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5 Most Intriguing NBA Playoff Storylines

The NBA restart at the bubble in Orlando, Florida has been very competitive. While a few minor players chose to opt out of the rest of the season, most of the players elected to play and the play has been surprisingly intense and the quality has been good.

The atmosphere is also surprisingly good in my opinion. The video screens around the arena are a fun touch to get some fans on TV. The pumped in crowd noise doesn’t feel fake to me either – if you aren’t paying close attention, you almost assume that there are fans at the games.

The playoffs started on Monday and have been stellar thus far. Both 8 seeds won game one of their series and an overtime game where Donovan Mitchell put up 57 points in the loss was phenomenal to watch. Let’s take a look at the top five storylines for the playoffs this season.

5. How will the Rockets small-ball strategy over the course of the playoffs?

James Harden (and the Rockets) have not had an abundance of playoff success. This is not entirely Harden’s fault, though, as they ran into the Warriors dynasty a few times. In 2018, the Rockets were up 3-2 on the Warriors when Chris Paul got injured and the Warriors won game six and seven.

This year, the Rockets fully committed to the small-ball strategy, trading their center Clint Capela for Robert Covington, a 3-and-D small forward who is starting as their “center”. Their starting lineup consists of two small forwards under 6’7, two shooting guards and Harden. More guards and small forwards fill out their bench. The Rockets rely on an onslaught of 3-pointers to score which is great when shots are going in but can be a disaster when shots aren’t falling. Harden is no doubt an amazing offensive player, but I’m very skeptical that this team can get past the Clippers in round two, which puts the Rockets’ future plans in limbo.

4. Will Kawhi Leonard be the first player to win three Finals MVPS with three different teams and titles with different teams in back to back seasons?

The Clippers are essentially tied with the Lakers and Bucks as the odds on favorites to win the title. Leonard, simply put, is a different animal when it comes to the playoffs, as he is the primary offensive threat and defensive stopper. I am intrigued to see if he can put the Clippers officially on the map and become the first player in NBA history to win three Finals MVPS with three different teams and win titles back to back seasons with different teams. They’re my pick to make it out of the Western Conference.

3. Can Damian Lillard carry the Blazers to a tremendous upset?

As the bubble was being discussed, Lillard made a point that it wouldn’t be genuine unless the Blazers were invited. Portland indeed was invited, went 6-2 in the bubble, won the play-in game and Dame scored 51, 61, 42, and 31 in the last four games, winning those games by a combined 11 points to claim the 8-seed. Lillard followed that up with 34 points in a game one upset of the LA Lakers on Tuesday. Simply put, his run has been spectacular. Charles Barkely predicted a 4-0 sweep by the Blazers, to which Lillard says “One down, three to go.” Lillard has become my favorite player in the NBA and I can’t stop watching.

2. Can the Bucks and Giannis finally break-through to make the NBA finals?

The Bucks have been the best team in the NBA the past two seasons. After losing to the Toronto Raptors 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the Bucks responded by dominating the regular season and claimed the number one seed again. However, the Bucks limped to a 3-5 bubble record and in a tremendous surprise, got upset by the 33-40 Magic 122-110 in game one. Similar to the Rockets, the Bucks rely almost entirely on star Giannis Antetokounmpo to create everything on offense. When defenses collapse down, he kicks it out to one of the four shooters spaced out on the floor. However, the Magic are putting five guys around the paint and daring Giannis to give it up and it has worked so far. I’m very intrigued to see how Giannis and the Bucks respond going forward because the offense that they ran in game one is not going to win them a title, not to mention the defense giving up 122 points to the awful Magic.

1. Can LeBron win his 4th NBA title? 

As tiring as the LeBron NBA title narrative can be, it is inevitably the most intriguing aspect once again. After missing the playoffs last year, LeBron got his buddy Anthony Davis to join him and again has built the roster he wants to take to battle in the playoffs. However, losing Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley has proven to be challenging and despite a 23 point, 17 rebound and 16 assist night from the King, they lost by seven to the Blazers.

LeBron already doesn’t seem to trust his teammates and guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Alex Caruso are easily outmatched by the Blazers backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. In order to even sneak out of the first series, I think we are going to need to see some vintage LeBron performances which I am all here for. However, as a Michael Jordan truther and Lillard enthusiast, I can’t wait to watch the meltdown and blame-game fallout from a Blazers first round upset.

