It was a warm, welcome, even beautiful sight.
Before the ball went up, two teams stood in a circle, arms joined, heads bowed as The Star-Spangled Banner played. Competitors, but for the moment, brothers in arms.
That was the picture from Phoenix where the Toronto Raptors were being hosted by the Suns after yet another edition of one of the strangest 24 hours anyone’s ever seen.
It was a gesture of unity, of solidarity and maybe — just maybe — the hope that standing together can keep things from falling apart.
The plan was devised on the fly in response to the events of the day by the Raptors Kyle Lowry and the Suns’ Chris Paul, who share 31 years of NBA experience and more relevantly experience as Black men and Black fathers.
“We’re strong Black men and we’re always going to continue to use our voice and our platform to make sure that our voices are heard,” said Lowry. “The things that happen in the world, we’re gonna talk about them, we’re gonna discuss them, we’re not gonna shy away from them. And it’s not pressure, it’s what we are here to do and what we can do, and we are always going to make sure our voices are heard.”
There’s a lot to say, though it’s not clear enough people are listening.
The need to make some kind of gesture started with the news Tuesday evening that a Kenosha, Wisc., police officer would not face charges in the shooting that left Jacob Blake paralyzed this past summer.
It was video of the Blake shooting in late August that proved to be the tipping point during the NBA restart, the moment when the conversation around Black Lives Matter and the social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis required action.
The Milwaukee Bucks refused to play their first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic, prompting a wave of protests and tributes across sports. It briefly appeared that the NBA season would be over. Play only resumed after a number of pledges from the league to join the players in pushing for more social change were earned.
The news that the officer who fired his weapon seven times into Blake’s back – the prosecutor’s office argued that because he was resisting arrest and reaching for a knife in his car, the officer was unlikely to be convicted – wasn’t going to face trial, hit hard.
“Man, I’m frustrated,” said Raptors guard Norm Powell. “It makes you feel like the work that you’re doing is not enough. The outcries and things from everybody around the world coming together over these issues and topics aren’t being heard.”
Around the time that Powell was speaking Wednesday afternoon, images began to emerge from Washington D.C. of insurrectionists in support of out-going president Donald Trump breaching the U.S. Capitol Building, damaging property, sending members of congress into lockdown. It got more shocking as the protesters were able to leave peacefully after a few hours, escorted to the door, without seeming consequence.
“I’m reading breaking news that there’s four dead after the rioters stormed congress,” said Lowry. “Like, what the f–––? And the man that was the president [Donald Trump] incites that, he told them to do it. That man is a criminal. He should be charged. It’s crazy. That is crazy, man. You basically told them to go do this and people died. How is that even cool?”
Unfathomable also, given the level of heavy handedness that law enforcement showed Black Lives Matter protesters over the course of the summer.
The NBA restart in the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort was in some ways a call to action; the players’ participation in part conditional on a commitment to social change.
Things move slowly.
“I grew up in this country so I’m kind of used to it and that’s not a good thing, but it’s the way things are,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “So I’m not surprised anymore by anything. We just got to keep doing our part individually and collectively but my message to people in my life is just stay together and continue to build as best we can inside this broken system. It’s a flawed system that preys on the weak and less fortunate and spits them out. … If you don’t know what it is by now, you probably don’t want to know what it is or you’ve just not been paying attention.”
But there are some fauna somehow growing through the cracks. Before events turned south in Washington there was a moment of triumph from the South with the news that Raphael Warnock – the leader of Ebenezer Baptist Church, former home of Martin Luther King Jr. – had become the first Black man to win a Senate seat in Georgia and in so doing helped give the Democrats control of congress for the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency.
Warnock was an outsider who defeated a Trump-supporting incumbent Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA who was outspoken in her opposition to Black Lives Matter during her campaign.
It was the Dream and the rest of WNBA’s public and persistent support of Warnock that is credited for creating the momentum that earned him his historic victory and could end up shaping history in the coming years.
Even when things seem bleak, there’s hope.
“I think this shows that we do have some say, some power, especially when we stick together and rally up and try to make changes as best we can. We can make change,” said VanVleet. “…We can’t lose hope … I think things are going in the right direction but this is going to be hundreds or thousands of years. This is going to be a long thing and we just got to keep doing our part day by day.”
The Raptors and the Suns eventually played. There were no cancellations or postponements league wide. A number of teams took a knee for the anthem; the Raptors and Suns joined arms.
And then they went to work and for the Raptors at least there was a repetitive feel there too as they dropped their sixth game in seven starts so far this season, and their first on a four-game west coast road trip, 123-115.
The Raptors trailed the entire second half but were able to cut a 15-point Suns fourth quarter lead to six twice in the final minutes but couldn’t get over the hump. Pascal Siakam led all scorers with 32 points – his highest total since he put up 33 in Phoenix in March of last season. He was supported by Kyle Lowry’s 24, OG Anunoby’s 20 and Fred VanVleet’s 13 points and seven assists, while Powell chipped in 13 off the bench.
But outside of that, production was sparse. Starting centre Aron Baynes was scoreless for the second-straight game and the rest of the roster contributed just 13 points.
