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The Smart Decision

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If I told you that there is a Canadian university team that has won 72 straight Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) regular and post season games in row, would you believe me? What if I mentioned that their last defeat was on November 25th 2002 and since then they have been ranked number one in the country, would you doubt me? What if I added that they are only the sixth team in the history of the CIS to have won back to back championships? What would you say to that?

That team is the Carleton University Ravens and their winning streak is the biggest thing going on in Canadian basketball right now. What they have accomplished over the last two and half years is truly unbelievable. Yet, when you look at the Carleton Ravens, you might have to look twice because they don’t fit the typical image of a number one ranked and undefeated basketball squad. When you look at them on the court and watch how they play, there is nothing flashy that jumps out at you that says that they are the defending champions. The Ravens look like a regular basketball team. Their warm up routine is the same, nothing special: some lay-ups, a couple dunks, shots go up, shots go down – you know the routine.

So why is it that Carleton is on top? Well, you can hypothesize that it could be due to what other teams are lacking; you could even talk about luck. However, it began with a single decision that helped turn this club from an average team to a national powerhouse. That decision will forever be remembered as the “Smart decision”. David Smart, current head coach of the Carleton Ravens, is the main reason this team has achieved long standing success. The tireless worker has complied an amazing 133-16 coaching record during his first six years as bench boss and has managed to recruit some of the best players in the nation.

Dave Smart came along and changed the face and soul of this Carleton Ravens basketball team. He nurtured and developed the team into the dynasty we see before our eyes today. Even if they suffer a loss by the time you read this, which probably won’t happen, you still cannot take away their amazing story and all of the inconceivable feats that they have achieved to this point. The fact that we are writing our main cover story on them should suggest enough. But let’s move on now and get into what Dave Smart has brought to the table.

“DAVE SMART CAME ALONG AND CHANGED THE FACE AND SOUL OF THIS CARLETON RAVENS BASKETBALL TEAM. HE NURTURED AND DEVELOPED THE TEAM INTO THE DYNASTY WE SEE BEFORE OUR EYES TODAY.”

The first thing that Dave Smart did with the team was to teach them discipline, something that most teams in the CIS don’t have. I don’t think I have ever seen a team more disciplined than the Ravens. This discipline is one of the major factors for their success, especially when it comes to closing games. You never see the Ravens panic. It’s as though they are programmed robots, set on calm and destroy mode. They just get it done! This robotic character can be observed during all of their games, but one game in particular, where it was really evident, was on February 8th 2005. It was on that day that the Ravens had a date with their cross-town rivals, the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, inside the brand new Ravens Nest facility.

The Carleton Ravens led most of the game, but the Ottawa Gee-Gees managed to turn it around and take a one point lead with just under a minute left in the game. Carleton’s winning streak was on the line and they were on the verge of losing their first game in their new building. You could sense the butterflies in the Carleton fans, but not in Dave Smart or his team. The Ravens then indbounded the ball to senior Mike Smart who calmly let the shot clock wind down to less thant 10 seconds. He then made his move and blew past his defender and put up a wicked left hander, oooh. The outcome of that game? Nothing different from the last 71 games. The Robots a.k.a. the Ravens, won in their classic composed fashion. You want to talk some more about composure and closing out games? Check this out, during Carleton’s first championship run 2002 – 2003 season, they won all of their three sudden death games by less than three points – including the championship game against the University of Guelph.

But it doesn’t end there, there is more to Dave Smart that a lot of people might not know. For one, he puts a lot into game preparations. Firstly, he spends more time than the average coach watching game footage. Secondly, having been a player at Queens University, where he led the OUA in scoring, coach Smart understands the game from not only a player’s perspective, but from that of a competitive and dominating player’s. It’s no wonder that the Carleton Ravens play with such confidence and it’s not hard to understand how they manage to dominate the league. Thirdly, a fortunate occurrence that allows Smart to acquire players that will fit into his squad is that the Carleton coach often scouts his players personally. More importantly however, he often brings on players that he has already coached, such as players from his Ottawa Guardsmen club team.

