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Where did the stars go?
And can they step up now?
The Panthers and Heat faced similar problems while losing in dissimilar situations over the weekend. Their biggest stars disappeared. Now it’s a busy, two-television-set Monday as the Panthers (8 p.m) and Heat (7:30 p.m.) need wins for different reasons.
The stars on the other side have played like stars. Tampa Bay is full of big-series players from goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to forwards Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn. The Milwaukee Bucks, too, saw a different Giannis Antetokounmpo from the start of these playoffs.
In direct contrast to their Game 1 meeting last season, Giannis wanted to guard Jimmy Butler and was a prime reason the Heat start stumbled to four-of-22 shooting.
“I like the challenge,” Giannis said.
Last year, Butler scored 40 points in Game 1 — 15 in the fourth quarter — and the Milwaukee star never asked to switch onto Butler.
“To guard him?” Giannis said then. “No, I didn’t. Why would you ask that? I’ll do whatever coach wants me to do.”
Different year. Different Giannis. And the Heat, like the Panthers, need to respond Monday.
2. So what has to happen? First, the Panthers. If they haven’t given up again on their $72 million investment in goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for the second time in four games, they’re walked closer to that line. Rookie Spencer Knight warmed up as the starter in the win-or-go-home Game 5 on Monday night. This isn’t a message being sent — and this isn’t the message-sending time of year.
This is about Knight being considered the best chance for a Panthers win. Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger haven’t been the solution thus far in this series. The question: Is Knight? At 20, he’d be the youngest player to start a playoff game since 1995. He was 4-0 since called up late in the year, but hasn’t played in three weeks.
Tampa Bay’s top talents have been characteristically great this series while the Panthers defense has been suspect without the injured Aaron Ekblad. It’s not just the goalie. It might not even start with the goalie.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. Are the Panthers this desperate? To start a rookie who has played just four NHL games and hasn’t played in three weeks? To lay out they have no faith in Bobrovsky with him having five years left on his big contract?
The decision goes beyond Game 5.
3. Now the Heat: Butler and Bam Adebayo struggled in Game 1 against Milwaukee. It’s one game, just one, and they’ve done enough that there’s no panic button to hit as I wrote in my column after the game. But Monday in Game 2 tells of their need to do more. A lot more.
Butler, covered by Giannis Antetokounmpo, shot four-of-22. Adebayo, who countered the sagging defense of 7-foot Brook Lopez, shot four of 15. The Heat lost by a point.
Butler vs. Giannis is each team’s best against the other and that’s statement enough both ways. But this is an especially notable game for Adebayo vs. Lopez. The issue is two-fold. First, Adebayo is now averaging 12 points and shooting 40.9 percent in the four games against Milwaukee this year. Second, by playing off Adebayo, Lopez is clogging the lanes the Heat especially likes to cut through in their offense.
4. The Panthers’ other stars? Jonathan Huberdeau is doing everything possible with eight points (two goals, six assists) in four games. Alexsander Barkov? The best guess is we’re going to find out after the series that he hurt his hand, arm, shoulder — something went wrong two shifts into the second game of the series when he went off the ice for the rest of that period. He hasn’t been the player he usually is — or the one in Game 1.
5. That’s just what Tampa Bay needs. Another title. Bucs won the Super Bowl. The Lightning already won the Cup last year. The Rays made the World Series.