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What If LeBron Never Wins Another NBA Title?

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“What if LeBron never wins another NBA title?” The question isn’t new. But for most of the past eighteen months, ever since Kevin Durant signed in Golden State, it’s only been whispered. When someone actually says it out loud, in the middle of a basketball debate, it’s like throwing a live grenade into the conversation. Everyone would prefer to tread lightly with LeBron skepticism—in part because most basketball fans deeply regret the folly of their LeBron clutch takes in 2011, and also because it’s just not very much fun to play the skeptic at this point. LeBron is unbelievable. We’ll be talking about his career for the next 50 years. Deep down, everyone is rooting for the story to get as ridiculous as possible. And yet, in spite of that goodwill, or maybe because of it, the third-rail rings discussion is becoming harder to avoid. It might be what defines this NBA summer. 

First, there is the Eastern Conference finals. Tuesday in Boston began according to script. At 10:30 a.m. when reporters entered Cavs shootaround, James was on the far side of the court, shirtless, shooting, and drenched in sweat. After a relatively passive Game 1 for LeBron, the whole basketball world was ready for a massive Game 2 response. So, solitary shooting nearly twelve hours before tip-off dovetailed perfectly with the fan fiction everyone was writing for Game 2 as soon as Game 1 ended.

About 30 minutes away, at Boston’s shootaround in Waltham, Brad Stevens was clear-eyed about what was coming. “You could go through the career of every great player ever,” Stevens said. “They always respond. They’re always anxious to respond. They’re ready to respond.”

And LeBron responded. He scored 21 of Cleveland’s 27 points in the first quarter. This was not a “feel-out game.” He bullied Jaylen Brown for a layup, and then a few minutes later, he bullied Marcus Morris to get to the line. Marcus Smart held his own for about 10 seconds, refusing to budge an inch in the post, eventually pushing James out to the three-point line. Then James hit a turnaround fadeaway three as the shot clock expired. It was that kind of night. 

The Cavs were up seven at halftime. Four minutes into the third quarter, Marcus Morris hit a three to make it a two-point game. On the very next possession, LeBron James drained a three from the wing to put Cleveland up five. A few minutes later, Morris barreled into Tristan Thompson for a three-point play to tie it. Rolling on the floor, Morris screamed in Thompson’s face. Scuffles ensued. The Garden went insane. And LeBron followed that sequence with a running floater from the stripe to calmly retake the lead. Again, that kind of night.

And then it wasn’t. The Celtics kept coming. Terry Rozier took over the third quarter, and then Al Horford owned the fourth. Through it all, Marcus Smart was throwing his body all over the floor and inciting exactly the sort of chaos that makes the Celtics machine run smoothly. Smart’s been doing this the entire playoffs. He’s been so good that he’s probably forced millions of people who aren’t basketball bloggers or NBA coaches to utter the phrase “winning plays” without irony. And in the middle of the Rozier and Smart storm in that third quarter, the Cavs collapsed. LeBron couldn’t do it by himself.

“You’ve got to tip your hat to LeBron,” Smart said afterward. “We knew coming into this game that he was going to come out and give everything he had and he was going to have a game like this. Our job was to just keep going, make it tough on him all night. Eventually those shots he was hitting in the first half, in the second half, stopped falling. And it took a full team effort, everybody off the bench, and guys we just kept sending at him.”

Boston Globe

The Cavs will go home for Game 3 Saturday night. The series certainly isn’t over. But LeBron hasn’t been down 0-2 in an Eastern Conference playoff series in 10 years. He just went for 42 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists, and he lost by double digits. Ty Lue is getting outcoached. J.R. Smith has been awful. Kevin Love and Kyle Korver have been uneven. George Hill hasn’t shown up. None of this is necessarily hopeless, but it doesn’t look great. 

Now look more globally. On Monday night the Warriors went into Houston and dominated a Rockets team that won 65 games this season. Kevin Durant has never looked more unstoppable. Meanwhile, the Celtics are emerging as the most compelling long-term threat to everything that’s happening in Golden State. Beyond Boston, Houston and Philadelphia still have more long-term weapons than anything Cleveland can bring to the table. 

In any “What if LeBron never wins another title?” conversation for the past year, LeBron was generally insulated from criticism. Durant broke the competitive landscape in the NBA. As far as legacy scorekeeping is concerned, losing a title to a team with four Hall of Famers probably won’t be held against anyone. Even after Durant’s spectacular Finals last year, right or wrong, everyone concluded that Golden State was the best team and LeBron was still the best player. But now we’re seeing additional contenders that leave LeBron looking mortal. It’s harder to rationalize those failures. 