Meanwhile, the Suns got 42 points from their bench and shot 21-of-40 from three, off-setting the Raptors, who shot 14-of-35 from deep and 50.6 per cent from the floor.
The Raptors started well but once again the game began to slip away in the third quarter as the Suns hit 8-of-10 threes on their way to a season-high 21 triples. The Raptors have now allowed opponents to shoot 52 per cent from deep in the third quarter this season and 57 per cent from the floor – both the worst marks in the league.
But as the Raptors head to Sacramento to play Friday, they have some positives to draw on. Siakam looked as quick and decisive as he has in nearly a year, which translated directly to a season-high 14 trips to the free-throw line and builds on a 22-point outing against Boston on Monday night. The Raptors outscored the Suns in the paint and in transition and held their own on the glass – all points of emphasis.
“We can’t do anything about them ones we already dropped,” said VanVleet as the Raptors try to weather their worst start in 14 years. “If you look at this as an isolated game tonight it’s a lot to build on, a lot of positives. … I liked our swag, our approach and we just got to continue to keep building. This is obviously a different year for many different reasons for all of us and sometimes you got to change the scope of things and your perspective. So, continue to stay positive.”
So sure, at the end of a long, strange, troubling day, the scoreboard told a familiar, frustrating story for Toronto, echoing the theme of a concerning time.
But there was reason for hope too.
As in most things, the only path is to link arms and keep trying.
Canadiens 5, Canucks 2: Lacklustre performances becoming too common – The Province
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But as has been the case too often through the first week and a half of the season — an astoundingly short period that also feels like it’s taken forever — they couldn’t put enough together and then surrendered two goals in the third to the Habs, settling the game for the visitors.
“Frustrating, for sure,” Pettersson said about losing the way they did, as both goals came off turnovers by the Canucks.
“We’ve got a lot of things to work on. I need to be better, play better defence.”
Head coach Travis Green tried to put a positive spin on his team, saying he liked the effort over the first 50 minutes.
“Sometimes when you’re not on top of your game, you’re looking for a better game. I thought we got a better game out of our group,” he said. “By good game, I don’t mean we were out and creating all kinds of chances, but I think we stuck with it.”
The Canadiens’ goals were scored by Nick Suzuki, Corey Perry, Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin and Joel Edmundson into an empty net, while Pettersson and Höglander scored for the Canucks.
It was also the 350th career win for Habs goalie Carey Price.
Here’s what we learned …
You know he needed that
Pettersson has had a rough start to the season. He mostly hasn’t looked himself. There have been moments of confidence — like his between-the-legs effort on a breakaway on Wednesday that didn’t lead to a goal — but mostly he’s looked to be squeezing his stick too hard.
Finally, Saturday, he got a bounce, making a perfect tip of a point shot by Jordie Benn, deflecting the puck down toward the ice and past Price into the Montreal net.
FRIESEN: Jets failed with Laine, top to bottom – Winnipeg Sun
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He didn’t mention he never did find a centre that would best utilize Laine’s talents until, ironically, the day he traded him.
Dubois might be that player. We’ll never know.
Cheveldayoff was quick to point out Laine played with No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele last season, but it was an analytical failure. OK.
It doesn’t take an advanced stats whiz to see Cheveldayoff has constructed a roster that doesn’t leave much wiggle room for Laine’s next contract. Instead of finding a way to make it work, he sent him packing.
Down on the dressing room floor, Wheeler was asked about his leadership role through all this, acknowledging, perhaps a little vaguely, he could have handled the rising star better on occasion.
“If I have any regrets, my regrets would be some of the frustrations that took place over the years,” the captain said, quickly adding he and Laine never fought, never yelled at each other.
So the regret?
“Maybe I could have communicated a little better instead of just getting frustrated,” Wheeler said, explaining when he did get frustrated with Laine, he just clammed up.
In the next breath, he says if anything he coddled the kid.
Ultimately, Wheeler didn’t think he could have made things better.
If the captain and the GM didn’t want to bear the brunt of the responsibility, the head coach claimed to be more than willing.
“That’s the environment that you’re trying to create for each player is for them to feel like they have the opportunity to be at their best,” Maurice said. “We were constantly trying to work on that, trying to constantly get to the point where Patrik appreciated who he was playing with and the opportunity he was given.
Blue Jackets excited to add Laine, Roslovic in blockbuster deal – BlueJackets.com
Put in the difficult position of having to trade his No. 1 center, Jarmo Kekalainen hit a home run.
At least that’s the opinion of his head coach, John Tortorella, who was effusive in his praise of the Blue Jackets general manager after Kekalainen swung a blockbuster deal Saturday.
Center Pierre-Luc Dubois was traded to Winnipeg along with a third-round pick in the 2022 draft for All-Star winger Patrik Laine and Columbus native Jack Roslovic, a haul of two forwards that should quickly add some offensive punch to the CBJ lineup.
That Kekalainen could fetch such a return for a player who the entire NHL knew wanted a deal left Tortorella as perhaps the happiest man in Columbus.
