Why I Can’t Love These Raptors

By: Nikolas Theodorakidis | @nikolastheo

It’s not a secret that I love Toronto sports. In fact, talking about them is one of the only ways my family connects with me. I have an opinion on every team–except the freakin’ Argos–and I’m usually willing to share them with you.

But I do have a secret. One that I don’t like to talk about. That secret being that I don’t really like the Raptors in their current form.

I know, I know, blasphemy. Believe me, it hurts me to say it. Some of my earliest sporting memories include the 2000-01 Raptors run and my first taste of Toronto heartbreak was Vince Carter’s missed shot in Game Seven against the Sixers. The team holds a special place in my heart, so when last year’s squad set a franchise record for wins in a season and I could only think of their flaws, it was disheartening.

My biggest complaint is that as the play of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry goes, as does the team. They have the ball in their hands on almost every possession, and often the possessions end late in the shot clock with a contested mid-range jumper. If you look around the NBA, this isn’t a style that the most successful teams use.

To see how this style of play might not work, you have to look at last year’s playoffs. Yes, I know, they made the Eastern Conference Finals, but in how many of their games were the Raptors actually enjoyable to watch? I remember pulling my hair out watching the playoffs and seeing possession after possession of missed shots and broken down plays. Yes, they made the Eastern Conference Finals, but it all could’ve gone much worse. The Raptors struggled to put away the Pacers in the first round, and got through the Heat after they had lost their two top big men.

The team was very close to another playoff disaster and could’ve been a very different looking team this year. We know that head coach Dwane Casey would’ve been fired if the team had lost to the Pacers, and who knows if DeMar DeRozan would’ve left in free agency or if the Raptors would have let him. And this year has come, and the Raptors are playing the same way.

However, there is a possibility that I’m wrong and that’s mostly due to the play of DeRozan. Through seven games of the regular season, DeRozan is scoring 34.1 points per game, enough to lead the league in scoring. Inspired by a less than flattering ranking from Sports Illustrated that saw him listed as the 46th best player in the NBA, DeRozan has put up 30 or more points in six of the first seven games, something that only Michael Jordan and Bernard King have done before.

But I have to wonder if DeRozan playing this well can last forever. There are still so many shots that he takes where I find myself grimacing, only to relax when he makes them. If he slows down, the Raptors could be in trouble. That happened in the Raptors’ game against Sacramento this past Sunday, where DeRozan went 7-for-20 from the field and resulted in a five-point home loss to a team that is not expected to do much this season.

I won’t go as far as to say the Raptors are a bad team. That’s simply not true. They have the seventh best Net Rating in the NBA this season and look poised to fight for the division title again this year. But my point is that they might not be good enough and don’t show enough growth in their playing style to warrant belief that they will be able to make it to the Finals or even a repeat appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.

So while the season is off to a great start, I can’t shake the feeling that it will have a disappointing ending like it has the past three years. I can’t shake the feeling that when it comes down to it, my head will be in my hands lamenting bad possession after bad possession.

For my sanity and the sanity of Raptors’ fans everywhere, I hope I’m wrong about these Raptors.

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Featured image via Sportsnet

What You Need To Know About Toronto FC’s Playoff Run

By: Nikolas Theodorakidis | @Nikolastheo

It hasn’t always been easy to love Toronto FC.

Since the franchise was born in 2007, the team has put together season after season of disappointment. And not only were the results bad, they were often heartbreaking, with points being dropped in the dying minutes. TFC had become synonymous with failure in Toronto, but now it appears that might be changing.

TFC are in the playoffs for the second straight year after not making it at all in their first eight seasons. The Reds followed up a 3-1 victory against the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round with a 2-0 win at home against New York City FC this past Sunday in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Things are finally starting to look up for TFC. And if you weren’t a fan before, you should start right now. Here’s what you need to know.

The Matchup

As mentioned, TFC won the first leg in their matchup against New York City FC this past weekend with the second leg taking place in New York on Sunday. Late goals from forwards Jozy Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts gave the team a 2-0 victory and put all the pressure on New York going into Sunday.

For those unfamiliar with how the MLS playoffs work, the Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals are two-leg matchups with the team scoring more goals on aggregate going through, with away goals serving as a tiebreaker. TFC’s 2-0 win means that they are through if they win, draw, lose by one goal, or lose by two goals (a 2-0 defeat would however send the matchup to extra time). There are a lot of ways TFC could progress and it’s highly likely that they will, but there are still reasons to watch.

The first leg was a tense one with multiple scuffles breaking out throughout the match, 31 combined fouls, and 6 combined yellow cards.

One of the biggest incidents was New York forward David Villa kicking out and hitting Toronto’s Armando Cooper in the back of the knees. What should have been a red card for Villa went unseen by the refs and Villa went undisciplined. This week, it was announced that Villa would not be suspended for the kick, which could lead to even more tension between the two teams this week.

Key Players

It’s no secret that the key to Toronto’s success over the past two years has been the play of Sebastian Giovinco. The Italian forward came to Toronto from Juventus before the beginning of the 2015 season and has cemented himself as the best player in the team’s history.

