This has been a hellacious year, but we’ve still managed to eek out some memorable sports moments, be they enbubbled or no. For sports I don’t personally follow, I invited some friends to help me out. Here’s a look back at some of the sporting highlights of 2020. Enjoy!
-by Simon De Veer
Even though I’m a huge LeBron James fan on and off the court and to any observer with even a shred of objectivity, (I am definitely looking at you Jordan stans), he has solidified his case as the greatest of all-time winning his third finals MVP on his third different franchise–the greatest moment of the 2020 NBA season belongs to Jimmy Butler. That’s right I said it. Jimmy Buckets game 5 performance in the NBA Finals was one for the ages. Here is why.
If we think back over the course of LeBron’s career, it’s usually him carrying a team far beyond expectations and predicted departure from postseason play. This season, when play resumed in the bubble, the Miami Heat were a completely different team than the one we saw during the regular season. All of a sudden the ball was zipping around: crisp, on-target passes to wide-open shooters. On the defensive end, guys were flying all over the place and switching with precision. They demolished the Eastern Conference competition en route to the Finals, surprising just about everyone.
The situation immediately changed in the NBA Finals. Not only were the Heat arguably overmatched by their opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers, but their leading scorer and offensive facilitator, Goran Dragic, went down in game 1 with an injury. Things were looking grim.
All this is just to remind everyone, it was all on Jimmy Butler’s shoulders in game 5.
Down 3-1 in the series, it looked like everything was going the Lakers’ way, and Game 5 was set to be a coronation game. The Lakers were even wearing the Black Mamba jerseys. They were undefeated in those (the sideline team made a point of reminding us, perhaps foreshadowing what was to come).
What we saw in game 5 was one of the all-time great duels. Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ young star and heir apparent, had an off night.
LeBron didn’t. Dropping 40 points grabbing 7 boards and dishing 13 assists it looked like the Lakers couldn’t lose in black. But no one told Jimmy Butler it was over. He matched LeBron all night but especially in the 4th quarter when they each punished the opposing defense. I’ve been watching basketball since the 1980s, and can’t remember a better individual duel in a Finals game.
LeBron has always played big against stacked teams in the Finals, (the Spurs and Warriors fully loaded come to mind), yet no one player had ever risen to this level and countered him move for move like Jimmy Butler did. Big play after big play on both ends. No one in the gym or in the world for that matter didn’t know what was coming each trip down and yet neither side could stop it. You knew whoever had the ball last was going to come through.
Driving to the basket late in the 4th with the game on the line Jimmy Butler was fouled and sent to the line and he stopped to catch his breath, leaning down to rest his arms on the stanchion. A courtside camera caught this image which to me encapsulates everything it takes to compete in the NBA and become a champion. While the Heat would go down in Game 6, Jimmy Butler laying it all on the line in Game 5 will be the most memorable moment of the 2020 NBA season. His 35 points 12 rebounds and 11 assists while they look good on paper don’t tell the tale. The picture does. No one ever forgets first place but this is one of those classic performances that deserves to be remembered.
Ultimately, Butler couldn’t maintain the Herculean effort after Game 5.
In Game 6 the Heat went down and the Lakers were crowned champion. It was a bittersweet and fitting end to an NBA season unlike any other. I remember that it was October 10th: National Father-Daughter Day, the memory of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who tragically passed in a helicopter accident in January, was on the minds of the NBA family and Laker faithful alike. Coincidence or providence? Few would argue that it was a fitting end to the most difficult season in NBA history. As a father of a daughter myself, I couldn’t help but revel in the poetic justice of its final act. In no small way this final moment, which will remain the most indelible moment of the season for years to come, was only made possible by a game for the ages by Jimmy Butler. Who knows? Maybe Kobe was with Jimmy in Game 5 making sure we’d get a final tribute and goodbye fitting the Laker legend.
So many players bowed out of huge tournaments this year due to Covid that it was tough to get really invested in tennis, but one match really blew my mind. Tennis has become, for better or worse, a sport of giants. Tall players have a longer wingspan, can throw the ball higher and thus get a better look at the service box than shorter players. It’s a huge advantage.
But this year, we did see a proverbial David knock out a comparative Goliath when 5’7″ Diego Schwartzman defeated 6’1″ Rafael Nadal in Rome. Schwartzman was 0-9 vs Nadal entering this match.
Nadal was able to get his revenge at Roland Garros later in 2020.
