North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Basketball Hangover

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It’s been hot here lately, maybe that’s why I’ve been feeling so lethargic w/r/t summing up my thoughts on the NBA Finals. It’s not hard to compress things into a few sentences, but still: a lot happened over the seven games and there’s a few things I want to cover.

Games six and seven were two of the most intense games I’ve seen live. They were easily the most exciting games of this year’s postseason and I can’t remember too many others that gave me the same emotions: game seven of the 2010 Finals immediately comes to mind, as does game five of the 2005 Finals. I don’t bring this up to make some Simmons-esque  point about legacy or how I’ll remember things in five years time, but to say this was a hell of a series. It was intense, even for someone who didn’t have anything riding on it; bad enough I had to switch to the radio for game six because I was getting so wound up in the fourth that I knew I wouldn’t get to sleep if I didn’t.

Going into the series, I picked the Spurs to win in six. I was off by a bit, but I’ll get to that in a second. I picked them for a few reasons: rest, their defence, the play of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan in the postseason. Conversely, I wasn’t high on the way Miami had looked against Indiana: Bosh and Wade struggled against a strong defensive team and LeBron James seemed like he getting flustered by carrying the team.

The Finals started in this vein, with the Spurs defence coming up huge late and Parker hitting a crazy game winning shot in game one. It was another game where James was amazing – 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists – but at least Bosh and Wade scored in the double-digit range. Game two was a Miami blowout, although it was pretty close even going into the fourth quarter, before Miami went on a run and took a big lead.

Before long, each team was trading blowouts. San Antonio took game three and Miami game four, each by wide margins. The Spurs had good nights from role players like Danny Green and Gary Neal; Miami’s big three combined for 85 points in their win. Game five was a little closer: a ten-point Spurs win, on Manu Ginobili’s big night (24 points, 10 assists). At this point, each team was winning every other game. People in the media were saying it was unlike anything they’d ever seen, although it reminded me of an Atlanta/Milwaukee series from a few years back. The Spurs were in position to win the Finals in six games as the series moved back to Miami.

They came close, really damn close. They led late, by five points with 28 seconds left. Tim Duncan had arguably his best career game: 30 points, 17 rebounds against a stifling Miami defence. And the Spurs played with a remarkably short roster: four players would finish the game with over 40 minutes played and just nine checked in at all (including a ten second stretch for Matt Bonner). But LeBron had one of his best nights, too: 32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and the nerve to take three different three pointers in the last 30 seconds. That’ll be my lasting memory: listening to him take those shots on TSN Radio’s scratchy broadcast sometime around midnight on a Wednesday am.

What about game seven? Well, what do ya need to know. It was close and Duncan just about tied it up late. It was intense and I felt glad I didn’t have any professional obligations to cover the game. It reminded me of the time I interviewed Roger Lajoie: he told me the worst event he ever covered was game seven of the 2001 World Series. He was writing for Reuters then, working as their main sports guy. He told me he had to write, erase and re-write his story three, four times as the game swung back and forth. And because he was writing for a wire service, he had to get it out there was soon as he could, going against the AP. Game seven was one of those games, close enough that had Duncan hit that basket, you’d have heard hundreds of columnists slamming their delete key into oblivion.

People are going to try to spin these finals into a greater narrative. It’s one of those sportswriting tricks everyone falls into now and again. Maybe this will be The Last Gasp of the Spurs Dynasty (is this it for Manu? I’d be surprised if he left the NBA but I doubt he’s got much left in the tank either). Maybe it’ll be The Time LeBron Shed His Labels (a stupid idea: he’s been unquestionably the best player in the league for at least four years now). It might have something to do with Kawhi Leonard or Chris Bosh, each resting at the opposite ends of Expectation and Results: 19 points and zero, respectively, in the final game.

But it doesn’t have to be put into anything. It was just a damn fine series: seven good games and at least three I know I’ll be thinking about all summer. It had two of the best players of their generation playing at the highest level; it had a few players standing out beyond what anyone expected, too. I have a bit of a basketball hangover right now – I don’t plan on watching anything, even highlights, until sometime in July – but the nights were worth it.

A Quick NBA Finals Prediction

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Last week, I wrote about the Western Conference champs and a few days ago, about the Miami Heat going to a game seven, so I’ve already written a bunch about the Finals already. But here’s a few more loose thoughts and a prediction for the Finals, which start tonight.

