Now that he’s woke, will DeMar DeRozan ever dream again?

Now that he’s woke, will DeMar DeRozan ever dream again?

Maybe for you, not everything has to be about racism. For DeMar DeRozan, it does. That’s not by choice. He tried to escape it and failed. The question is how that failure will shape his life and [more important to you] his career going forward?

If life is a game, teams in the United States are readily identifiable by colour. Scoring is not kept by baskets, touchdowns, runs or goals, however. Laws tell you who is winning and losing. For every one written to promote equality, dozens are passed to make sure one team continues to hold a comfortable advantage. The margin is so wide that some people on the winning side can pretend they’re not playing.

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In case you’re colourblind, DeMar DeRozan doesn’t play for the winning team. Growing up in Compton, California motivates people to choose one of two paths. They can try to control their environment, which too often means a life of violent crime frequently interrupted by prison sentences or just once by bullets. If they have lucrative talents, the second option is attempting an escape through sport or music. Attempting is the operative word.

DeMar DeRozan played two seasons at USC before going 9th overall in the 2009 NBA draft.

DeRozan’s basketball talents led him to the University of Southern California for two seasons. In 2009, he forewent his junior year to enter the NBA Draft where he was drafted ninth overall by the Toronto Raptors. Seven years before privileged white celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell said they would leave the country if Donald Trump was elected President, the 6′ 7″ small forward/shooting guard took the opportunity they didn’t.

Toronto wasn’t a sanctuary from prejudice. Fear and hatred have existed there even longer than in the US. White people settled in Canada first. However, with far fewer people of colour to subjugate, bigotry didn’t become so deeply rooted. One consequence is police tend to ask questions first and rarely shoot later. Politically, there is a conscious, more effective effort to provide opportunity for all.

With a rookie salary that allowed him to pay someone else to shovel snow and buy as much warm clothing as needed, there was nothing not to like about this foreign city in which he would spend the next eight years. Toronto’s cosmopolitan nature allowed for American and Canadian music, food and other cultures to blend. People were polite. They apologized rather than telling you to watch where you were going. Even better, they didn’t shove it down your throat that basketball’s inventor, James Naismith, was Canadian. [Sorry]

DeRozan fell in love with his new home. Toronto wasn’t a good team, but he worked hard to make it better and engage fans rooted in another Canadian game, hockey. [Again, sorry]

Gradually, the Raptors improved. They became contenders. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find a way past LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Still, when free agency beckoned, DeRozan didn’t entertain offers. Instead, he pronounced, “I am Toronto,” and re-signed with the club.

Believing, he had found a haven from the cutthroat nature of American life, he allowed himself to be happy. The city loved him; he loved it. That should have been enough but he didn’t factor the team into his calculations.

Kawhi Leonard was the rare player unhappy with the Spurs.

Even though LeBron had left Cleveland for Los Angeles, throwing open the Eastern Conference door to the NBA Finals, the Raptors felt like they needed to make a change. On July 18th, he was traded to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.

Was the club as polite as the city and nation it represents? Did it need to be more cutthroat? Raptors GM Masai Ujiri apparently thought so. Not only did he move to acquire a more selfish player who wasn’t fitting into the Spurs’ famously collective environment, he elected not to inform DeRozan about the deal until the last possible moment.

It made sense from an organisational standpoint. Toronto wouldn’t have an unsettled, disillusioned star on their hands if the trade failed to materialise. When it went through, DeRozan’s emotional state became San Antonio’s problem.

Ujiri was probably right. Betrayal on that level doesn’t grow less painful over a few days or weeks. He knew how committed his star was to the organisation and that DeRozan’s resentment would be proportionate. None of that is to say the trade was an easy choice to make, only that sadness at having to make it is easier to handle. The GM isn’t packing up and leaving everything he ever wanted behind.

Masai Ujiri can't afford to be an optimist with the Raptors.