In terms of how he engages the team, coach Smart is very demanding of his players, in particular, he highly encourages team play. This is likely one of the reasons why the Carleton ball club plays so efficiently as a unit. But a personal attribute that Dave Smart possesses which appears to only benefit the team, is his lack of ability to be content. He is never satisfied. This leaves him always wanting and achieving more. This is something you can almost smell from his players, either that or they’ve been winning too many games without doing a wash. On top of all this, Dave Smart is beyond dedicated to the game. Coach Smart never stops thinking about basketball, for him, basketball is life. When someone has such dedication and passion, you can’t help but listen to him and believe in his system. This is probably one of the main reasons why the Raven’s players have so much faith and obedience to the system coach Smart has provided them. By the looks of it, this system, structured around tough defence, team play, and pick & rolls, has all the right ingredients.

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But, and you know there is always a but, this Carleton Ravens squad would not be the same, and would most likely not be undefeated, if it wasn’t for their dynamic duo of Mike Smart and Osvaldo Jeanty. Mike Smart, #3 who can hit the 3, can gather up rebounds with his height, penetrate to the basket, and a whole lot more. At 6-4, this Commerce student really means business. He has deceiving speed for his size, and a shot that will make his opponents cry if he’s given more than a second to shoot. Once that ball is released, the defence is deceased! If I could describe Mike Smart in but a few words, it would be a calm and collected sharp-shooter with handles. Ironically, Mike Smart is also an extremely smart player; he knows when to take a game into his own hands, as well as when to pass the rock. Add to this that he is a natural born leader – it must run in the family.

While Mike doesn’t know what pressure is, Osvaldo Jeanty does, because it’s what he puts on his defenders – pressure with a capital P. The 6-0 guard, out of Gloucester Ontario, has truly come a long way since his rookie year. The confident young man predicted that he would win 5 straight championships at Carleton, so far he is on the right path, with the Ravens having won back to back championships, and having just finished another undefeated season. You can pretty much bank on it that they are the early favorites to win a third straight championship.

Jeanty is just one tough player that never quits. He has the ability to hit the big shots down the stretch and is never afraid to shoot. Probably why Osvaldo was named the CIS Final 10 MVP in his rookie season when he scored 22 points in the championship game. He followed that up with a nearly perfect game for the Ravens on their second championship where he earned player of the game honors by leading all scorers with 20 points. Jeanty was 5 for 5 from the floor, including 3 from 3 beyond the arc, while he netted 7 of 8 free-throw attempts. Not bad huh, forget that, that’s amazing! But there are some things that statistics just can’t show, and Jeanty’s determination is one of them. He is just so persistent it’s incredible, it’s almost as though he’s possessed.

Now with all of that said, we’ve only mentioned 3 of the people that make up this Carleton Ravens team that are keeping the dynasty alive. We must, and I mean must, give credit to the rest of the Carleton squad because they are the supporting cast that sets the screens, runs the plays, passes the ball at the perfect time, and who also take the big shots when needed. One of the impressive things about Carleton is that all of their guys can step up, however, they chose to play their roles because they all know that’s how the system works, by making sure that everyone plays as a team while making sure they play their individual roles too.

As a team, they also have a great deal of mental toughness, and that’s what wins ball games. When things get down to the wire, and your body is ready to give out, it’s your mind that says nope, not yet, I’m in control here. Every player on the Carleton roster has that ability, to keep pushing for the entire game right until the final buzzer. This is a large part of the reason why there aren’t many teams that can play at their pace. Carleton plays 40 minutes of ball, other teams play 32 or 35, when you take those little breaks, Carleton comes at you, and your team falls apart. In addition to all of this, pretty much everyone on the team can shoot, and shoot well. With the exception of 2-3 players who excel in other areas, Carleton’s squad is made up of a bunch of sharp shooters. So a little word of advice to the competition, if a Raven has the ball, don’t let him shoot. If you do, you can expect to get subbed out for allowing an uncontested basket.

Lastly, we can’t forget all of the great talent that has passed through the Carleton team and allowed the younger players to develop and learn in their presence. Talented players such as Rob Smart, Jafeth Maseruka, Josh Poirier and Paul Larmand, just to name a few. It was players such as these that set the bar and acted as role models for the younger players that lead the team today. Furthermore, if you’re going to talk about this undefeated Carleton squad, you have to also give credit to the supporting cast of assistant coaches: Taffe Charles, Andy Sparks, Aaron Blakley and former Raven court star himself, Rob Smart. All of these people combined produce the #1 ranked, most likely to 3-peat, Carleton Ravens dynasty that we see before us today.