Giovinco still led the league in goals plus assists this year while missing time due to injury. That’s a repeat of what he did last year when he won the MLS MVP award. However, he will not repeat as MLS MVP this year.

The list of finalists for the award was released on Tuesday, and Giovinco’s name was not on it. The three players that made the cut were New York Red Bull’s Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan along with New York City FC’s David Villa.

Now Giovinco will take the field on Sunday going up against Villa with a chip on his shoulder. The best player on Toronto FC and debatably the best player in the league, now with something to prove, seems like a recipe for Toronto’s success.

Atmosphere

It’s not guaranteed that there will be another game at BMO Field this year, but if TFC advances to the Conference Finals, you won’t want to miss that home game.

The atmosphere at BMO is unlike anything else in this city. Being outdoors with thousands of fans that sing loud and jump around so much that the building starts shaking is something that needs to be experienced by any Toronto sports fan. Especially since a matchup against the rival Montreal Impact is on the horizon.

Yes, it will be cold. But if you put on a TFC scarf and wear some gloves, you’ll be fine. Don’t let a little chilly weather stop you from seeing Toronto’s best chance at a championship this year.

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Featured image via The Globe and Mail

What to Watch Now That the Jays are Gone

By: Nikolas Theodorakidis | @nikolastheo

It’s official: the long cold baseball-less winter is upon us.

Despite any amount of hope fans may have had, the Blue Jays were unable to rally back from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series last week.

But the end of the baseball season means we can now turn our collective attention to the other teams in this city. And, for what it’s worth, this is turning out to be as good a winter in Toronto as we’ve had in a few years.

Raptors

Let’s start with Toronto’s most successful team as of late. The Raptors ended last year on a high having made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. Although the team was outmatched by the Cleveland Cavaliers, there was some joy found in taking two games from the eventual champs in between four blowout losses. Winning a playoff series was the main goal last year, and, though they struggled to do so, they won two of them.

This year, gauging the team’s success might be a bit more difficult.

A repeat trip to the Eastern Conference Finals would be appreciated but can hardly be expected. Multiple teams in the East have improved in the offseason, including division rivals Boston and New York, so the Raptors shouldn’t be considered a lock for anything like last year.  But a first round elimination would feel like a step backwards for a team that overcame so much in terms of shaking the franchise’s monkeys off their backs.

Perhaps the team’s success will be determined by the actual product on court, rather than the mile markers the team passes on their way to being eliminated. The team, and particularly newly minted Olympic Gold Medallists Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, have been criticized for playing “hero ball” in the past that has been a detriment to the team. If the team can play in a more effective way – one that doesn’t leave fans burying their face in their free giveaway t-shirt – elimination won’t feel as bad and might provide more hope for the future.

Leafs

The Leafs have not been must-see TV for a few years now. If you opened up the fridge of Toronto sports and all you saw was the Leafs, you’d complain that there was nothing to eat. But this year’s version of the Buds is already way more appetizing.

The only thing the Leafs have won in recent memory was the draft lottery at the end of last season. With that came the arrival of Auston Matthews. The 18-year-old American centre has been anointed the saviour of the Leafs and so far, he’s lived up to the high praise. In his first NHL game, Matthews scored four goals, a feat that had never been accomplished before by anyone in their first game.

And he’s not the only youngster getting in on the action. Mitch Marner has also been turning heads, notching three points through five games, including a great goal against Boston in the Leafs home opener. And William Nylander has nine points through six games, including a two-goal night against Chicago this past Saturday.

Unfortunately, the goal scoring has not led to success for the Leafs as of yet. They have just one win this season and have blown third period games in four of their six games so far this season. But at least they are starting to look relevant again, right? A team that scores goals but can’t prevent them is more enjoyable than the opposite any day of the week.

Toronto FC

And finally, we have TFC. The butt of many jokes in Toronto sports, TFC have actually put together their most successful season to date. Gaining a franchise high 53 points, the Reds have secured a home playoff match for the first time in the team’s history. They will take on the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night at BMO Field in a win-or-go-home match with a spot on the Eastern Conference semi-finals on the line.

Once again, it has been a spectacular season for Sebastian Giovinco. If it wasn’t clear after his first season with the club, we can say for sure that he is the best player in team history after his second. He scored 17 goals and racked 15 assists without even playing a game in September.

A win on Wednesday and a somewhat deep playoff run could finally give TFC their fair share of the media attention. It’s hard to think that a team sitting near the top of their conference for most of their season and an MVP candidate on their roster – kind of like the Blue Jays of the last two years – would be relegated to the middle of the sports section or to the latter part of a Sportscentre broadcast, but that’s where TFC often find themselves. TFC have the best chance to bring the city a championship and deserve to be treated that way.

Featured image via Toronto Star

Why You Shouldn’t Jump Off the Jays’ Bandwagon Yet

By: Nikolas Theodorakidis | @nikolastheo

This weekend was not great for the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Jays scored one run in 18 innings in the two games in Cleveland, going 0-5 with runners in scoring position in Game One and going hitless after the third inning in Game Two. They squandered solid starts from Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ along the way. Both pitchers gave up two earned runs, falling victim to timely hits from Cleveland second baseman Francisco Lindor.

