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Saturday Sports: NBA Playoffs Begin, Tokyo Olympics, MLB

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And breaking news today - been three days since baseball last had a no-hitter, the Summer Olympics still on, even as Tokyo is in a COVID-induced state of emergency, and the NBA playoffs start today, but the play-ins put out one of the marquee teams. Tom Goldman joins us. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Scott.

SIMON: Let's begin with the Olympics, my friend. Two months until the opening of the Summer Olympics; the IOC put out a statement saying that it's made headway with vaccinations. And it is in, I believe the phrase is, operational delivery mode.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: And I'm not sure what that means. But what do they mean?

GOLDMAN: It's what you and I are in constantly.

SIMON: Right, operational delivery mode, of course.

GOLDMAN: Well, this is IOC optimism. Yesterday's statement says it's become clearer than ever that the Tokyo Games will be safe for everyone participating and the Japanese people. And then the statement goes on to say why it's clearer than ever, including vaccination rates for those coming to Japan. The IOC expects more than 80% of people who will stay in the Olympic village - athletes, coaches, officials - will be vaccinated.

SIMON: But.

GOLDMAN: But (laughter) - but what they're not saying is that, you know, that it might be a mistake, which many in Japan believe. Polls show anywhere from 60% to 80% of citizens want the games canceled. You know, Scott, the IOC is not in the doubting business. It stands to lose a lot of TV money if the games are canceled, and critics will sneer when Olympic officials say they want to do it for the athletes. But research shows 74% of summer Olympians participate in just one Olympics. So canceling really will end a lot of dreams. Yesterday, a top IOC official said the games will go on even if Tokyo and other parts of the country are under a state of emergency, which they are right now. And only about 2% of the population is currently vaccinated.

SIMON: Boy. NBA playoffs have to begin with the play-ins and play-outs. Memphis Grizzlies defeated Steph courier - Steph Curry.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) The courier.

SIMON: And the Warriors. So the Warriors are out of the playoffs. I'm not sure I like this play-in stuff.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, well, but the NBA does. You know, the four-day play-in tournament gave an expanded pool of teams a chance to get into the playoffs. It provided pretty good ratings and money and excitement that the NBA wanted, including last night's do-or-die game where Memphis knocked out the Warriors in overtime. A lot of fans will miss Steph Curry's brilliance in the postseason, but maybe there is a consolation prize with a young, hungry Memphis team that has its own brilliant guard, 21-year-old Ja Morant. He was great last night.

SIMON: You got some shout-outs before we go, right?

GOLDMAN: Let's shout them out, Scott. Simone Biles, the gymnast extraordinaire, competes today for the first time in a year and a half, fresh off landing a hugely difficult vault jump in practice, the Yurchenko double pike. I know you've been practicing that.

SIMON: I've - yeah. I've almost got it down, yeah.

GOLDMAN: OK. Well, it's never been done in competition. She apparently wants to try it before the implementation.

SIMON: Well, I'd try it in competition. Yeah. OK.

GOLDMAN: Right. Maybe she'll try it this weekend. Scott, baseball phenom Shohei Ohtani of the LA Angels, he is the Babe Ruth of our era without the potbelly. He pitches. He can throw over 100 miles an hour. He's tied for the league lead in home runs at the same time with 14. He's been amazing. And one last shout-out - golfer Phil Mickelson, 50 years old, going into today's third round of the PGA Championship - he's the co-leader - trying to become the oldest player to win a major tournament.

SIMON: I relate to all three of them. Tom Goldman, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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