In year 17 of his NBA career, LeBron James is still peaking up to his prime
September 28 2020
TORONTO – It’s impossible for Jack Campbell to recall the words his parents said Wednesday night when he called to inform mom and dad he’d been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team just a three-hour drive from their home in Port Huron, Mich. A team with a shot and some run support.
Damned if the goaltender can remember what he said to Debbi and Jack Sr. that night either.
“It was like one of those moments, you kinda go dark for a second ’cause it’s just special,” Campbell said. “I just remember how excited they were.
“It was crazy. I’ll never forget that moment.”
Funny how the biggies in life work.
The details blur, but the feelings attached remain crystal.
National Hockey League goaltenders are supposed to follow two golden rules. One: Don’t get nervous. Two: If you do get nervous, don’t admit it.
So, after Campbell won his first game as a Maple Leaf on Friday night, an overtime nail-biter with mom and dad part of the joyous sold-out barn, the goalie (and secret rom-com fan) endeared himself with his honesty and sensitivity.
“I was just really excited, and I think when you care a lot, you get a little nervous,” Campbell said.
During a whirlwind six days, the new backup in town has furthered endeared with his results, battling through three consecutive overtimes and surfacing with five of six valuable standings points in a playoff race that promises a photo finish.
Fans and teammates alike have warmed quickly to Campbell’s heart-on-sleeve, smile-on-face approach, and he was awarded the dressing room’s Raptors game ball for his .946 effort Tuesday, after waking up thinking he’d be backing up.
“I just like the confidence that he has in himself and the confidence he brings to our team, and he’s excited for every opportunity that comes about — and it doesn’t matter how it comes about. He’s ready for it, whether it’s coming in and playing right away in essentially his first day with us or playing on back-to-back nights or playing today when maybe he wasn’t necessarily coming to the arena thinking that he would be starting,” said coach Sheldon Keefe.
“He’s a guy that does find his way to be comfortable because he’s very social, is outgoing and has a great attitude.”
Leafs Nation, still coming back for more after 53 years of bummers, has its tendencies to ride too high and hate too fast.
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So, although his initials are J.C., we’re not crowing Jack Campbell this season’s saviour quite yet.
But the scrappy, puck-moving goalie has delivered in a small, adrenalin-fueled sample size in his comfy L.A. Kings gear repainted blue and white.
In addition to Tuesday’s 35-save gem in a 3-2 overtime win over the Arizona Coyotes, Campbell’s 2-0-1 splash has permitted starter Frederik Andersen the cushion of time to fully recover from the neck injury he suffered on Feb. 3, and has immediately instilled the skaters in front of him with a rush of confidence that they have a good chance of winning even without No. 31 patrolling the paint.
You may have heard that since Andersen arrived in Toronto, he has been responsible for backstopping 80 per cent of the Leafs’ standings points, contributing a greater share than any other goalie in the NHL.
With Soupy’s warming potential—and a cap-gentle contract that runs through 2021-22—there is real hope that, just maybe, not everything has to live and die with Andersen’s health or hot streaks.
“He’s not just a backup,” Kyle Clifford said of Campbell, who came parcelled in the trade. “There’s a lot of potential there.”
Zach Hyman wants to know if you’ve met Campbell yet because he’s “just a really, really friendly guy.”
Alexander Kerfoot beamed when he said, Campbell’s “energy is awesome.”
Like Andersen, Campbell has taken to gliding out from his crease and standing on the blue line alongside the boys for “O Canada” and frequently punctuates his flashy glove saves with butt-taps to his defenders.
“They always tell me, ‘Good job,’ so it’s kind of like (me saying) ‘Good job.’ It kind of makes you interact with your teammates a little more. Being in the net, you’re not on the bench so you can’t really chat it up with the boys,” Campbell explained.
Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.
Drew Doughty, former Kings goalie coach Bill Ranford (who helped with his technique), former Ontario Reign goalie coach Dusty Imoo, Clifford… they all have tales of Campbell’s first-to-the-rink attendance, his long hours in the gym and on the ice, and his tendency to blame himself for every puck that slips through.
“We’re not making this up. This is a real thing. He’s got a work ethic in him that runs very high. He competes on every puck out there in practice like it’s a Game 7 puck. So it’s gotten him to this level. It’s made him a better goalie,” said Jake Muzzin, an ex-King reunited.
That one standings point the Leafs squandered in Montreal on Saturday? Campbell immediately assumed blame for the entire group.
“Yeah, and he played a hell of a game,” said Muzzin, shaking his head. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be the best he can be, and he hates to let the team down, let himself down. But a lot of times he’s not. He just puts that on himself.
“That’s kind of guy we have here. So, we’re lucky to have him.”
