One night at my pool hall in Halifax, where I grew up, two regulars started hurling pool balls at each other from relatively close distances. That night was approximately half as chaotic as the Toronto Raptors’ 123-117 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
This is one of those where to start situations. Perhaps with Kevin Durant. His night was allegorical, perhaps, in terms of the NBA’s malleable reaction to the pandemic in general. First Durant was held out of the game due to being placed in the health and safety protocols, though he was never officially ruled out. Then Durant checked into the game in the first quarter (and promptly set to torching the Raptors — he finished a team-high +10 in the loss) as the league insisted he was cleared to play. Finally, after being whistled for a fifth foul, which was overturned in a challenge, Durant was forced to leave the building by being placed back into the health and safety protocols.
Durant made his thoughts public via twitter, saying that he should have been allowed to play.
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) February 6, 2021
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) February 6, 2021
Apparently, Durant had been in contact with someone whose tests were inconclusive, so he was allowed to play.(Why not start, though, nobody knows.) Then during the game, one of that unnamed person’s tests came back positive, so Durant was withdrawn immediately. Durant has continued to test negative leading up to the game. And several Nets, most notably James Harden, questioned the protocols after the game, wondering why the game was even played, as Durant’s teammates were clearly in contact with him before and during the game. The Nets were furious after the game about the situation.
So, more COVID scares for the Raptors. This has become a regular occurrence in the NBA, and world at large, and the Raptors have been on the fortunate side this season in terms of avoiding the virus. It is currently unclear if they will play the Atlanta Hawks tomorrow, although Nick Nurse said post-game that he hasn’t heard anything about a postponement, and the team did travel to Atlanta last night.
By the way, the last time Durant played against the Raptors? He didn’t start the game, but when he checked in, he immediately shifted the texture of the game. Then after dominating for a few minutes, Durant was forced out again. That was game five of the 2018-19 NBA finals. Pascal Siakam noted after the game the similarities in his perspective.
Beyond the Durant situation, the Raptors spent another night voicing their disagreement with the referees. Fred VanVleet and Nurse picked up a pair of technical fouls in the second quarter, which Nurse described afterwards as “a really unpleasant portion of the game.” The Nets ended up attempting more than double the number of free throws that the Raptors attempted, 29 to 14. Toronto was shaken by the officiating, and they responded poorly in that second quarter. They had some cause, though; Kyle Lowry and Norm Powell both received bloody faces from fouls that went uncalled.
Despite it all — and this may be burying the lede somewhat — the Raptors pulled off what is probably their win of the season to this point.
Siakam had a historically dominant game in the post, albeit against Brooklyn’s malnourished defense. He finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, and zero turnovers. Those numbers perhaps understate his contributions. He was fantastic with his back to the basket. When the Nets allowed him to work against a single defender, he scored with absolute ease, no matter his defender. He hit fadeaways, drop-step layups, spinning hooks, and floaters. He use his time and was patient, staying on-balance. When the Nets sent a second defender, Siakam was fantastic at making the correct pass and hurting the Nets in other ways. His offensive output was immaculate.
Lowry was no slouch himself. He scored 30 points with 7 assists, and he took over in the fourth quarter. When the game was tight, and the Nets even took a lead with a few minutes remaining, Lowry was the best player on the court. He hit triples in transition and out of the pick-and-roll. He connected on mid-range pull-ups. He drove and dished to Siakam for multiple layups. Lowry focused on a spinning and distracting game, and he closed the door on the Nets.
That’s what it’s going to take to win basketball games this season. Focus, when so many disparate elements are screaming at players to pay attention to factors beyond basketball. Toronto didn’t cave. Their defensive game-plan was well-crafted and well-executed, as they blitzed Kyrie Irving and James Harden and forced turnovers from their teammates. Their offense was patient, putting pressure on the rim when Brooklyn had not a soul to defend it. The Nets are not a flawless team by any means, but they are a dangerous one, with three Hall of Famers, even if one was only available for half of the game. Toronto was the team whose foundations held strongest under the wave of weirdness. They earned a win on a bizarre night.
That bizarreness could, of course, impact the Raptors going forward. They will, as usual, have multiple COVID tests today before playing the Hawks, and if everything goes as planned, then great, the safety protocols are working effectively. But the Durant yo-yo was more than a distraction; his playing constituted a possible breach in the membrane of the bubble that the league attempts to create to separate its players from any exposure to the virus.
“It is what it is,” was the response of a few different Raptors after the game, most literally Lowry. But they seem to accept their realities.
That’s what this season is going to be, beyond just this night. And the Raptors won, despite it all. They now sit at 10-12, at sixth place in the East, and 8-4 over their last 12 games. They currently have a better offense, both in terms of absolute rating and relative positioning to the rest of the league, than they did last season. All basketball signs are pointing up.
Very little happened to the two regulars who tussled in the pool hall that night. I remember them both continuing to play there, if a little less often, in the following weeks and months. Remarkably, no one was seriously hurt. It was just a strange night. That has to be the hope for the Raptors. Take the basketball win and continue to build on it. Ignore the uncontrollables. That’s what a winning team has to do in this day and age.
