I’ve used this space to try and quiet any meaning to NBA regular-season games. It’s been especially acute this season, when teams have rarely been at full-strength, and they seem more intent on just being intact for the playoffs, which they know are what counts and are more likely to have at least some fans. Big games have been billed, but either the Lakers were all hurt, the Bucks don’t show up on the West Coast, the Sixers are trying too hard in games that don’t really matter, or the Celtics are falling apart faster than any car Sylvester the Cat ends up driving. And on it goes.
Thankfully, the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns gave us the flipside of the coin last night. They had the two best records in the league coming in, and there was something on it, in that the Suns needed a win to keep the top seed in the West in play.
And we got one of those late-night, West Coast barnburners that feel like a reward for ignoring your bedtime and gives you a small sense of superiority over those who adhere to adult schedules. Maybe it’s because these are nouveau riche teams. They haven’t been around the penthouse that long, so they don’t pace themselves as much. Either way, these two traded haymakers for pretty much the entire second half, with the stars on each side balling out (Donovan Mitchell with 40, Devin Booker with 35). It had drama, as Mitchell hit a three with 10 seconds left to tie the game, and then stuck Booker just well enough to keep him from winning the game in regulation.
The Suns pulled away in OT, outlasting the Jazz for a 117-113 win. Yeah, it’s just a regular-season game that will fade into the morass as soon as the playoffs begin. But there’s nothing like two very good teams late in the regular season, who still feel like they have something to prove, that keep bringing you off your couch with just about every possession as the game crescendos. It might be the only one we get, but at least we got one.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to bet it all on Jack Campbell. Don’t worry if you don’t know who he is. We’ll get to that.
The Leafs beat the Canadiens 3-2, and Campbell was in net for his 10th win. The Leafs haven’t lost when he’s started in goal. He’s 10-0-0 on the year. And as you might imagine, if you’re even tangentially aware of how Toronto works, Leafs fans have held up Campbell as basically the cure for COVID.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Isn’t this a guy that they’re going to sell as a miracle story when really they’re subconsciously building themselves up only so they can experience the pain of a big crash?” Well...probably? Campbell only has two years experience in the NHL as a backup in Los Angeles and then an emergency backup in Toronto last year. Over six years in the league he has 65 starts. And, to be fair, a .920 save-percentage and a 2.44 goals-against. But it’s 65 starts. Barely a season’s worth.
The thing with the Leafs is that they’ve figured out that Frederik Andersen, their normal starter who is out injured, is just good enough to break their heart. He’s let them down in the three previous postseasons. He spit it in two consecutive Game 7s against the Bruins, and then wasn’t anywhere last year in the play-in series against Columbus. Any fan who watched him in Anaheim could have told Leafs Nation this, but Leafs Nation is always convinced that the new guy will be sprinkled with pixie dust simply by arriving in Southern Ontario by their wishes.
So it’s good they’ve gotten as far as moving on from Anderson. And there was a time when Campbell was thought of as a future star. He backstopped on Team USA in the World Juniors. The Dallas Stars took him 11th overall in 2010, which rarely happens with goalies these days.
But he’s been moved along by two teams that were looking for a succession plan in net at the time. He’s a guy on a heater. The Leafs should come out of the North Division playoffs at a canter with any stray dog in net. But when they face up to someone like Colorado or Vegas or Tampa or Carolina come the third round, it would be a bad time to discover there’s a journeyman in the blue paint.
Finally, let’s enjoy Gio Urshela getting thrown out at home by about 15 feet by Anthony Santander to end last night’s game:
You gotta hand it to Urshela for pulling the “Oh yeah, I’m hurt” to save his embarrassment. Maybe he strained that walrus on his back.
Update: An early version of this column misidentified Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander and Trey Mancini.