Monday, April 30, 2018

Why the Toronto Raptors Will Not Make the NBA Finals


If you watched Game 7 of the Cavaliers-Pacers series, you probably had the grim realization that the NBA still engineers the outcomes of certain events. Specifically, when a marquee player or team is in a playoff series against a team with less ratings appeal (i.e. no stars), there is a tendency for the star's team to receive preferential treatment from the officials. In this case, LeBron James and the Cavaliers shot 40 free throws to the Pacers 24, helping the league and ESPN avoid the indignity of a second-round series between the Pacers and Raptors.

For those that have followed the league for years, this is not anything new. The Lakers were beneficiaries of questionable officiating in two separate Conference Finals: Game 7 against Phoenix in 2000 and Game 6 against Sacramento in 2002. In that second instance, Michael Wilbon wrote in the Washington Post that "six calls that were stunningly incorrect, all against Sacramento, all in the fourth quarter when the Lakers made five baskets and 21 foul shots".  The Lakers enjoyed a 40-25 advantage from the line, eerily similar to the 40-24 discrepancy in the Cavaliers win.

I could go on with Game 5 of the NBA finals (Miami has 49 FTs to 25 for Dallas, owned by league critic Mark Cuban) or the Game 1 of the 2014 series between Brooklyn and Toronto. That link refers to claims made by the most famous referee of all, Tim Donaghy. Jailed for betting on games he officiated, Donaghy seems to make an appearance every few years to accuse the league of masterminding the playoffs. Such a statement implies a conspiracy, which is most definitely not the case. There is no need for conspiracy because those involved know what has to be done, as I wrote after attending a game in that series. With Toronto up 3-2, the league ensured a Game 7 with a 25-14 foul discrepancy in favour of the Nets in Game 6, which was the game I unfortunately paid to see. In Game 7, however, the Raptors ended up with more free throws (33-30) and still had a chance to win with a final shot, after falling behind by 12. That game was the first step in developing the narrative that they are playoff chokers, a story that will come in handy when they are eliminated this year. And they will be, either by Cleveland or Philadelphia.

Critics of this theory point to the success of the San Antonio Spurs and failure of the New York Knicks as reasons why the league clearly doesn't rig things. First, the NBA leadership cares about the playoffs, when ratings are higher, and they want to see star players in the later rounds. The league has done a brilliant job of ensuring that small-market clubs like Cleveland are ratings winners due to players like LeBron. What mattered yesterday is that LeBron advanced to the next round, and that is what happened.

In case you think that one game is too small a sample size, look back in the series. When the Pacers won Game 1, the NBA knew they had a problem and had to ensure that the Cavaliers won a game in Indiana. In Game 4, down 2-1, the Cavs squeaked out a 100-97 win thanks to 26 FTs, double Indiana's total. Make no mistake; Indiana is the better team, outscoring the Cavs by 40 points over 7 games, the largest differential by a losing team since 1984. But the average fan wants to see a star rather than a good team and the NBA needs as many eyeballs as possible.

So although the Raptors are the first seed, they will be watching the NBA finals from the sidelines. DeMar and Kyle are not big enough names to get them to the promised land. How will it happen? Cleveland is not a good team and it will be tough for the league to engineer more than one upset, but they will try. Look for biased officiating in Game 1 or 2 in Toronto, just enough to give Cleveland a road win and then they might be able to sweep their games at home. If Toronto still prevails, then Ben Simmons and the 76ers will knock them off, again with one-sided officiating in at least one game at the Air Canada Centre.

If you expect ESPN to take note of this, well, you aren't paying attention. When ESPN got into bed with the NBA, all of their basketball reporters sacrificed their objectivity for hype. LeBron's performance was enthusiastically described as epic (45-9-7 is certainly impressive but he finished -2 on the night, the only Cavs starter with a negative +/-) but I found no mention of the free throw discrepancy in any of their main articles about the game. Clearly, they cannot bite the hand that will be feeding them until 2024-25. But hey, if you want to know who had the best sneakers in the first round, ESPN has got you covered.  And when Toronto loses, expect ESPN to lead with the repeated playoff collapse story and ignore anything related to the officiating.

