• Peter Burtnett

Return to sports weekend shows off NBA, altered normalcy


Members of the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz kneel together behind the Black Lives Matter logo on the court during the national anthem before the start of an NBA basketball game, Lake Buena Vista, Fla., July 30, 2020. (Ashley Landis/USA TODAY Sports)

Peter Burtnett

Co-founder, ISM

Sports are back! Beginning on Thursday, July 30, the NBA joined MLB and MLS on the sports calendar, and two days later the NHL made its return. On Saturday, the inclusion of the FA Cup, UFC Fight Night and the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in golf, things are finally looking up in the sports world.

However, the weekend didn't go off without a hitch, as MLB's St. Louis Cardinals joined the Miami Marlins in the COVID-19 outbreak category. Although their case count is lower than the estimated 18 players for the Marlins, their weekend series against the Milwaukee Brewers was postponed and their home-and-home four-game series against the Detroit Tigers has moved to Detroit and hangs in the balance.

Through almost two weeks of the season, a few teams have separated themselves from the rest. The New York Yankees swept their bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox, to improve to 7-1 as slugger Aaron Judge continues to churn out homers, with six in his last five games.

New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge has now homered in five consecutive games, leading the Yankees to an MLB-best 7-1 record and put his name in the forefront of the MVP race. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The Chicago Cubs have now won three in a row to improve to a record of 7-2, which is equaled by the Minnesota Twins. An early surprise is the Baltimore Orioles, who swept the Tampa Bay Rays to improve to 5-3. In a season as brief as this one will be, a start like this could lift the Orioles into the playoff race.

In a unique season, perhaps the most unique record is that of the Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies, who sit at 2-1 and 1-2, respectively, and have yet to play again after their opening weekend series.

MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred are now faced with the daunting decision of whether to continue the season at all, as two teams sit at just three games played.

Manfred told Karl Ravech of ESPN, "We are playing. The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable."

Manfred added that if not all teams play 60 games, placement and seeding in the expanded playoffs could be determined by winning percentage.

In MLS, the quarterfinal stage of the MLS is Back Tournament saw the Philadelphia Union advance to play against the Portland Timbers, and Orlando City SC advanced to face Minnesota United FC in the semifinals.

Christian Pulisic celebrates his fifth-minute goal for Chelsea at Wembley Stadium. (Adam Davy/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) (Adam Davy/Nmc/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Staying in soccer (or football), Arsenal defeated Chelsea 2-1 in Saturday's FA Cup Final, which saw US international Christian Pulisic score a goal for Chelsea in the fifth minute before going down with a hamstring injury in the 49th minute. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang led the way for the Gunners, scoring twice in an injury-plagued match against Chelsea, who also lost Cesar Azpilicueta to a hamstring injury.

The main story of the weekend, though, was the return of the NBA, which quickly took on a March Madness feel, with staggered start times and a tournament feeling as teams have just eight games to make their final playoff push. As most players, coaches and referees showed unity in the fight against racial injustice by kneeling during the National Anthem and displaying messages for social justice, the games did not disappoint.

12 of the 17 games were decided by a single-digit margin of victory. In the opener between the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans, which was won 106-104 by the Jazz, Donovan Mitchell and Jrue Holiday were on par with each other, as both scored 20 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, and dished out at least 4 assists (Mitchell had 5).

The Jazz erased an eight-point fourth quarter deficit, which some attributed to the disapperance of Zion Williamson, who missed most of the fourth quarter due to his minutes restriction. Rudy Gobert knocked down two free throws with 7 seconds left to give the Jazz the lead for good in a two-point win.

LeBron James puts back his miss with 13 seconds remaining in the Los Angeles Lakers' 103-101 win over the Clippers in Thursday's re-opening night NBA action. Photo courtesy of CBS Sports.

In the night-cap, the Battle for LA took place in Orlando as the Clippers took the Lakers down to the wire but lost to a LeBron James put-back layup with 12.8 seconds remaining to give the Lakers a 103-101 win.

Another highlight from the weekend was the All Star Game-style scoring fest between the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, which ended 153-149 in favor of the Rockets after overtime. James Harden poured in 49 points to overcome Kristaps Porzingis and Luca Doncic, who combined for 67 points and 29 rebounds.

However, the performance by Harden was still not the highest point total for the weekend. That honor belonged to T.J. Warren of the Indiana Pacers. Warren dropped 53 on the Philadelphia 76ers in a 127-121 win that saw the Pacers break a tie with the Sixers to move into the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Sunday's action was the largest slate of the weekend (six games played), and two longshots were the beneficiaries of the action. The San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns, both sitting on the outside-looking-in, grabbed two-point wins to keep themselves alive in the altered race for the playoffs. The Spurs now sit just two games behind the Memphis Grizzlies (who they defeated to also clinch a playoff berth for the Mavericks), and the Suns are just four games back with just six games left.

However, with the altered playoff "play-in" between the eighth and ninth seed (only if the ninth seed is four games or less behind No. 8), the Spurs and Suns will compete with the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings to fill that No. 9 spot.

In the Eastern Conference, the outlook is looking bleak for the Washington Wizards, who have lost their first two games back and now sit 7.5 behind the Brooklyn Nets and are the only team outside the playoffs still playing in the East. With six games left, the Wizards will need to pick up four games to have a chance in the play-in games.

Of all the sports that have resumed or started thus far, the NBA has handled the COVID-19 the best and should be in for an exciting conclusion to a delayed season.

Finally, the NHL began its qualifying rounds, with five games played on both Saturday and Sunday. As the top four teams from each conference play in a Round Robin format to determine seeding, the 24-team expanded playoffs sees the No. 5 team play against No. 12, No. 6 versus No. 11, 7 vs. 10, and 8 vs. 9 in best-of-five series.

Via ESPN:

The four best-of-five series of the qualifiers in the Eastern Conference: No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens; No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers; No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers; No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets.

The four best-of-five series of the qualifiers in the Western Conference: No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks; No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes; No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild; No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets.

The teams that advance from the qualifying rounds will play in the traditional playoff format, which sees the division winners (two in each conference) play against the wild card team (fourth-best team in each division) and the second- and third-place teams play against each other.

With the sports calendar now full and the return of the UEFA Champions League this weekend and NFL training camps underway, we can finally say that sports are back!

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