Twelve days have passed since the trade was consummated. DeRozan’s anger hasn’t diminished. That said, he isn’t dwelling on it.

It was a rough week, extremely hard. I can’t sit up here and lie and say it wasn’t. But I don’t want to be living in the past or dwelling in the past or asking or wondering why.

It’s the best possible attitude he can adapt. Whether or not the new Spur is able to speak to Masai Ujiri in the future, and he has indicated he has “no reason”, the Toronto GM had the decency to send him to an ideal environment.

The culture in San Antonio is everything DeRozan thought he had in Toronto, except [speaking of bad trades] the beer is watered down and the food is spicier. Coach and team president Gregg Popovich believes in commitment. He likes players who want to spend their careers in one city. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli prove that. The organisation is also committed to its principles on diversity. Becky Hammon was not only named the league’s first female assistant coach, the level of responsibility that Pops entrusted her with has led to speculation she might be on some clubs’ shortlists as a future head coach.

DeMar DeRozan gets an early start with Gregg Popovich.

DeRozan is already working with Popovich at the Team USA camp ahead of the World Championships. He has expressed optimism about developing that relationship further in San Antonio.

His resume speaks for itself. If you are a basketball fan and you know the game, Pop is one of those guys you definitely have to be a fan of, inside and out.

The question is whether he will be able to trust the Spurs to the same level he did the Raptors? You have to believe he won’t. Even if he wants to invest himself to that emotional level a second time, he will now look for reasons it could go wrong. For instance, Pops is 69. De Rozan is under contract for five years. Can he reasonably expect the coach to be around for his entire term? Will the team’s culture change for the worse when its most influential figure is gone? DeRozan will be more guarded in his approach this time.

Will losing that emotional commitment affect his play? Only time will tell.

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If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

They say no one remembers who finishes second. ‘No one else’ is more accurate. The players who finish second can never forget until they finally win it all.

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Right now, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Vegas Golden Knights are having series they would rather forget in the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals respectively. If they cannot forget now, the end will arrive sooner rather than later and both will have at least a year to replay it all in their minds, wishing after what might have been.

Vegas

Last night, the team playing with house money took the game to the Washington Capitals in the opening ten minutes. Down two games to one in the series, victory would both level terms and return home-ice advantage to the Golden Knights.

The puck gods had other ideas and, apparently, all their money on the Caps. Ninety seconds in, a shot deflected off Eric Haula’s skate then the post. Reilly Smith was up next. He fanned on a shot with the net gaping. James Neal hit the post on the powerplay with Washington netminder Braden Holtby flat on his back, helpless. Those three misses may have cost Vegas the series and the rest of us an amazing Cinderella story to get us through the next lockout.

The Capitals would not miss three times in the following ten minutes, taking a commanding lead into the second period, one that would translate into a 6-2 victory and a 3-1 series advantage.

Washington Capital TJ Oshie pops in the rebound Vegas Golden Knight Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't control in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Lady Luck has caught up with irrepressible Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, too. The ever-smiling, effervescent ex-Penguin carried the club through the regular season, then the playoffs’ first three rounds. Against Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg, his net was emptier than Donald Trump’s promises. Fleury boasted a .947 save percentage. At the worst possible time, he has regressed to the mean, his number in the Finals 102 points lower.

It will have to come back up and the skaters in front of him will have to start converting their chances. As hard as it is to relax when it’s win or go home, Vegas can’t afford to grip their sticks any tighter or make that one extra pass out of uncertainty.

Cleveland

It wasn’t three misses that put the Cavaliers under the cosh in the NBA Finals; it was one shot declined. Things had been going swimmingly for the Cavs in the NBA playoffs. LeBron James had been carrying the load and the supporting cast was ensuring he had a clear path to the basket against Indiana, Toronto and Boston. Matters were much the same for 47 minutes and 56 seconds or so of Game 1 in the fourth instalment of their annual NBA Finals confrontation. Then JR Smith happened.

