For many American sporting enthusiasts, Tuesday was a first opportunity to consider the Toronto Raptors as a functioning basketball team rather than an ongoing punchline. Well, that was the idea.
The party line is that Toronto doesn’t really care what anyone thinks of them. Not the players or the executives and most certainly not the people. We’re all totally over America.
Wait. What? Did America just say something about us or … no, no, never mind. We’re cool. We’re … just let us know if they did. Not that we’re keeping track or anything.
On that note, you will probably have heard by now about an out-of-date CBSSports.com NBA championship poll that seemed to list the Raptors as “Other.”
You will also have heard about the #WeTheOther hashtag sprung early Tuesday from Toronto’s thriving inferiority complex.
And doubtless you know all about Mayor John Tory’s tongue-in-cheek and not-at-all-thin-skinned response to said poll on official letterhead. In true Napoleonic style, it noted that Toronto is “North America’s 4th largest city” and that a Canadian invented basketball.
Or perhaps you haven’t heard any of this wherever you are? If so, can I come and stay with you for a few days? It sounds wonderful.
All in all, it was not an imperious debut for Toronto’s supporters on the NBA’s main stage. Following the same malfunctioning motivational GPS, the team trailed its fans into Lake Erie.
Toronto was comprehensively defeated in its first game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, 115-84. If that doesn’t sound close, it’s because it wasn’t.
After the Raptors delightful surprise in these playoffs (i.e. winning for a change), one comes to Cleveland expecting a similar feel. You forget that this town has felt on the edge of something huge, on-and-off, for a decade.
You want T-shirts? They got T-shirts. And towels. And (possibly mind-control-based) glowing wristbands. And six fire cannons. And explosions. Lots of them.
There is enough bang-bang in Cleveland’s pre-game to give you arena-specific PTSD.
The atmo – at least equal to Air Canada Centre’s remarkable noise output – seemed to put some jump into the often sleepy Raptors’ starts.
Toronto stormed out, taking brief advantage of the Cavaliers lack of synch after a nine-day layoff. Occasional team goat DeMar DeRozan hit his first five shots. At one early point, the Raptors were shooting 70 per cent – which is about as sustainable in NBA terms as a vineyard built on a salt flat. Torrid was not the word.
Yet they were still losing. Cleveland’s ball movement repeatedly caught them flat-footed on the defensive end. At one point, Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving cunningly eluded Kyle Lowry by bouncing the ball on the floor and walking past him. As an emergency measure, seldom-used hardman James Johnson was inserted. Johnson had been effective in cooling off Miami. Against the Cavaliers lineup, it was like shovelling ice cubes into a smelting furnace.
At the end of the first quarter, the Raptors had scored 28 points – one off their best start of this postseason – and were still losing by five.
Then Cleveland began to rain in threes.
Rather than LeBron James, that is the real threat of the Cavs offence. They entered the game shooting better from beyond the arc (46.2 per cent) than within it during this postseason. That should also be unsustainable. When it’s not, James is still circling just below the water’s edge.
A couple of quick threes to start the second quarter yanked all ballast away from the suddenly listing Raptors. Down 11, they called a timeout. As the second-unit trudged off the court, Lowry came off the bench to give them a series of ‘calmly, calmly’ hand gestures.
He’s been doing that regularly for the last month. It has never seemed less convincing. This was the time to begin panicking.
When James gathered a loose ball in the corner, turned DeMarre Carroll on his hip and slid unchallenged to the basket, you already knew it. The crowd knew it, too.
This wasn’t going to be a game of runs. There wasn’t going to come down to the final possession. With only 17 of 48 minutes played, it was already over.
The insult grew larger when Kevin Love tried to knock Patrick Patterson out with a flailing elbow in the second half. At moments, it seemed to be drifting into line-brawl territory. We may get there very soon.
While it’s fun to get pretend-outraged at the way the Raptors are ignored by the NBA proper and the United States generally, this is the real challenge now. To this point in the playoffs, Toronto has functionally played against itself.
The encounters with Indiana and Miami looked close only because the Raptors drifted in and out of focus. The real battle was internal. Could Lowry get his head straight? Would DeRozan get it together? Would someone step in if neither could? To varying degrees, all those things happened.
We’re off the therapist’s couch now. This is a straight fight, and an unfair one. The Cavaliers are a lot better than the Raptors. Position by position. And it shows.
Toronto didn’t play poorly on Tuesday. All in all, the Raptors played averagely. They could’ve folded completely, and didn’t.
But, evidently, their average is not even close to good enough to beat Cleveland.
Perhaps Toronto’s shrill reaction to a non-existent U.S. cabal arrayed against Raptor interests can ease off now. If this city wants to seem above it – whatever “it” is – then the simplest solution is to simply do that.
Given the way Tuesday went, do you really want to be the guy complaining that someone doesn’t think the Raptors can win a title? Right now, you’d get pretty good odds they won’t win another game.
As a man of letters once said about conspiracies of silence (especially ones with some merit), you’re best advised to join them.
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”
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