Category Archives: NBA

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Fred VanVleet: The Unexpected Playoff Hero

Entering the NBA Playoffs, Fred VanVleet would not have popped into your mind as a player to turn into a postseason hero. For the season, the Toronto Raptors backup point guard averaged only 11 points per game, on 41 percent shooting from the field.

But suddenly, when premier performance was required in big games, VanVleet stepped up. Shots that were hitting the rim were going in from beyond the arc. Off the bench, VanVleet is the catalyst of a supporting cast that has played a pivotal role in getting the Raptors to the franchise’s first NBA Finals.

Even in defeat against the Golden State Warriors in Game 2, VanVleet remains positive. He knows what his team must do in order to steal a game in Oakland.

“You can’t start slow against this team,” said VanVleet after the Raptors 109-104 defeat in Game 2. “We got to be better to start the third and we know that,
and that’s something that we’ll focus on and look at the tape and see how we can be better next game.”
VanVleet Credits Birth of Son for Offensive Resurgence
Fred VanVleet’s personal motto is “Bet on Yourself.” This phrase inspires the point guard whenever he steps out on the court. It got him through college playing for the Wichita State Shockers. And it enabled perseverance when the 25-year-old was undrafted in 2016.

Entering this year’s NBA Playoffs, VanVleet was struggling. In the Philadelphia 76ers series, VanVleet and the entire secondary cast of players could not provide the consistent scoring to support Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Averaging only seven points per game in the postseason, something needed to change.

After the Raptors tenacious Game 3 double-overtime victory against the Milwaukee Bucks, Fred heard the news that his long-time girlfriend, Shontai Neal, was giving birth to their son Fred Jr. Rushing back to Illinois, the Raptors backup point guard was able to be with Shontai, cradling baby Fred Jr. in his arms. He was joyous. Overwhelmed with happiness. And ready to get back to playing great basketball.

In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet had a career playoff-high 21 points as the Raptors stole the game on the road in Milwaukee. The finals-clinching Game 6 saw the point guard generate 14 points off the bench. It’s a whole new Fred VanVleet on the court. Gone is the tentative point guard who couldn’t hit shots. The new Fred is setting up the offense, draining shots and playing aggressive defense. Credit the birth of his son for providing this inspiration.

“I’m getting better looks, more open looks, and as you make them, your teammates start to look for you more and more and the game kind of opens up all at once,” stated VanVleet. 
VanVleet Critical for Raptors Defending the Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors have won three of the past four championships. Steph Curry, one of the all-time premier shooters, has been integral in leading the charge from beyond the arc. But one player has been able to effectively stymie Steph. Fred VanVleet.

In the Raptors 118-109 Game 1 victory, VanVleet held Steph to just one field goal when he was defending him. This went on for 33 possessions. VanVleet has displayed the capacity to navigate screens effectively while chasing down Curry whenever he doesn’t have the ball.

“You just got to try to be as physical as you can, slow him down and keep the contest,” says VanVleet on how to defend Curry. “A guy like that, who is a really good shooter against contest, you can’t really give him free looks and let him feel free and easy.”

As the series shifts to the Bay Area, the Raptors have a plethora of areas to work on. Hitting open shots is one. Preventing the open space for ball movement is another. But the scrappy Fred VanVleet is used to performing on the big stage. When he is on the floor for the Raptors, the team is a +76, compared to +39 overall. If the team needs an injection of energy and offense, Fred VanVleet is the player to call. And he will need to deliver if the Raptors have any hope of winning the NBA Championship.

“I’m not too worried about Freddie,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “Freddie’s an ice water-in-his-veins-type-of-guy. He took a mid-major school to the Final Four. He took a mid-major school to 35-0.”

Maybe it’s a sign that Fred should have more kids. So his basketball play can be stellar on a consistent basis.

 The post Fred VanVleet: The Unexpected Playoff Hero appeared first on Last Word on Sports.


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Toronto Raptors’ Pascal Siakam Inspired from Father’s Death

Pascal Siakam has waited his whole life for this opportunity. The young rising star for the Toronto Raptors is playing in his first NBA Finals, and rising to the big stage. Siakam put up 32 points and eight rebounds, carrying the Raptors to the franchise’s inaugural victory in the NBA Finals.

Amidst the excitement across Canada, the Raptors forward is playing for a greater purpose. For Siakam, every chance he gets to play basketball is an opportunity he does not take for granted.

“Every night that I go out there, I have a bigger purpose, and I play for something greater than just basketball,” said Siakam after the 118-109 Raptors victory over the Golden State Warriors. 
Siakam Battles Adversity of Father’s Death
Pascal Siakam was born in Cameroon. Youngest of four brothers, Siakam initially did not have an interest in basketball. He was poised to become a priest, cherry-picked from an early age to embrace the Catholic values of his family.