Still, Diego Schwartzman is so damn impressive. People will point to this seminal match vs 6’8″ Kevin Anderson in 2018 — and it was unreal, coming down to a fifth set tiebreak — but the most memorable thing about the match for me was a bizarre little between-set chat between Schwartzman and the umpire, who was an attractive woman. There seemed to be an actual spark between them. Ha! You just don’t see that in tennis matches. Skip to the 3:57 mark below to see it. She actually bites her lip.
I didn’t watch a ton of hockey this year outside of the playoffs but boy did I enjoy those. I had some friends tell me it didn’t feel the same to them without the fans and somehow felt like exhibition games or something, but that wasn’t my experience. I had high hopes for my President’s Cup winning Bruins, but I was consistently amazed at the quality of play and the speed around the league. Just crazy young legs everywhere. Perhaps more devoted hockey fans than me had a read on who would ultimately win the Cup, but I kept seeing teams that looked too good to beat in one series get demolished in the next round. Teams like the Avs and the Golden Knights and the Isles all looked unstoppable at one point or another, but ultimately it was a dominant Lightning team that came away with Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Also not a whole lot to say about a final that was just one irresistible force named Breanna Stewart propelling the Seattle Storm to their second WNBA championship in the last three years. The Storm swept the Las Vegas Aces in the final due in large part to Stewart averaging 19 points and 8 rebounds per game.
-by Dan Hamamura
There were a number of amazing moments in LA’s road to their first World Series since 1988 – Seager mashing the ball all over the place, Mookie’s defensive gems and baserunning brilliance, Will Smith homering off Will Smith, but the play that should be remembered the most was when Clayton Kershaw made one final, legacy-solidifying play by catching Manuel Margot at home plate.
In the course of the series and the season, the play itself already seems a little buried – Game 5 wasn’t the clinching game, and there were so many other plays and decisions (such as Snell being lifted in Game 6 and promptly allowing the Dodgers to immediately take the lead), but between the momentum and the iconic player involved, this play deserves to be celebrated by Dodgers fans on the same level as the Gibson home run.
For those of you who need a brief primer: Clayton Kershaw is a brilliant, once-in-a-generation pitcher. A future first ballot hall of famer. But in the playoffs, due to a combination of the increased difficulty and pressure, bad luck with inherited runners and the bullpen, and often being asked to pitch on short rest or in abnormal situations, he is statistically much worse, and the failure of the Dodgers to win a World Series (2017* notwithstanding, in retrospect) has, fairly or unfairly, been placed on his shoulders. Let’s get back to this one.
So after a brilliant pitching performance in Game 1 of the 2020 World Series, Kershaw was struggling in Game 5. His slider didn’t have the same bite or command, and the Rays weren’t chasing nearly as many pitches as they were earlier in the series. Still, in the 4th inning, the Dodgers were clinging to a 3-2 lead. With nobody out, Kershaw walked Manuel Margot, who promptly stole second base and took third on an error. A collective pit formed in the stomachs of Dodgers fans everywhere. Here we go again.
After another walk (to Hunter Renfrow), Kershaw began to right the ship. He somehow got Joey Rendle to pop out to the infield, and struck out Willy Adames. Miraculously, first and third with no outs was suddenly first and third with two outs. Kershaw was on the verge of wiggling his way out of the jam.
For Dodgers fans everywhere, that stomach pit twisted itself into a knot more painful than this mixed metaphor, because this is what Kershaw does in the playoffs. He struggles, he gives you hope… and then the bottom drops out.
That brings us up to the play. Two on, two out. Kevin Kiermaier at the plate. First pitch fouled away. No balls, one strike.
There’s something else that needs to be pointed out here, which is that Clayton Kershaw, like all pitchers, has his own weird quirks. One of Kershaw’s is that when he pitches with runners on base, he brings his hands high up over his head, like he’s stretching, and holds them there for what is probably a second but feels like an eternity. Every single time. I don’t know if it’s to calm himself or if he’s offering the baseball up to the heavens like the ball is Simba in The Lion King, but that’s what he does.
This is important because everybody knows that he does this. Including Manuel Margot, who, having played for the San Diego Padres for years, has seen and timed this move in his head countless times. Manuel Margot, who is now at third base. Eager to make a play and change the momentum of the game and possibly the series.
This is what Kershaw does. He gives you hope.
