LeBron James, the Houston Astros, the Seattle Storm and much more in Five Things From the Week.
1. LeBron James is chasing MJ the only way he can
LeBron James has always been fully aware of how difficult it would be to match Michael Jordan’s Finals resume. There is no getting around his perfect 6-0 mark. So LeBron went to Miami to learn how to win a championship and then returned to Cleveland to get one for his hometown team. He did so by overturning a 3-1 deficit to defeat the best regular season team in history. That title will forever carry a historical significance well beyond any of Jordan’s. Having completed the job in Cleveland, LeBron departed for a Lakers team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2012-13.
Not only did the Lakers’ 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat on Oct. 11 give LeBron a ring with a third team and head coach, it returned the NBA’s most storied franchise to the top in a year where Kobe Bryant passed away and a global pandemic forced the playoffs to take place in a bubble. LeBron thrived in an environment that provided an array of challenges Jordan never had to face. All of that matters when debating which one of them is the G.O.A.T. LeBron may ultimately add another ring or two in the future, but his path to four is a major reason why the G.O.A.T. debate is so vibrant right now. Every title tells a different story, and LeBron has written a remarkable tale with his.
2. The Houston Astros’ bats woke up
Gerrit Cole leaving in free agency and Justin Verlander requiring Tommy John surgery are obvious things to point to when looking at the Astros’ 29-31 record in a shortened regular season, but they don’t paint a complete picture. Houston was at or below league average in runs per game, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Simply put, the Astros couldn’t hit. José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer all struggled mightily and never got into a rhythm.
Something happened when the playoffs started though. Through two rounds, Correa is hitting .500 with four home runs and 12 RBI. Five different players including Correa, Springer and Altuve have batting averages of .500 or better with runners in scoring position. Houston is scoring 6.67 runs per game, not the 4.65 it averaged in the regular season. While the Astros haven’t faced a starting rotation like the one the Tampa Bay Rays will throw at them, they just had a field day with arguably the best bullpen in baseball. It took an entire season to get there, but the Astros are finally looking like the team that is in the ALCS for the fourth year in a row.
3. Home runs really are that important
Nobody would ever suggest hitting home runs hurts a team’s chances of winning. What is becoming evident this postseason, though, is how just vital long balls are to a team’s success. Only two teams have managed to win a series hitting fewer home runs than their opponent. The Oakland Athletics did it against the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers lost the home run battle to the San Diego Padres. Los Angeles scored 23 runs in its three-game sweep of San Diego, so having one home run to the Padres’ two was not a problem.
No series was a better example of the difference home runs can make than the Rays’ victory over the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers pushed across at least four runs in four of the five games. Their offense wasn’t quite as electric as it was against the Cleveland Indians, but the Rays’ pitching staff wasn’t exactly dominant. On the flip side, Tampa Bay hit .202 and scored three fewer runs than New York. The defining moment of the series was Mike Brosseau’s eighth-inning shot in Game 5, which gave Tampa Bay an 11-10 edge in home runs. They really do matter that much.
4. The SEC’s depth is on full display
The elimination of nonconference games probably has something to do with it, but the SEC has been a jumbled mess so far. Consider some of the results from Oct. 10. Mississippi State scored a whopping two points against Kentucky and are now 1-2 following a season-opening win over LSU, who is also 1-2. Georgia trailed Tennessee 21-17 at halftime before scoring 27 unanswered points in the second half. Texas A&M took down Florida a week after losing by 28 to Alabama.
Speaking of the Crimson Tide, since when do Nick Saban’s teams give up 669 total yards and 48 points? The fact that Alabama and Georgia are a combined 6-0 heading into their showdown on Oct. 17 makes what’s going on in the SEC appear much less bizarre than it is. With the exception of Vanderbilt, there seems to be very little separating the bottom of the conference from the top. That depth could end up getting two SEC teams into the College Football Playoff. It could also be the reason the conference only gets one representative.
5. The Seattle Storm are building a dynasty
The last time the Seattle Storm lost a playoff game with a healthy Breanna Stewart was Game 4 of the 2018 semifinals. Since then, they have won two championships and 10 straight postseason contests by an average of 13.3 points with Stewart in the lineup. Seattle went through the 2020 playoffs with a perfect 6-0 record to claim its second title in three years. Half those victories came against the Las Vegas Aces, who posted an identical 18-4 record to the Storm behind league MVP A’ja Wilson. Seattle beat Las Vegas in the clinching game of the WNBA Finals by a score of 92-59.
With Stewart and Sue Bird sidelined with injuries, the Storm were never going to seriously contend last season, so disregard that completely. In the last two years Stewart’s played, Seattle is 56-14 in the regular season and postseason combined. While Bird turns 40 this week, the 26-year-old Stewart isn’t going anywhere. Jewell Lloyd is 27. Mercedes Russell is 25. Natasha Howard is 29. Seattle can keep the core of this team together for years to come. As long as Stewart stays healthy, this is just the beginning of what will be a sustained run of dominance for the Storm.
The SEC needs to make an example out of Florida’s Dan Mullen for asking his school to allow a full-capacity crowd at the Swamp. It’s time for commissioner Greg Sankey to show he’s serious about enforcing safety protocols and Mullen is a perfect place to start. A coach blatantly ignoring medical professionals and disregarding people’s health in an effort to maybe give his team a better chance of winning is everything that’s wrong with college athletics. Unfortunately, there is nothing especially surprising about this kind of behavior.
Photo by Eric Drost / Flickr