In case you were locked in your bathroom for five days [it happens, I’m not judging], the 6’9″ Freehold, New Jersey native who the game program lists as a shooting guard suddenly declined to do so. Collecting the ball under the rim with the score tied [NHL Fan Book rule number 14: Never listen to Don Cherry], Smith dribbled to the sideline to run out the clock, apparently thinking the Cavs had the lead when the score was tied. Cleveland then lost in overtime.

Needless to say, LeBron was displeased. He’d been driving the bus for three series just to get the chance to beat the Warriors, and now JR Smith decides to hop out for cigarettes?

Game 2 was a debacle. Cleveland suddenly couldn’t trust each other while Golden State had to believe the stars were aligned and the moon was in the house of Klay and Curry. The Warriors won by 19 to take a two-games-to-none lead as the series switched to The Land.

Another time-honored truism in best-of-seven series is that you’re never in trouble until you lose at home. Well, the Cavs are 48 minutes from trouble of a kind they absolutely do not want. They cannot afford to give Golden State a 3-0 or even 3-1 lead. There will be no coming back. JR Smith, at 32, may face a lifetime thinking, “I could have sworn we were up one.”

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Are you ready for LeBron versus the Gang of Three, Chapter Four?

Are you ready for LeBron versus the Gang of Three, Chapter Four?

We live in an age of instant gratification. Our attention spans have dwindled to almost nothing. Virtually everyone’s kids–look at me when I’m talking to you–are diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or ADWTF. They’re all heavily medicated. Moms and dads take out one-year leases on cars built to last a decade. We trade in our old phones for the newest on a monthly basis. Nothing is ever good enough. In the immortal words of Freddie Mercury, we want it all and we want it now.

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Except when it comes to the NBA. Then, we’re happy to slog through an 82-game season listening to Charles Barkley make no sense, followed by four rounds of playoff action just so we can get to what everyone knows is coming: another episode of the LeBron and Steph Show known as the NBA Finals.

Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors deserve credit. They tried to throw us off the scent, teasing us that maybe this was the year a new team would step up to move the NBA forward by taking their respective conference finals to seven games. Golden State even let a Houston Rockets side without Chris Paul run out to a double-digit lead in the first half before pulling out another patented shock-and-awe third quarter to put the series to bed.

In the end, though, there will be a fourth consecutive final between the Cavs and Warriors, and people couldn’t be happier. If LeBron can somehow drag his supporting cast of cable repairmen and UPS drivers to a title, it could tie this best-of-seven-years series at two and force it to at least a sixth season. And the fans would eat it up. So would the television executives. Guaranteed ratings for the foreseeable future.

The opening matchup of this year’s series is tonight in Oakland. Golden State open as 12.5 point favorites. My gut wants to buy into that line by taking Golden State. I can see Steph, KIay Thompson and Kevin Durant outshooting King James. Both teams won on the road to close out but the Warriors went last and have the momentum.

On the other hand, I remember that opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West. The planks on the train platform are too rotted and warped to dribble a ball, but the tension in the three-against-one gunfight is dead-on. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) asks Not Frank (Jack Elam) if he brought a horse for him. Not Frank laughs and says, “Looks like we’re shy one horse.” Harmonica shakes his head and replies, “You brought two too many.” Then he outdraws Not Frank and his two cohorts, gunning them all down.

I worry that LeBron James is feeling his inner Harmonica coming into Game One. He certainly felt it in Games 6 and 7 against Boston, when he ripped off 81 points.

Is he still up to it? Maybe, but he’ll definitely be alone. Kevin Love remains doubtful as he undergoes Concussion Protocol. Larry Nance Jr isn’t likely to be effective simply because Golden State doesn’t go inside as often as Boston. He should be around to clean up for James at the other end, however.

The critical point in this series will come when Golden State starts strongly. If they are even or ahead going into the half, how will Cleveland respond in the third quarter? If they have an answer for the Warriors berserker onslaught, it will be a long series. If they don’t, well, LeBron will have to take Harmonica lessons in the off-season.