I really hope I'm wrong on this one and will gladly admit so if the Raptors end up in the finals. But if they don't, those that still believe the NBA is somehow not rigged will have to realize that nothing has changed since 2000.

Update: Well, the Raptors made me look like an idiot in Game 1, choking away the lead in the fourth quarter, where they shot 20%. Of course, if you look at the other side, the fact that Kevin Love's swinging elbow wasn't reviewed and only upgraded to a flagrant foul the next day could be a sign that the refs were happy to keep the Cavs comeback going. But no, I'm not believing that. The Raptors blew it, plain and simple. The NBA has nothing to worry about.

Update 2: I should have titled this post "Why the Cavs and Warriors Will Make the NBA Finals". 4th year in a row. What a surprise. ESPN says we should appreciate the result (see above about the ESPN-NBA relationship). No, we should be tired of it. I did not watch much of the conference championships, so I don't know how the NBA managed to get the matchup they (and ESPN) wanted, but they did. It was fun to read all the rigged comments over both Game 7s. Basketball is a relatively easy game to manipulate through officiating as fouls are mostly judgemental and I'm convinced that the league knows how to get the result they want. A Rockets fan went through the trouble to post all 9 "missed" fouls on YouTube, so who knows. But it is certainly suspicious when two home teams play so poorly in Game 7. Thankfully the Stanley Cup Final is compelling because the NBA is anything but.

Best,

Sean

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Chivas Guadalajara 2 at Toronto FC 1 (CONCACAF Champions League Final, First Leg) - April 17, 2018


The 2018 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League, the club competition involving teams from North and Central America, was the first to try a new format. Previously, the competition began with a group stage and took nearly 8 months to complete. From this year, however, 16 clubs would play a knockout tournament starting in February and lasting just two months. Five MLS sides qualified, including Toronto FC, who were Canadian champions in both 2016 and 2017. Interestingly, their MLS title would not have garnered them admission to the tournament as the league is considered American for continental competition purposes. Four Liga MX teams joined the party, along with six Central American clubs and another from the Dominican Republic, all essentially acting as fodder.



The first round saw all four Mexican clubs advance, along with three MLS representatives. Colorado were dispatched by Toronto, so at least it wasn't a humiliation for the Rapids. FC Dallas could not say the same after losing to Panamanian participant Tauro. The second round saw the four Mexican clubs in separate ties, and most watchers expected them to sweep. But both TFC and New York Red Bulls surprised their Liga MX opponents, while Chivas Guadalajara and Club America saved Mexican pride. MLS sides have fared poorly in recent years with all nine previous champions coming from Mexico, so this was certainly a result worth paying attention to. When TFC beat Club America 3-1 at home in the first leg of the semifinal and the Red Bulls lost 1-0 at Chivas Guadalajara, MLS fans started thinking an all-MLS final was possible. Unfortunately, the Red Bulls could not score at home and fell 1-0 on aggregate, but TFC drew 1-1 in Mexico City and advanced to the final. Above is a giant replica of the actual trophy that would be awarded.



As TFC had a slightly worse record in the competition up until then, they had to host the first leg, which was set for Tuesday night. I was particularly happy with this turn of events because I would be in nearby Belleville around that time and made my way to Toronto to see the game. My brother is a season-ticket holder and was able to get me a good seat (view above) for a reduced price. After watching the Jays win the opener of their doubleheader against the Royals, I took a streetcar over to BMO Field, which was packed for the match. Security was tight and there were long lines at the main gate, so I walked around to the back to save a bit of time.



I made it to my seat in time for kickoff, which was set for 8:15. I was surprised to see a Mexican fan next to me as usually away supporters are seated separately to reduce the chances of violence. Toronto is a peaceful town though, so there were no concerns here. It took a few minutes for the ceremonies to complete, and the match started at half past the hour. With snow falling and temperatures just below freezing, home fans hoped that the weather would affect the Mexicans, but it was TFC that came out cold. A defensive lapse led to an open Rodolfo Pizzaro who slotted home just over a minute in. Toronto native Jonathan Osorio tied the match in the 19th minute and the rest of the half was scoreless.