Emma Raducanu lives to play another day at Wimbledon – The Globe and Mail
Despite all the hype, Emma Raducanu’s first-ever arrival on Centre Court on Monday afternoon took everyone by surprise.
It had been that sort of day to start this year’s Wimbledon. It rained for most of the early afternoon which meant everything was running late. Matches continued under the roof at the big court, but the opener, Novak Djokovic, found himself up against someone who hadn’t gotten the memo. South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo played like he expected to win. If you turned your head just so, it seemed for a moment like he could.
By the time Djokovic got Kwon under control, three hours had passed and the crowd was in need of relief. When Raducanu emerged onto Centre Court 10 minutes later, there were more people in line for the toilets than there were in the stands.
Sensing the shambling nature of her entrance, the remainers leapt up to give her a standing ovation. Raducanu waved her hand at them distractedly.
This is what happens when you put too much emphasis on something that’s difficult to predict, like the scheduling of live outdoor events or tennis careers.
Raducanu, who won a surprise U.S. Open last fall and then nothing since, plays like someone who feels every eye in the place on her. Between points, she wanders off to the back wall to have a little chat with herself. During breaks, she stares ahead blankly while breathing in and out hard enough to light a fire. You just know this is a person who has really gotten into meditation, and not for fun.
Who could blame her? Right now, there may be no young athlete on Earth who feels more pressure to perform in one particular place.
Raducanu won on Monday because she sort of had to, didn’t she? Which is not to say that she won with much elan. She wore down Belgian puncher Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-4.
What was it like that first hour? To say the first set was played at a snail’s pace would be a calumny on snails. It’s one thing to play turgid tennis. It’s another to do it on a cool late afternoon at a place where they serve champagne for breakfast. You could see heads around you in the stands nodding.
But having gone through that set-long crucible of boredom, Raducanu perked up in the second. The crowd was back and the air was lighter. Then Van Uytvanck did the neighbourly thing and gave up.
Afterward, Raducanu was more than pleased. She positively glowed. She celebrated like she’d won something that mattered, which I guess she had.
“I felt the support the minute I walked out those doors,” Raducanu said, though she hadn’t really.
“Thank you to everyone who’s been here supporting …” she said, though that wasn’t totally correct either, since she made only a medium-sized dent in this tournament last year.
“ … through the tough part as well.”
Well, that is right.
Since winning the U.S. Open, Raducanu’s career has split into two streams.
First, there is her personal brand. That is rated AAA by multinationals everywhere. Raducanu is that unicorn in sports marketing – an athlete who looks like they were designed in a computer, talks like they are a normal human and emotes like your new best friend. However the tennis turns out, she will make a fortune selling things for as long as she is willing to drag herself onto a court, and probably long after.
Then there’s the tennis. That hasn’t gone so well. Pernicious injuries and false recovery starts have blighted the past nine months. After the worst of it was over on Monday, Raducanu likened it to her gap year (only, I suppose, more painful and more profitable).
This sudden rise and fall has an almost direct parallel with Canadian 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu also introduced herself to people by winning a major and also immediately fell into a thicket of injuries.
The biggest difference between the two stories is that in Canada, we’re willing to wait on our tennis stars. In this country, not so much. The British tabs have spent weeks playing up Raducanu’s Wimbledon – only her second – like it’s her last chance to win this thing.
A national injury watch was launched after she bailed out of her only match at her only warm-up tournament three weeks ago. The all-clear was announced on Saturday.
It’s not clear if Raducanu’s fit to play here, or ‘fit’ to play here. But she’s playing, however slowly.
“Looking forward to hopefully coming out and playing in front of you guys again,” Raducanu said afterward.
Maybe the “hopefully” is a verbal tic. Or maybe she actually meant it like it reads.
This is the unbearable heaviness of being British (and good at tennis and playing at Wimbledon). It is an unfair ask, until you consider the rewards being dangled for success. Win here, however young you are, and you can hire someone to write your obituary now. Unless things go very wrong, the first few paragraphs won’t change much.
What you are struck by is how much Raducanu seems to enjoy interacting with a crowd, but not while she’s playing. Every pro finds her zone, but few need to visibly grind so hard to stay in it. It speaks to a young person who senses keenly – maybe too keenly – what’s at stake.
“I’m going to play like a kid who just loves playing tennis,” Raducanu said over the weekend. She didn’t. She played more like someone trying to squeeze the racket handle to splinters.
But one win means there will be no disaster. If she loses now, she can blame her fitness – which would be more of an explanation than an excuse. The important thing is that she cemented one positive memory on the most recognizable surface in tennis.
So having done the minimum, Raducanu sounded less like a star doing PR and more like what she is – a teenager of remarkable self-possession trying to figure out how to be famous.
Her voice trembled only a little and only once, when she told the crowd, “I’m just so happy to stay another day.”
