Failure to Make Shots in the Clutch is Going to Sink the Raptors

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Credit: Getty Images

There has been a lot of talk about why the Raptors lost Game 1. They choked, LeBron came through. But it all came down to this: the Raptors were not able to make the baskets at the end. It is as simple as that. Unfortunately, that has become the reputation of every Toronto team. Can’t come up with the big goal, clutch hit, drain the shot at the most critical times.

Raptors had two chances to seal the deal. Once with seconds left in the fourth quarter, the other with seconds left in overtime. Both times, the Raptors came up empty. That can’t happen. Not when you are favoured to win, not when you have home court advantage, and not when you are facing Cavaliers team that barely survived the first round against Indiana.

I’m not sure Fred VanVleet is 100%. He is usually makes three-pointers easy. But his wide three-point attempt in the dying seconds of overtime went wide. And the doubts are creeping in again.

But tomorrow is another day. So, the objective of Game 2 is also simple: win the game. In fact, winning is non-negotiable. The Raptors either win Thursday or the series is over next Monday in Cleveland. Period.

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Hockey Players are a Different Kind of Athlete

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On Friday April 6, the hockey world stood still as a bus carrying 28 players, coaches, and staff of the Humboldt Broncos collided with a transport truck as it was on its way to Nipawin, Saskatchewan for a playoff game. The crash killed 16 on board that bus. The hours after the news of the crash spread, everyone in the hockey community came together to help the community deal with the tragedy. Games began with players on both teams standing side-by-side at centre ice. Photos of hockey sticks being left out on front porches is all over social media. A Go Fund Me account to help the families of the victims surpassed the $4 Million goal in just over 48 hours.

Then there were the mass shootings at a music festival in Las Vegas and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida. While athletes in other sports used these incidents to make political statements, Derek Engelland and Roberto Luongo both did it right in my opinion. Engelland, a Las Vegas native, spoke to the home crowd at the first Golden Knights home game in franchise history just days after the shooting there. Luongo, the Florida Panthers goaltender, addressed the crowd at their first home game since the Parkland shooting. Luongo was especially disgusted by what had happened since the school is located near where he lives. But he and Engelland did not make their speech a political one. Both kept everything in perspective. People like to talk about situations going on in parts of the world from a distance. Luongo and Engelland live in these communities. For them the incidents hit close to home and they had every right to speak up.

It did not surprise me one bit to see the hockey community respond the way they did to those  incidents. Hockey players are not like any other athlete. They are cut from a totally different cloth. There is a connection between Canadians and hockey players that you don’t see other sports. Football and basketball players seem to take a rather condescending approach. You don’t hear hockey players bitch and complain (except perhaps Sean Avery), instead they roll up their sleeves to help these people get their lives back to as close to normal as possible.

There are those who like to dismiss hockey players as men (and women) exerting their testosterone on a sheet of ice. The game of hockey especially on a competitive level is often violent. But you don’t see players take their frustrations with them off the ice. There are some parents of hockey players who take the game way too seriously, but for the most part people involved in hockey are humble, charitable, caring. Altruism is as much a quality for a hockey player as is the ability to skate and shoot. That what sets them apart from other athletes.

Also see:

Hockey is a Tough Sport, Get Use to it
By Far, Stanley Cup Playoffs are Better Than NBA Playoffs
The Hockey Player’s Hockey Player

Maple Leafs Must Resist Urge to Build Super Team

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Years ago, well before Brendan Shanahan, Mike Babcock, and Auston Matthews arrived in Toronto, there has been talk about the Maple Leafs acquiring Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos. At the time, Stamkos was approaching free agency and negotiations for a contract extension with the team were going at a snail’s pace. News about the possibility of Stamkos, a Toronto native, coming to the Maple Leafs really opened the eyes of their fans. Alas, Stamkos and the Lightning agreed to a contract extension minutes before he was about to hit the open market. The dreams of Stamkos in a Maple Leafs uniform were dashed. Now, the focus has shifted to another superstar player, John Tavares. Like Stamkos, Tavares is from the Toronto area and he is now the talk of Leaf Nation.