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Blood on the dance floor: Miles Davis’ Live Evil

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In the second half of the 1960s, Miles Davis put together what’d be known as his second great quintet: pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter on bass and Tony Williams on drums. As this group recorded seminal albums like E.S.P., Miles Smiles or Miles in the Sky, Davis’ music began shifting away from strict jazz.

Throughout his career, Davis was always shifting away from the jazz mainstream. He turned down a gig with Duke Ellington while putting together the nonet that’d record The Birth of the Cool, revolutionizing jazz from stuffy big band arrangements into a compact form: a tightly-knit group that would alternate solos between arranged sections of music. Just listen to Move, a song with a composed head, room for soloing and a finish, with everything crammed into a frantic three minutes. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mark

June 3, 2013 at 9:00 am

Not the Finals we expected, but that’s cool

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At year’s start, I’m not sure anyone would’ve guessed San Antonio would be the team to come out of the Western Conference. Even at the start of March, I doubt many thought the Miami Heat would be tested so hard by Indiana. And as the Finals gear up, this is not the outcome anybody expected. And it’s probably the best outcome we could’ve hoped for.

All the way back in November, the smart money was on the LA Lakers to win the West. They’d taken an already talented team – Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, etc – and augmented it. Steve Nash was the point guard who’d mesh with Bryant, freeing him from bringing the ball up court and directing play. And Dwight Howard was the center that Andrew Bynum was always supposed to be. Concerns? No way! As Sports Illustrated said on their cover, “This is going to be fun!”

It was fun, just not in Los Angeles

But what happened wasn’t much fun. Nash, who struggled with injuries when surrounded by the best training staff in the NBA, was hurt and played in just 50 games. When he did play, he was nowhere near as effective: his scoring dropped to under 13 points per game while his assist numbers, long his bread and butter, fell through the floor. It’s almost as if Bryant is a playmaker himself and best functions when he can dictate the offence, usually through the triangle.

Howard, meanwhile, struggled in his role. He scored fewer points per game than he had since 2005-06. His rebounding numbers were almost as bad: the lowest since 2007. Even his PER – a stat all but tailored to big men like himself – plummeted down to 19.4, his lowest in years. And how, it looks like Howard’s ready to leave. Bill Simmons went on at length about this, especially about Howard’s decline. I’m inclined to agree: he was a tremendous bust this season, all things considered. The Lakers lucked into the postseason, scraping in as Utah fell apart in the late part of last season. They fired a coach, seem likely to let another go soon and were soundly swept by San Antonio in the first round. Do people still think the SI Jinx is a thing?

If you didn’t have the Lakers, you probably had Oklahoma City getting to the Finals. It wasn’t a bad risk: they had the duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, both of whom were both some of the best players in the NBA and still improving. And they did have a very good season winning 60 games, their division and holding the top seed in the conference. And then, in game two of their first round series, Russell Westbrook hurt his knee and was done for the playoffs. Without him, Oklahoma City roughed out a series win against Houston and fell in five games to Memphis. There goes another Smart Pick.

So it’s been San Antonio who slugged it out through the postseason. After sweeping the Lakers, they slipped past Golden State in a pretty fun series, especially the double OT game one thriller which I’ll probably rewatch next time it’s replayed on NBA TV. In the conference finals, they swept Memphis in a series I bet most people won’t really think about much, other then to call it ugly. It’s too bad: two games went to OT, one of them featuring an insane Memphis comeback, and game four was pretty close, too.

If Miami gets past Indiana, as I hope they do, it’ll set up one hell of a NBA Finals: the closest thing to a real dynasty the NBA has had in years against the a new style of dynasty; the best player of one generation (Duncan) playing the best player of another (LeBron James); the team everyone likes to hate because they’re “boring” playing the team everyone likes to hate because of the way they came together.

It’s the best Finals we could’ve hoped for: there’s real storylines here, not the kind TV producers would’ve kicked up for a OKC/Miami series. There’s the idea of generational conflicts, or at least the kind that happen in pro sports. There’s Gregg Popovich going for his fifth championship, which puts him in the same class as people like Pat Reilly, Red Auerbach and John Kundla. I haven’t been as excited for a series all through these playoffs. I hope you’re feeling the same way.