During the break, I left my seat and braved the crush of fans along the concourses in order to get a different view. I ended up downstairs and took a picture from a seat there (above) before moving on. I ended up standing just above the corner flag next to the goal that TFC was attacking and spent the second half there.



Toronto had plenty of chances but it was an unlikely free kick from Chivas striker Alan Pulido that beat TFC keeper Bono and gave the Mexican side another critical away goal in the 72nd minute. TFC pressed but could not find an equalizer and the match ended 2-1 in favour of the visitors. A disappointing finish, but there was still the return match to consider, so TFC was not out of it yet.



The second leg was played the following Wednesday and TFC needed to win by 2 goals, or score at least 3 away goals. In the end, they won by an identical 2-1 score, which led to penalty kicks, with no extra time in between. Chivas clinically scored all 4 of their chances, while Osorio and Michael Bradley missed for Toronto, so yet again, a Mexican side is traveling to the Club World Cup in December. That free kick goal in the first leg was really the difference.

Notes

Toronto's MLS campaign has suffered due to the tough CCL schedule, which saw them make 3 separate trips to Mexico. Through 6 games, they are 1-1-4 and sit last in the Eastern Conference. They still have 32 games to make up ground, but it would be good if the league could support them by rescheduling matches. It is the league that benefits from a continental championship as well and you would think they would do their best to help the competing teams.

Next Up

I'm off to Minneapolis this week to check out a couple of Jays games as my Toronto on the Road quest continues. After that, I'll take a short trip to upstate New York to watch some Toronto minor leaguers, as the Blue Jays AA team is in Binghamton while the Marlies are in Syracuse for the second round of the playoffs. Later in May, I'll be doing a one-way trip from Orlando with a stop in Augusta to keep my active minor league ballpark membership active. As always, recaps will be posted here eventually.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Kansas City Royals 3 at Toronto Blue Jays 11 - April 17, 2018


I usually don't write about revisiting sports venues, but there was a special situation in Toronto this past week. I had planned a long weekend trip to visit family in Belleville and see a single AHL game during that time. But the sporting gods had other ideas. First, the Kingston Frontenacs had a second-round playoff game set for Friday, the day of my arrival, so I added that to my schedule. Then Toronto FC defeated Club America in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals and the first leg of the final was set for Toronto on Tuesday. My original plan was to return to NYC via Syracuse where I could check out a AAA ballgame that evening, but I quickly changed directions and added the soccer game to my itinerary.



The Blue Jays were also home from Monday, but with Tuesday's game scheduled for the same time as TFC, I didn't expect to be able to see them play. But the ice storm that swept through the province over the weekend ended up being a blessing in disguise. On Monday, ice falling from the CN Tower (above) punctured a hole in the roof of the Rogers Centre, forcing the postponement of that evening's game. With the visiting Royals making their only stop in Toronto, the powers that be had limited options for the make-up date, and decided to schedule a traditional very rare dome doubleheader on Tuesday with a start time of 3:07. However, with TFC set for an 8:30 kickoff, I would only be able to see the first ballgame and possibly a few innings of the second before moving on to the soccer match. I wish the start time had been a couple of hours earlier so a tripleheader could have been seen, but as Meatloaf said, two out of three ain't bad.



I was staying out in Mississauga, so took the GO Train from Clarkson and arrived at Union Station at about 2:40. It's a good thing I did because ice was still falling from the CN Tower and the shortest path to the dome was blocked off, so it took about 25 minutes to walk to the gates along Blue Jays Way. It was amazing to look up and see sheets of ice floating slowly to the ground from a thousand feet up, almost like paper until they shattered upon impact. No doubt serious injury would occur to anyone who was hit by the falling ice, and some pieces landed quite close to us. Scalpers were surprisingly scarce at the ballpark, and with a long line at the ticket window, I resorted to my phone, picking up a mobile ticket for $6. I do prefer hard tickets, but not if it will cost me significantly more than the secondary market or I have to wait, which was the case on this afternoon.



