The Trail Blazers, the NHL playoffs, T.J. Warren and much more in Five Things From the Week.
1. There is a new top tier in the European soccer landscape
Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus have combined for 16 appearances in the Champions League semifinals, eight appearances in the final in the last 10 seasons. Real Madrid and Barcelona won six of those 10 titles, two of which came against Juventus. At least one of those three teams has reached the semifinals every season since 2006-07. That streak is in a tremendous amount of peril this season.
Real Madrid and Juventus bowed out in the round of 16, leaving Barcelona as the lone survivor thanks to the brilliance of Lionel Messi. The same group that Messi called “weak” last month and is full of drama from the board of directors on down now faces Bayern Munich, the most in-form team in the world. Juventus just hired club legend Andrea Pirlo, a man who has never coached a professional soccer game, as its manager. Real Madrid faces its own questions as manager Zinedine Zidane was eliminated in the Champions League for the first time. These are not the Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus of the last decade. All three clubs have the resources to turn things around quickly, but at this moment, they are not on the same level as the likes of Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Manchester City. Times have changed.
2. The Portland Trail Blazers should scare the Los Angeles Lakers
While the rest of the teams battling for eighth and ninth place in the Western Conference — except for the suddenly unbeatable Suns — have struggled against the superior competition in the bubble, the Blazers are more than holding their own. The Spurs are 4-2, but those wins have come against the Kings, Grizzlies, Jazz’s reserves and Pelicans. Portland is 4-2 with victories over the Rockets, 76ers and Nuggets as well as a four-point loss to the Celtics where a 24-point lead was erased.
All of a sudden, the Blazers are half a game out of the eight spot and looking like the team that made the Western Conference finals last season. Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins are both healthy and Gary Trent Jr. is shooting the lights out (29-of-51 from three in the bubble). The emergence of Trent and addition of Carmelo Anthony makes this team even more scary than last year’s. Should Portland make it through the play-in tournament, the Lakers will be facing a top-five team in the West capable of knocking them out if LeBron and Co. can’t fix their offensive issues.
3. The NHL playoffs will not feature anything close to the best 16 teams in the league
When the NHL season was put on hold, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators held playoff spots. Three of those teams — Carolina, Columbus and Calgary — will participate in the traditional playoff format. They will be joined by teams such as the 31-31-9 Montreal Canadians, 32-30-8 Chicago Blackhawks and 33-29-8 Arizona Coyotes.
The NHL opened up its bubbles to anyone who was theoretically in the playoff race in an effort to include more big market teams and give everyone a chance. Those fortunate teams took full advantage of the break they received. The Penguins averaged 1.25 points per game in 69 regular season contests. The Vancouver Canucks averaged 1.00 and then knocked Pittsburgh out in four games. Inviting so many teams opened the door for these kinds of strange things to happen, and now the league has to accept that its champion might be, by definition, a below average team.
4. If college basketball is played, the Big Ten is going to look quite a bit different
Seven teams — Michigan State, Wisconsin, Maryland, Purdue, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State — have won every Big Ten regular season title since the 2005-06 season. The last time someone besides those seven teams finished higher than fourth was 2008-09, when Illinois tied for second with an 11-7 record. Now that players have decided whether to stay in the NBA draft or return to school, the outlook for the 2020-21 season — assuming there is one — is much clearer. There is an obvious top two in the conference, neither of whom are on that list of seven.
With consensus first team all-american Luka Garza returning to Iowa and Illinois retaining both Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, the Hawkeyes and Fighting Illini are the preseason favorites in the Big Ten. Dosunmu and Cockburn contributed 29.9 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists last season. Garza is joined by Iowa’s second and third-leading scorers in 2019-20 (Joe Wieskamp and CJ Frederick) as well as Jordan Bohannon, who redshirted for medical reasons last season. As strange as it sounds, the Big Ten is absolutely Illinois and Iowa’s to lose.
5. T.J. Warren is keeping the Indiana Pacers afloat
Anyone who is completely stunned by what T.J. Warren is doing in the bubble must have forgotten this is the third season in a row Warren is averaging at least 18 points per game. He’s never done anything like this before though. Warren’s worst performance since the restart was a 16-point, 11-rebound outing against the Suns on Aug. 6. The five-year veteran scored an average of 39.5 points in Indiana’s other four games, shooting 53.8% or better in all four contests.
The Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers entered Orlando with identical records. Philadelphia is 3-1 since Warren dropped 53 points on them in a Pacers victory and still hasn’t passed Indiana in the standings. When it was announced the Pacers would be without Domantas Sabonis for the rest of the season, there didn’t appear to be a scenario where the Sixers played well and still didn’t get the five seed. Thanks to Warren, it’s on the verge of happening. Indiana is not going to compete for a title this season, but general manager Kevin Pritchard keeps finding under-the-radar guys who thrive in a Pacers uniform and make the team competitive year after year. Warren is just the latest example.
The MAC’s decision to cancel all fall sports — including football — puts fall college football in even greater jeopardy. It is much more difficult to justify playing when other conferences have concluded it is not worth the risk. Nobody has to worry about being the first anymore either. We were headed down this path already, but the conversations are different now that somebody has actually shut down football.
Photo by AlexanderJonesi / Wikimedia Commons