Written by Mark

May 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm

One and Done: Six Canadian Bands That Only Released a Debut Record

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Editor’s Note: Originally published Feb. 6, 2012 at Flashfact.org. A postscript has been appended to the bottom.

It’s harder than you’d think to find bands that only released one album. Generally, if a band is any good they have a little staying power. Sometimes even if they’re not any good, too. Even one-hit-wonders seem to stick around for a little while: did you realize Len released five albums? That The Odds released four? Even Jale – a band that only seemed to be around for a matter of weeks – released two albums.

But it still happened. Each of the following bands here were, and in one case still are, very good. But somehow, they left just one album for their legacy, at least while they were still together. And when I say album, I’m talking a full length: something substantial, with more than a couple songs. EPs, compilations and remix albums don’t count. Neither do records released well after the band broke up: do those reflect the bands intent, or was it a way for a label to recoup costs? I’m not counting stuff released if the band went through substantial changes, either: if they added new members and changed their name, I’m considering that a different band.

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Two Game Sevens, Two Heartbreakers

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The cool thing about sports is how it makes you care about stuff you really have no control over and no real stakes riding on. The outcome doesn’t really mean anything to you or me or anyone without a stake in the team itself. And even then, their stakes aren’t really all that huge. Toronto wasn’t going to go into the red if they didn’t make the second round.

But still: I cared about the Colts and the Maple Leafs. And on Monday night, both teams lost heartbreakers in game seven of their respective series. The Colts were down most of the game, tied it up late and right as the period wound down, London forward Bo Horvat scored and put the Knights ahead, so late the faceoff was just a formality.

It was as close as a buzzer-beater as I’ve seen in hockey in a long, long time (since maybe that Canucks/Flames series in the late 80s). It was that old line from ABC Sports: the agony of defeat, the ecstasy of victory, all that. The ref waved it off, then it went upstairs and the goal was allowed as the London crowd collectively lost their shit. Within a few minutes, the Colts cleared the ice, the Knights were posting team photos to Instragram (what a brave new world we live in) and I focused on the Leaf game.

And here too was, I suppose, agony. Toronto went ahead early and kept scoring on Rask. Kessel had a goal, then so did Kadri. Soon it was 4-1, Toronto. Later in the third, Boston cut it to 4-2 and with just under two minutes left, they pulled Rask for an extra man.

A little postscript for this season: Toronto was bad in their own end all year long. How many games did they have where they got pounded by shots and only Reimer kept them in the game? Shit, even against teams like New Jersey, the Leafs could barely keep the puck out of their own end. When you read tomorrow about how great they were at hitting the other team, remember that you don’t hit players when you have the puck. As I noted before this series, Toronto had one of the worst Fenwick Close numbers heading into the postseason.

So it shouldn’t have been a giant surprise when Toronto coughed up the lead, when Boston controlled the puck late, when the Bruins could just fire off shots as it looked like all the Leafs hung around in front of the net and couldn’t clear it out of their own end. Reimer just looked overwhelmed and, God bless him, he was. He faced more shots than anyone else in the NHL so far. And he got peppered again on Monday night: the boxscore has him facing 35 shots.

What’s there to say about overtime? Toronto came out strong, got a couple of chances and the same thing happened: Boston started forechecking, kept the puck in their hands and fired off shot after shot. And this time Reimer was literally overwhelmed: he was falling over and all outstretched when Patrice Bergeron put one past him six minutes into the extra frame.

Sure, it sucks, but this series was a fun ride. That’s the cool thing about sports: they’re fun as shit. After all, the Leafs were the also-ran in Toronto for a long time. The Jays have a longer playoff drought, but they had the excuse of Yankees/Red Sox payrolls, too. The Raptors haven’t won much in the past nine years, but they made the postseason a couple of times and even won a division title. And the Argos? They just won a Grey Cup, maybe you remember that. It happened on their home turf.

The Leafs lost, but they got into the playoffs. If nothing else, that’s something to hang on to: this season’s been better than any since the 2005 lockout. Things are slowly getting better for the Worst Sports City in the World (TM). I’m just happy they got this far. And besides, I picked Boston to win in six.