Both Stamkos and Tavares are a couple of examples of the frenzy among fans and media who are in over their heads of the idea of the Maple leafs putting together a “Super Team”, a team featuring superstars from top to bottom. It was an idea borne out of the NBA. The thought of having a Golden State Warriors or Miami Heat type team in the NHL is tempting but unthinkable. Let’s take the Maple Leafs out of the conversation. Substitute the Habs and everyone in Quebec would think it’s the best idea ever. It shows how stupid they are but that’s not the point of this piece.

There are so many intangibles but one of the key ones is the distribution of ice time. There’s only 60 minutes to go around and 18 players to give it to. So even if the Leafs were able to land Stamkos, Tavares, Sidney Crosby, and just about every superstar hockey player in the world, there is no way that you can spread the minutes around equally and keep everyone happy. Unless the NHL makes a rule change to allow seven or eight players on the ice at a time and two or three pucks to be put in play, I can’t see this happening.

Another factor to consider is ego. We’ve seen the debacle in Cleveland where LeBron James is the leader on the Cavaliers. But his clash with former teammate Kyrie Irving over who gets the ball more boiled over to the point where Irving asked for trade and was sent to the Boston Celtics. Hockey players are cut from a different cloth than basketball players but they are competitors too. They like to be the one who determines’ the team’s fate. And if they feel they are being snubbed in favour of another, there will some disappointment.

It is nice to imagine “what if”, but the game is not played on paper or on a video game console. And we are not playing with Monopoly money either. Just as some detractors believe the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup in the not-so-distant future is a pipe dream, that pales to the thought of the Buds acquiring every team’s superstar.

Also see:

Get the Right Player First, then Spend the Money
Two Views on the Valencia Move and the Importance of Role Players in Sport
Tournament Win Destroys Myths

We’ve Always Told Athletes to Shut Up and Play, Why is This Any Different?

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LeBron James commented on the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed by a lone gunman, a former student of the school. He like many left-wingers (i.e. social activists) are calling for stricter gun control measures. Fox News host Laura Ingraham went on her television program and said James should “shut up and dribble” and not comment on matters pertaining to the United States. The all-star and 3-time NBA champion responded to her saying he will continue to speak his mind and will not let anyone tell him what to say. Anyone, LeBron?

Two-time Super Bowl Champion Chris Long (son of Football Hall of Famer Howie Long) came to the aid of James. He too argued about having the right speak their minds and had some choice words for Ingraham. The reaction to Ingraham’s criticism of James is beyond belief. I believe people are targeting Ingraham because she is more of a pushover and can’t take on a heavyweight like Rush Limbaugh. If there is one legit criticism of Ingraham’s comments is that she is wayyyy late to the party. I (and many others) have been telling athletes to stick to sports years before she did. All I got to say to Ingraham is, what took you so long?

The skin of James and others like him is starting to become thin. As long as I have been covering and following sports, media has always been telling athletes (past and present) to shut up and worry about their own game. Why is what Ingraham said any different? Hall of Fame basketball player and current television analyst Charles Barkley has been speaking his mind for years on a number of things, both on and off the court. He is also perhaps James’ biggest critic. There have been plenty of people telling Barkley to shut up and stick to basketball, and hardly anyone makes a big fuss over it.

Those who cover the Toronto Blue Jays have continuously told the players to get off social media, especially pitcher Marcus Stroman. Stroman is known to get very emotional when he has something to say. Many say they are tired of hearing how upset Stroman was in losing his salary arbitration case. Yet they turn around and say someone like James have a “right” to make social commentary especially if it is against the sitting President of the United States. Hypocritical? Is Donald Trump still occupying the White House?

Some will say talking about politics is different from whining about a missed call by the refs. I would tend to agree with that. The big difference though is the latter is about the game, the former is a subject that has no connection to the game. There is nothing wrong about making a lot of noise about a dirty hit by a player even if it was clean to begin with and you have no case from the start. Something like politics on the other hand is another matter. Everyone has an opinion (like me) and they think theirs is the most important. One exception could be if that player (or coach or manager) has a personal experience or first-hand account of the issue. Otherwise, if you are reacting to something that you heard from someone else, I say who cares. Your opinion is no more important than mine. And if you want to keep opening your yap, I will continue to tell you to zip it.

Also see:

Athletes Should Stick to Sports
Sports is Not a Platform for Activism
Kaepernick Only Has Himself to Blame… Plus, Defending Your Brand

Do People Really Like Losing?

