Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Raptor Roller Coaster Ride

With nine games remaining in the regular season and the Raptors hanging onto the final playoff spot in the East by a thread, no one has any idea which direction this team will go in the immediate future.

Judging by the most recent post game interviews, the coach appears to be lost, the prized offseason addition is openly mocking the local media and the franchise forward is locked into 'don't go and get yourself hurt this close to free agency' mode (11 attempted free throws total for Mr.Bosh in his last three games). Not exactly a recipe for success.

A first round playoff sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Lebrons seems to be the most likely conclusion to this season, but the sixth and seventh seeds aren't totally out of the picture and neither is a ninth place finish that would leave the Raptors on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. All options are on the table.

As I noted in yesterday's Thought of the Day, this club had 'Dead Team Walking' stamped on them after they blew a 17 point second-half lead in Miami on Sunday night, allowing Chicago to close to within a half game of eighth place. Yet somehow the Raptors pulled together against a decent Bobcats team one night later and proved again that they are equally capable of rising or sinking to the level of their competition.

The best comparison is that this team plays like Marco Belinelli. Sometimes they're great, sometimes they're awful and sometimes they don't show up at all. You honestly never know what you're going to get.

We have seen, at times, what this roster is capable of when they truly compete. The Raps beat the Lakers at home and then narrowly lost to them in Los Angeles and have also gone 1-2 against Cleveland including an overtime loss. They've given the two best teams in the league all they could handle and held their own. But Toronto followed the last-second loss to Kobe in L.A. with two horrific performances in Sacramento and Golden State (a combined record of 45-103) and have collectively looked disinterested for the better part of six weeks.

And that's what has been most frustrating. It's not the losses, we as fans have been through that many, many times before with this team and continued to come back. It's the streakiness and lack of consistent effort that has fans tuning this particular edition of the Raptors out.

How can they go from looking so good to so bad so quickly? And vice versa?

Yup, Raptor fans have seen it all this year. From the .500 start that was encouraging based on all the new pieces, to the death spiral that left them at 11-17 in mid-December, to the inspiring surge in the new year that pushed Toronto to 5th place in the East, and finally the recent 4-13 stretch that included five 20-point blowout losses and another four defeats by 11+ points.

It's been a very bumpy ride that hasn't had ups and downs as much as mountains and valleys... and it's not quite over yet.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Kid

After three games where he registered just a single point, four really, if you count the 60 minutes of regulation time against the States in the final, the critics were ready to pounce on Sidney Crosby.

Too young. Not as good as Ovechkin. Will never be the next Gretzky.

The native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia came into the Olympic tournament, for better or worse, as the face of Canadian hockey. With an NHL co-leading 42 goals already this year and on the heels of a Stanley Cup championship last spring (not to mention a decade's worth of hype), pre-tournament expectations were almost out of control. Sid was named an assistant captain and his line was pencilled in as the number one unit. He was saddled with the label of the man who would lead Canada to Gold and that saddle weighed about a billion pounds.

Crosby had been good, but not great the entire tournament. He answered the bell in the shootout against Switzerland and used his speed and strength (does anyone use his body better in the corners?) to create chances in every game but never could get comfortable with any of his wingers, never had the breakout performance everyone was waiting for.

Then in overtime, in front of 20,000 delirious fans at Canada Hockey Place and a nation more watching on television, Crosby turned a one-on-four rush into a Gold medal winning goal for Canada.

And the legend grew.

Crosby has now won Olympic Gold and the Stanley Cup in the last two years. The year before that he lost in the Cup finals. He led Rimouski to the Memorial Cup final during his last year of junior hockey and also won a World Junior Championship.

Sid might not reach the individual point totals that were projected when he went from junior phenom to a 100 point NHL player as an 18 year-old and then followed that up with an astounding 120 points in his second year, but he sure does win. A lot.

The Gretzky comparisons seemed reasonable those first couple of years and for all we knew 150 point seasons were right around the corner. In hindsight, Crosby was actually almost a finished product when he arrived in the NHL. His game hasn't progressed as much as it has matured. Sure he's found small areas to focus on (face-offs, shot release), ways to make his overall game better, but he's probably not as offensively talented as Ovie or Malkin, and definitely not destined to erase Gretzky from the record book.

Crosby hasn't dominated the scoring races like he was supposed to but it's time to focus on what he is rather than what he isn't. He's 22 years-old and already has one of the most illustrious hockey resumes in history. All along the way he's scored, made plays and led every one of his teams through playoff battles and out the other side.

You can have Ovechkin and the highlight reels. I'll take Crosby and the championships.