Written by Mark

May 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Two Game Sevens In the City

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It’s an interesting day today, as the two hockey teams I enjoy watching both have game sevens tonight: the Barrie Colts have game seven of the OHL Finals in London while the Toronto Maple Leafs play game seven of their first round series in Boston. Both games are at the same time, so it’s going to take some creative remote-work to fit them both in, but it’ll be worth the effort.

It’s been a while since I felt so invested in a hockey game. Long enough that I don’t have anything in my archive here I can easily compare it to. I suppose there’s this 2006 post and another from 2007, but both were about the regular season. I’ve written here since 2005, which is just enough time to cover the Leafs postseason gap. So this is new and uncharted territory for this organ.

The first round’s been a mix of rad James Reimer goaltending and Tuukka Rask looking either impregnable  or soft. The series opened with four games with the winning team scored at least four goals, including an overtime game that I regrettably fell asleep watching (because I’m an old man). But in the last two games, it’s  tightened up considerably: games five and six were 2-1 affairs, each won by the Leafs.

They’ve been nerve-wrecking affairs, especially last night when Toronto didn’t score until the second and Phil Kessel put in the eventual game-winner on what looked like a giant fluke: a rebound that bounced to a rushing Kessel, who flipped it into an open net. As I might have said back in my sportswriting days, he took advantage of an opportunity. And truth be told, I didn’t think there was a great many of them; Boston’s defence has been pretty strong through six games and mostly kept Toronto’s scorers in check. For example, through six games, Kadri’s picked up just two assists and hasn’t scored on any of his 13 shots on net; this season, he scored on nearly 17 per cent, fourth-highest on the team.

At the same time, Reimer’s had a bunch of good games. His save percentage is tied with Rask at .932, despite having more goals allowed. This comes from how Reimer’s been peppered with shots through every game: the 237 shots he’s faced is most of any goalie so far. He’s had four games where he faced at least 40 shots and the 43-save performance in game five was one of the best Leaf goaltending performances in recent memory. It’s an easy thing to say about goalies, but he’s been the best Leaf on the ice for nearly every game so far. Watching him this spring has been a blast.

About an hour north of Toronto, the Barrie Colts have also gone through a tear this postseason. They  made quick work of both Kingston and Oshawa, but the series against Belleville was wild, with games swinging back and forth and both Malcolm Subban and Mathias Niederberger making big saves. Two of those games went to overtime and Barrie nearly blew a 3-1 series lead, including a third-period collapse in game six. But they won game seven on the road and moved to the OHL Finals, facing the London Knights.

You may remember how good the Knights were this season. Earlier this year, they went on a tear through the OHL, winning 24 games in a row. They’d finish the regular season with 50 wins, most in the league. Until the finals, they’d lost just two games in the postseason (one of them in double OT) and had two of the league’s best scorers in Max Domi and Bo Horvat, who have combined for 25 goals in 20 games. That’s a pretty good pace.

But Barrie’s has its own scoring monster: Mark Scheifele. Through this postseason he’s come into his own, scoring 41 points in 21 games. The other night, he scored four times in the third period as the Colts came from behind to win. He’s been a beast all season, especially after he returned from a short stint with the Winnipeg Jets. More than anyone else in the series, he’s stood out on the ice: number 19 is usually the guy with the puck and almost always the tallest guy on the ice. Even if Barrie loses tonight, he deserves serious consideration for series MVP.

In all, it’s a blast for as fair-weather a hockey as myself. I mentioned it earlier this season, but this year I’ve really dived into the OHL and this Colts team has been a blast. For one, Scheifele’s one of those players who’s bigger than everyone else and can just dominate on the ice. But there’s also Niederberger, who’s been a standout in net (.927 save percentage and two shutouts) and Zach Hall, who’s picked up 20 points in 18 games. There’s also Anthony Camara, who’s hitting is questionable at best.

These Colts have been a great team to get into junior hockey through; I certainly hope they advance to the Memorial Cup, but I’d be satisfied no matter tonight’s result.

Same thing for the Leafs. It’s been so long since they’ve played a playoff game that I’m just happy they’re even in the postseason at all. That Reimer’s been so much to watch and extended this series to seven games is a bonus. I’m nervous about the games, but it’s a nice feeling. I haven’t felt this way about hockey in a long time.

Written by Mark

May 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm

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