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Riding the L-Train in Game 6 between the Cavs and Celts

Riding the L-Train in Game 6 between the Cavs and Celts

There are two kinds of people in the world: the results oriented and those who are all about the journey. The results-oriented crowd will tell you only the last minutes of a basketball game are worth watching. All that matters is who won. The backpackers will counter that landing a helicopter on a mountaintop doesn’t provide the same breathtaking view as when you climbed to the top through the wind and the cold under your own power. Then they’ll dare you to snatch a bottlecap from their hand and call you ‘Grasshopper’.

In Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference final between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, LeBron James kept both groups happy.

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The Vince Lombardi acolytes tuned in just in time to see LeBron set up on the left, then feint towards the hoop against Jayson Tatum before sidestepping and burying a long three with 2:22 on the clock.

Forty-two seconds later, the King provided his own instant replay. Tatum bit on the fake again. James stepped to his left and let fly before an enraged and embarrassed Tatum leapt at him. James slithered further to his left. Tatum stumbled past. The Quicken Loans Arena erupted when the ball went in. James, chest puffed out, did his best Kimbo Slice impersonation for the crowd, including an ‘accidental’ bump and a very intentional game-over stare for Tatum as he cavorted back on defense.

And that was that. Even though there was another minute-forty remaining, the score read 107-96 Cleveland. The results-oriented crowd’s viewing experience was complete. None of them felt any need to have their blood pressure checked.

On the other hand, those of us who watched the game in full did our part in helping to pay off a few med school loans.

Cleveland started out on the front foot, jumping out to an early first-quarter lead. Then James took over on the way to a 46-point night. Boston’s five-point lead after 12 minutes became an 11-point deficit at the half. When the Cavs opened the lead to 16 halfway through the third, that third group of people I forgot to mention assumed there was nothing more to see and moved along.

It was understandable. James couldn’t miss; Boston couldn’t hit. When the Celtics tried to sneak a fast break after one James layup, the King came storming back to swat away Terry Rozier’s response.

When Boston inbounded, Tristan Thompson blocked another. But the Celtics weren’t as done as they looked. A minute before the block, Tatum had made his first field goal of the game. JR Smith had shut him down for 2-plus quarters. Early in the third, he’d passed the ball to Cleveland’s George Hill, then was called for traveling. But, as is often the case when one basket finally goes in, more followed.

Tatum ended the quarter with nine points and an assist. At the other end, LeBron began to look human. He missed a shot and made a bad pass. JR Smith began pleading with referees as he was blown for two fouls. He was back to being the Cav’s drama queen. LeBron would later remind everyone it was the drama king who sat on the throne.

But to begin the fourth quarter, Cleveland continued to struggle and the Celtics began to carry the play. Smith drew another foul. Kyle Korver drew a couple. James continued to miss. It was obvious the Cavs were holding on in an elimination game. If you were rooting for them, a gnawing feeling grew in the pit of your stomach. If you were backing Boston, hope grew.

Especially when James tripped over a teammate three-and-a-half minutes into the final frame. He rocked on his back like an armadillo, clutching his right shin. The suspense in that moment–would he continue or, [OMG!] was Cleveland’s season over?–demanded full emotional commitment from everyone watching. Sorry, you last-two-minute guys, but you f***ed up. James pushed himself to his feet, hobbled gingerly for a possession, then attacked the basket. Another miss came, followed by a driving layup after letting the shot-clock drop to critical mass.

Larry Nance Jr had come on for Tristan Thompson with a minute to go in the third. He was the one who, off balance, had crashed into LeBron. The second-generation baller wasn’t about to be the guy who broke LeBron, however.  Whenever James drove the lane from that moment, Nance cleaned up so much garbage he could star in a Men at Work reboot. After Marcus Smart rejected no.23, Nance picked up an offensive rebound and put it back. He slammed the next one home.