STATE TOURNAMENT PREVIEW: Young America to lean on talent, experience for another tournament run

YOUNG AMERICA – The Young America Cardinals are no longer a secret when it comes to amateur baseball. After back-to-back thrilling runs at the state tournament the past two seasons, the Cardinals are on everyone’s radar now.

After winning their second-straight Region 7C title, the Young America Cardinals come into the 2020 Class C State Tournament as the No. 1 seed from Region 7.

While expectations might be high for the Cardinals outside of the team due to their recent success, the Cardinals know how important it is to take it one game at a time.

“As far as our expectations coming in, I feel like we should take it one game at a time because that’s what it really comes down to,” Young America manager Adam Kostecka said. “If you don’t win the first one, you don’t get a second chance.”

Taking things one game at a time can be hard for a team like Young America. The Cardinals have been playing on the final weekend of the tournament the past two seasons, including playing in the semifinals in 2018. The taste of getting so close the past couple of years only fuels the Cardinals to make another deep postseason run this year.

“I also want the guys to feel like we deserve to be here.” Kostecka said. “The last two years were great, but we want more. Someone told me after the 2018 loss to Sobieski to not worry, and this team is built to do this for years to come. That may be true, but it takes some luck and some breaks and not just talent. I want our guys to remember that we aren’t guaranteed anything and still have to earn every win.”

Experience is one thing the Cardinals bring to the state tournament. Young America is back at the state tournament for a fourth-straight season. While state tournament experience is always nice, a majority of the Cardinals players have been playing in big games long before their amateur baseball careers took off.

“As far as experience goes, I honestly believe that most of these guys truly don’t look at it any different than any other big game they have played in,” Kostecka said. “Most of them have some college experience and know what it’s like to play in important games on big stages. It helps to have been there a few times in a row, but overall, I feel like most just treat it like any other elimination game they have been a part of.”

Talent goes hand-in-hand with experience for Young America. From top to bottom, the Cardinals are one of the deepest and most talented teams in the state. Whether it’s pitching or offense, Young America ranks near the top in all the state.

A talented pitching staff of Josh Lenz, Dillon Whittaker, and Isaac Hormann only go better for Young America this year. All three have showed up in big games on the mound for the Cardinals, and will be relied on even more this time around.

Young America has also added some more depth to their pitching staff through the draft. With the first overall pick in the draft, the Cardinals selected Cologne’s Christian Johnson. He is coming off a breakout season last year in which he pitched the Cologne Hollanders into the final weekend of the state tournament.

Young America also added Tanner Luebke (Cologne) and Pat Regan (Green Isle) to their pitching staff, as the rich got richer heading into the state tournament.

“Our pitching staff was pretty solid before the draft, and adding three good pitchers obviously helps,” Kostecka said. “Christian’s track record speaks for itself, and is a great addition to our staff for sure. I have seen both Tanner and Pat pitch, and feel like they could be very useful if we can make a deep run. I am not sure how the draftees will exactly be used yet, but if we get to Labor Day weekend, we know that’s a lot of innings in three days, so more good pitchers never hurts.”

With the addition of three strong pitchers, pitching and defense will be the key for the Cardinals as they look to make another deep run. While Young America might be known for their dangerous lineup at the plate, pitching and defense is where it starts for the Cardinals.

“If we want to make a deep run, we have to pitch and play defense,” Kostecka said. “That’s what I think we do well, so hopefully that continues. I know our lineup is capable of scoring us runs, so if we don’t kick the ball around and give people free passes, I believe we have a chance to win every game.”

Young America also comes into the state tournament battle-tested. Playing in the Crow River Valley League and Region 7, the Cardinals have been grinding it out since the season began.

“Playing in Region 7 is a battle every year,” Kostecka said. “In normal years with 18 games, the difference between three losses and four losses could mean you drop two or three spots in the seeding. That’s the difference between a bye into the region tournament and becoming the No. 5 seed. It’s a good region with a lot of good teams and it definitely helps to see that level of competition going into state.”

The Cardinals have a bye into the second round of the state tournament after winning their region. The time off is a welcomed thing for Young America, as they’ve had one of the most grueling schedules of any team in the state. The Cardinals played four games in four days midway through the regular season, and followed that up with three games in three days near the end of the regular season. To top it all off, the Cardinals had to beat Waconia and Watertown in back-to-back games on the same day, just to win the Region 7C title.