This extraordinary inner drive is a quality the son inherited from Jack Sr., who owns an electrical distribution company in Port Huron. (“He grinds,” Junior assured.)
The Kings were road-tripping in New York last week when Campbell’s head was spun with news he’d been dealt. He had one pair of pants, a set of gym shorts and no extra boxers.
There’d be no time to fly home from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach. It was straight to Toronto and into the fire, the race, the shopping mall.
“It’s pretty emotional,” Campbell said.
“The excitement level of being a Maple Leaf — not that this takes away from L.A. — but the excitement was so great that you kinda move on right away.”
TORONTO – Keep debating the merits of the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching strategy all you like, but for Game 1, at least, it worked. Matt Shoemaker and Robbie Ray combined for six innings of relatively uneventful one-run ball, and if ace Hyun-Jin Ryu pitches similarly with his team’s season on the line Wednesday everyone will be thrilled.
That isn’t what cost them their first post-season game since 2016, and it won’t be what costs them the series.
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The more glaring concern coming out of Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays is the way lefty Blake Snell overpowered Toronto with a fastball that averaged 95.3 mph, and mixed in his secondary weapons to induce 15 swings out of the zone that led to a foul ball or a miss.
Relievers Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks also got the Blue Jays to chase, and the departure from the more-disciplined approach is something they’ll need to address before stepping in against Tyler Glasnow with win-or-go-home stakes.
Shoemaker, pitching for the first time since throwing three strong innings against the New York Yankees on Sept. 21, shoved right out of the gate, and was so in control that he needed only 35 pitches to skip through three innings on two weak hits.
That’s why he had to be calmed in the dugout when pitching coach Pete Walker and manager Charlie Montoyo told him he was done. He eventually calmed, perhaps when reminded that this is certainly what looked like the club’s predetermined plan, and Ray took over.
The first batter he faced, Randy Arozarena, ripped a leadoff triple, and after a Nate Lowe strikeout, Ray ripped off a full-count slider to Willy Adames for ball four that just barely squirted through catcher Danny Jansen’s legs as he slid over to block it.
The ball rolled away just far enough for Arozarena to scamper home for a 1-0 lead.
Ray settled in from there with two shutout innings and the Rays were held quiet until the seventh, when Joey Wendle worked a one-out walk off A.J. Cole, who served up a middle-middle cutter that Manuel Margot lined over the wall in left.
The Rays got creative with their pitching deployment, too, pulling Snell with two outs in the sixth despite him allowing only one hit and a walk while striking out nine.
Alejandro Kirk led off the sixth with a single, but was stranded by Castillo, who put on a pair with one out in the seventh. That’s when the Rays turned to Anderson, who got Teoscar Hernandez and pinch-hitter Joe Panik to end the threat.
Toronto finally broke through in the eighth, as pinch-hitter Rowdy Tellez – a surprise addition to the post-season roster – singled, Cavan Biggio doubled and Bo Bichette brought Tellez home with a sacrifice fly. Randal Grichuk followed with a liner to Adames at short, placed well by the Rays, for the final out.
Fairbanks triple-digit fastballed his way around a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. double in the ninth to close things out.
The decision to go with the Shoemaker/Ray tandem over Ryu in Game 1 is among the most polarizing in recent Blue Jays playoff history. A good comparable came in Game 4 of the 2015 AL Division Series, when then-manager John Gibbons pulled R.A. Dickey with two out in the fifth and a 7-1 lead over the Texas Rangers, bringing in David Price in a call that locked in Marcus Stroman as the starter in the decisive fifth game.
While few understood that call, before that game Gibbons watched the Kansas City Royals rally from a 6-2 deficit to stave off elimination with a 9-6 win over the Houston Astros, and was determined to not give the Rangers any life.
This time, the Blue Jays were dealing with vastly different circumstances, facing an opponent eight games better than them in the standings and deeper on a number of levels. That prompted the club to holistically examine how to attack a three-game series – a first for Major League Baseball – and they determined that “in this scenario, Game 1 seemed much less significant than in a traditional scenario, significantly different,” Atkins said.
“We viewed the advantage (in) being able to put our most consistent piece in the middle of those potentially 27-plus innings, as we thought through our strategy, with the added benefit of getting an extra day rest for Hyun-Jin Ryu, an extra day of rest for Taijuan Walker, and then giving our bullpen the chance to be its strongest on Game 1 and Game 3.”
That bucks conventional thinking, fuelling the debate. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, teams that win Game 1 are 126-49 in the series, regardless of round or length, which is why Ryu seemed like an automatic, if he didn’t physically need an extra day.