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2016 NBA Finals: Are the Cleveland Cavs done?

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The rumbling noise of a rematch begun as soon as last year’s NBA Finals ended with the Golden State Warriors drinking champagne in the Quicken Loans Arena’s visitors dressing room.

While the whole world focused on down crediting the Warriors, the Cavaliers went to work with the mindset that they were two injuries away from being the defending champions.

LeBron James dominated the Finals in ways that fans had always hoped he would, but never got to see. His average stats line from last year’s finals is 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks in 45.7 minutes. LeBron James was inhuman in that series. He was divine. And, comparisons to Greek gods were more warranting than ever, and more importantly, it was not about his physical attributes anymore, but about his game.

He, for once, had a dominant Finals series that led us to believe if these two teams were healthy Golden State would have no chance.

And, thus begun the new quest to end Cleveland’s title drought. While Golden State opened the season 24-0, 39-4 when Steve Kerr came back on the bench, and finished 73-9, Cleveland was dealing with internal turmoil that spilled out and headlined controversies after controversies.

The lack of respect James showed towards former coach David Blatt, firing Blatt midway through the season despite a 30-11 record and a first seed in the conference, Tyronn Lue’s “shut the f–k up” comments, the comments about maybe playing with ‘Melo and CP3 in the twilight of his career, Kyrie does not distribute the ball, Kevin Love not, really, fitting in, and the most egregious was him training with Wade in Miami. If you want, you can also add the move to unfollow his organization on Twitter.

All of this noise was silenced in the first two rounds of the playoffs mainly due to the weak competition the Cavs faced in Detroit and Atlanta. However, things got a little chaotic when the Raptors mauled Cleveland in games 3 and 4 of the conference finals.

But, in the end it was all covered up with wins. The Cavs downplayed all of those problems, they shuffled aside questions about their chemistry and cohesiveness, but because they were never tested their talents overcame the lack of adversity. But not anymore and this team looks like its quitting, unfairly, on its coach, its superstar, and itself.

So, here we are: Game 3. The single biggest game of LeBron James’ career. The game that will define his legacy. It is a bigger game than Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. The stakes are through the roof, and if James does not perform and Cleveland loses, they will get swept on Friday night. This is it. LeBron James said so himself.

The problems facing the Cavs are James’ uncharacteristic lack of leadership, and he has not been dominant, and Tyronn Lue’s coaching.

LeBron James’ leadership

This Cavaliers squad is in search of its leader who has dissipated. LeBron James is not playing with the same ardor, determination and grit on both ends of the floor.

A year ago, he was feisty and so were his team, but this year he is lazy and so is his team.

The Cavaliers are a reflection of LeBron James, and as long as he will be an anemic version of himself, the team will play that way and Golden State will win with ease. James has never been questioned for his lack of effort on both ends of the floor, and yet here we are questioning the core of his greatness in the looming hours of what is the defining stage of his legacy.

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It is time for LeBron James to lead his team and as the old expression goes “put up or shut up”. A year ago, James “became the first player to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists per game in an NBA Finals,” according to ESPN Stats and Information. This year his numbers are there (21, 9 assists, 10 rebounds), but they are not impactful.

He and his team looked like they have been mentally defeated by Golden State in Game 2. They looked ready to go on vacation, and leave Cleveland as soon as possible. We have seen a LeBron James team lose in the Finals before, but they never looked vanquished, and uninterested.

LeBron James needs to take command of this game, and this series. He needs to show his team the way. Get his teammates involved early, have their backs and go for the Warriors’ psychological throat. James has to want to rip the Warriors’ heart out of their chest.

Tyronn Lue’s coaching

The honeymoon with Tyronn Lue has got to end, and people have to hold him accountable for what he has not done in the first two games of the series: coaching.

Tyronn Lue has tried to combat fire with fire. When Golden State has sent its revolutionary small ball lineup, also known as, “the death lineup”, Cleveland responded with its own version (Irving at the 1, J.R. Smith at the 2, Shumpert at the 3, James at the 4, Love at the 5) and was outscored by 46 points. In contrast, the Cavs have been outscored by one point when playing with a big lineup against the death lineup.

