help the Bears down the road.

Check out the latest edition of the Bears Talk Podcast here:

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

Anthony Rizzo/Javier Baez antics show how this Cubs team doesn’t feel the same weight of history

LOS ANGELES – Within minutes of the last out on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, ESPN’s @SportsCenter account sent out a photo of Moises Alou at the Wrigley Field wall to more than 30 million Twitter followers: “The last time the Cubs were up 3-2 in an NLCS was Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS vs. the Marlins. Most remember it as ‘the Bartman Game.’”

As Kerry Wood once said: “Irrelevant, dude.”
Look, the Cubs still need to find a way to beat either Clayton Kershaw or Rich Hill this weekend, with Kenley Jansen resting and waiting for the multiple-inning saves. The obligatory description for Kershaw is “the best pitcher on the planet.” Hill’s lefty curveball – and “the perceptual velocity” of his fastball – freezes hitters. Jansen has a mystical cutter reminiscent of the great Mariano Rivera. The top-heavy part of this Los Angeles playoff pitching staff has held the Cubs to zero runs in 16.1 innings.

But until proven otherwise, forget about this idea of a Cubs team weighed down by the history of a franchise that hasn’t played in the World Series since 1945.

Just look at Javier Baez getting in Anthony Rizzo’s airspace during Game 5, the human-highlight-film second baseman standing right next to the All-Star first baseman as he caught a Kike Hernandez pop-up for the second out of the third inning.

It didn’t matter that this was a 1-0 game and MVP-ballot players Justin Turner and Corey Seager were coming up. This is what the 2016 Cubs do. Rizzo caught the ball, quickly flipped it underhand and it bounced off Baez’s chest – in front of a sellout crowd of 54,449 and a national Fox Sports 1 audience.

“We always mess around,” Rizzo said at his locker inside a tight clubhouse jammed with media after an 8-4 win. “So I’m screaming: ‘Javy! Javy! I got it! I got it, Javy, I got it!’

“And usually he’ll yell at me: ‘Don’t miss it!’ Or I’ll yell at him: ‘Don’t miss it!’

“We do that a lot. If it’s a pop-up to him, I’ll go right behind him. It’s just little ways of slowing the game down and having fun, too.”

Rizzo is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency this year. As a super-utility guy, Baez got credit for 11 defensive runs saved in 383 innings at second base, or one less than co-leaders Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, who each did it in almost 1,300 innings.

“Sometimes when I call (Rizzo) off to get a fly ball, he starts talking to me,” Baez said. “I tell him: ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t move my head. You can touch me if you want. Just don’t move my head.’

“And I told him to be ready for it, because I was going to do the same thing. You just got to be focused on the fly ball. No matter what’s happening around you, you just got to catch it.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

This isn’t about Bartman. It’s about a group of young, confident players who are growing up together and absolutely expect to be in this position. It’s manager Joe Maddon designing “Embrace The Target” T-shirts and telling them to show up to the ballpark whenever they want and then blow off batting practice.

“For sure, we’re relaxed,” said Baez, who’s gone viral during these playoffs, the rest of the country witnessing his amazing instincts and flashy personality. “I’m relaxed when I play defense.”

The thing is, Rizzo and Baez could be playing next to each other for the next five years, the same way Kris Bryant and Addison Russell will be anchoring the left side of the infield.

This is how Rizzo introduced Russell to The Show when a natural shortstop tried to learn second base on the fly last year and track pop-ups in front of 40,000 people: “Hey, watch out for that skateboard behind you! Don’t trip!”

“Oh yeah, we yell at each other all the time,” Rizzo said. “It’s just one of those things where you got to stay loose.”