“Down the stretch we played a lot of baseball, and I think the guys are welcoming a little break,” Kostecka said. “It will be good for the guys to be able to step away for a bit and get rested for hopefully a long state tournament run. If we get to Labor Day weekend, I have no doubt we’ll be ready to play four games in three days. We have the pitching staff to do it, and adding three more gold arms is going to help.”

As Young America awaits to see who they will play in the second round of the state tournament (Luverne or Mora), they know how crazy the state tournament can be. The Cardinals have played in their fair share of thrillers over the years,  which shows them just how important each inning is at this time of year.

“As far as crazy games, I guess we like it that way,” Kostecka said. “We know every team at the state tournament is there because they’re a good team. You can’t take an inning off, or your season could be over, just like that. I believe defense and pitching wins most games at the tournament, especially if you are deep in pitching. If you play defense and score more than three runs, you have a chance to win every game.”

STATE TOURNAMENT PREVIEW: Watertown Red Devils looking to continue momentum into Class C State Tournament

WATERTOWN – It’s been a long time in the making for the Watertown Red Devils. This weekend, Watertown will be taking part in the Class C State Tournament for the first time since 2008.

While it’s been 12 years since the Red Devils have competed in a state tournament, there’s just one player left on the roster who was their the last time the Red Devils reached state. It’s manager Jared Duske.

“This tourney is not easy to get to, especially out of this region,” Duske said. “Me being the last player from that 2008 roster, I want my guys to know that we cannot take this for granted and to leave everything out on the field, because you really don’t know when you will be back.”

Watertown comes into the state tournament as the No. 2 seed from Region 7C. After collecting wins over the Green Isle Irish and Young America Cardinals, the Red Devils fell to the Cardinals in the Region 7C title game last Sunday.

Duske and the Red Devils don’t have a ton of state tournament experience on the roster with their long absence, so he knows how important it is for the guys to just enjoy the moment.

“I want the guys to stay loose and have fun,” Duske said. “(Just) play the game we have been playing all year. If we are down in a game, do not panic. If we are up, do not let up. Play the full game and see where you are at the end of it.”

While the Red Devils don’t come in with a ton of state tournament experience as a team, there is one player who does. Ace pitcher and leadoff hitter Pat Tschida has several years of state tournament experience under his belt. Tschida has been the big prize for teams who’ve won the Region 7C title previously as the no-brainer No. 1 draft pick. This year, Tschida will be relied on for more than his arm and bat. He’ll be asked to lead the younger guys who are experiencing this for the first time.

“I cannot express enough how much Pat means to this team,” Duske said. “Not only on the diamond, where everyone is aware of the damage he can do, but off the field. Pat is there for every person in that dugout. The team knows we are a Red Devil family, and Pat preaches that. We are all there for each other.  Winning is very important to Pat, but doing it with guys that you call family is even more important to him.”

Tschida has played a huge role on teams who’ve made deep runs in the state tournament from the Crow River Valley League before. This year, he’ll be looking to do the same thing once again, but with his own team.

“Pat is our spark plug,” Duske said. “He brings energy everywhere. The young guys feed off his energy and are attentive when he is speaking. We do not have much state experience, but we do have some. (Zach) Iten was in the final weekend last year with Cologne, (Jonah) Lewis was with Carver last year, and I have had a go in 2008 and a few different years with a few different teams.”

While the state tournament experience is minimal for Watertown, Duske believes the drive his team has right now makes up for the experience that some other teams might have.

“Having said that, I believe that experience is very good to have going into the tourney, but the drive to get back is the most important,” Duske said. “The taste of the state tourney never leaves you.  Once you have been there, you do whatever you can to get back. Pat having won a state title with Plato, I believe drives him to get his team to the tourney and win some games, so they can experience the feelings he has felt there.”

The Red Devils are a team that has fed on momentum all season long. After a 10-3 regular-season record, Watertown earned the No. 3 seed heading into the Region 7C Tournament. Although they ended the region tournament with a loss, the way they battled back late was big.

Watertown trailed 7-1 entering the bottom of the ninth inning against Young America in the Region 7C title game. After scoring five runs, the Red Devils found themselves with a chance to tie it, or even take the lead after trailing big. The fight Watertown showed late gave Duske a reason to be excited heading into the state tournament, even after a loss.