Boston isn’t going away, and beginning next year, the Celtics should be much better. Same with the Sixers, a team that beat the Cavs twice in the final month of the season. Houston beat Cleveland by just four points in November, but won by 32 when the two teams met in February. All year long we’ve been waiting to see the Cavs flip the switch, and except for 10 days against a crumbling Raptors team, it hasn’t happened. 

That brings us to this summer, obviously. LeBron could go to Los Angeles to try to play with Paul George and Brandon Ingram. He could sign with Philadelphia and bank on a Kawhi Leonard trade that creates that closest analog to the Monstars lineup the NBA has ever seen. He could stay in Cleveland and try to get help from George and Boogie Cousins. Hall of Fame salary cap gymnastics are never out of the question with Daryl Morey, and therefore the Rockets are in the mix as well. 

What’s interesting is that none of the free agency options look like obvious solutions to the Warriors problem. Some of those hypothetical superteams wouldn’t necessarily be good enough to beat a healthy Boston team, either. 

If the Raptors series made the Jordan-LeBron debate realer than ever and reminded the world that LeBron is the most dominant player of this generation, the Celtics series is a reminder that we don’t know how this story will end. If there are no moves left to continue making the Finals every year, LeBron won’t own the center of the sport for much longer. It’s possible that this Boston series marks the beginning of his NBA mortality. If so, it would be a nice bookend to the Eastern Conference finals in 2012, when LeBron played the best game of his career and his reign began. 

Maybe that kind of game is what’s coming this weekend, and the Cavs will go on to win this series from there. Or maybe this summer LeBron will team with Kawhi in Philly and we’ll spend the next 10 months waiting for a legendary showdown with the Warriors. But there’s also a possibility that LeBron’s entering a new phase of his career, one in which we begin to appreciate him differently than Jordan. 

LeBron’s mortality could ultimately heighten appreciation for humanity that Jordan never had. Instead of focusing on titles and dominance, we’ll focus on technical excellence, social awareness, and the myriad ways James has empowered his peers and made the entire sport more interesting to follow. Of course, he could also continue to demand new help every year, leave teams handicapped by refusing to commit to their future, and jeopardize his goodwill by monopolizing the spotlight with melodrama. That’s possible, too. But in any case, we’re not there yet. 

Sitting next to Kevin Love at the podium after the loss Tuesday, LeBron was asked about the challenge he’s facing through the rest of this series. “How will I digest it?” he answered. “I’m going to go home tonight and see my three kids. See my family. Recalibrate. See my mom. I think I’ll be fine. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. You go out and when you lay everything on the line, at the end of the day, you can live with that. I’ll recalibrate as far as how I can help this team continue to be successful, how I can do some things to make us be even more complete.” 

While he explained himself, Kevin Love was next to him, laughing with a Cavs beat writer who was threatening to ask Love his first question of the press conference. LeBron picked up on it, and at the end of his answer he added, “The only way I won’t get no sleep tonight is if Kev don’t get asked a question.” The room broke out in laughter, and on cue, Love was asked to diagnose the struggles of Cleveland’s supporting cast. 

That moment was a good reminder of how LeBron has changed over the years. He’s more comfortable with himself. He’s capable of laughing at all of this, and so are we. This isn’t 2011 anymore. But the Celtics aren’t going away in 2018, and neither are the Warriors. LeBron has left no doubts about his place in history, but this year and beyond, there has never been more room to doubt his chances on the court. To paraphrase Brad Stevens, all we know for sure is that a response is coming.

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No Alphonso Davies, no party for Whitecaps in loss to Sounders

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The Vancouver Whitecaps suffered their fourth straight loss away from home, falling 2-0 to the Seattle Sounders in their Cascadia Cup clash at CenturyLink Field on Saturday afternoon.

The dynamic Alphonso Davies was given the “club’s permission” to miss Saturday’s game, and it was apparent that he was sorely missed as the Whitecaps were dour without him.

Here are three takeaways from the match.

No Davies, no party

Alphonso Davies (three goals, eight assists) has been involved in 11 of the Whitecaps’ 30 goals in MLS this season. Only Kei Kamara (eight goals, three assists) has been as integral to Vancouver’s attacking output.

It’s natural for an attack to decline when a key player is unavailable, but it should never be this drastic, especially with Kamara, Yordy Reyna and Cristian Techera starting. All three have been strong contributors.

Not for the first time, Brian Schmetzer and the Seattle Sounders coaching staff knew immediately how to shut down the Whitecaps attack. With Kamara up front, there is always a steady stream of crosses into the box. No player has won more aerial duels per game in MLS this season than Kamara, per WhoScored.com, but unfortunately for him, Chad Marshall and Kim Kee-hee are pretty dominant in the air themselves.

Kamara finished the game without a single duel won in the air.

