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

The Big Short an unpretentious portrayal of the financial crisis

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling

Now that we’ve gained enough distance from the financial crisis, we’re sure to see more films like The Big Short. In the years since, films about the financial crisis have mostly been limited to documentaries with the topic occasionally coming up in character backstories or in very earnest, matter of fact dramatizations like the 2011 film Margin Call. The Big Short is definitely not a film that takes itself too seriously. It’s a lively film that has a noticeably fun time indicting the behaviour that led to the 2008 collapse.

The Big Short starts a couple years before the key event. It’s the mid-2000s and everybody in the financial industry – from investment bankers to mortgage brokers – is living large. Shady investment practices are legitimized by the widely-held belief that anything backed by mortgages is solid because “who doesn’t pay their mortgage?” One hedge fund manager, Dr. Michael Burry, begins to look into the individual mortgages that make up the mortgage-backed securities, which not many have bothered doing, and notices that they are not as reliable as they’ve been described. So Burry predicts that this credit bubble, which everyone doesn’t want to acknowledge, will burst in 2007 and begins approaching big banks to buy insurance against mortgage-backed securities. Of course, the banks are only too happy to provide this because they can make big bucks off the premiums Burry must pay while they sit pretty in their belief that nothing will ever happen to the housing market. Other players, including the crusading Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his hedge fund, and two savvy young investors, Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley, catch wind of Burry’s actions and begin to do the same. Essentially, as one character puts it, they are betting against the U.S. economy.

Ryan Gosling is an engaging narrator as Jared Vennett. From the jump, he informs the audience that he isn’t the hero of the story, but you develop a respect for his ability to not let his self-interest cloud his ability to see the truth. While everyone dismisses Burry as a lunatic creating big paydays for Wall Street, Vennett is eager to see what’s up. Carell is an audience favourite as the designated bullshit sniffer and caller. One of the standout performances is by Jeremy Strong as Vinnie Daniel, a member of Carell’s hedge fund team. He is refreshing to watch as the brash New Yorker who hasn’t allowed his fancy job to turn him into a brown noser or a liar. But the – dare I say Oscar? – biggest props must go to Christian Bale in his role as Michael Burry. His portrayal of Burry’s awkwardness is generous without being glamorous. You root for Burry throughout the movie, but that’s because we already know he’s the hero of the story. If you’d just met him you may have possibly been one of the many people who dismissed Burry, or in the cases of some of the characters in the movie, laughed while taking his money. But we also grow to like him due to his honest and – despite his self-described social awkwardness – self-assuredness.

The Big Short is a spirited and self-aware depiction of the financial crisis. Its portrayal of the colourful characters and outcasts who challenged the status quo by asking questions and refusing to place their trust in authority figures position them as ready made heroes. Their commitment to their work (in Burry’s case), the truth (in Baum’s case) and their future (in the case of Jamie and Charlie) is a source of mild frustration to their families and derision by their colleagues.

It’s also a self-reflective film. Wall Street made much of what they were doing sound incredibly complex leaving the average person eager to leave it to the guys in suits, and the guys in suits to trust what they’ve been told. Past movies that handle the financial industry often fall into the trap of using this same jargon, leaving the audience unable to follow along with the technical details and just satisfy themselves with the obvious drama. Through The Big Short, characters break the fourth wall to explain different concepts. Actors and entertainers make cameo appearances to explain certain concepts, hence why Margot Robbie shows up in a bubble bath to explain mortgage-backed securities and subprime mortgages. And it’s a great way to remind the audience that The Big Short knows what it’s doing. For instance, as the events of the film move from 2005 up to the financial crisis, the story is punctuated by pop culture references in the form of clips from The Hills to music videos, as a way to remind us of all the things we were distracting ourselves with while all of this was happening. By including those cameos, the movie recognizes the irony in using itself, a form of media, to tell people to stop being so damn distracted by media.