Pascal was particularly close to his Father, Tchamo, who worked at a local transit company. It was Tchamo who encouraged his son to go pursue his dreams of playing basketball in the United States. While playing at New Mexico State, Siakam would receive the unfortunate news of his Father’s passing in a car accident. A numbing reality for a youngster trying to play basketball while adjust to life away from his parents.

“It was definitely one of the toughest moments in my life, not being able
to go home for the funeral,” revealed Siakam.

While a breakable moment for some, Siakam used the death of his Father as motivation to become a perennial basketball star. The desire and drive to get better is what attracted Toronto Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri to draft Pascal with the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

“Pascal wants to be a versatile player in this league who could do it all. He wants to be a star,” states Ujiri. 
Siakam Has Performed Strongly for Toronto Raptors
The 2018-19 NBA season has demonstrated Pascal Siakam’s transcendent rise in stardom. Not only is he a physical defender, but Siakam is able to utilize his size to attack the basket in the post with ease. For the season, Siakam averaged 16.9 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game and 3.1 assists with game, on 54.9 percent shooting.

While Kawhi Leonard has claimed the spotlight as the Raptors’ premier superstar, Siakam has epitomized playoff toughness and tenacity. In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, with Kawhi being targeted defensively, Siakam took control offensively, putting up 25 points and 11 rebounds. There was a stretch in Game 1 of the NBA Finals where the Siakam went 15-for-15 from the field. Nick Nurse was quick to praise his big man, who has been consistently improving since last summer.

“He’s worked his tail off,” said Nurse after Game 1. “His work ethic and his mindset just keeps building for him.
The Ceiling is High for Raptors Big Man
Adverse moments shape the makeup of an individual. For Pascal Siakam, it made him a tougher, grounded human being.

In NBA history, the Finals came up North to Canada. While Siakam is grateful for the fan support, his purpose of playing is far greater. There was a day where a young kid from Africa would never have thought to go professional and play in the NBA. With the Toronto Raptors up 1-0 in the NBA Finals, Siakam is focused on being a critical impetus to help his team win. At the same time, honouring his Father’s legacy and the country of Cameroon.

“I have a lot of support from my fellow Cameroonians and just Africa
in general,” says Siakam. “When my Dad died,  it was a turning point in my life, just going through that type of adversity. It definitely made me the
person I am today.”The post Toronto Raptors’ Pascal Siakam Inspired from Father’s Death appeared first on Last Word on Sports.


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We (Win) The North: An Ode to the Toronto Raptors and Canada

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Category : Basketball , NBA

It was a sunny Sunday morning. Blue skies, birds chirping. Summer was in the air.

There was an energy felt inside of me as I poured my morning coffee to start the day. I was wearing my bright red Toronto Raptors “We The North” T-shirt. In May. Seems a little exaggerated for this time of year, right?

In reality, this is the new normal. As I turned on the TV to catch the sports highlights, the anchors could not contain their enthusiasm. Shots of Kawhi Leonard dunking, Kyle Lowry draining threes, Drake shoulder rubbing was scrolled across the morning highlight package.

I thought what happened the night before was a dream. But it was the opposite. The Toronto Raptors were the 2018-19 Eastern Conference Champions, advancing to their first NBA Finals in franchise history. The first time that the National Basketball Championship, once considered the culmination of an American cultural obsession, will now occur north of the border.

This is the new normal. This is Toronto sports. It’s real and it is time to embrace the basketball revolution that is about to sweep across Canada.
***
I was born in February of 1996, halfway through the inaugural season of the Toronto Raptors. In 1993, Toronto businessman John Bitove paid an expansion fee of $125 million USD to establish the 28th NBA franchise. Along with the Vancouver Grizzlies out west, it was NBA Commissioner David Stern’s attempt to open the borders, diversifying the portfolio of basketball franchises.

The first game of the Raptors franchise occurred at SkyDome, the home of the two-time World Series champions Toronto Blue Jays. In front of a small crowd of 33,306, the Raptors defeated the New Jersey Nets by 15 points, led by stellar performances of Alvin Robertson and Damon Stoudemire.

But the initial enthusiasm for a new franchise in Toronto, was met with subsequent uncertainty and doubt. Toronto, and Canada in general, is first and foremost a hockey country. Regardless of their performance, the Toronto Maple Leafs will always be the talk of the city. The hype surrounding the Blue Jays was still high, after winning their second consecutive World Series in 1993. Ask a sample of Torontonians certain basketball terms and phrases, and they wouldn’t know the answer. Toronto residents easily can recollect the household names of Joe Carter and Doug Gilmour but would have to scratch their head to know who Alvin Williams was.

