Playoff outlook different after opening round?

762766.png

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.

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Here are some of Monday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Preview: Cubs look to bounce back vs. Giants tonight on CSN

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen

Should Blackhawks' next assistant coach be Joel Quenneville's choice?

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

Luis Robert the latest high-end acquisition for White Sox

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Carlos Rodon 'getting closer' but still without time frame for return

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”