Only Halfway There

May 15

Lebron James and Sharks fans had something in common last week, and on Sunday. Bear with me here.

Lebron and the Miami Heat had an emotional outburst after eliminating the Celtics. The Celtics have made the NBA finals so often that maybe Lebron actually thought he won the Lawrence F. O’Brien Trophy.

Sharks fans honked their horns as they drove into the night following a nail-biting, compelling 3-2 win to eliminate the Red Wings. You couldn’t blame them as much as Lebron: it was a wonderful game, but the Stanley Cup is still just a dot on the radar screen.

After all that celebrating, both Lebron and the Sharks are only halfway to a title. On Sunday, both received a harsh reality check.

Lebron and the Heat were blown out by a hustling, athletic Bulls team in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern finals. In Vancouver, the Canucks used a combination of speed and physical play to wear down the Sharks, rallying in the third period for a 3-2 win in Game 1 of the NHL Western Conference finals. The Sharks were also probably fatigued after a grueling seven-game series with the Wings.

The competition gets a bit tougher now for both the Heat and Sharks. The Canucks out-hit, out-shot, and outscored San Jose. The Bulls were far more active and athletic than the Heat.

The Bulls swept the Heat during the regular season and re-established their dominance Sunday. The Canucks won three out of four from the Sharks in the regular season ( two games settled by shootout ), and that trend continued at the Rogers Center.

None of this is stunning news. Both the Bulls and Canucks were top seeds and were playing at home. You knew both would be inspired, and both had plenty of energy to rally from small deficits late in their games.

The Heat haven’t won anything yet, ( dry ice notwithstanding ) and the Sharks have never made the Stanley Cup finals. There’s still a lot of work left.

The good news for the Sharks is that there is no reason to panic. They have won in Vancouver this year and they had a 2-1 third period lead Sunday. They’d be happy to go back to San Jose with a split.

The bad news for the Sharks is their play on the blue line. It’s been a weakness all year, and it was exposed Sunday as Vancouver skated around and over them. Once again, only goalie Antti Niemi’s stellar play kept them in the game, a familiar theme of late.

Even when the score was 2-1 I felt Vancouver was outplaying the Sharks, and I “tweeted” as much. By the third period the Sharks were gassed.

Undoubtedly the Sharks will need to ride Niemi if they’re going to reach the Stanley Cup finals, and riding a hot goalie in the NHL playoffs is a time-honored tradition. That might be the only ticket for the Sharks, who have mediocre defensemen outside of Dan Boyle, although they’ve been getting better support from forwards like Joe Thornton.

Chicago fans are taunting the Heat as “over-rated,” but the fact is the Bulls pursued Lebron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh over the summer, trying to land any two of them. Instead, they signed Carlos Boozer, got some role-players, and Derrick Rose raised his game to an MVP level.

The Heat needn’t panic, either: they’re certainly capable of winning in Chicago, but they have to find a way to stop Rose and match the Bulls’ energy. They also have to match the Bulls’ bench. Good luck with that.

On Sunday, on the hardwood and the ice, it was easy to see which team was superior. Both the Heat and Sharks will need to take their game up a notch or last week’s celebrations will be just a footnote.

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