Kings of the North; Toronto the Championship City

The Raptors have done what we in Toronto have waited 26 years to do: Toronto is finally a winner again. Not since the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays has The Big Smoke been the winner of a major sports trophy, until now.

Fuelled by star power, supported by elite talent, and defined by hard work, the Raptors have set the new standard for Toronto sports teams. So what can the Leafs and Blue Jays learn from this never-back-down, no-quit team?

Patience.

Patience to develop your team and build a winning culture before playing the first minute of game one.

Masai Ujiri said it best, “championships aren’t built in one year.” Despite adding Danny a Green, Marc Gasol, and oh yeah Kawhi Leonard all this season, the backbone has been in place for years. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet are all long term Raptors and have massively impacted this team’s developed culture far beyond this season.

Can the Leafs take a page out of the 2019 Raptors playbook?

The Leafs are deep into the process of making their team into a championship squad. All the pieces are here: generational drafted talent, world-class free agent signing, recent playoff experience. So what lesson can they take from this season’s Raptors?

Sometimes you need to bet on yourself and take some risks to take the next step. Moving on from DeMar DeRozan was a massive risk, not to mention mortgaging the future with a first your draft pick to get a better return on the player, too. At the time of the deal it was a heavily criticized move, I mean Kawhi barely played last season!

Hindsight is 20/20 and now with a franchise-first Championship secured, the deal was a home run even if Kawhi doesn’t stay. The Leafs don’t need to make this much of a massive deal with the talent already on the roster, but moving out players and picks to push your chances over the top could be that next step for the Maple Leafs’ search for a cup.

Culture, culture, culture, for the Blue Jays now

The less glamorous lesson the Blue Jays can learn from the Raptors is to invest in creating a winning culture in the locker room now. This Blue Jays team is loaded with young talent, but without motivation and leadership, it could be wasted.

Kyle Lowry, that type of talented leader is what the Blue Jays need… to keep because the equivalent is Marcus Stroman and he’s already here. Yes he’s loud, yes he’s polarizing, but more than anything he’s talented and he hates losing. If that winning mentality can rub off onto the young core entering the league now, it can only have positive results.

Ken Giles, Freddie Galvis, Justin Smoak. All of these players are being brought up in trade talks but all of them play an integral role in the team’s development. Galvis’ Latin leadership role, Giles’ intensity and winning mentality, and Smoak’s even-keeled mindset are all assets to this team.

These players aren’t superstars but they lead by example and they are currently trying to hold the young players on the team to a higher standard of play. Invest in more players like this and the team culture will continue to develop alongside the players.

Now is the time for celebration, Toronto. The only city with a non-US NBA team has lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy. As unlikely as it was to happen the blueprint is there for the other big Toronto sports teams to follow. Boiled down: don’t be afraid to bet on yourself, and a winning culture breeds success.

Is Jake Gardiner the DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

A star of a different iteration of the current, better team. A proposed team leader. Offensive upside but inconsistent. Failure to take the next step towards a championship caliber team, and eventually forcing the team to move on from them. There are a lot of similarities between Jake Gardiner and DeMar DeRozan.

Recently, amidst questions of his role in the current Raptors success, DeRozen stated that he was the “sacrificial lamb” for their success this season. And while the statement was extremely self-righteous, it is fair, if not disrespectful to the greatness of Kawhi Leonard.

Masai Ujiri made the extremely difficult decision to go all-in on the 2018/19 season, moving on from the star player, face-of-the-franchise talent that DeRozan was. It was a gamble, but it wasn’t underthought or done half-heartedly.

Dubas isn’t looking to trade Gardiner as Ujiri did with DeRozan, though. No, instead Dubas has to decide whether bringing back the polarizing defenseman is the right move. Or, perhaps letting him go will provide a fresh start for both parties.

The Raptors used the inked DeRozan (plus a late first round pick) to leverage the return of Kawhi Leonard to Toronto. It’s now clear that the Raps have never had a player of Leonard’s level before. And while originally a heavily criticized move, the Raps underpaid for him. The Leafs aren’t going to b bringing in a generational player of Leonard’s caliber, but Gardiner moving on could free up the cap space to resign Mitch Marner, a uniquely talented generational player.

The situations aren’t mirrors of each other, but the sentiments really are similar. Jake Gardiner is a very skillful offensive defenseman, and if he the exact same player was available on the free agent market the Leafs would be going after him 100%. However, Gardiner’s contribution to recent playoff failure has not gone unnoticed. Are his past transgressions too great to overcome in the mentality of Leafs nation?