The team now faces the same scenario they faced in the American League Championship Series last year: coming home down two games to none. As Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet points out, 27 teams have fallen behind 0-2 in a League Championship Series and only three have advanced.

So, yeah, not great.

But, let’s not give up on the boys of summer just yet. There are more than enough reasons to believe that this season is not over.

Pitching

When it comes to the pitching matchups, you’d have to think the Jays have the advantage for the next two games.

Game Three has Marcus Stroman pitching for the Jays against Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer. Bauer and his 4.26 ERA were supposed to pitch in Game Two but he injured his finger—and this is true—fixing his drone. On paper, it would seem Stroman, coming off a good start in the Wild Card game, would be better than someone with an ERA higher than four and has stitches in his finger.

And Aaron Sanchez will take to the mound for the Jays in Game Four against Mike Clevinger, who is starting because of injury to two other Cleveland pitchers. Sanchez did not look great in his last start but should still be favoured over a pitcher that only started 10 games during the regular season.

Home Sweet Home

A return home might give the Jays offence a much needed boost.

As a team, the Jays have hit .260/.341/.444 at the Rogers Centre this year, but only .236/.318/.408 on the road. The team who has suddenly seen their offensive production suddenly disappear will be happy to return to their notoriously hitter friendly ballpark.

None will be happier than Jose Bautista. He struck out five times in eight plate appearances in the last two games and has voiced his displeasure with the strike zone so far in the series. While still uncharacteristically high for him, Bautista has struck out less at home this year than on the road and will be looking to have some of his power return.

Well, If It Happened Last Year…

While it may not mean much, the Jays were in this position last year.

In the third game of the ALCS last year, the Jays returned home after only scoring two runs in Kansas City. The Jays scored 11 runs and Marcus Stroman picked up the win. Who’s to say a similar result isn’t in order this time around?

And this year, the Jays don’t have to rely on R.A. Dickey in Game Four. Dickey gave up five runs in that game last year, but this year the Jays will have Sanchez, their ace, to carry them into a Game Five. A Game Five that will feature Marco Estrada starting for the Jays…just like last year. If you ask me, things are lining up too perfectly.

While things aren’t great for the Jays, it’s not all doom and gloom. So don’t despair, Toronto, the boys of summer still have a shot this fall.

Featured image via CBC News

Jays Look to Seize the Moment One Year After Bat Flip

By: Nikolas Theodorakidis | @nikolastheo

October 14, 2015 holds a special place in the hearts of Toronto sports fans. It was on this day that Jose Bautista took a 1-1 pitch from Texas Rangers reliever Sam Dyson deep into the left field seats, lifting the Blue Jays to a series win in the American League Divisional Series. He paused and watched it leave the park for a moment before throwing his bat in the air and rounding the bases. When speaking to anyone about it, you just have to say “the Bat Flip” and they know what you’re talking about.

That moment meant a lot to a franchise that had not seen the postseason or much of any important baseball since the back to back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. Fans who were in diapers or had yet to be born—like myself—finally had a memory to tell future generations about.

What was even better about that game was that it numbed the pain of Toronto’s eventual elimination to Kansas City in the following round. Toronto blew a lead in Game Two of that series and got shellacked in Game Four at home. But who cared? That could not take the Bat Flip away from us.

And here we are, a year later, with the Jays in a similar position. Having eliminated the Texas Rangers once again, they kick off the American League Championship Series tonight against Cleveland. Already this year, we have new stories to tell. Edwin Encarnacion’s walk off home run in the American League Wildcard game and Josh Donaldson’s dash for home plate in Game Three of the Divisional Series were incredible finishes to incredible games. However, one would have to imagine that they will not be enough to get the fan base through the long, hard winter this time around.

There is too much uncertainty surrounding the team to have fans react the same way they did last year.

At least eight members of the Blue Jays will be entering free agency this offseason, including Bautista and Encarnacion, two players that have been mainstays in the Jays offence for years and are regarded as two of the franchise’s all-time greats.

There is a very real chance that all eight of those players will be gone next year, leaving this team looking a lot different and quite possibly a whole lot less competitive. If that happens, and this team fails to play at the level they did this year, those great moments and warm feelings might not be enough to escape the feeling that this was a wasted opportunity.

With that said, there are enough positives with this team to think that they won’t squander this.

For one, the troubles the team ran into in the playoffs last year have come and gone already. The team went 13-16 in September and lost their lead in the American League East, but have bounced back and gone undefeated in six October games. The starting pitching has fewer questions than it did this time last year, and the offence looks as potent as ever.

Coupled with that, their opponent is hurting. Cleveland will be without Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, two starting pitchers that would have made the Jays road to a championship a lot more difficult.

A lot of things are going the Jays way at this point, even more than when they were setting the baseball world on fire last year. And for the sake of the fans and a franchise that does not know what coming years might look like, hopefully the moments we have been given in the past will not be the final ones.

Featured image via SB Nation