This was my first visit since David Price's Blue Jay debut on the Civic Holiday in 2015, so I took a quick walk around to refresh my memory. The designated driver booth is hidden behind section 104 in the outfield, but as you get a 24-oz drink when you sign up, it is worth the walk. You can also stand on the concourse along the baselines along the 100 level, which I did for a few innings. While there, I overheard a supervisor ask an usher to collect a couple of younger guys who had snuck in to the good seats. The pair was escorted back up the stairs, and sheepishly stood by as the supervisor reprimanded them. He did not send them back into the cold, as was his right, but into the upper deck where their seats were. I've seen people kicked out of the good seats before, but never lectured for their daring. With that in mind, I headed to my upper deck seat for the middle innings. That seemed to be my lucky seat as the Jays scored 3 in the 5th and another 6 in the 6th to pummel the Royals 11-3.



The second game started at 6:37 and I hung around for the first inning, but decided to head out with the Jays down 1-0 as I needed to grab dinner before moving on to BMO Field. The Jays ended up sweeping the doubleheader with a 5-4 victory in 10 innings. TFC, on the other hand, well, you can read about that in the next post.

Notes

I still think teams in the same city should cross-promote (discounts if you show a ticket from another game on the same day, for example) and schedules should be made so that there are as few conflicts as possible. In New York, MLB has already sent both the Yankees and Mets on the road at the same time for two series, and scheduled both teams for a Wednesday afternoon game at home. In Philadelphia, Game 6 of the Flyers first-round series was set for 3:00 on Sunday despite the Phillies playing across the road at the same time. In both cases, season-ticket holders were inconvenienced. I realize TV ratings are all that matters, but how about a thought for the fans who actually invest their time and money by attending the games?

Best,

Sean

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Barrie Colts 1 at Kingston Frontenacs 2 (OHL Playoffs, Round 2, Game 6) - April 13, 2018


It's hockey playoff time and although I am not planning on attending any NHL games over the next couple of months, I do follow other league schedules just in case a game appears close to where I might be. Last weekend I was in Belleville for a family visit, and so I was keeping an eye on the OHL playoffs to see if the Kingston Frontenacs would be home around the same time. When the second round schedule was announced, the Fronts were set to host Game 6 against the Barrie Colts on Friday, the day I planned to arrive in Belleville. When Barrie won the first two games at home, the chances for a sixth game looked slim, but Kingston won the next three in a row to reward their fans (and me) with another home battle.

It was a rainy evening, a precursor to a weekend ice storm that would invade Southern Ontario, but that didn't stop my dad and I from making the short drive down the 401 to Kingston. The Frontenacs play out of Rogers K-Rock Centre, yet another venue with naming rights owned by the Canadian communications giant (the hockey arenas in Vancouver and Edmonton, plus the dome in Toronto all carry the Rogers name). Opened in 2008 and known only as the K-Rock Centre (after a local radio station) until 2013, the arena is located downtown on Tragically Hip Way, named after the iconic Canadian band that hails from Kingston.

Street parking is your best bet as it is free in the evening, though there are plenty of lots around charging $4 or so. With a capacity of 5,614, you can expect 2,500 cars in the area for a playoff game, so get there early to secure a spot close by. Not that Kingston is a large city, but in cold and wet weather, the less time spent outside, the better. As the rain was falling quite heavily, I did not wander around outside for an exterior shot, instead heading straight for the box office, which was enjoying a brisk walk-up business despite the weather.



Tickets were $24 and I ended up getting a pair down low near the face-off circle (view above) and walked in. The concourse was crowded as you would expect, with fans mingling, but there was still room to walk around and so I completed the obligatory tour.



The team shop had a good selection of jerseys and as you can see, the Frontenacs use the colours of the Boston Bruins, with a giant K on the front, though having 3 front-facing jerseys in a row may be taken the wrong way.



At the south end of the concourse, you will find the Kingston & District Sports Hall of Fame, which continues along the back walls with detailed descriptions for each inductee.



Don Cherry, who was born in Kingston, is one notable face that can be found. As it was crowded with fans standing in front of some of the plaques, I was unable to get a full accounting of the list of enshrined.