South of the border, the Canadian franchises were ostracized and shunned. While many were wishing Toronto and Vancouver well, the economic prosperity of American markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago far outweigh any success of Toronto or Vancouver. The NBA was still enthralled by Michael Jordan and were beginning to embrace the greatness of stars such as Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

With the non-existent basketball culture in Canada, coupled with the NBA’s desire to expand within America, the Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis after six years in existence. The Raptors stayed as the lone Canadian team, about to undergo the long and arduous journey to national consciousness and relevance.
Love Affair Instant with Toronto Raptors
I grew up in a sports family. My Father was a recreational golfer, my Mom was integral in Canadian tennis tournament operations. And my older brother got blessed with athletic genes, specializing in competitive tennis.

I unfortunately have chronic asthma and motor dyspraxia. While exerting physical activity, it causes me to get out of breath instantaneously, coupled with the inability to accomplish the motor skills necessary to play competitive sports. Gym class was difficult, seeing other kids who were more athletic than I am accomplishing drills with ease. But what they did not have that I did was a deep, burning passion and love for the stories and narratives that arise from sports.

On TV, the main subject were big sporting events. Dinner conversations at the table with the family were about various sports issues. Playing video games such as NBA Live or NHL became a routine. It was through this where I got my first initial wave of love for Toronto sports teams, including the Raptors.
***
I remember rising from my couch to watch Vince Carter’s all-time unforgettable dunk at the Slam Dunk Contest. Little did I know at the time, but it would live on for years to be the biggest moment in the franchise’s history. I would watch Canadian sportscasters such as Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro on The Score, Leo Rautins, Chuck Swirsky and Jack Armstrong, make the Raptors entertaining to follow, despite underwhelming results. When I was old enough to read, I was an avid disciple of Toronto Star columnist Doug Smith’s Raptors coverage, who would consistently write thorough, engaging content since the franchise’s inception.

There were dark years for the Toronto Raptors franchise. Moments that were difficult to cover the team, when stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh would leave for warmer climates. But the Raptors gave me an avenue to follow and love basketball, despite being unable to play it well. The team provided inspiration, hope and belief that one day, enduring the troubling times would be worth it, when the franchise would become relevant. It only took 23 years of my life to make that happen.
***
In 2013, the Toronto Raptors underwent a massive branding change. They brought new general manager named Masai Ujiri. They made significant in-season trades to bring the pair of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry together. As social media ramped up its influence on daily society, phrases such as “We The North” and “The Northern Uprising Has Begun” became mainstream vernacular for basketball fans. The Air Canada Centre, now ScotiaBank Arena, started to fill seats for basketball games. And the Raptors formed Jurassic Park, a mosh pit of enthusiasm and energy for fans outside the arena to watch the games on the big screen. Drake became the team’s global ambassador and Nav Bhatia was an overnight superfan sensation. The Raptors were starting to put a dent into the trifecta of the Toronto sports market.

As the Raptors became a consistent playoff team, fans across the country demanded more. They were tired of seeing LeBron James beat their team on a consistent basis in the playoffs. The fanbase yearned for a superstar that could lift this team to new heights. After getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second consecutive year, Masai Ujiri had tough decisions to make. He would fire the NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and bring in Nick Nurse. And he would trade DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poetl for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. A superstar, who was considered the best two-way player in the NBA, and a proven playoff performer were coming to Toronto.

Toronto, a city used to sports teams always falling short of expectations, did not know how to react. The regular season was filled with questions and skepticism. Was the “load management” strategy for Kawhi Leonard going to work? Will the experienced Raptor players such as Kyle Lowry, able to galvanize this team and perform in the adverse moments? We were about to find out.
Toronto Raptors Provide Hope and Optimism
2019 has been a difficult year for me personally. My Grandma, full of vigor and spirit, had to be moved from her lifelong residence to a senior’s home for long-term care. My brother was in a serious car accident, which led to a debilitating concussion. And my Dad, who never had any health concerns, would be in hospital with blood clots in his lungs. Instantly, life changed forever.

But through those difficult moments, there was a light at the end of the tunnel that kept me going. It was the Toronto Raptors. A team that every single time, elated my spirits and exceeded my expectations. When they were down 0-1 to the Orlando Magic, the Raptors rattled off four straight wins with dominance. Down 2-1 to the Philadelphia 76ers, Kawhi Leonard would put the team on his back to force a Game 7. Only to convert the only Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA Playoffs history, sending Toronto into pandemonium.

And then down 0-2 to the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, it would be a complete team effort that would enable Toronto to win four consecutive games, sending the Raptors to their franchise’s first NBA Finals. All the while this happened, the city and country began to rally behind the Raptors. More people were wearing Raptors apparel and jerseys. People at local establishments and work offices were for once discussing basketball in their daily conversations. And when it became official that the Raptors advanced to the team’s first championship, the city erupted. Cars were honking and stopped to take in the scene that was downtown Toronto. Fans were in constant jubilation to the early hours of the morning.

