What happened to all the upsets?
Favourites are finding the bubbles pretty friendly
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The upsets haven't really materialized
Before the top North American sports leagues returned from their long, pandemic-induced pauses, the conventional wisdom was that these games would be a free-for-all. After being off for months, there was no telling who'd show up ready to play and who might be lacking an edge — or just simply out of shape. Plus, with everyone thrust into weird, fanless venues — and NHL and NBA games being played at neutral sites — there was a sense that the playing field had been levelled to some degree. Many people expected a ton of upsets.
But that's not the way it's played out. The NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball restarts are looking pretty chalky so far. Here's a look at how the favourites are staying on top in each league:
Because its star players can influence the outcome of games more than those in other sports, basketball has never lent itself to upsets. That hasn't really changed so far in the Disney World bubble. Three of the four opening-round series in the Eastern Conference resulted in a four-game sweep by the betting favourite. The other is likely to end in five after top-seeded Milwaukee rebounded from a Game 1 hiccup with three straight convincing wins over Orlando.
Underdogs are faring better in the West. But, considering it's the much deeper conference, have we really seen anything all that shocking? Sure, 6th-seeded Utah is up 3-1 on 3rd-seeded Denver, but those teams finished two games apart in the standings and most people saw the series as a tossup. The 4 vs. 5 matchup between Houston and Oklahoma City, who had identical regular-season records, is tied 2-2. The top-seeded Lakers are up 3-1 on Portland. The only real surprise is No. 7 Dallas giving the 2nd-seeded Clippers all they can handle. But still, that matchup is tied 2-2 and L.A. is a Luka Doncic buzzer-beating three away from being up 3-1. The Clippers are favoured by 7½ points tonight, so the Mavs have a lot more work to do if they're to pull off the series upset.
With the regular season cut from a 162-game marathon to a 60-game sprint, and multiple rosters already decimated by positive coronavirus test results, baseball seemed to be creating the ideal environment for wackiness. But it's the reverse.
None of the six division leaders are really a surprise. In the National League, the West-leading Dodgers have the best record in baseball, just as everyone predicted, while the Central-leading Cubs and East-topping Atlanta were either favourites or co-favourites to be in this spot heading into the season. In the American League, Minnesota leads the Central, as expected. Most people had the Yankees winning the East, but they're only a half game behind Tampa Bay, which was a playoff team last year and a fairly popular pre-season pick to take the division themselves. Oakland is a mild surprise atop the West, but they had the fourth-best record in the AL last year and pre-season favourite Houston is still doing OK in second place.
Ha! This is where the premise falls apart, right? In the playoff qualifying round, the No. 12 seed in each conference beat the No. 5. But hold on. While few people predicted Montreal would take out Pittsburgh, plenty gave Chicago a good shot against a deeply flawed Edmonton team. The other upsets in that round were pretty mild: Columbus over Toronto in an 8 vs. 9 matchup, and Arizona over Nashville in a 6 vs. 11 snoozefest between two lowly regarded teams that finished four points apart in the standings.
And don't forget, those were all best-of-five series, which are friendlier for upsets. When the format switched to the standard best-of-seven for the next round, only two of the eight underdogs won: the 6th-seeded Islanders bounced 3rd-seeded Washington, and Vancouver took out defending-champion St. Louis in a 4 vs. 5 matchup.
Also, this is the NHL, where upsets are the norm and not much seems to separate the top teams from the mediocre ones anymore. Look at last year's playoffs: Tampa Bay had one of the best regular seasons of all time and then got swept by 8th-seeded Columbus in round 1. The St. Louis Blues went from dead last in the overall standings to Stanley Cup champs in five months.
It's also worth noting that the consensus two best teams in each conference — Boston and Tampa Bay in the East, Vegas and Colorado in the West — all won their first-round series in a breezy five games. Colorado looks to be in trouble now after falling down 2-0 to Dallas, but there's still a ways to go in that series.
So what's going on here?
Why aren't we seeing the quantity of upsets many people expected? Here's my theory: rather than levelling the playing field, the NHL's and NBA's bubbles and MLB's empty home stadiums have created a lab-like environment that removes many of the variables that help create randomness. There are no raucous crowds to sway the refs/umps into making calls that favour the home team. No basketball or hockey players are showing up to games jet lagged or tired from a long flight. Without friends and family around, it's easier to turn in early for a good night's rest. Under these more controlled conditions, there's less to go wrong for the favourites. Talent and skill win out. Just like we're seeing.
The Leafs traded young forward Kasperi Kapanen to Pittsburgh. He's talented and only 24 years old. But Kapanen is coming off a disappointing season and also has a reputation for showing up late to practice (he was scratched for a game back in February after oversleeping). Plus, Toronto is pretty solid at forward but could use help elsewhere and is up against the salary cap. Hence, today's trade. Six players are involved, but the important pieces are Kapanen (and his $3.2-million US cap hit) going to Pittsburgh for the 15th-overall pick in this year's draft and forward prospect Filip Hallander. The general consensus among the smart people on Hockey Twitter is that the Leafs won this deal. Read more about it here.
Lionel Messi wants out of Barcelona. The soccer superstar has been with the Spanish powerhouse for nearly two decades, but apparently he's had enough. Barcelona said today that Messi has sent them a letter saying he wants to leave. This comes 11 days after an embarrassing 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals. Messi, 33, has helped Barcelona win the Champions League four times and the Spanish league 10 times. Read more about his desire to exit here.
The National Women's Soccer League added an encore. The original plan was for the Challenge Cup tournament in Utah earlier this summer to replace the regular season and playoffs for this pandemic-tainted year. But, apart from the Orlando Pride getting kicked out for a rash of positive COVID-19 tests, the event went well enough that the NWSL has decided to add an 18-game "fall series" starting Sept. 5 in teams' home cities. The league's nine clubs (including Orlando) have been divided into three regional "pods" to minimize travel, and each team will play the other two in its pod twice. The NWSL also announced it's continuing its broadcast-rights relationship with CBS, which aired some Challenge Cup matches live. The big U.S. network will show a "game of the week" every Saturday in September. Read more about the NWSL's return here.
Usain Bolt tested positive for the coronavirus. The track legend is taking some heat after posting a picture on Instagram that showed him not wearing a mask at a party last week celebrating his 34th birthday. Bolt took the test the next day. He said he hasn't shown any symptoms of COVID-19 and is self-isolating at home in Jamaica "just to be safe." As of Monday, the island had a confirmed total of 1,413 cases of the coronavirus and 16 deaths. Read more about Bolt's positive test here.
Milos Raonic is the only Canadian left in this week's tuneup for the U.S. Open. Men's 12th seed Denis Shapovalov and No. 15 Felix Auger-Aliassime both lost their second-round matches yesterday at the Western & Southern Open. The unseeded Raonic advanced to the round of 16 with a straight-sets win and was due to play former world No. 1 Andy Murray today. The only Canadian in the women's singles draw was Leylah Annie Fernandez. She lost in the first round. The Western & Southern Open is usually played in Cincinnati, but this year's is taking place in New York City, at the same site where the U.S. Open will begin on Monday. Canada's Bianca Andreescu is not playing this week and has also decided to not defend her U.S. Open women's title. Due to a combination of a knee injury and the pandemic, she hasn't competed since October.
Getting your name on the Grey Cup takes talent, determination and years of hard work. Or $349. To raise money for its teams and players after cancelling the 2020 season, the CFL is installing a new base on the iconic trophy and selling inscriptions to fans. Season-ticket holders can get their name on the so-called Grey Cup Fan Base for $349, and it's $399 for anyone else. Read more about the fundraising move here.
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