Last season, Toronto FC was without doubt the best team during the 2017 MLS regular season. Finishing on 69 points, Toronto FC finished a whopping 12 points (or four games) clear of the next best team – New York FC.
So what has happened since?
Over the course of a relatively productive offseason, the team lost a few ‘bit-part’ players like Armando Cooper, Benoit Cheyrou, and Steven Beitashour, however this alone is no reason for the team’s dramatic form slump to start the 2018 season.
Their star players, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco, and first-choice goalkeeper Alex Bono all stayed at BMO Field, and coach Greg Vanney also remains at the helm. They then added Dutch defender Gregory Van Der Wiel, Brazilian Defender Auro, and former Spainish Under 20 midfielder Ager Aketxe to an already strong squad, and overall, it was widely acknowledged that the team had improved its playoff caliber roster.
The 2018 season however has started poorly – very poorly in fact. Just seven points from a possible 27 has Toronto FC sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference, already 10 points out of the final playoff spot.
Is it too early to write off Toronto FC? Of course. However if they can’t find a way to work things out quickly they will place themselves in serious danger of missing the playoff for the first time since 2014. That would be an absolute travesty given the strength of this team on paper.
The Toronto Raptors have done something that most people would never have thought would happen – they have fired their Head Coach who was recently named the Coaches Association Coach of the Year (and is a favourite to win the NBA Coach of the Year award), Dwane Casey.
The Raptors, under Casey’s tutelage, finished the 2017/18 regular season as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference due to a franchise record 59 wins. However, looking back on Casey’s coaching career with the Raptors, this season wasn’t simply a flash-in-the-pan, it was something of the norm recently –
2011/12 Season: 23 wins, 43 losses (66 games) – missed playoffs
2012/13 Season: 34 wins, 48 losses (82 games) – missed playoffs
2013/14 Season: 48 wins, 34 losses (82 games) – lost in first round of playoffs
2014/15 Season: 49 wins, 33 losses (82 games) – lost in first round of playoffs
2015/16 Season: 56 wins, 26 losses (82 games) – lost in conference finals
2016/17 Season: 51 wins, 31 losses (82 games) – lost in conference semi-finals
2017/18 Season: 59 wins, 23 losses (82 games) – lost in conference semi-finals
Many people are saying that LeBron James is the cause of this crazy sacking – the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by James, bundled the Raptors out of the postseason in a cleansweep for the second consecutive year. In fact, the Cavaliers have been the reason the Toronto Raptors haven’t progressed to the NBA Finals in the last three seasons; knocking them out in each of those postseasons.
So is it Casey’s fault that they haven’t progressed? Is it LeBron James? Is it Raptors players going missing when they’re needed the most? The answer, a bit of everything from column A, B and C.
To kick things off, the Raptors had no direct match-up for James, no one that could contain him or restrict his movements on the court, his touches of the ball. You look at the Boston Celtics for example, they’ve got Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris who have both played on James throughout the season and have bodied him up well enough to throw him off his game slightly (slightly is enough of a difference-maker). The Raptors tried Serge Ibaka – too slow – they tried OG Anunoby – not strong enough – and they even had CJ Miles at times – too slow and not strong enough.
This is where Casey’s coaching could come into question – if no one player could hamper James, then what strategies could be put in place to make up for that? It didn’t look like there were too many in game changes or tactical surprises by the Raptors. Reports over the years and even recently have all said that Casey is a great coach, a great player developer and training coach but his in-game coaching shows little imagination – without being involved with the team, I can’t necessarily comment on that but if it’s true, could it have played a part? Absolutely.
What about players going missing?
Let’s compare the statistics for DeMar DeRozan from the series against the Washington Wizards to the series against the Cleveland Cavaliers –
Washington Series (4-2): 26.7ppg, 3.3rpg, 4.8apg – 10/26 from three, 34/42 free throws.
Cleveland Series (0-4): 16.8ppg, 4.0rpg, 2.8apg – 0/9 from three, 9/11 free throws.
The Cavaliers were able to stop DeRozan from getting to the free throw line and also restricted his number of shot attempts with their suffocating defense. As the lead scorer and main offensive threat for the Raptors, DeRozan not scoring certainly makes putting a winning score on the board that much harder.
