North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Lou: Sixth Man of the Year

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I’d been hearing buzz about Lou Williams deserving the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award over the past couple weeks, but truthfully I hadn’t really paid it much heed: I like Williams, I guess, but I truthfully never really thought of him as the league’s best off-the-bench player.

Maybe it’s because in my mind, I want to compare anyone who wins the award with people like Manu Ginobili or (Oklahoma City Thunder-era) James Harden: guards who play off-the-bench but dictate the action when they’re on the court. But I suppose maybe the comparison is unfair: Ginobili is a generational talent and Harden is, well, really good. I mean I just picked him as the NBA’s MVP.

And while Williams isn’t either of those, nobody’s saying he is. But he is good, especially in the role he’s been placed in. So let’s dig in!

This is Williams first season in Toronto and his tenth in the NBA. He’s 28, which is about when players start peaking and his play this season has been full of career-highs. He’s played in 80 games, his most since 2008-09, and logged over 2000 minutes, a career high. Per 36 Minutes, Williams is averaging about 22 points, three rebounds and three assists. Compared to previous years, his rebounding is about the same, his assist rate is down and his scoring has gone through the roof.

In part, it could be called a simple twist of fate: as per a 82 Games report, the second-most used Raptors squad is Williams, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, James Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough. Not what you’d call a fearsome squad, but that’s basically their second unit. And of those five, only Williams averages more than 10 points per game.

So he focuses on scoring, letting Vasquez control the ball and Patterson or Hansbrough rebound. Remember, Vasquez’s Usage Rate is averaging around 20 per cent, meaning he’s used in a fifth of all plays when he’s on the court. Not bad for second-string guard!). And Williams takes a lot of shots.

This year, Williams has attempted 928 shots, third-most on the team and only slightly behind DeMar DeRozan’s 990. And honestly, I’m surprised is only that few: in my mind’s eye, I can see him taking like a dozen shots a game, hitting a few big ones and missing a few, too.

For every time he’s hit an important bucket (here’s one, here’s another and here’s one from the preseason), I feel like there’s been a game where he shot them out of contention. Two examples: a 109-93 loss to Brooklyn where Williams went 1-of-11 and a 82-75 loss to Milwaukee where he went 1-of-12.

I don’t mean to shit on his parade, though. I’m pretty psyched that Williams won the award and frankly, it’s pretty cool to see any Raptor win an award like this. And usually, after a poor shooting night or two, Williams rebounds with something good. So here’s hoping his 4-for-16 afternoon on Sunday was his Bad Game of the series against Washington.

Written by Mark

April 21, 2015 at 11:22 am

The Ying and Yang of P.K Subban

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A few years back, my dad and I went to a Toronto Marlies/Hamilton Bulldogs game. I honestly don’t remember too much about the game except for P.K. Subban.

 

It wasn’t that he was everywhere or made some memorable play – although he checked a guy through the glass, which was amazing. No, what I remember most was his presence: when he was on the ice, he just popped out like the message in a magic eye puzzle. It was pretty cool.

 

So I guess I’ve been a fan of him for a while, watching the ups and downs of his short career. And there’s been more than a few: a contract dispute where he missed a few games, a Norris trophy and many, many controversies. See, the thing about Subban is he works people up almost as much as Sean Avery once did. But more than that, Subban is a good player. He’s very good and arguably the best defenseman in the NHL.

 

There are many invalid and moronic reasons he gets so much flak – one’s I’ll leave unsaid because I’m completely unqualified to discuss them – but there’s good ones, too: he occasionally makes a dirty play. I think a good example of both kinds of criticism came into play the other night, during the first game of the Montreal/Ottawa playoff series.

 

I’m going off the top of my head here, but I think there’s been sixty million-plus words written about Subban slashing Mark Stone’s wrist and the immediate backlash. Subban was given the boot, which since it happened so early in the game was effectively a one-game suspension; Stone sustained a micro fracture to his wrist but hasn’t missed either game of the series.

 

The takes came both quickly and hot in the hours after the slash. They ranged from “Subban slash deserved multi-game suspension” to casting doubt on Stone’s injury. Ottawa coach Dave Cameron made a vague threat against the Habs: “when one of their best players gets slashed, just give us five. It’s not that complicated,” he said per a TSN report. That remark’s in poor taste, but given the context, I’m not getting bent out of shape. Indeed, things on Twitter got a little crazier, but that’s the nature of that beast.

 

By the time game two rolled around, I was primed for something crazy: a physical game, one where the Sens crash the net and try to rattle netminder Carey Price or maybe a cheap shot against Subban. It didn’t work out that way, but it ended up as a hell of a game. And again, Subban was the story.

 

If the first game was of the more frustrating side of Subban’s game, the second was one showcasing his positive side. When he was on the ice, he again just popped up over everyone else. Which was a lot, since his 29 minutes of ice time was the most of any Habs skater.

The goal in the second is the lasting impression. It was an amazing shapshot, an absolute beauty from the top of the circle that blew right by Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond.