The Whitecaps didn’t stray from that strategy, either. Almost all of their passes into the box were rather direct.

Coach Carl Robinson would benefit by giving his forwards more creative freedom. It adds more unpredictability and provides far more options when attacking. Perhaps the inclusion of Anthony Blondell, who is far more involved in the build-up than Kamara, would help, too.

However, this isn’t the first time the attack was completely nullified and it likely won’t be the last.

Whitecaps midfield struggles. Again.

Another major issue for the Whitecaps in this game, and throughout the season, has been the midfield.

Up until Nicolas Mezquida entered the match on 59 minutes, no player was making runs between the Sounders’ lines. It’s significantly easier for an opposing defence to keep an attack at bay when there are no runners penetrating those deep blocks.

The midfield trio of Efrain Juarez, Felipe and Jordon Mutch barely cut into the final third. One of them have to follow their passes, run into the pockets of space, receive the ball, and then the opposition’s shape becomes disjointed. That was sorely lacking for Vancouver.

Pass map for Juarez (6), Felipe (8) and Mutch (77).

Considering the Whitecaps had a numerical advantage in the midfield – the Sounders started Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson in the middle – it’s inexcusable for such little circulation in the central channels.

The buildup from midfield was also incredibly slow, which helped the Sounders, who were exposed in the middle, as seen below.

Average positioning for the Whitecaps (left) and the Sounders (right), via SofaScore.

Defensively, the Whitecaps midfield was a mess as well. The second goal was aided by Stefan Marinovic’s gaff, but no one closed down Nicolas Lodeiro, who had tons of space and time to place his shot.

In total, the three Whitecaps midfielders won a combined eight duels. Roldan and Svensson had 10 as a duo. Osvaldo Alonso, who was substituted into the match right before halftime, recovered possession four times.

The Whitecaps clearly lost the midfield battle and it showed.

Indiscipline rears its ugly head for Vancouver

If losing 2-0 to their Cascadia rivals wasn’t enough, Efrain Juarez wrapped a bow on the proceedings with an unnecessary red card.

After a needless challenge on Lodeiro, Juarez profusely protested the booking. After bumping referee Chris Penso and shouting in his face, the Mexican international received another yellow and a sending off.

That was the Whitecaps’ seventh red card of the season, the highest total in MLS. It’s also the 30th sending off in all competitions for the team under Robinson.

After Brek Shea was sent off for dissent against Toronto FC on March 18, 2017, head coach Carl Robinson said he “100 per cent” doesn’t condone indiscipline.

Seventeen months later, players are still receiving unnecessary red cards.

Whatever the issue may be with this, it needs to be eradicated, or else the Whitecaps will keep shooting themselves in the foot.

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Ryan Straschnitzki returns to the ice for 1st time since Humboldt Broncos bus crash

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Ryan Straschnitzki was back on the ice Friday, for the first time since the tragic bus crash that changed his life.

Straschnitzki and his father Tom both played sledge hockey for the first time Friday in Okotoks, Alta., where they were given a tutorial by Team Canada's Chris Cederstrand.

For Ryan — who wore his Humboldt Broncos gear — the day was both emotional and a little frustrating, too, said Tom in an interview with CBC.

"It was huge for him just to get on the ice.," he said.

"Last time he was on the ice was the day before the accident, so this was his first time [since] on there. And as soon as those blades touched the ice, I've never seen a smile that big. It was massive.

"And then he just took off."

Humboldt Broncos survivor Ryan Straschnitzki does muscles strengthening exercises during a physiotherapy session at the Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia on June 25. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Ryan was left a paraplegic in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April that left 16 people dead and 10 others injured.

A whole different geometry

While returning to the rink was a joyous turning point for Straschnitzki, it was also a moment of discovery in many ways, as he learned that sledge hockey has its own unique geometry, and even a few secret tricks.

"He was trying to figure out how to turn," said Tom.

"So we're saying, drop a shoulder — then he gets the hang of it."

Shooting from a sled is different too.

"You have to have the stick flat now to get the shot off — like the whole stick," Tom said.

"Where in hockey, you're standing, and you kind of angle it — so it's a whole new different way shooting — so it's just [like] re-learning hockey."

Ryan can be a perfectionist, too, Tom said.

"If he can't do anything, he will practice and practice and practice until he can get it done," he said.

"He already texted me this morning and wanted me to bring the sled into the parking lot of the hotel, so he could practice shooting."

"I said yeah — let's take a day off pal. He was pumped."

Insider tips

Straschnitzki also got a few insider tips from Cederstrand, who arranged ice time at the Okotoks rink.

They were joined by former Flames draft pick, Corban Knight, who's now with the Philadelphia Flyers.