Yes, Gardiner is a great skater with poise on the puck and a sense for the net. He can chip in with plentiful assists and can skate himself out of a tough situation most times. Is his time up in Toronto, though? Yes, and just like DeMar DeRozan, his team needs to move on from him to take the next step forward.

Blowout or Bust… Can the Raptors Bounce Back?

By Kimberly Daniels

The Raptors game one versus the Cavs was an incredibly hard game to watch. The last seven seconds of regulation saw a desperate team trying to win, and missing every single shot they were handed. (Hey guys, it’s okay to use the backboard) However, the mental breakdown and mistakes of the Raptors as a whole was the most disappointing; their plays after timeouts were sloppy, the turnovers were high and at most points it looked like Korver couldn’t even be touched on the three-point line.

For long-time Raptor fans it becomes really difficult to escape the feeling that we are seeing the same old tired mistakes that ultimately busted our Championship dreams in the past.

Does one bad game mean the Raptors are falling back into who they used to be? Are the Raptors doomed to their ghosts of playoff past?

Well, only time will tell. But tonight is do or die.

The Raptors will have to beat the Cavs before they hit the road and play two games in Cleveland and they will have to do so in blowout fashion if they’re to convince anyone, including themselves. Setting the tone early in this series and showing that they are capable of stopping LeBron and Co. is the biggest statement they need to make.

The Raptors pulling out a big win tonight will mean digging deep on defense and understanding how to guard the inside, continuing to challenge LeBron every possession while also ensuring no one is left alone to hit corner three’s. This will take more communication between the Raps and also means not giving the Cavs any second chance points opportunities.

But most of all the Raptors will have to showcase mental toughness tonight. They need to be alive with confidence and the fierceness we know they have. It is time for the Raps to show everyone why they are an opponent to fear and it’s also about damn time they put these playoff ghosts to rest.

Off with his head: Raptors look to dethrone the King

By Kimberly Daniels

And so begins another series, as the Raptors travel the road to Championship status. However, this time our opponent needs no introduction. This is the team (or should I say player) who has caused the demise of Raptors playoff dreams too many times in the past…

LeBron James.  A player who is argued to be better than Michael Jordan, who is referred to as the ‘King’ and who averaged 34 points and 10 rebounds per game against the Indiana Pacers series that went to game 7.

But all Kings lose their crown at some point right? And if there is ever a time where it could happen for LeBron, the time is now.

The Raptors are ready. They have a deeper bench, they have the confidence, they have the whole country behind their back and they even have Charles Barkley hopping on their bandwagon.

But what does the actual game plan look like to stop LeBron?

Defense will obviously be the upmost important key. OG and Siakam will be looked upon to stick with LeBron, make it as uncomfortable as possible for him to find a groove, and stay in his face and to keep him from getting into take-over mode, which can be nerve-racking and scary.

The starting five will need to come out on fire, setting the tone that every. Single. Possession. Counts. Taking good shots, feeding the bigs inside and jumping for every single rebound will be the true difference maker.

Our second-unit will need to stay with the mindset that they have had all year, knowing that they are the best bench in the league. With their leader VanVleet back, this should come easier than against the Wizards and if C.J. Miles can also get a hot hand with the three, it would give the Raptors the extra boost they need.

Above all, the Raptors as a whole need to know they can win. Surely, Neo and Morpheus understand that a King means nothing when you have the power to see all.

Prediction: Raptors in 6

Too Soon To Take Out The Broom?

By Kimberly Daniels

After a thrilling win in game two which saw all 13 players on the Raps roster hit the hardwood and DeRozan tie a playoff career high of 37 points in 37 minutes, it’s hard to deny the sense of pride Raptors fans are feeling.

We’ve never been here before: up two games in post season before hitting the road and damn, does it feel good to make our way to Washington with confidence rather than fear.

The last time we played the Wizards in playoffs it was a completely different story. So what’s the difference now?

Lowry says “he got slimmer and got more hair” but all jokes aside, we are watching a Raptors squad that is playing some of the best team ball we’ve ever seen.

Our starting unit found an offensive rhythm that produced 44 points in the first quarter of game two. The Raptors had a strong 20 point lead and when John Wall and the Wizards made a fourth-quarter surge, team members like C.J Miles and Delon Wright were there to help with some key plays to revive the lead and stop the Raptor fans’ heart-attacks.

Dwayne Casey is known for mixing up his lines and trying different player combinations but at any point that a player is called to the court, they’re ready to play with passion and energy. This series has seen our crew playing unselfish basketball, taking chargers, diving on the floor for loose balls and attacking the glass for defensive rebounds. Playoffs have come with the team mindset that every game is a game 7 and we need to do whatever it takes to win.