For once, a major Toronto sports franchise gave a city and a country something to be proud of.
***
Who knows what the outcome will be in the NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors are on the precipice of their own basketball history, trying to become the dynasty of the 21st century with their fourth championship in five years. But what the Raptors have accomplished this season cannot be ignored or understated.

Canada has its issues. America has never been more politically polarizing. As our society tries to conquer certain challenges, we turn to sports as a platform for escape and unity. For all its problems, Canada and Toronto have shown why multiculturalism and diversity works. The Toronto Raptors fan base comes from all colours and stripes, it doesn’t matter who you are or your socioeconomic status. Canadians who never would think of tuning into basketball and are now beginning to love the sport.

“Look around at the square. I promise you right now, we did this.” said Drake.

The energy is palpable as Canada begins to place basketball on a pedestal with the other popular sports this nation has to offer. The Raptors represents the beauty of the North, as the entire country is united in their fervent support for a team that has transcended the concept of what is possible. Most importantly of all, the Toronto Raptors have solidified the hope, faith and belief that I and so many followers possessed many years ago, that one day, we could revel in the magnitude of an ultimate Canadian basketball moment.

Toronto is a basketball city. Canada is a basketball country. And the revolution is just getting started.The post We (Win) The North: An Ode to the Toronto Raptors and Canada appeared first on Last Word on Sports.


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The Golden State Warriors and The Greatest Five-Year Run in NBA History

The Golden State Warriors are in the midst of the greatest five year run in the history of the NBA. They punched their ticket to their fifth consecutive trip to the NBA finals after sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers and they did so in unbelievable fashion. In three of the four games, they trailed by as many as 17 points before coming back to win each of those games. Portland played very good basketball in games two through four but couldn’t keep the Warriors at bay. It’s no wonder live betting lines at 888 Sport New Jersey have had them as heavy favorites in each game this season. They refuse to lose.

The Assembling of a Juggernaut

The Golden State Warriors juggernaut started with the seventh pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. They selected an undersized, sharp shooting, point guard from a mid-major, Stephen Curry. Curry has revolutionized the game with his unlimited range and slick ball handling. Two years later they selected another sharp shooting guard with the eleventh pick, Klay Thompson. Thompson is the perfect compliment to Curry. He doesn’t need to have the ball in his hands to be a lethal scorer. In 2016, Thompson scored 60 points and this quote from Kevin Durant says it all, “I don’t even know what to say, it was crazy because he probably has the ball in his hand for probably not even two minutes in the whole game. He was catching, shooting, cutting.” Thompson only took 11 dribbles in that game. In the 2012 NBA draft, the Golden State Warriors stole Draymond Green in the second round. Green has been their heartbeat ever since and a defensive stalwart. They also have added key bench pieces like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, and many others who seem to fit like a glove.

Battling the Cleveland Cavaliers

There are two items that separate the Golden State Warriors from the early 1960s Boston Celtics. The first is the limited competition Boston had to run through, there were only eight teams in the NBA in 1960. The second is the team Golden State had to beat in the NBA finals. LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. Before the return of James, Cleveland selected Andrew Wiggins with the number one overall pick in the NBA draft, and promptly traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love once James returned. This gave Cleveland a potent big three with James, Love, and Kyrie Irving; they were the favorites to win the NBA title going into the 2014-2015 season. Golden State ran into a bit of good luck in the playoffs as Love went down early in the playoffs and Irving fractured his knee cap in game one of the finals. However, Golden State finished the deal and won the NBA title. The following season proved to be the low point in the Warriors run, and that is amazing because the broke the regular season win record with 73 wins. The Cleveland Cavaliers saw historic performances from Lebron James and Kyrie Irving as they led them to the NBA title after falling in a three games to one deficit in the finals.

The Infamous Phone Call

The Golden State Warriors were devastated after losing at home in game seven of the NBA Finals. They were coming off an NBA title in the 2014-2015 season, and won 73 games in the regular season of the 2015-2016 season. After game seven of the NBA Finals in the 2015-2016 season, Draymond Green called Kevin Durant from the parking lot and told him they needed him. Durant was set to be a free agent and had come up short in the Western conference finals that year to these very same Golden State Warriors. Durant obliged and joined. The following two seasons saw Golden State dominate Cleveland and win two more NBA titles. Golden State is such a dominant juggernaut that they are making another team on a historic run, the Cleveland Cavaliers, an afterthought.

Finishing the Run

In order for Golden State to become the greatest dynasty in NBA history, they need to finish the run with another Larry O’Brien trophy this season. There are murmurs that Kevin Durant, a free agent following the season, has one foot out the door already. There are also talks that Klay Thompson, who is also a free agent following the season, might be looking to branch off on his own. The question is, if Golden State wins the NBA Championship this year, will they go down as the greatest dynasty in NBA history?

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