Margot breaks for home, which you cannot see on television, because he’s off-screen. Before the viewer can understand what’s happening, Kershaw inexplicably steps off the rubber and throws home to his catcher, Austin Barnes, who has suddenly jumped out of his crouch. The ball sails toward home, high and inside on Kiermaier, who steps out… and only then does the picture begin to form, as Barnes catches the ball and lunges toward the third base line, dropping the glove down and tagging Margot as he dives for home.
Barnes’ glove catches Margot inches away from the plate. Three outs. No runs scored. Dodgers still lead, 3-2.
This time, things worked out. This time, the bottom didn’t drop out for Kershaw and the Dodgers. Kershaw would retire the final five batters he’d face after this and walk away with his second win of the series, en route to the Dodgers’ eventual championship.
The play was amazing. The involvement of Kershaw makes it legendary. But the other little details help make it the play of 2020.
Because of *waving around* all this, only about 10,000 fans were allowed in the stadium, and the game was played in Arlington, instead of the two teams’ normal fields in Los Angeles and Tampa Bay. On the play, first baseman Max Muncy yelled at Kershaw to alert him to Margot’s attempt – remember, Kershaw is left-handed, which means that he can’t see Margot behind him, and he’s in the middle of his baseball-as-Simba timing mechanism. So the responsibility has always been on the first baseman to help him out. Would Kershaw have heard him if there were 50,000 screaming fans in a normal year? Kershaw himself has said he isn’t sure. They got Margot by inches. Even a split-second delay, or a slightly more rushed, off-line throw, means Margot would have been safe, the game tied, the inning continuing, Dodgers fans everywhere deflating. It’s possible that on top of everything, on top of the alertness of Muncy and the ability of Kershaw to react and the quick tag by Barnes, this play only succeeds because there aren’t enough fans in the stadium to drown out Muncy’s yell.
Anyway, this has gone on way too long, and you should just watch Jomboy’s excellent breakdown of what happened, but play of the year.
The highlight for NFL football in the 2020 calendar year has to be the Super Bowl waaaaaaay back in February where the Kansas City Chiefs came from behind to defeat those San Francisco Forty-Niners. The most striking thing about the Chiefs is Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, but as a fan you just have to appreciate when two perfect pieces come together. Where would Patrick Mahomes be — and who would Patrick Mahomes be — if he ended up being drafted by someone like run-first Doug Marrone or some similar old school dud? Instead he takes snaps on a team helmed by one of the most pass-happy and offensively creative minds ever to coach in the league. Andy Reid is a wizard with everything except clock management, and it’s a blast to watch the Chiefs play. The all-around speed on that team is borderline ridiculous. Most defenses are good enough to either commit to stopping the run or the pass and not both.
The Chiefs are so good that even if you drop everyone and sell out, you still can’t stop the pass.
All that remains to be seen is whether or not the Chiefs can do it again. To my eye they seem a good tier above everyone else in the league.
Not a whole lot to report here. The NWSL in America played a super fun Covid Cup tournament earlier in the year where they shocked the world by going from perennial doormat to tournament champion. My favorite goal was a flying-through-the-air hanging header by Shea Groom. You just rarely get a header timed like that, where you can float at it and drive.
Take a look. A beautiful chip from Lioness Rachel Daly and Shea skies and brings it home. Too easy. So pretty.
But if I’m being honest, my favorite part of that tournament was the celebration where USWNT player and resident crazy person Kristie Mewis danced with like 100 empty beers.
It was a hell of a season for Liverpool in the EPL but the team that really stuck out for me was Bayern Munich in the Champions League. I get some of the same vibes from Bayern as I did at the height of the New England Patriots dynasty. Teams don’t have an answer for them.
I mean, look at this road to victory.
It has to go through Chelsea, Barcelona, Olympic Lyonnaise and then PSG! That should be a murderer’s row of opponents, and yet…
Bayern 4-1 over Chelsea.
Bayern 8-2 over Barcelona. That’s right. EIGHT.
Bayern 3-0 over Lyon, which I think was their toughest match.
Bayern 1-0 over PSG but it wasn’t that close.
And they only conceded five goals in the whole tournament. Just dominant.
The Ballon D’Or ceremony was cancelled this year, but most people believe it should have gone to Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski, who was en fuego the whole season.
But probably my favorite moment in sports this year came out of the blue. With their squad decimated by Covid, Vandy called on the help of Senior soccer player Sarah Fuller to kick for them. In doing so, she became the first woman to play (and later to score when she nailed two extra points) in a Power 5 conference. Her uniform has already been sent to the College Football Hall of Fame. Pretty awesome.
Want more from Plex?