Not one to be ungrateful, LeBron would set him up for another dunk with a little less than three minutes remaining.

Nance’s six points and two offensive boards kept the pushing the gap to nine rather than allowing it to drop below seven. Had Boston managed a three-point play to cut it to four at any time, you had the feeling Cleveland wouldn’t hang on. That was the knife’s edge on which we all balanced. James had the same feeling. The difference was he did something about it. With the pain subsiding, LeBron switched tactics. Following the pass to Nance, he set up against Tatum on the left and dropped the two bombs.

There is a Game 7 to come tomorrow night. In Boston. Neither team has won on the road in this series. Cleveland hasn’t even come close at the TD Garden. After watching LeBron James exert his will in Game 6, you get the feeling the script could undergo a last-minute rewrite. And it’s your choice. You can tune in around 10:45 or so to catch the last few minutes, and come away with mild satisfaction or disappointment. Or you can put your heart through a wringer for two-and-a-half hours so that your cardiologist can make his next BMW payment. I think you’ll find the latter was worth it.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Yes or no. Black and white. Over/under. We live in a binary world where it’s most comfortable to think there are two sides to every story. If there are more, it’s easier just to say “it’s complicated.” So, let’s keep it simple by saying there are two narratives for Game 2 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.

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The overriding train of thought after Boston’s blowout win in Game 1 is that Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens is just too smart for Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers. Beat writers are comparing him to an NHL coach. He has no stars but has brought his team together as a unit too formidable for LeBron James to take down on his own.

Game 1 suggests there is some truth to that. The Celtics stormed to a 26-point halftime lead. The Cavs nearly cut it in half during the third quarter, the only frame in which they surpassed 20 points and Boston did not. Then Stevens made another adjustment and his squad ran away with the game in the fourth quarter.

Marcus Moore stopped LeBron James in Game 1 of the Cavs/Boston series. Can he do it again?

Marcus Moore held LeBron James to 15 points on 5/16 shooting, 0/5 from three-point land. In fact, almost the entire Cleveland team was colder than Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ stare. Only Tristan Thompson, George Hill, and Jose Calderon shot 50% or better. Calderon only played three minutes. Rodney Hood contributed a passable 42%. The rest were in the low 30s or worse.

It was not pretty but poor shooting offers a different explanation. The Cavs had an off night. It happens. You’re free to believe that Stevens is the next coming of Steve Kerr or if you want to double down on that hockey analogy, Gerard Gallant, but having a good plan is only half the job. You must go out and execute it.

Ask yourself a question. Is Marcus Morris better than Draymond Green? Can he shut LeBron down for an entire series? The Warriors defensive specialist battled James in three consecutive NBA Finals. He won some battles but never completely derailed the L-Train.

Will Morris? Please. The 28-year-old is in his seventh season out of Kansas. One season was spent with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the former NBDL. If he can dominate the game’s best player for a full series, you’d have to wonder what took him so long to become an elite player.

No, LeBron is going to get his. He’s averaging 28.6 ppg in these playoffs. Even if he doesn’t go off, 23 points is both a bad night and an eight-point improvement for the King. Then, the question is whether his teammates can raise their games, as well?

Is Tristan Thompson the key to the Cavs/Boston series?

Pundits buying into the Brad Stevens narrative are calling for Tyronn Lue to bring Tristan Thompson in for Kevin Love. In small doses, Thompson was effective against Indianapolis. The matchup issues for Cleveland are similar. So, that’s an option.

If it works, the ball will be in Stevens’ court. He’ll make an adjustment to which the Cavs will have to respond. And that’s my point. A best-of-seven series isn’t decided in the first game. If it was, what would be the point of playing more? It’s about adjustments. Don’t toll the bell for Cleveland’s doom just yet. But don’t ring it for Boston’s demise either.

Expect a much closer game tonight.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.