The franchise used to be known as the Canadians and you can see some old retired numbers inside the rink that use the Habs colours, along with newer banners in the black and gold. Ken Linesman and Tony McKegney are two former NHLers that are honoured here.



There is a single seating bowl with suites above. The entrances from the concourse are down low, so you have to walk up to get to your seats. As is usual, you have to wait for a whistle before returning to your seat. There is also a standing area above the top row with a drink rail that was used by several fans.



In the top rows behind the net, there are 23 seats in a row, but legroom is quite good for a rink this size and you shouldn't have much trouble getting back to your seat without disrupting fans around you. The drink rail is visible behind the top row in the picture below.



On one side of the building the upper rows of the sections between the blue lines are part of a club lounge and you can't get in without a ticket. However, the lower rows are open to the public, which is important because too often club seat holders care less about the game and it affects the atmosphere. That was not a problem here on this night as the fans were out in full force, hoping to cheer on their Frontenacs to their first league semi-final in 25 years.



The Game

The teams had played the night before in Barrie with Kingston winning 7-1 to take the series lead, so I expected the Colts to put up a good fight, but they only mustered 5 shots in the first period and yielded the only goal when Brett Neumann poked a loose puck behind a sprawled Leo Lazarev. Early in the second period, Barrie tied it when Aaron Luchuk snapped a shot past Jeremy Helvig (5th round pick by Carolina in 2016) but a fluke deflection on a pass from Ted Nichol gave Kingston the lead with just over a minute to go in the period.



Barrie dominated the third, outshooting the Frontenacs 15-5 but Helvig was equal to the task, including making a spectacular save in the final minute to preserve the 2-1 win and complete the upset.



The highlights (including that amazing save) are here for those who are interested. It was a very entertaining game and good to see the Frontenacs advance to the Eastern Conference final against Hamilton. Update: they lost to the Bulldogs in 5 games.

Notes

Kingston boasts Leaf draft pick Eemeli Rasanen (2nd round in 2017, below), a lumbering defenseman from Finland who stands 6'7 but weighs "only" 226. He'll have to bulk up and work on his skating skills as well, but he just turned 19 so has some time to improve. If so, you can expect to see his booming shot in Scotiabank Arena in a few years.



Best,

Sean

Monday, April 9, 2018

Why Nashville Won't Win the Stanley Cup


The NHL playoffs begin Wednesday and there is no clear favourite to hoist Stanley's mug in two months time. One thing I like to do every year at this time is simulate the playoffs based on season series, because at least that tells me one thing: a team that will definitely not win. I've done this exercise at least 6 times over the years, and not once has the team that wins based on season series results managed to take home the Cup in the playoffs. So who is the unlucky team this year? Let's have a look:

Atlantic
New Jersey over Tampa Bay (3-0)
Toronto over Boston (3-1)
New Jersey over Toronto (2-0-1)

Metropolitan
Washington over Columbus (3-1)
Pittsburgh over Philadelphia (4-0)
Washington over Pittsburgh (2-2)*

Central
Nashville over Colorado (4-0)
Winnipeg over Minnesota (3-1)
Nashville over Winnipeg (3-1-1)

Pacific
Los Angeles over Vegas (2-1-1)*
San Jose over Anaheim (3-0-1)
San Jose over Los Angeles (3-1)

Semifinals
Washington over New Jersey (3-0-1)
Nashville over San Jose (2-1)

Final
Nashville over Washington (2-0)

* For season series that are tied, the team with the better goal differential in those games advances. This is an arbitrary choice that does impact the simulation. Vegas was outscored 11-10 by the Kings in their 4 games - if I chose another method (better record for example), then Vegas would win the Cup as they only lost season series to Edmonton, Minnesota, and the Islanders.

So based on the season series/goal differential method, Nashville would win the Cup. Which means that they won't because this method is always wrong. Also, Roman Josi touched the Presidents Trophy. So who will win? I'd guess Winnipeg, who seem to have all the pieces, and like last season's champion, have to beat the favoured team in the divisional finals. Check back in two months to see if I was right.

Update: I was wrong. Washington made the finals as predicted and won! Congrats to the Capitals and their long-suffering fans.

Best,

Sean