On the night the Warriors said farewell to Oakland, a most unusual thing happened. It became one of the greatest nights in the history of Canadian sports.
As the Toronto Raptors return to the Bay Area for a Chase Center appearance Sunday night, they bear little resemblance to the team that clinched the 2019 NBA championship at Oracle Arena.
Just for starters, they don’t have a home.
The Canada-U.S. border is closed to “nonessential travel” until further notice, due to pandemic concerns, and the Raptors were denied a quarantine exemption in late November. They hastily relocated to Florida, working out an agreement to share Amalie Arena with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. They crafted a makeshift practice facility at a nearby hotel and scrambled for living accommodations in the area. Players have been allowed to host their families, but the maddening uncertainty — how long will this go on? — left some deciding to just go it alone.
This burden of inconvenience doesn’t get nearly enough notice among those trying to explain the Raptors’ malaise, a noticeable dropoff in energy, motivation and performance throughout the young season. The team just endured a challenging relocation in the Orlando “bubble” to finish off the 2019-20 season, and now this.
“We have no swagger to us,” said guard Kyle Lowry after Monday’s “home” loss to Boston left the team’s record at 1-5. “We have nothing. There’s nothing to us. Teams are looking at us like, ‘All right, let’s go eat.’ That’s not a good feeling.”
One of the league’s most dynamic young players, Pascal Siakam, looked lost in the bubble and has only recently shown signs of life. It’s just not the same team without the departed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who proved to be a formidable big-man combination during those 2019 Finals against the Warriors, and the absence of Kawhi Leonard speaks for itself.
A bit of Golden State connection remains. Shooting guard Patrick McCaw has been out all season with a knee injury, but 6-foot-9 center Chris Boucher, who had some impressive G League stints during his brief time with the Warriors (2017-18), has been valuable off the bench. The Warriors are past the point of worrying about young centers gone elsewhere — that’s the James Wiseman effect — but so far this season, Boucher has had a 24-point game against New Orleans and a 22-point, 10-rebound performance against San Antonio, while shooting 53.6% from the floor overall.
After Sunday night’s game, the Raptors head off to — does it even matter? It won’t be Toronto, and there’s little reason for the sports fans of Tampa to suddenly embrace their Canadian visitors. Are you familiar with Tacko Fall? He’s an impossibly large center who played college ball at Central Florida and rarely gets off the Celtics’ bench, and as Monday’s game dissolved into boredom in Tampa, fans (among the few allowed in the building) took up the chant of “We want Tacko.”
Tommy Lasorda died Thursday, at 93, and baseball lost a part of its soul. It was no idle event on that score; the game suffers constantly, maddeningly, as analytics cut away at the heart. “Progress” means you’re not really sure who runs your team any longer, and that includes during the game. It could be the bench coach, an executive in street clothes, or a prearranged plan that dictates strategy beforehand. Once Lasorda took his seat in the dugout, there was never any confusion about the Dodgers’ head man — and fans got a little show along the way. So often it was little more than cheap vaudeville, but Lasorda added a bit of tradition-bound spice to the proceedings, right along Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Lou Piniella, Jim Leyland and so many others who understood the priceless value of theater. If it wasn’t a pure showman, it was someone like Frank Robinson, Sparky Anderson or Whitey Herzog — delightfully seasoned baseball dictators ruling proudly over their domain, making moves on pure instinct and knowledge. We haven’t entirely lost this element, but it’s fading fast, as shifting infielders crowd the right-field area and that fine young pitcher gets pulled with a no-hitter in progress. So here’s to Lasorda, making his waddling way from Candlestick’s visiting clubhouse to the dugout, dramatically waving his cap to the discordant chorus of jeering hecklers and blue-clad L.A. fans. You were loved, you were ridiculed, and everyone knew where the hell you stood. If there’s a “Big Dodger in the sky,” as you always claimed, find out if he breaks bread with the Big Giant.
The Giants were happy to see a 16-team postseason format in place last season — it allowed them to stay in contention until the very last day — and they wouldn’t mind an encore. With the traditional setup, allowing for just the three division winners and two wild-cards in each league, San Francisco would be virtually eliminated by a talent disparity that grows larger by the day. The Dodgers, Padres and Braves are on a lofty, elite level, and here come the Mets with the acquisition of shortstop Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco and possibly more to come (George Springer?). That would take care of the wild-card berths, leaving only the champion of the Central Division to fill out the field. Everyone realizes it’s all about 2022 for the Giants, when their financial clout will be substantial, but the catch-up task will be daunting. … From baseball to the sea: Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz was ticketed to host a World Surf League tour event Feb. 2-12, but it was postponed in light of the recent surge in coronavirus cases. … For those who’d like to get fully immersed in the giant, all-time swell that hit Mavericks on Dec.8, Powerlines filmmakers Curt Myers and Eric Nelson have posted an 80-minute special on YouTube. Call up “Mavericks Raw” and you’re there.