“It was huge,” Duske said about fighting back late. “The guys kept after it. They never gave up, even when it looked like the game was going sideways. That game may be a blessing in disguise, in all honesty. I think it reiterated that we are never out of a game. The whole year, we preached just keep playing the game, keep attacking at the plate, and have an approach. No matter if we are down six or up six, do not let the score dictate how you play the game. They hung on at the end, but that game told us that we can play with anyone. Young America is a very deep and talented team that is looking to make a deep run in the state tournament. We hope we can do the same.”

The Red Devils will take on the Red Wing Aces in the first round of the Class C State Tournament. The Aces are the No. 3 seed from Region 5. First pitch is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 22 at 8 p.m. in Milroy.

“We just have to play loose, and know that we are a good team,” Duske said. “Guys need to enjoy the tourney and take it all in.  Get that taste that I was talking about.  We have to show up ready to get after it right away and stay after it.  Heading into the last game of the tourney, I believe we were on a nine or 10-game winning streak in a very tough league schedule and even a tougher region.  We hope to carry that momentum into Milroy on Saturday night.”

STATE TOURNAMENT PREVIEW: Waconia Lakers excited, ready to be back at state tournament

WACONIA – In 2019, the Waconia Lakers were one of the most talked about teams in the state. They didn’t get to show what they could do in the postseason, as they were ruled ineligible due to a roster mistake.

Flash forward to 2020 and the Waconia Lakers are back with a vengeance. Back at the Class C State Tournament for the first time since 2018, the Lakers are ready to show what they can do on the state’s biggest stage.

“It was a very tough thing to go through last season and being able to get back at it was not something that our guys took lightly,” Waconia manager Mike Friedrich said. “We were very happy to play postseason baseball again, and we are thrilled to be headed to the state tournament.”

It’s the Lakers first state tournament appearance in two years, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any experience. Waconia’s roster is still loaded with veteran talent, as well as some younger players eager to make their mark. Pitching is where Waconia has most of their experience, and will rely on that with a younger lineup offensively.

“We are definitely experienced when you look at our pitching staff,” Friedrich said. “With (Kodey) Simon and (Chris) Bullis leading the way, and (Ryan) Naughton, Ben Smothers, Erik Olson and others relieving, we send a lot of baseball years to the mound.  But with the line-up we’ve been using much of this season, we don’t have many state tourney games under our belt,  with the exception being Ronnie Olson.  Besides Ronnie, we have four guys that played one game and four guys that don’t have a state start yet. That being said, we do have a great veteran presence and those guys help our younger players immensely on the field and in the dugout.”

Waconia comes into the state tournament after dominating the Crow River Valley League regular season. They finished the regular season with a 12-1 record, and finished in third place at the Region 7C Tournament with wins over Carver and Green Isle. The Lakers have three losses to CRVL teams this season with all three coming to Young America.

The level of competition Waconia has faced all season in the CRVL, as well as their non-league schedule, has them ready for what waits ahead at the state tournament.

“The Crow is loaded with great teams so we feel very fortunate to have gotten through the region,” Friedrich said. “In addition to the tough slate of CRVL games, we played non-league games against Champlin, Chaska, Delano, and Hutchinson, so we have seen a very high level of competition thus far this season.  Hopefully, that helps us at state.”

Waconia will open the 2020 Class C State Tournament Saturday Aug. 22 against Cannon Falls in Springfield at 5 p.m. While it’s been a while since the Lakers have played in a state tournament, they know how important each game is, regardless of who they are playing.

“With the format used in Class C, you absolutely cannot take any game lightly,” Friedrich said. “You have to survive game one and then you have another week to worry about game two. That’s the way we look at it. By the time you get to the state tourney, every team you see is on somewhat of a roll and feeling some confidence, which makes every team dangerous. We got knocked out in our first game in 2018, so we know what that feels like and hope to avoid that in this year’s tournament.”

STATE TOURNAMENT PREVIEW: Carver looking like the Black Sox of old heading into state tournament

CARVER – The Carver Black Sox will be the first one to tell you. The regular season was simply not the team they really are.

After posting a regular-season record of 5-8 in the Crow River Valley League, the Carver Black Sox find themselves back at the state tournament for a fourth-straight year.