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It boggles my mind when there is more talk about a player or team on the losing side than there is about the winners. People would point to the winning team becoming the champion because of a miscue by the opponent. Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal? Ryan Miller let in an easy one through his legs. Joe Carter’s World Series clinching home run? Mitch Williams grooved a fastball down the middle.

A more recent example is the Raptors win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Many spend the whole night and the next couple of days trying to figure out what went wrong with the Cavaliers. While it is unusual for a Cavs team to lose by 34 points, there has been no attention being paid to the work of DeMar DeRozan and how he, without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, was able to manhandle the defending Eastern Conference champs.

People think it is fun to bring up losing. They always bring up the 1966-1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, the last Maple Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup. Today, it is the Cleveland Browns who are coming off a season where they did not win a single game.

More recently, talk around the media sees them encouraging teams like the Maple Leafs to lose as many games as possible in order to be in a position to select the best player in the upcoming draft. It used to be the only incentive to lose a game is money. In the past, gamblers would fix a boxing match to ensure the underdog would win over the favourite thus collecting a big payout. Now, it’s lose and you can be the first to pick the next franchise player. What’s really the difference?

I’m guessing there is no such thing as a perfect execution, where a player does well and outmatches their opponent. When they talk about skill, it’s mostly the lack of it rather than having an abundance of it.

For the life of me I can’t understand why the media wants to talk about losing. I always thought people want to associate themselves with winners. It is one thing to learn from losing, it’s another to dwell on it.

Also see:

The Point Where Haters Become Worse than Those You Hate
Only Losers Look for Someone to Blame
Why We Like to Lay Blame and Not Give Credit

Are We Making Too Big a Deal About the NHL Not Being at the Olympics?

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The Canadian Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey was recently announced. The names don’t necessarily strike fear into the minds of the opponents. But with no current NHL players in this year’s games in South Korea, all the teams will feature a roster of grizzled veterans, young college stars, and some who were not good enough to score a gig in the NHL.

We will not be getting a short tournament featuring the best hockey players in the world. The NHL made that clear in 2017 when they could reach an agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). It is a shame that backroom politics is preventing hockey fans from seeing the best hockey players in the world competing in the Winter games in PyeongChang. But it is not the end of the world. Depending how this year’s tournament fares, it will either hasten or slow down negotiations between the NHL and IIHF to reach an agreement for the next Winter Olympic games in Beijing in 2022.

For a long time, there has been an argument that no professional athletes should be competing in the Olympics (either summer or winter). Those people who like to keep the game pure are going to get their wish this year. At least in hockey.

The biggest complaint of NHL players at the Olympics is the two-week stoppage during the season. That to me is a moot point. There is simply no way around that obstacle. But I also understand there is a need to have some hockey played in North America. Which is why there was little objection when the Winter Olympics were in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010. Fans got to watch games either late in the afternoon or early in the evening. With the games in South Korea, the time difference will be a huge factor. PyeongChang is 14 hours ahead of Toronto. Which means a hockey game played at 6 PM there will air at 2 AM here. Many people would not be able to watch the men’s hockey tournament unless you are an insomniac.

With no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, this will give hockey fans an opportunity to see players that we don’t get to see on a nightly basis. There have been those who played Olympic hockey who  end up becoming high-caliber NHL players. Ken Morrow is one example. He played for the 1980 US team that won gold in Lake Placid. Morrow went on to play for the New York Islanders during their Stanley Cup dynasty.

I doubt that not having NHL players at the Olympics this year will cause a riot. There is simply much bigger fish to fry. There is a saying absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps, taking a break from seeing professional hockey players at the Olympics will make us realize why we like to see them play in the first place.

Also see:

Do You Need International Success to be a Great Canadian Athlete?
Canada has the Best Athletes. Period.
The Lack of Animosity is Hurting the World Cup of Hockey

DeMar DeRozan: MVP

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DeMar DeRozan is having the best season of his career. Maybe not statistically, but he is the reason the Toronto Raptors are one of the best teams in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with the likes of the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season, DeRozan is averaging 24.5 points a game through the first 48 games. That is less than the 27.3 points per game he averaged last season. But what’s important is that he is getting a majority of his scoring this season when it matters. We have seen when DeRozan is on the court with the game on the line, he wants the ball and has often come up with big baskets at critical moments. You also can’t discount his play making abilities or the way he has helped make the Raptors a championship contender year after year.

