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LeBron James to be True Test of Warriors’ Golden State



What is the point, really, of historical comparison? How do you measure a basketball mutation, which is what the Golden State Warriors have become, with their long-distance dialling that makes relating them to storied NBA teams of yore like distinguishing between a smartphone and a land line?

You watched Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson dishearten and finally defeat a resolute Oklahoma City team on Monday night in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. You watched them make 3-point shots over the outstretched arms of men much taller, and you found yourself saying the unbelievable, ridiculous, stupefied words you mouth when you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing.

It is practically a reinvented game these so-called Splash Brothers are playing, having drastically extended the standard scoring range, the acceptable area from which to consistently unload and succeed.

After the Warriors had finally moved on to an NBA finals rematch with LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers with a 96-88 victory over the Thunder on Monday night, someone asked the hard-to-impress Russell Westbrook what Curry showed him late in the series that had been missing earlier.

Westbrook said, impassively: “Our bigs on the switches came out and he made some tough shots over the top of them.”

He should have added that there was nothing negligent, or lazy, about the Thunder’s defensive resolve in Game 7. The high screens forced Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka onto the perimeter time and again onto Curry or Thompson.

Adams is a seven-footer, weighing 255 pounds; Ibaka is listed at 6-10, 245. Big men are typically at a disadvantage in isolation against smaller, more creative players, but Adams and Ibaka are earnest, athletic defenders who contested and occasionally deflected a Curry or Thompson launch earlier in the series.

Is it easy shooting over an aggressive, skyscraping wingspan, pump-faking, sidestepping, creating just enough space to release with dead-on accuracy from that far away? Try it sometime. See how it goes.

Curry hit seven three-pointers in Game 7. Thompson – coming off a single-game playoff record of 11 threes in the crucial Game 6 in Oklahoma City – nailed six more. In the fourth quarter, they were daggers to the heart of a team more than holding its own from inside the three-point line.

Curry and Thompson each surpassed the previous individual high of 28 3-pointers (held by Ray Allen and Dennis Scott) made in a single N.B.A. playoff series, Curry with 32, Thompson with 30.

Amid it all, Bill Simmons posted on Twitter that, 30 years ago, in the 1986 finals, Boston and Houston combined to make 17 three-point shots in an entire six-game series won by the Celtics.

Those familiar with Simmons, late of ESPN and now with HBO, will know that he is an unapologetic Celtics fan. And that Boston team, anchored by Larry Bird, won 67 games in 1985-86, losing once at home, and certainly staked its claim as one of the greatest in NBA history.

Many of us who covered that decade have argued that it was the NBA’s best blend of old-school fundamentals combined with the arrival of a new-age athleticism that would root itself in the 1990s marketing miracle that became Michael Jordan.

The Lakers of the mid-to-late 1980s – a team that included Mychal Thompson, Klay’s father – belong in any best-ever conversation, given the prime of Magic Johnson’s career, the still-potent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Hall of Fame gifts of James Worthy.

But it was Jordan’s Chicago Bulls team of 1995-96 that won 72 games and the fourth of six championships in eight seasons that these 73-victory Warriors are running a mythical race against. Make no mistake: A generation of Jordan worshippers was poised to gloat had the Thunder been able to close out the Warriors. It will be again if James can deliver a championship to Cleveland.

For all their titles, perhaps the true appraisal of the Jordan-era Bulls came in the 1993-94 season, when Jordan walked away to flail at minor-league breaking balls. Scottie Pippen and a cast unintentionally derided as “supporting” won 55 games. They proved to be much more than a backup band, the Jordanaires, when they came within one highly questionable foul call on Pippen of going home with a chance to finish off the Knicks and advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

But what they lacked without Jordan was another closer, or coldblooded scorer, to achieve what Thompson did when he dropped 41 points, making 11 of 18 three-pointers, on the Thunder in the series-turning Game 6.

A year ago, on the Warriors’ way to the franchise’s first title since 1975, all four of their opponents dealt with manpower shortages. This time around, they had to push on in the first two rounds against Houston and Portland without the injured Curry, the league’s two-time most valuable player.

Against the Thunder, they had to deal with Draymond Green slumping and flirting with suspension while falling into that 3-1 hole. With the confidence of Westbrook and Kevin Durant soaring, with Curry struggling to reclaim his rhythm, the Warriors still rallied for three straight victories against a long and talented team that had taken out the 67-win San Antonio Spurs.

Now the Warriors’ reward is James, a two-time champion in Miami and an NBA finalist for the sixth straight season, with a Cavaliers team at full strength.

“I think any time you go through a long postseason, you grow,” the Warriors’ coach, Steve Kerr, said. “Now that we’ve been through this together for two years, going deep in the playoffs, I guess we played 21, 22 playoff games last year and now we’re at 16, maybe 17. I haven’t really kept track, but that’s a lot of playoff games. That’s a lot of pressure, a lot of circumstances that come your way.”

And that may be our truest basis for comparing teams from different eras, rules and styles. Whom and what must a champion endure and overcome?

The Warriors made 73 wins look almost too easy, tempting those commonly referred to as haters to question or deride the quality of the competition, in the interests of historical context.

Forget all that now. Extreme playoff adversity has been met and surmounted, and here comes LeBron. This Warriors title defence has taken on a degree of difficulty not unlike the nightly audacity of their three-point marksmen.

If Curry and Thompson continue making them, even the haters may have to mimic Joe Lacob, the Warriors owner who, upon spotting Thompson after Game 6, went down on one knee and bowed.
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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.

Source: Pixabay

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.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

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.

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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.

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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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