The Black Sox qualified for the Region 7C Tournament as the No. 10 seed from the CRVL. They beat No. 7 Hamburg in two-straight games in a best of three series.

Carver continued to keep things rolling in the right direction as they qualified for state at the Region 7C Tournament. Wins over Cologne and Mayer kept the streak rolling for the gold and black as they reached the state tournament once again.

In 2017, the Black Sox snapped a 34-year drought of reaching the state tournament. Since then, Carver has become one of the top teams in the CRVL and a team that has gained attention from all over the state.

Carver has to be feeling food about themselves heading into the state tournament. All season long, they’ve shown how resilient they are. After a down regular season, they fought back to get to the region tournament. After losing a heartbreaker in 10 innings against Waconia in the first round of the Region 7C Tournament, the Black Sox bounced back with back-to-back wins to qualify for state.

Experience is a big key for the Black Sox, but they also have a ton of talent. CRVL batting title winner Jay Bresnahan has been a big addition. Bresnahan hit .462 in the regular season for the Black Sox. Players like Kyle Dalton, Andrew Weber, Dan Gastuch, and Connor Cornell have also been big for Carver the past two weeks, helping them get back to state.

Pitching also has been a key for the Black Sox as they’ve relied on their top guys. Andrew Weber is one of the top pitchers in the CRVL and only elevated his game as the games get bigger. Jacob Booden is one of the best weapons out of the bullpen a team could ask for. Booden is an intimating presence on the mound and has the stuff to back it up to lock down opposing teams.

Carver will open the Class C State Tournament Sunday, Aug. 23 in Springfield at 2 p.m. against the Clinton Cards. The Cards are making their first state tournament appearance since 2006.

PREP CROSS COUNTRY: Cross country looks a little different this year for Lester Prairie’s Paige Heimerl

LESTER PRAIRIE – Paige Heimerl was one of many senior athletes across the state eagerly waiting for a decision on fall sports this year. While her cross country season will look a little different this season, there’s no doubt she’s just happy to be able to compete.

“After spring sports getting canceled (last year), I felt bad for the graduating seniors and was anxiously awaiting the decision on fall sports for this year,” Heimerl said. “I also feel extremely lucky that we are able to compete this fall, with football and volleyball seasons being postponed until the spring.”

Heimerl has been a member of the cross country team since seventh grade, but this year will be like no other. She knew it would be different going into it, but after the first day of practice, the new normal will take some getting used to.

“The first practice of the season was different from one of any other year and I expected it to be that way,” Heimerl said. “During our team meeting, we talked about our guidelines such as carrying a mask at all times, and distancing ourselves. The first day was a go with the flow kind of day, getting used to the new normal. I never thought that I would ever be running with a mask around my arm, but if that’s what we need to do to keep our team and everyone else safe, I’m all for it.”

Another challenge Heimerl and the Bulldogs will face this year is when they run competitions. Meets are limited to just three teams, which is a big change for LP/HT runners compared to what they are used to.

“I think the biggest challenge for runners this year is getting used to the new normal,” Heimerl said. “Our team is used to bigger meets and more competition, so getting used to smaller meets is going to be a little challenging. I also think that being flexible might be a bit of a challenge because so many of us are used to a schedule that is set in stone. That doesn’t apply to this year. The schedule just goes day-by-day which can be frustrating.”

With everything going on the world, Heimerl is eager for the season to get into full swing. With guidelines set in place, she’s excited and feels safe to compete in her senior season.

“I am unbelievably excited for the upcoming season, especially with it being my senior season,” Heimerl said. “I feel safe competing this season knowing that guidelines are set to protect us and the people around us.”

Heimerl and the Bulldogs will start the 2020 season feeling good about themselves. LP/HT finished strong towards the end of last year and will be looking to carry that over into this unique season.

“My goal for our team this season is to pick up where we left off last year,” Heimerl said. “We were running well at the end of the season last year, and this year I’m confident that we can keep running well. Most importantly, I want us to stay healthy.”

Heimerl and the Bulldogs will run their first race Monday, Aug. 31 at Forest Hills Golf Club.

“While these are not the most ideal conditions, I am extremely thankful and excited for the opportunity to compete this fall,” Heimerl said. “I’m thankful for our coaches and for the positivity and flexibility they teach us every day.”