The Florida Panthers had a simple request to the NHL for their schedule in the Eastern Conference’s second-round series against their new best enemies, the Tampa Bay Lightning: “Just keep us away from Heat-Celtics so that we’re not butting up against them every night and South Floridians might watch us for once.”
And so it came to pass just as you knew it would: Panthers-Lightning will be on the same nights as Heat-Celtics for every night save this coming Sunday, when they avoid the basketball entirely but have to play at 1:30 in the afternoon. The only break they get in other games is that they start 90 minutes before Heat tip-off, so they’ll have to grab what eyeballs they can while they can.
This is not to feel sorry for the Panthers. They may be a total hoot to watch and all, but they’re the Panthers. They will cope with indignities like this until the moment that … well, no. They will cope with it until the state erodes into the sea and ruins high tide from Havana to Halifax.
The reason why the Panthers got tied to the Heat despite their most earned beggings was simple. ESPN had first pick of which NHL series they wanted to work around their NBA schedule (as designated purveyors of the Eastern Conference Final, they have the rights to Heat-Celtics), and they also wanted the assumed ratings benefits of the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes. (Well, OK, of the New York Rangers. Trust us, ESPN gives essentially zero beads of sweat over the demonstrably more delightful ‘Canes.) So TNT ended up with Panthers-Lightning, which was scheduled to avoid conflict with TNT’s Warriors-Mavs broadcasts, with no thought paid to the Miami-on-Miami crime.
Thus, beneath the shadows of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Jayson Tatum and the cartoon leprechaun, the Panthers and Bolts carry on in semi-anonymity their half of one of Gary Bettman’s deepest fantasies—the victory of his Southern Strategy. His much criticized Confederate expansion plan has finally reached its apex, lacking only Nashville, which were eradicated in heartbeat time by Colorado, which is the best team of them all regardless of latitude. Indeed, the only way to slap that smug smile from Bettman’s yap is to remind him of the enduring shame of Arizona, which is such a monumental and irredeemable disaster that the only place that franchise might achieve its true destiny is not in the Valley of the Sun but on its surface.
But back to Cats-Ning (and yes, we know Lightning fans hate ‘Ning as an abbreviate, but I keep typing it “Lighting” by accident and getting torqued every time). The ‘Thers will have to make their dent on the consciousness of Greater Miami in those 90-minute windows, unless Erik Spoelstra is right and their series with Boston will indeed be “a throwback” ordered up by his boss, Pat Riley.
“Pat’s probably going to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said Monday. “This is like a throwback series. If both teams are really on top of their games, this should be a series where neither team is scoring 130 points. Both teams hang their hats on rock-solid team defense, and making multiple efforts and being disciplined to schemes. So it will be a lot of plays and things in the margins. That’s what you expect.”
He makes it sound so appealing, like oatmeal laced with cat litter. He might as well say, “If we both have our way, every game will look like this, and Pat will give me an extension for doing him such a nostalgic solid. He loves this crap.”
The problem, of course, is that few other people in the new basketball demographic do, so Heat-Celtics could be a pretty painful visual slog. It will still get far better ratings than the more open play of Panthers-Lightning, but it allows the hockey a bit wider window for the more open-minded sports fan on aesthetic grounds.
Not that there are many of those folks. Most people will pick one and only one, so the Panthers will have to make their bones either in the first period, or in any overtimes past the second. There is always something about players playing past midnight that still thrills the senses and sensibilities.
Plus, by then the basketball game will be over. Heat 73, Celtics 68 in a rout. Or Celtics 77, Heat 74 in a 2OT thriller.