The Blue Jays and Ryu both said that wasn’t the case, but part of their calculations was that an inability to bring the Game 1 starter back again in a best-of-three – as opposed to making two starts in a longer series – minimized some of the incentive. Another factor was that pitching in Game 2 would still allow Ryu to pitch the opener of the division series, should they get that far.
Also, the Blue Jays felt that if the Rays stacked their lineup with left-handed bats against Shoemaker, putting in Ray would force them to surrender platoon advantage against the lefty, or the righty relievers to follow him later.
Cleverly, Rays manager Kevin Cash countered that by only stacking left-handed batters – Yoshi Tsutsugo and Brandon Lowe – in the first two spots of the order, alternating righties and lefties from there. They only made one move during Ray’s three innings – hitting Hunter Renfroe for Tsutsugo in the fifth.
These types of machinations are part of why the Blue Jays hired Montoyo, after first pursuing his staff-mate on the Rays in Rocco Baldelli, who instead opted for the Minnesota Twins’ managerial opening.
Montoyo brought with him a window into the Rays’ highly respected methodology, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the Blue Jays sought to emulate it.
“That’s one thing I got in every interview I did, it was about the opener and the Rays and the things that they did,” Montoyo said. “So it wasn’t only Ross, it was also with the other teams that (I) interviewed with because credit to the Rays, they’re so creative and what they do is different. At first it looks like, ‘What are they doing?’ But they’re not afraid to take a chance. And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re trying to be creative playing one of the best teams in baseball. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
In terms of giving themselves a chance, it worked, but in the way it really matters, the final result, there’s going to be little solace in that for the Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays have somehow made it to the postseason, and as someone who wasn’t around here during the 2015 and 2016 runs, I’m thrilled to be here for this one (as strange as it is).
We have some added info and updates:
Blue Jays liked matchup of switch-hitter Jonathan Villar vs. Blake Snell over lefties Travis Shaw or Joe Panik, per manager Charlie Montoyo.
Montoyo has a six-man bench with a third catcher, so would expect plenty of pinch-hit, pinch-run maneuvering as game progresses.
— Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling) September 29, 2020
At 21 years, 328 days, Alejandro Kirk is the second youngest starting DH in post-season history, behind only Claudell Washington, who was 21 years 35 days in the 1975 ALCS. #BlueJays
— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) September 29, 2020
Atkins said Jordan Romano was able to throw hard, throw his slider but team felt it would be unfair to throw him into playoff environment in late inning role, having not faced batters outside of live BPs
— Kaitlyn McGrath (@kaitlyncmcgrath) September 29, 2020
Nate Pearson could be used in Game 1 and 3. Or Game 2. But Atkins didn’t rule out a back-to-back scenario for Pearson if he only faced one batter or threw a low-pitch, efficient inning, for example
— Kaitlyn McGrath (@kaitlyncmcgrath) September 29, 2020
Here are today’s lineups. Kirk will DH, Villar gets the start at 2nd Tesocar bats 6th.
105 votes total
95 votes total
94 votes total
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Decades of NBA lore are built on rivalries — epic, titanic, ego-driven clashes that lend context, subtext and the weight of history to what are otherwise just games.
People pay for that stuff, and the league and its players have cashed in, with money spilling in so quickly that it can barely be counted, let alone spent.
It’s good versus evil; pride and prejudice, and pride going before the fall. It’s Celtics-Lakers; Bird-Magic; Michael vs. the Pistons, Shaq vs. Kobe, KD vs. the Warriors and LeBron over everyone.
Some of it is straight out of the Vince McMahon playbook: storylines that keep the plot twisting through never-ending winters until games that matter finally arrive, at which point the hype machine kicks it up another notch.
If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.
But some of it is real. Some of it is based on men of giant accomplishments and massive, never-satiated ambitions coming together and pulling apart like tectonic plates on ephedrine, the league’s foundations quaking along the way.
This time it’s not an on-court rivalry that lends the final series of the NBA’s most unusual season its weight — though on paper the young, upstart Heat testing themselves against LeBron James and his insta-dynasty Lakers has all the ingredients to make it suitably delicious.
But what could make it memorable and a new plot point in the league’s decades-long drama is the way it pits two of sport’s most significant, preening, powerful, proud and successful figures against one another.
Heat president Pat Riley is 75 and his Goodfellas-inspired, slicked-back hair has long gone gray. But even in the bubble and wearing a mask, behind a glass partition, he has a presence. When current Heat star Jimmy Butler is looking for approval, he looks up into the stands, devoid of fans, for a post-game thumbs up from Riley. The Heat figurehead is the former Lakers role player turned coach turned executive turned living legend, the one who rode shotgun for Jerry West on the floor; earned Magic Johnson’s trust from the bench before pushing him too far and losing that war of wills after five championships.