How Colorado’s patience, intangibles challenged a Tampa offence with no answer – Sportsnet.ca
Over the years of their recent post-season success, which has included a pair of Stanley Cups and appearances in five of the last six Conference Finals, the Tampa Bay Lightning morphed from Team Speed & Skill, to Team Intangibles. They’ve gone from the high-flying offensive team that put others on their heels, to the positionally-sound defensive juggernaut that basically said to their opponents: “See if you can beat us, because we sure as hell won’t beat ourselves.”
And yet again, beat themselves they did not.
Beleaguered as a team can be, Tampa Bay laid back and stayed patient, even when it seemed like their opponent was taking it to them. They’ve had the ultimate trust in Andrei Vasilevskiy, as they should, and it forced opponents to get frustrated, open up, and give them just that extra chance or two that has allowed the Lightning to score and prevail. Like Tiger Woods in his prime, sometimes the size of their well-earned reputation forced others to beat themselves.
Still, at some point you have to be able to create some offence to win games, and as they got more injured, that became a bigger challenge. They didn’t have Brayden Point as they did in Round 1, where a Bolts team on the ropes saw him go directly to the Maple Leafs crease and finish a rebound goal to keep their Cup hopes alive. That obviously hurt them.
Beyond that, though, they didn’t have the depth scoring come through as it has in past years, and they simply couldn’t dial it up on offence and remain as defensively stout as they knew they needed to be against an offensively-gifted Colorado Avalanche team. This time, that was the Avs’ reputation coming into play. Each of Alex Killorn (19:16 TOI per game), Anthony Cirelli (also 19:16), and Brandon Hagel (14:21) played in all 23 playoff games for the Lightning, and they combined for just five goals. Killorn, who scored 25 in the regular season (and had eight in 19 playoff games last year), was blanked with zero. So many players had to turn their attention solely to the little details of defending and positional play, and they excelled at it. But it came at a cost.
I reference Tampa didn’t have that same depth offence as they had in the past, because we all remember the Cup-winning Bolts teams getting huge goals from their third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, but it’s worth noting the crucial difference: Colorado wasn’t Dallas and they damn sure weren’t Montreal, not even close. The depth guys on the Lightning this year were faced with a much different chore than Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow. The Avalanche were extremely well-coached throughout this playoff run, and they recognized Tampa Bay’s weakness: they didn’t have another offensive gear to kick it into, so they leaned harder on that struggle.
The Colorado Avalanche all but stole the game plan from Tampa, which was to play smart and positional and choke the life out their opponent, all while saying “The burden of creating offence is on YOU, and you’re going to have to go through every last one of us.”
“Offensively-gifted” or not, the Avs’ scoring was stunted down the stretch of the series, but it was a concession they were willing to make knowing Tampa Bay’s inability to create. Here’s the most telling stat of the series and why I leave the Final fixated on positional patience. If the Bolts were sitting back and waiting for the Avs to get desperate, open up and make mistakes in this series, here’s what they got off the rush:
A hot bowl of nothing.
Over six Stanley Cup Final games the Avalanche had more rush chances than the Bolts by an average of six per game (per Sportlogiq). Six extra rush chances, which in the end was the difference, wasn’t it?
The Stanley Cup game winner comes off a rush where Artturi Lehkonen makes an unbelievable off-hand one-time shot that finds the top corner, which maybe you’d call a bit “lucky” because who knows how many times out of 10 he could place that puck there again. But in very hockey fashion, it’s not luck, because they created enough chances to “get lucky” like that. As it always goes in hockey’s big picture, making your own luck is a reason to love teams like the Avs who create chances in volume.
There’s been much said about the Lightning’s injuries and their inability to be at their best in this Final, but let’s not pretend the Avs were at max capacity. Andre Burakovsky was hurt, Valeri Nichushkin was hurt, and hell, Nazem Kadri had his trainer tie his skates and played in an oven mitt (and scored an OT winner). Sammy Girard was too hurt to get in a game in the Final.
Even with their injuries, the Avalanche played with a maturity the Lightning’s other opponents could not. Colorado got the better of the Bolts to open the series, then Tampa went into full lockdown mode, playing for low scores and hoping to lean on their experience and again, patience. In Games 3, 4, 5, and 6 the Avs scored just 2, 3 (with overtime), 2, and 2 goals. But instead of starting to cheat and stretch and open up to generate more against a goalie that could’ve frustrated the heck out of them, they recognized that for Tampa to win, they’d have to score too.
The Lightning are getting deserved love as “Team Intangibles” this year, and they certainly played great and blocked shots and proved themselves to be warriors. But don’t let the Avs’ demonstration of those same things get lost.
That’s coaching, that’s leadership, that’s playing (and sometimes losing) enough big games to see that forcing plays and taking chances can bury you in the post-season. You have to trust that it will come, you have to trust the plan, and when offensively talented teams get to that point, they’re almost impossible to beat.
This Final was two teams that were “almost impossible to beat,” and as a result, the series was delightful to watch. The Avalanche used all their tough experiences of the years past to give their opponent jack squat in the biggest moments of the season, and they finished the playoffs losing only four times the whole way through.
The Lightning were worthy foes, for sure, but the Avalanche are deserving champions.
What a Stanley Cup Final.
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