I first entertained the idea of DeRozan being the NBA’s most valuable player in 2017. With the way DeRozan is playing, there is an even bigger case to be said that he is an MVP candidate this season. I won’t waste your time arguing who is worthy of being an MVP. I have already written a piece on that. But if there is one quality I look for in an MVP, it is how he plays when the game is the on the line. In other words, is DeRozan a clutch player? I think he is. DeRozan is also becoming a leader of a talented but young Raptors team.

DeRozan is not an outspoken individual, much like another former MVP, Stephen Curry. But he is becoming that superstar player that some in the media feel the Raptors are missing. Since being taken ninth overall by the Raptors in 2009, DeRozan has developed into one of the league’s best players. He may not get the recognition from the US media, but basketball fans here in Canada know how good he is. It’s about time DeRozan gets his name on the Maurice Podoloff trophy.

Also see:

The Raptors are Playing with House Money
How to Determine Who’s MVP Worthy
By Far, Stanley Cup Playoffs are Better Than NBA Playoffs

Time for the Young Leafs to Start Getting Dirty

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The highly skilled Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in a scoring slump. That has translated to very few wins over the last few weeks. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner are not scoring as much as they did at the beginning of the season. There has been line juggling, line up shuffling, moving players around, anything to get the Maple Leafs out of a funk. People are having a hard time believing a group of talented players can find themselves in a slump.

I believe the problem with the Maple Leafs is because the players are not in the game. They have not shown the feistiness that championship teams possess. They must now be willing to grind, take the body, and yes even throw the occasional punch to the face, in order to win games.

I often mention Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews as examples. Brad Marchand, Ryan Getzlaf, and Dustin Brown are other players who play with an edge. All five of them are Stanley Cup champions.

Zach Hyman has the most hits among Maple Leafs players in the top ten in scoring with 77 (as of January 29th). Leo Komorov leads the team with 146 hits, Matt Martin is next at 135 followed by Andreas Borgman at 114 (the most among defensemen). It’s the bottom 6 who are the most physical. They are also the ones who see the least ice time. What’s surprising is that James van Riemsdyk, with his size, has only 25 hits this season.

I think if Matthews (7 hits), Marner (15), and Nylander (14) start knocking bodies around more, it will also help them with their game. Right now, they are struggling to score goals. I think it is because they are getting knocked around by opposing players. That has caused them to lose puck battles and give the opposing teams more chances to score. By being more physical, Leafs players won’t fall into a lull, and it keeps their minds in the game.

It is about time the training wheels come off these guys. Sweet William is going to have start being Big Bad Bill. No longer can Matthews, Marner and Nylander rely on Komorov, Martin, and Borgman to do their dirty work for them. The Maple Leafs can look like clean-cut guys off the ice but when they are on it, I expect them to get a little dirty.

Also see:

The Maple Leafs Need Their Own Bringer of Rain
Stability Key to a Successful Team?
Maple Leafs Banking on Moneypuck

Yankees Looking to Strike Out

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One of the biggest stories in baseball’s off-season was the trade of all-star outfielder and reigning National League Most Valuable Player Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins to the New York Yankees. Along with reigning American League Rookie of the Year, Aaron Judge, the acquisition of Stanton gives the Yankees two of Baseball’s heaviest hitters. Each are capable to slugging 50 home runs in a hitter-friendly ballpark like Yankee Stadium, even for a right-handed hitter.

But while we can expect 100 home runs between the two, I also expect a good number of strike outs. In fact, both Stanton and Judge can rack up at least 300 strikeouts together and it would not surprise me that at the end of the 2018 season, Stanton and Judge each have a minimum of 200 strikeouts.

In Judge’s rookie year, he struck out 208 times in 678 plate appearances, or one strike out for every 3.26 plate appearances. The Yankees as a team struck out a total of 1386 times that season. That is 6th most in the American League, 12th most in the Majors. If you do the math, that means Judge accounted for 15 percent of the team’s strikeouts. Baseball reference is projecting Judge will have 161 strikeouts in 549 plate appearances.