That’s not to say that DeRozan is the main culprit – Serge Ibaka, CJ Miles, Jonas Valanciunas and others all had a down series – he is just the focal point being the leader and main threat on this team. Kyle Lowry had a good series against the Cavaliers but even he was in foul trouble early in a number of games, making things a little more difficult.
It’s clear, I think, that Casey has been made the scapegoat when the finger could be pointed in a number of different ways but what’s done is done, the Raptors have parted ways with their franchise leader in coaching wins.
What makes it even more crazy is the good words said by all within the Raptors – including President Masai Ujiri, Lowry and DeRozan – about how great Casey has been for the franchise, how he did nothing wrong as a coach and how great he was as a coach.
Even other coaches like the Boston Celtics Brad Stevens and Cleveland Cavaliers Ty Lue had nothing but praise for Casey. I think it’s safe to say that even though the Toronto Raptors aren’t in Dwane Casey’s future, there will be another team that signs him on before too long.
PITTSBURGH – Gazing skyward and exhaling a deep breath, Alex Ovechkin’s look of relief reflected the feelings of an entire franchise and its fans so desperate for success. Finally, the Washington Capitals had overcome arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 20 years.
The way in which they disposed of the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions was calm, clinical, and courageous. There was no Tom Wilson (suspension) and no Nicklas Backstrom (injury), however that didn’t phase Barry Trotz’s men who banded together and silenced a typically riotous Pittsburgh crowd.
Despite looking the better of the two teams in the opening period, the Capitals were unable to take an early lead. The Penguins appeared nervous, lacking speed and often unable to maintain possession of the puck, and looked every bit a team on the verge of elimination on home ice. The Capitals however were unable to capitalize despite creating numerous chances on Matt Murray who was proving to be exceptional in goal.
Early in the second though, Australian Nathan Walker, making his playoff debut, showed his highly regarded speed beating a pair of Penguins before setting up a perfect pass to Alex Chiasson who beat Murray short side. It was just the second goal of Chiasson’s NHL playoff career and the assist was Walker’s first point. It was a just reward for the fourth line who looked good for most of the night.
The goal seemed to spark life into the Pittsburgh faithful who’s voice lifted their team as the intensity lifted on the ice. The Penguins were pushing hard and 11:52 into the period, Kris Letang put an inconsistent series behind him by tying the game, beating Braden Holtby with a one-timer that deflected off of Chandler Stephenson’s stick. The Penguins would continue to push for the remainder of the period, however the safety of the second intermission was welcomed by the Capitals with the game still tied at one.
The final period was controlled by the Capitals from the get-go, however it was the performances of both Murray and Holtby which stole the show. The goal-tending duo were simply exceptional, stopping everything which came their way in what proved to be a highly entertaining, free flowing period. Credit must also be given to the officials who put the whistles away and let the boys play hockey – it was a real lesson to the NHL which needs to push this agenda strongly as the conference finals await.
Still tied at two at the end of regulation, the teams headed to overtime where the Capitals continued to dominate. Searching for a game and series winner, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov who stood up and played hero 5:27 in, after receiving the puck at center ice from Alex Ovechkin before racing down the ice and beating Murray to send Washington fans into hysterics.
The win marks the first time the Capitals have reached the conference finals since the 1997-98 season. In between, there had been 12 failed playoff campaigns where exits in the first (six) and second (six) round were all too familiar and always full of unrivaled heartache. Five of those failed campaigns were at the hands of the Penguins:
Speaking after the curse was broken, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said:
“Finally! We beat the Penguins. Thank God it’s happened. Move forward.”
The Capitals now face the highly-fancied Tampa Bay Lightning who after finishing the regular season with a 54-23-5 record, have easily disposed of the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, each in five games. The series will mark the first time in Alex Ovechkin’s glorious career he’s appeared in the conference finals and despite most believing the Capitals will have a tough challenge ahead of them, he can take comfort in knowing his team has won eight of its last 10 games against top quality opposition.
Anything is possible. #ALLCAPS