 

But there were other moments, too. One that sticks out for me was a late shot where he had the angle but didn’t quite get as much of the puck as he probably would’ve liked and didn’t score. Another is how he was right there on the ice when Alex Galchenyuk scored the OT winner, too.

 

I think the thing with Subban is how he can be frustrating but also exciting. I can’t think of another defenceman I enjoy watching as much as I do Subban, but I can’t think of anyone who generates as much controversy as he does, too. And again, most of it isn’t his fault: I completely believe Subban is held to a different standard and is criticized for things most of the NHL could get away with (ie: he celebrates too much, whatever that means).

 

But there’s certainly a ying and a yang to him. There are going to be games where he’s frustrating and games where he’s exciting. And man, that goal on Friday night. At his best, there’s nobody as exciting as Subban.

Written by Mark

April 18, 2015 at 11:56 am

2015 NBA Playoff Picks – First Round

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It’s spring and this is something of an annual tradition around here! Picks and series thoughts after the jump! Read the rest of this entry »

The Doom and Gloomy Leafs on a Sunny Jays Sunday

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It was warm and sunny on Sunday as I drove into Blue Mountain, but it was also a day where the slopes were still open, too: people carrying snowboards, skis and helmets commingled with people in shorts, tank tops and sandals at the bottom of the hill.

Seemed like fitting weather, given the day’s sports news coming out of Toronto. It too was a mix of summer and winter, the Jays and Leafs each with moves that would normally lead the sports section.

On Saturday night the Leafs season finally came to an end against Montreal. Not an exciting game, not even one I bothered watching to completion. It’d been a rough year by anyone’s standards, not even getting into the weird little soap operas that kept bubbling up throughout the year: Kessel snapping at the media, a plague of jerseys thrown on the ice, a media-driven flap over players not saluting fans who were booing them off the ice. Like I said: it was a weird year.

Anyway, less than 24 hours after the Leafs final game, Brendan Shanahan started purging the team. He fired the general manager, the coach and a bunch of assistants. Depending on who you read, their scouting department was gutted as well. He had promised quick changes, but man, this was quick. As a twitter wag noted, there wasn’t even time for the traditional contract extensions first.

There aren’t really any compelling arguments for keeping Dave Nonis on as GM. For one, his position under Shanahan seems ill defined and is maybe powerless. Even last summer, when the Leafs started hiring management, the moves were seen as Shanahan moves, like when the Leafs hired Kyle Dubas away from the OHL’s Sault St Marie Greyhounds.

If that left the player moves to Nonis, it’s worth noting what happened there is problem number two. Over the past few seasons, the Leafs have let much of their talent walk, kept underperforming players around and never really addressed positional needs.

One example: In the spring of 2013, James Reimer backstopped the Leafs deep into the first round of the playoffs, often while facing upwards of 40 shots a night. That summer, the Leafs added another goalie, who also regularly faces upwards of 40 shots a night. They still haven’t really addressed their defensive and puck possession problems.

In a way, it’s frustrating. The Leafs are always in the news and it’s rarely for something interesting. It’s always negative, either because they lost, because the media is throwing someone under the bus or because there’s some kind of controversy being drummed up. First it was people throwing jerseys, then it was salute-gate, finally it was Kessel getting fed up by accusatory questions.

This season, more than any other I can remember, seemed like the media trying to crank out a new scandal every few days to sell papers or push a columnists name ahead. When I get around to the sports section, it feels like the same old doom and gloom from a crop of writers I used to enjoy reading. Maybe that’s why I read it less and less these days.

And indeed, all the moves are leading the sports pages today. The scribes are already writing stuff that throws Kessel under the bus (no, I’m not linking to it) and slamming Nonis on the way out. I’m sure that in days to come, they’ll find hands to wring, people to blame and easy solutions that won’t really solve anything. I’m also sure I won’t bother reading any of it.

It’s too bad: the Jays played their most exciting game of the year on Sunday and frankly, it might be one of their best games of 2015.

 

I caught snatches of the game on the radio and on Twitter: lots of hitting, a big Jays lead and a near-comeback by the Baltimore Orioles. I think my favourite part was the late home run by Bautista: buzzed by an inside pitch, he took the next into the seats and ran around the bases yelling at Darren O’Day. If I remember right, he was even yelling from the dugout afterwards! It was great: his first home run of the year, one that gave the Jays an extended lead in the late innings and a nice display of emotion from a guy who generally seems pretty reserved.

 

But remember: late last year, Bautista went on a tear and more or less kept the Jays in playoff contention almost single-handedly (I even wrote about it here). He hit .299/.430/.540 in September, including a 12-game stretch where he hit eight homers and slugged a 1.205 OPS. He started this season a little slowly, but man, he seemed jacked up after that dinger and I’m hoping it’s a sign he’ll go on a tear.

 

There were other cool moments. There was a great grab by Donaldson late in the game, where he dove and grabbed a sharply-hit ball. There was two good grabs by Kevin Pillar, including one in the ninth where he lost his glove but the ball stayed inside (he hit a dinger, too). And there was Castro, who found himself in a jam in the ninth, with the tying run at the plate and one out, but pitched his way out of it. Not bad for a rookie!

