The safest bets in professional sports, eh? Immediately, you could think of dozens… so there need to be some ground rules here.
This list pertains to positive achievements, not failures. Therefore, “the Cleveland Browns not making the Super Bowl” or “the Chicago Cubs not making the World Series” are off the list.
The list focuses on postseasons or (in solo-athlete sports) major tournaments. Regular-season achievements — such as anything Peyton Manning might do in an NFL regular season, or anything the Pittsburgh Penguins might do in the NHL regular season — are not up for discussion.
The list is generally meant to be a current list, not a historical one. Therefore, “The New York Yankees winning the World Series from 1996 through 2000” or “the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers playing for the NFC championship in the early 1990s” are not allowable answers, either.
The achievement must be team-focused if a solo-athlete sport is not being referred to. In other words, betting that “Miguel Cabrera will drive in 100 runs” is not what’s being aimed for. A rich and central component of sports — namely, their capacity to surprise us — comes from a team’s ability to continuously register the same impressive achievements despite the strain of multiple seasons and the uncertainties created by moving parts on its roster. The intent to give expression to that sense of wonder is what inspired this list… as did Sunday, June 8, for reasons you’ll quickly discover.
On with the list:
5 – THE NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL BEING DECIDED BY CENTRAL TIME ZONE TEAMS
The last NBA Western Conference Finals series to have a team outside the Central Time zone was the 2010 edition, with the Los Angeles Lakers defeating the Phoenix Suns. Since then, it’s been all Central: Oklahoma City-Dallas in 2011; OKC-San Antonio in 2012; Memphis-San Antonio last year; and OKC-San Antonio this year. The states of Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee only wish their college football programs were this consistent. The past four years of NBA history have concluded with the Miami Heat playing a team from either Texas (3) or Oklahoma (1).
4 – THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS WINNING AT LEAST ONE PLAYOFF ROUND WHEN THEY MAKE THE PLAYOFFS
The Cardinals were swept away by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009, but that’s the only time they’ve failed to escape their initial playoff round since 2002. Every professional sport has a zombie team. The Los Angeles Kings beat the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s ultimate zombie series a week ago to win that distinction, but hockey’s puck luck makes it a bit harder to say that the Kings are a safe bet on a relentlessly annual basis. (The Kings or Blackhawks winning at least one playoff series per season since 2010? That’s a fairly safe bet. The Cardinals, though, seem slightly safer.)
3 – THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS REACHING THE DIVISIONAL ROUND OF THE NFL PLAYOFFS (IF NOT THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME)
The New England Patriots, in a larger historical context, are a rich man’s version of the 1970s Dallas Cowboys. Bill Belichick’s Patriots relentlessly go deep into the playoffs. They’ve stacked up eight AFC title game appearances and five Super Bowls. In the 1970’s, the Tom Landry Cowboys made five Super Bowls and seven NFC title games. The Patriots, though, have won three Super Bowls under Belichick. The Cowboys won only two Lombardi Trophies under Landry. The postseason consistency of the Cowboys from 1966-1983 remains one of the most astounding feats in NFL history. The Patriots have already surpassed the Cowboys on a few levels, and if they can make a few more postseason runs before Tom Brady leaves the stage, they’ll remove any lingering doubt about their (elevated) place in NFL history, especially in comparison with the Landry-era Cowboys.
2 – THE LEBRON-ERA MIAMI HEAT WINNING GAME 2 OF A PLAYOFF SERIES WHEN DOWN 1-0
This is where our list relates specifically to events from yesterday. The LeBron James-era Miami Heat — whose only postseason series loss came when they blew 1-0 and 2-1 leads (not to mention fourth-quarter scoreboard leads in Games 2 and 4) — have forged a remarkable track record for bouncing back in Game 2 after losing Game 1. The Heat went through the 2013 playoffs without losing back-to-back postseason games, and they still haven’t done so in 2014 after Sunday night’s win over the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. Yet, as amazing as it is that the Heat haven’t lost back-to-back playoff games since the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics (Games 3 through 5), their record in Game 2s when down 1-0 is unblemished, and therefore stands as the safer bet as far as this team is concerned.
LeBron always goes to the well and finds water, hydrating not just himself, but his team’s parched insides. The Heat thirst for victory with a blue-collar fierceness which richly complements their white-collar identity. No statistical fact affirms this inner reality of the Heat more than the team’s Game 2 record when trailing 1-0 in a playoff series.
1 – RAFAEL NADAL WINNING THE FRENCH OPEN
Every year, it seems, the Novak Djokovic bandwagon gets more passengers in advance of the French Open. Clay-court seasons become more uncertain in the eyes of tennis pundits. Just look at what ESPN’s panel of 12 experts predicted for this year’s French Open tennis tournament.
Yet, you know how the story ended yesterday in Paris.
Rafael Nadal Parera is 66-1 at Roland Garros. Since 2005, he has owned a prestigious sporting event as fully as any athlete possibly can. He won four straight Roland Garros titles from 2005 through 2008, and after that hiccup against Robin Soderling in 2009, he’s now won five in a row. He’s likely to get 10 French Opens before he’s done, a truly unfathomable achievement in a supremely competitive era of men’s tennis.
It was reasonable to think, in 2007 and 2008, that Nadal was going to win seven or eight French Opens. He was that good even then, especially after he crushed Roger Federer in the 2008 final, one of the most dominant single-match performances in the history of tennis. Yet, TEN? DOUBLE-DIGITS? AT ONE MAJOR TOURNAMENT?
It’s hard to fully grasp. This is, verily, the safest bet in professional sports. The 2013 semifinal against Djokovic (9-7 in the fifth set) was really close, but there’s a level of trust in Nadal at Roland Garros which exceeds even the Heat in Game 2s when they trail, 1-0. The LeBron Heat have, after all, demonstrated their brilliance over the course of four seasons.
Nadal in Paris every spring? This has been going on for more than twice that period of time.