But beyond hilarious clips of Lauren Conrad on The Hills, The Big Short does something even more remarkable. It reprimands us as individuals – not simply for our distraction but for our own actions that contributed to the culture of self-interest and dishonesty that led to the crash. Throughout the film, we’re introduced to different characters that work in important institutions, albeit in the middle ranks. A woman at the ratings agency that isn’t responsibly evaluating the securities outright says that her hands are tied because she has a boss to answer to and anyway, the banks will just walk on over to the competition. We all use that justification in our everyday lives, so at what point do we stop? Naturally, if you’re using the go along to get along mentality to get ahead once you get to the top it’s most likely you’ll continue compromising your integrity because you’ve convinced yourself that’s the way things are. While the movie does not place the blame on average people – it’s clear in its criticism of the financial industry – it doesn’t allow the audience to consider itself victims.

We learn that Burry goes on to focus his investment interests on one resource: water. Who hasn’t heard the saying, “Today’s wars were fought over oil. Tomorrow’s wars will be fought over water.” After spending two hours wondering why on earth no one will listen to this Burry guy, we go off to dinner unconcerned about the future he’s currently thinking about. Perhaps the most disturbing takeaway from this movie isn’t how little we knew, but what little action we’re willing to take even once we do know.

An intro to rock climbing at Boulderz

“This guy’s frustrating me. Let’s do something fun.”

“Wanna go rock climbing?” suggested my best friend and roll dog, Brianna.

And so off we went to Boulderz Climbing Centre on Dupont, a short bus ride away from St. George station. When we got there we were greeted by enthusiastic climbers scaling the walls, the smell of feet, and a upbeat girl at the front desk named Ann who promptly directed us to fill out waivers essentially saying that should we maim ourselves at Boulderz it was on us.

“Have you guys ever been rock climbing before?” she asked.

We both shook our heads. “There’s gonna be some sort of tutorial, right?” I asked nervously, staring at one of the climbers who had just dropped to the padded ground.

“Yup! I’ll give you a beginner’s lesson once I get you guys some shoes.”

I was already starting to feel clingy. Ann would be the person that ensured we didn’t die. “Can I leave my phone with you?”

Once we squeezed into our rented shoes, Ann took us over to the beginner’s section where she pointed out the coloured markers that indicated the difficulty level of each rock. Bright yellow, which marked the easiest routes, would be our guide. Brianna and I warily eyed the tiny rocks labelled to show that they were for experienced climbers. The tutorial involved a quick demonstration of how to shift our hands and feet, and a warning to look out for experienced climbers coming down over the wall.

After she sent us off to hopefully not break our necks, I realized I’d left my phone on and asked Ann if I could quickly turn it off, so it didn’t disturb the front desk. She looked at me, deadpan, and said:

“Because you get a lot of calls, huh? So popular.”

We tentatively climbed three inches at different spots of the gym threading through obvious regulars climbing up and down, side to side – every which way that we wouldn’t be able to copy anytime soon. The “rocks” were extremely challenging to hold onto, even with the bag of chalk, and we were making more calluses than progress.

On the second level we found a kids area that did wonders for our ego. Perhaps a little too much for our egos because we ambitiously went back downstairs to tackle the difficult wall that had already daunted us, realized we were still in no position to overcome those, and slinked back to the kids section. As Ann warned, a climber who had managed to scale the wall from the level below leaped over Tarzan-style to where I was standing, effectively scaring the life out of me. Later, my eleven year old brother would tell me that this is how you flirt in rock climbing.

It was fun, but we had basically paid to be intimidated by a bunch of colourful walls. We would need to do what everyone in the twenty-first century does to justify a paid experience: before leaving we needed to post something on social media. I went to get my phone from the front desk, but since Ann was busy with a customer I had to ask someone else.

“Hi,” I said to the guy behind the counter. “I’d just like to grab my phone. I left it behind the counter. If you want to check, I spoke with Ann…”

He handed me my phone. “I was here when you gave it to her. Miss. Popular, right?”

I was never gonna live it down.

Featured image from Boulderz