Stanton will be going into his 9th season in the majors. Last year, he made through an entire season without a significant injury since 2011. In 2017, Stanton struck out 163 times in 693 plate appearances, or one strikeout for every 4.25 plate appearances, or 12.7 percent of the Marlins strikeout total (1,282). It’s a little better than Judge but that is still quite a lot.

Compare the numbers of those two to that of Boston’s Mookie Betts. Betts struck of 79 times in 712 plate appearances last season, or one strike out for every 9.01 plate appearances. And Betts is no slouch at the plate smacking 24 home runs in 2017 and a career-high 31 the year before (in 2016).

The Toronto Blue Jays could not reach the Yankees in the standings but almost caught up to them on the strikeouts list. The Blue Jays accumulated 1,327 strikeouts last season, 8th most in the American League and 17th most in the Majors. 170 belonged to Jose Bautista or 12.8 percent of the team’s total.

There have been those who felt part of the reason the Blue Jays had poor season was the number of strikeouts the team had. But that’s fewer compared to the Yankees who ended up clinching the first wild card spot. And the Minnesota Twins, the second wild card team, had 1,342 strikeouts. Perhaps you can make the case if a good number of those strikeouts came with runners in scoring position. But overall, that doesn’t seem to matter. And the Yankees are willing to see Judge and Stanton swing and miss a good number of times in order to see them launch one into the seats.

The Yankees are expected to contend and their success this season will rest on the shoulders of Judge and Stanton. But if swinging at air was a commodity, I would bet the house that those two will be striking out a lot this season.

Also see:

Get the Right Player First, then Spend the Money
Stability Key to a Successful Team?
A Baseball Record You Likely Never Heard of… But Should

Fans in Ottawa and Miami Have No Right to Gripe About their Teams

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PHOTO: Postmedia

Two teams were in the news this week, the Ottawa Senators and the Miami Marlins. Both are experiencing a level of turmoil.

The Senators have been slumping. They were expected to compete in the Eastern Conference again after being one win away from an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. But the attention has been more towards off the ice where there have been rumblings that the team could be on the move. Owner Eugene Melnyk would like to see the team play out of an arena that is located in the downtown area. People have not been coming to Kanata where the plays its home games a half-hour drive outside of Ottawa.

The Marlins were recently sold by Jeffery Loria to a group led by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (brother of former US President George W. Bush and son of former US President George H.W. Bush) and New York Yankee great Derek Jeter. Jeter is quickly finding out that being an owner of a team is a lot different than being a superstar athlete on an iconic franchise. His first controversial move as an executive was to agree trading the team’s superstar Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees. It was a deal that was met with shock and disappointment.

The one common denominator in this is low attendance. This is much on the fans as is on owners or management. Canadian hockey fans have always used attendance to make their arguments on whether a team should move or not. I would suggest if that is the case, people in Ottawa and Miami have no reason to bitch and complain. They have done squat when it comes to showing up at games. I’m not targeting season-ticket holders who actually pay their hard-earned money to see a good product. I’m particularly pointing the finger at fairweather fans and the media who constantly cry foul over these decisions from a distance.

Ottawa is not known as a huge sports market. The only other professional team is the CFL’s Renegades. Miami on the other hand is a great sports market having been home to the NFL’s Dolphins and NCAA’s Hurricanes for decades. Those teams seem to draw well. Yet the Marlins, the Florida Panthers of the NHL, and even the NBA’s Miami Heat are struggling to gets fans to see their games.

Having a strong season-ticket and fan base, and new stadium or arena does not guarantee that a team will succeed or commit to staying in the community for a long time. Just ask fans of the Cleveland Browns. They have been burned by bad management decisions resulting in badly coached teams. In 1995, then owner Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore where the team became the Ravens and won a Super Bowl in 2000. The Browns would re-enter the NFL as an expansion team in 1999.

Folks in Cleveland have a gripe and therefore have carte blanche on critiquing players, coaches, and management. I don’t think you can extend that to fans of the Senators, Marlins, or just about every other professional sports team in North America. They may have not made the bed but they sure deserve to lie in it.

Also see:

Stability Key to a Successful Team?
There is Something to be Said About Loyalty
Dave Cameron is the Reason for Senators’ Turnaround 

SIDEBAR:

This is the last of five articles in fives day. This is also my final post for 2017. It has been a busy year for me both personally and professionally. I hope to continue delivering great sports opinion to you in 2018. Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noel!