 

For me, the game hit all the right notes: memorable defense, good pitching (by Castro, anyway) and a Bautista dinger. And what’s more, it’s a positive story: there isn’t anyone to throw under the bus, nobody you to assign blame to, not even a stupid controversy to milk. After all, after a week into the new season, the Jays have gone 4-2 and are tied for the AL East lead. It should be an exciting time!

 

It’s too bad it’s buried under a pile of Leafs-autopsy ink.

Memories of the Dome

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It’s April and the Jays are back, which means things are going pretty swimmingly here. Which is nice: it was a cold winter and the Leafs weren’t really a lot of fun this year.

The Jays home opener is this Monday, which is always something of an event for the team: lots of rowdies and booze and, on one memorable night, a whole boatload of dropped pitches. I’ve never made it down to one, but Andrew Stoeten has a funny guide to surviving a riotous opening night that’s well worth a read.

Anyway, it’s reminded me of some of my more memorable times at the Dome: sitting in the upper bowl in 40 degree heat and feeling like a raisin for a week; a drunk guy trying to start the wave and yelling until security hauled him away; the time two guys sat in our seats and tried to pick a fight with me. Oh, there were some cool baseball moments I saw, too, but that’s for another day.

But I think my favourite came back in my college days, when I convinced a few friends, neither of whom liked baseball (and also my friend Svea), to come down for a $2 Tuesday game. I don’t really remember too much of the game (Baseball-Reference says they lost to Oakland 8-9), but I absolutely remember the boozing happening all around us. And, er, within us, too. I’m sure I planned to hit my seat chin-first.

Things eventually got a little crazy in our section, the drinking devolving into fistfights. Eventually the cops came in and started hauling people away. Fun was had by all, even though I doubt those two people I went with will ever go a game again. After all, it wasn’t as crazy as the 2005 CFL Eastern Final I went to way, way back when. (Hard to believe this blog’s been around that long; harder to believe how hard I copped Hunter Thompson back then).

Written by Mark

April 11, 2015 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Mapping The Jays Across Canada

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A few days ago, The Atlantic ran a story about MLB fandom across the US and included a map that broke down fandom by region in a pretty in-depth appearing way.

And frankly, I’ve been fascinated by it for a a couple of days now. There are all these little pockets here and there and big wide patches of what I might charitably call bandwagoning around the US. You know, the places where the Yankees dominate, even though they don’t play anywhere near there. I’m looking at you, Louisana. But there also weird little pockets here and there in Oklahoma, Idaho and Nebraska, too.

What I found most interesting was the Canadian content: the Jays are the favourite team across most of Canada, but not anywhere in the US. I’ve got a few reactions to this:

  1. The Jays are popular across Canada because just about every single one of their games is beamed nationally. It’s hard to escape them if you have Sportsnet, which I imagine most Canadian baseball fans have.
  2. But no US team is as popular, which strikes me as a little odd: don’t the Mariners have a following out in BC? The Red Sox out in the maritimes? And the Twins out by Winnipeg?
  3.  Meanwhile, the Jays are almost never on national TV in the US, which means they’d be awfully hard (or expensive) to people down there to root for exclusively. And they certainly haven’t been good enough for people to pile onto like they do the Giants.

So maybe this is all an exercise in reach: the Jays reach more Canadians, and fewer Americans, than any other MLB team, hence making them more popular. The continual push by Rogers’ PR wing surely helps, too.

But why the Boston crowd in Quebec? Rurally, la belle province seems to be solidly Jays, but once you get into the big cities there’s a sizable Sox contingent. Even Quebec City is a Sox town! It’s curious, but maybe it’s proximity: I imagine it’s easier to pick up Red Sox games on the radio there than it is Jays games. More vacationers, too.

There’s another thing to consider: this map takes it’s data from Facebook. I’m not completely sure how they got that information, though: was it who “liked” the team? Or people who put the team in their profile somewhere? Or just people who post about the team a lot? I’d love to see a breakdown, especially with who came in second place in each country.

Anyway, it’s all interesting stuff and maybe something I’ll dive back into later.

Written by Mark

April 3, 2015 at 9:00 am

Swoon City: Toronto, Sports and the Media in 2015

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It’s early on Wednesday morning and I’m driving around, listening to 1050 TSN when I hear the latest Hot Take: the Raptors are bad because the Leafs are bad because Toronto likes bad teams.

 

I used to call this The Toronto Malaise, a general feeling of depression that hangs over the city and it’s sports teams. When I wrote that, the Jays and Leafs were doormats and the Raptors the best of a bad division, fading with nothing to show for it.

 

But that was then and this is now: both the Leafs and Raptors have been in the playoffs in recent years and the Jays might too, if they can stay healthy and shore up their pitching. There are several great athletes in this city and most of them are pretty young. They’re even happy to be here! So things should be looking better, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mark

March 26, 2015 at 10:47 am

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