And while some team members are not as productive as others in this series – Normal Powell has struggled all season and Fred VanVleet only saw 3 minutes in game two before being taken off still not fully recovered from his shoulder injury – we know they don’t lack heart. Powell has promised fans “you may see me struggle but you won’t see me quit.”

If the Raptors can continue to build off of this electric team momentum they have worked so hard to create, all while being told by most that they’d never make it, you can guarantee fans will be seeing more wins.

The Raptors are clearly looking for revenge; DeRozan told the press post game two that he was feeling like Neo from the Matrix. So, how do we pull off a sweep? In the words of Morpheus “You have to let it all go, Neo. Fear, doubt, and disbelief. Free your mind…don’t think you are know you are.”

Or DeRozan and the Raps can just stick to his game plan and #ProveEm

Raptors look to Silence the Haters

By Kimberly Daniels

What a time for Raptors fans across the country! Visions of a championship are dancing in their dreams and the buzz of playoff season is in the air.

The Raptors finished the regular season with a franchise record 59 wins putting them 1st overall in the East, their “bench mob” won respect from many and Head Coach Dwayne Casey is in talks for Coach of the Year. They undoubtedly had their best season yet.

But can the Raptors do it?

Can the Raptors silence the haters, earn the respect of the league and win a championship?

Well, the short answer is yes and as DeRozan recently reminded everyone that while the Raptors “swag is at an all time high” it’s going to take a few more things than swag to crown them champs.

The Raptors will have to come out in Game 1 against the Washington Wizards with grit. Locking down early on offensive rebounds, and controlling the paint will set the tone for this matchup.

While the Raptors added C.J Miles this season who is known for his 3-point shooting ability and DeRozan is taking and making more 3-point shots than any other season, they will have to understand  that they are much more productive as a team feeding their bigs inside. The Raptors have a tendency to take some unnecessary long range shots and post-season doesn’t have time for that.

The old saying goes “offence wins games but defence wins championships.” Washington Wizards Bradley Beal will need to be controlled and overall the Raptors will need to focus on perimeter defence to ensure success in this series. A true championship team shows up with heart on the defensive end creates momentum from forced turnovers and steals.

I mean surely if it was up to Drake – Gods Plan is for the Raptors to break the game one curse and sail through the first round, but it wouldn’t be tradition unless the Raptors gave their fans a few mini heart-attacks along the way.

Prediction: Raptors in 5

The Origins of My West Ham Obsession

So here it goes – maybe an explanation for why I’ve been so fixated on a foreign team, in a foreign league, playing what to us is a foreign sport.

For anyone who follows my personal Social Media accounts, my writing about West Ham United has been constant, if not annoying. But, for me, the Premier League is something that is hard to explain – a sort of cultural tide that grabbed me and pulled me out to sea. As those close to me know, I am an avid Toronto Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, and Minnesota Vikings fan (I’m coming around on the Raptors too). What West Ham is for me has turned into a bizarre obsession, on a different level than my other North American teams. So let me try and explain why.

Waking up from a crippling hangover at the hands of my two University roommates, I had just enough energy to get my bedding into the washing machine before collapsing back on my bare mattress to comfortably regret the night before. From a previous Leaf game, my television was on a local sports station and when turned on was showing the walkouts of West Ham hosting Hull City.

Due to my condition, I couldn’t reach the remote to change to something soft and soothing, so I instead doubled down on the game-winner was my team. West Ham comfortably cruised to a 3-0 win on January 15th, 2015 and I was hooked.

Since that day I haven’t missed many matches, a strong feat considering the very limited T.V. coverage in Canada, but I made it my mission. I went all in on West Ham United, and I have no intention of dropping the shield with the crossed hammers – my promise to never drink again that I made that same morning has not been kept.

A history lover by choice and educational trade means two things: I currently don’t work in my field, and that I dove headlong into the annals of West Ham history. This only fueled my love for the team further. Learning of the Thames Iron Works origins of the team, and the blue collar attitude that grew from that tradition made me even more content in my decision to support the team.

West Ham were an oxymoron to me; Playing the gentleman’s game, with crunching tackles and an unapologetic attitude to get physical, win the ball, and put in a shift.

The team’s rich history of varied players was also an attractive feature. England and West Ham captain Bobby Moore is synonymous with the club, and his international career and composure he added elegance to East London. Then you get the likes of Julian Dicks – The Terminator. The man often possessed in competition, would put body on the line and smash the opposition in order to win.

For me, having visited East London recently for my first ever match, it is now a life long commitment. Is it easy? For love of the team yes, for access to streams and broadcasts, maybe not. Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. Community is something to be valued, and despite how the current situation of the club may taint things, the West Ham family is still strong, and I am proud to be a part of it.

 

Come On You Irons!

-Adam