Cast out from L.A., Riley perfected bully ball with the New York Knicks in the 90s, very nearly toppling Jordan in the process, before bolting for Miami, where he has somehow fused L.A. cool with New York edge, South Florida weather and no state income tax to create an NBA destination out of almost nothing.
It was Riley’s presence that attracted James after the kid from Akron was all grown up and looking to leave home. Riley plunked down a bag with the nine championships he’d won as a player, coach and executive and promised James he’d win a bunch more if they joined forces in Miami. James, without a title to show for seven years as a good soldier in Cleveland, followed the sun.
It was a perfect union – the world’s greatest player with the NBA’s most recognized superstar whisperer; the coolest, most gangster executive in the game with one more legend to pour his wisdom into. But after four Finals appearances and two championships, James was ready to graduate.
Pat Riley is Pat Riley because he’s his own man. He followed his basketball vision and in Miami created something in his image. “Heat Culture” is Riley: toughness, accountability, loyalty and no compromises.
In year 17 of his NBA career, LeBron James is still peaking up to his prime
September 28 2020
But James took his lessons and wanted to improvise, play his own tune and win on his terms. When James left Miami to go back to Cleveland, he was following his own muse, looking to close his own circle and bring a championship back to the most un-Miami place in the league — taking what he learned and bringing it home.
Riley wasn’t having it. He wasn’t used to people saying “No” to him, let alone South Beach. For a moment he lost his cool. He lashed out.
“This stuff is hard. And you go to stay together, if you’ve got the guts,” he said after the Heatles had come up short against the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, triggering the break-up, and plenty of hard feelings. “And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.”
It was a ridiculous thing to say. All James was doing was taking his career into his own hands, launching himself on a trajectory few athletes in any sport have ever aspired to, let alone pulled off. James went back to Cleveland and completed one of the greatest stories in all of sports – bringing a title to his (adjacent) hometown after 52 years of being kicked around or forgotten by the coastal elites. He engineered a comeback from 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors, one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Along the way, James found his voice as a philanthropist and an activist — and proved that he didn’t need Pat Riley to be the primary figure in the NBA.
Riley couldn’t help but be chastened.
“I had two to three days of tremendous anger (after James left),” Riley told Ian Thomsen in 2018’s “The Soul of Basketball,” acknowledging that he hadn’t spoken with James since.
“I was absolutely livid, which I expressed to myself and my closest friends. My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down. That team in 10 years could have won five or six championships.
“But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of (LeBron’s) life.
“While there may have been some carnage always left behind when he made these kinds of moves, in Cleveland and also in Miami, he did the right thing,” Riley told Thompson. “I just finally came to accept the realization that he and his family said, ‘You’ll never, ever be accepted back in your hometown if you don’t go back to try to win a title. Otherwise someday you’ll go back there and have the scarlet letter on your back. You’ll be the greatest player in the history of mankind, but back there, nobody’s really going to accept you.’”
In the moments before Game 7 in 2016, Riley reached out to James, via text: “Win this and be free.”
James never responded. He didn’t need Riley’s affirmation, but from the winner’s circle, he let on the vindication his third title provided.
“When I decided to leave Miami — I’m not going to name any names, I can’t do that — but there were some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years (who) told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career,” James told ESPN at the time.
“And that s— hurt me. And I know it was an emotional time that they told me that because I was leaving. They just told me it was the biggest mistake I was making in my career. And that right there was my motivation.”
Having paid his debt to Cleveland, James eventually set out to make one more bold move in a career defined by them, leaving to join the Lakers in the summer of 2018, all while making a masterful long play to recruit the greatest teammate of his career, Anthony Davis.
After a season in limbo, it has worked out perfectly. The Lakers have been the best team in the West all year and have looked stronger as the playoffs have gone on.
But while Riley may have begun to show his age in the decade since he brought James to Miami as the centrepiece of what he thought would be a dynasty that would challenge the Lakers’ historical hegemony, he hasn’t lost any of his edge.
Since James left, Riley has been rebuilding on the fly: adding, positioning, developing and drafting. This past off-season he pounced and found a new soulmate in Jimmy Butler to lead his hand-picked crew of young talent.
The Heat have grown before everyone’s eyes, including Riley’s, as he looks down approvingly from behind his mask.
Now one more test: will Riley’s new team, built in James’ wake, be able to hand James one more bitter Finals disappointment, a seventh loss — this time to his former mentor — obscuring his three championships?
Or will James have the last laugh, winning his fourth title with his third team and proving that Riley needed him more than the other way around?
There are legacies at stake, and history, and two of the NBA’s proudest, vainest and most successful characters are awaiting one more chapter to be written.
But only one of them is one the floor. Advantage, LeBron.
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