"Chris was showing us little tricks they did in the Olympics," Tom said.

"Once you're ahead of a guy, it's hard for them to catch up. And to get ahead of him, you do the little tricks, like move the nose of the sled because you turn the opposite way, because there's no blade at the end. The blade is under your butt.

"If you lean back too far, well your feet are going straight up in the air."

A summer of physiotherapy

Straschnitzki is home doing physiotherapy for the summer, and hopefully picking up the nuances of sledge hockey ahead of the Cowboys and Sleds tournament and fundraiser set for Sept. 15 in Okotoks.

It's a joint fundraiser for Straschnitzki and first responders, and there will be chuckwagon drivers, NHL players, Team Canada sledge players, in addition to Tom — who says he's terrible at sledge — and Ryan.

Tom Straschnitzki and Ryan try out sledge hockey in Oktoks (Tom Straschnitzki)

Living in hotel during renovations

In the meantime, the family is living in a hotel while their home gets renovated to make it accessible for Ryan.

It might have been the first time back on the rink, but it didn't take long for him to settle in.

"We couldn't get him off the ice," Tom said. "But eventually the rink rats had to come in and go, 'OK guys, the ice is rented for someone else.'"


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Stroman stellar over seven as Jays win

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TORONTO — Marcus Stroman was feeling so great on the mound Saturday that not even a slight jab from Baltimore’s Adam Jones could bring him down.

When the Blue Jays pitcher missed badly on a breaking ball to Jones in his at-bat in the sixth inning, the Orioles star responded by mimicking Stroman’s signature shimmy.

Stroman didn’t seem fazed. And he got the last laugh anyway.

The right-hander pitched seven solid innings and Toronto scored three unearned runs to beat Baltimore 4-1 in the second game of a series between the AL East’s worst teams.

“Me and Jonesy were kinda talking to each other during the ABs and during the game,” Stroman said. “I love Jonesy, he’s been someone who’s reached out to me when I got into the league and he’s been a mentor of mine. … He’s someone who’s always been there for me and he makes the game very fun.”

Stroman (3-7) allowed one run while scattering five hits over a season-high 107-pitch performance. Three of those hits came in the first inning and included an RBI single from Jones that gave Baltimore (28-71) its only run.

The damage was minimized when Toronto left-fielder Teoscar Hernandez threw a laser into the infield to tag out Jonathan Schoop at second base for the first out.

“I didn’t come out very strong today, just kinda leaving pitches up in the zone. Whenever you can get a big play like that from your defence it’s definitely a momentum shifter,” Stroman said. “It kinda told me I need to kick it in gear and start making better pitches.”

Stroman struck out seven, hit a batter and issued two walks, continuing a strong stretch since a stint on the disabled list caused him to miss six weeks of the season.

He has a 3.03 earned-run average over his last six starts, compared to a 7.71 mark in seven starts before hitting the DL.

“Since he’s come back from the DL he’s been really good,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “I just think he’s pitching like he’s always pitched. I thought he did a good job today working ahead in the count.”

Second baseman Devon Travis said Stroman’s “got his fire back.”

“Stro’s got the ability to ignite an entire team,” he said. “Obviously he’s a very animated guy. He brings a lot of energy, very competitive. You can feel that, you can feel that behind him. It give you a little extra edge. I’m just happy to see Stro getting back to his old self.”

Randal Grichuk and Luke Maile drove in runs for the Blue Jays (45-52) and Hernandez scored on a balk.

Ryan Tepera pitched the ninth for the save, getting some help from Grichuk on a nice defensive catch in deep centre field on the first out.

Jones, who also doubled in the fourth inning, was 2 for 4 at the plate just hours after he and some teammates were stuck in an elevator at their hotel. The incident, which Jones shared on his Instagram account over a series of videos, happened after Friday night’s Blue Jays win in extra innings and lasted about 30 minutes. They were rescued by Toronto firefighters.

Alex Cobb (2-13) allowed four runs — only one of them earned — and four hits over five innings. He struck out four and walked three batters.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Cobb developed a blister during his start.

Toronto scored three unearned runs to take the lead in the fourth inning, after an error on Tim Beckham, his fourth in six games.

Toronto and Baltimore are fourth and fifth respectively in the AL East this year, a stark contrast from two seasons ago when the Blue Jays edged the Orioles in a thrilling wild-card game at Rogers Centre en route to Toronto’s second straight ALCS appearance.

With a playoff spot fading fast, Stroman said Toronto’s goal for the rest of the season is to “show up every day and compete.”

“I think that’s something that us as Blue Jays have been able to do over the past few years regardless of what the expectations are,” he said. “I love my team, I wouldn’t want any other guys. It’s just a matter of going out there and knowing what we’re capable of.”

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