“It was a hell of a spot (Kekalainen) got put into,” Tortorella said after the Jackets’ 5-2 win against Tampa Bay on Saturday. “He stood right in there. I talked to him a couple of times yesterday (about) the amount of time he was putting into things, so we’re very happy that he found a way here, him and (Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff).
“We are really excited about these guys coming to us. Jarmo is not afraid of trying to make his team better and putting his neck out there a little bit at times, so I think that’s a really good trade for us.”
Adding two big pieces — a first-line winger who has averaged 38 goals per 82 games in his NHL career and a homegrown center whose best days in the NHL are likely still ahead of him — was seen as a coup in Tortorella’s eyes, and the hope is the pair will help a team that finished 27th in the NHL in scoring a year ago and had scored just 10 goals in its first five games this season.
The offensive abilities of Laine need little introduction as exploits of the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft — one spot ahead of Dubois — are known throughout the league. Laine burst onto the scene as a rookie with 36 goals in 2016-17 then added a career-high 44 a year later. The 22-year-old is coming off a 28-35-63 line posted in 68 games last year, and one of the league’s top snipers has 140 goals and 250 points in 306 career NHL games, including 52 power-play tallies.
Roslovic, meanwhile, was born in Columbus, came up through the Ohio AAA Blue Jackets junior program and played his college hockey at Miami University. The first-round pick (25th overall) in the 2015 NHL draft has a 26-41-67 line in 180 career games including career highs of 12 goals, 17 assists and 29 points a year ago. The thought is with more consistent playing time, those numbers could blossom even more for the 23-year-old.
“I think both of those guys bring offense to our team,” Kekalainen said. “Jack Roslovic, I think he had (29) points last year. His ice time increased a little bit, but Winnipeg has a lot of skilled forwards, so I think he’s going to get a more offensive role with our team. Obviously, he’s going to have to earn that.
“Patrik Laine is just a pure goal scorer. He scored 36 goals when he was 18 years old in the National Hockey League. I think his best year was 44 goals. I’ve known him since he was 16 years old, watching him play in Finland. He won a championship there, being one of the top scorers and MVP of the World Juniors when they won gold, and he came into the National Hockey League and has done what he’s done so far. He’s still very young. Those are all very exciting things.”
Roslovic was a restricted free agent this past offseason and did not report to Winnipeg, so he is yet to play a game this year. He has been staying sharp in Columbus and quickly signed a two-year contract with the Blue Jackets, so he has already entered the team’s COVID protocol program and hopes to be able to join the team this week.
Laine, meanwhile, had two goals and an assist in the one game he has played this year but has missed recent games with an upper-body injury he says he does not consider serious. Before he can report to Columbus, the native of Finland must obtain a work visa and get everything with COVID protocols squared away, so his first day on the ice remains to be seen.
Both said they’re excited to see what they can bring to the Columbus team when they do suit up.
“It’s awesome to be part of the Blue Jackets organization right now, and I’m happy that they wanted me on board,” Laine said. “I couldn’t be more excited. It’s always a new chapter, and going to a new place, meeting new guys, I’m kind of scared but it’ll be fine. There’s a bunch of guys that I know and a couple of Finnish guys, too, and I’m just super excited to meet everybody and get things going.”
Added Roslovic: “I’m just really excited about the opportunity. It just makes it that much better too that it’s in Columbus. I’m super happy to be here. Obviously I grew up living here, watching the team play, and it’s definitely just an extra cherry on top.”
It was a quick end to the saga involving Dubois, who was the team’s top pick in the 2016 draft and had developed into the team’s No. 1 center the past two seasons. Dubois didn’t miss a game in his Columbus career, suiting up 239 times in the union blue sweater and posting a 66-93-159 line. He had career highs of 27 goals and 61 points two seasons ago and led Columbus with 49 points a year ago before adding 10 in 10 games in the NHL playoff bubble.
But when Dubois signed a two-year extension with Columbus as an RFA on New Year’s Eve, reports got out that he was also looking for a change in scenery. Dubois had just one goal in the team’s first five games and did not skate in the last 45-plus minutes of the team’s overtime loss Thursday against Tampa Bay, leaving a trade all but an inevitability. Less than 48 hours later, he was on his way to Winnipeg.
“We’ve been working on this for a while,” Kekalainen said. “We always said it could take a while until we found the right deal, but if the right deal is on the table, we’re ready to move fast. Everything came together, and we’re happy with the deal.”
Kekalainen has shown he’s not afraid to make big moves before, including the acquisition of Brandon Saad in 2015, the deal that sent Ryan Johansen to Nashville in 2016 for Seth Jones, returning Saad to Chicago for Artemi Panarin in the summer of 2017 and trade deadline deals to acquire Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene in 2019.
Those trades involve some of the biggest names in the game, but you could argue none is quite as captivating as this one. How it works out for both teams will be a storyline for years, and Kekalainen hopes it’s positive for each side.
“I think the best trades are always the type of trades that help both teams, and I think in this case that’s what happened,” Kekalainen said. “They are going to get a good player and we are going to get two good players, and we both move on.”
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