According to John McTigue from ESPN Stats and Information, when both squads play with their small ball lineup the Warriors are shooting 66.2 per cent from the field to the Cavs’ 40. To make matters worse the lethal new weapon that carried the Cavs to the NBA Finals, the three point shot, is killing them now. Once again, when both team play small ball, the Warriors shoot 60 per cent from beyond the arc to the Cavs’ 25.

Tyronn Lue needs to watch last year’s finals, and the few good moments from this year’s edition and play big, slow and physical. If the Cavs don’t make these adjustments, they are done.

A year ago, Mozgov became a force to be reckoned with in the paint against the Warriors. He needs to be unleashed against Andrew Bogut, otherwise the Australian big-man will have his way. Even, if Mozgov is a viable option on offense, his impact on defense, his shot-blocking abilities and rebounding prowess can’t be overlooked.

Lue has to bench J.R. Smith. Period. Smith has been a pathetic, moribund shell of himself. Thus far in the series, before Game 3, Smith has played 69 minutes and attempted a disgraceful nine shots, connected on only three occasions as the starting shooting guard.

Bench him. He is wasting a viable roster spot on both ends of the floor.

Game 3 is the single biggest game of LeBron James’ career, and he will have to dominate from tip off to finish for his team to have a chance, otherwise you can kiss the ring good bye.

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Damian Lillard more valuable than Curry

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On Wednesday night, the Portland Trail Blazers will be faced with a daunting task: extending their overachieving season by defeating the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.

Absolutely nothing short of a miraculous performance will save, and extend the Blazers’ season. And, yet the Blazers’ leader is highly capable of delivering such a performance.

Damian Lillard is the kind of conductor who can orchestrate the most harmonious melodies, which leaves the audience in tears of joy as they watch beautiful basketball.

Remember the Warriors’ first game following the All-Star Break? It was in Portland, Oregon when Damian Lillard dropped dimes (sorry couldn’t help it!) all over Chef Curry and company.

Lillard, the undersized point guard, finished with a career-high 51-points to go along with seven assists, six steals, and zero turnovers to lead his Blazers to a dominant, statement-making blowout win of the defending champions Warriors.

Portland won 137-105.

So, yeah Golden State took the regular season series 3-1. And, yes they are most likely to win the 2016 NBA Playoffs series 4-1. But, could Stephen Curry have done what Damian Lillard pulled of? Nah. How about Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Carmelo Anthony? Nope.

The only player who could – and probably – would of done something as special as what Dame did, is LeBron James.

Let’s recap what happened to the Blazers about a year ago in free agency. LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the San Antonio Spurs. Wesley Matthews left for the Dallas Mavericks. Nicolas Batum signed with the Charlotte Hornets. Robin Lopez signed with the New York Knicks.

Those are three starters, and their sixth man. Basically four of their top five players left, and yet Dame, and head coach Terry Stotts, have this team in the second round of the playoffs.

When Mason Plumlee is arguably the best free agent you signed after watching the exodus, you have to wonder what the front office was doing.

You can look at it, analyze, and throw all the numbers you want to coronate Stephen Curry, but none of those will compare to the challenges that faced the ever so underrated Oakland, California point guard.

Damian-Lillard-Portland-Blazers-Looking-Up-NBA

Yes, Curry was a member of the 50-40-90 club, and he led the league in both points per game and steals per game. Yes, the baby-faced assassin killed the Spurs at home, and in Alamo City during the Spurs’ only home loss this season. Yes, I remember the Saturday night instant classic overtime thriller in Oklahoma City and the shot seen around the world to win it. Yes, I remember the blowout of the Cavaliers in Cleveland, and the “hopefully it still smells a little bit like champagne,” comments.

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Yes, Chef Curry was the orchestrator of the greatest regular season in NBA history as his Warriors went 73-9, but I dare every single one of you to show me a Klay Thompson who averaged 22.1 points per game, and a Draymond Green who averaged 14 ppg, 9.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game, on top of being the best defender on the Warriors, and their spiritual and emotional leader.

Some of you will point to Lillard’s new partner in crime, C.J McCollum. McCollum can’t yet be compared because this past season was the first time he played a role in the Blazers’ season. He was drafted in 2013, and prior to this season in which he averaged 20.8 points per game, McCollum averaged just 5.3 points per game in 12 minutes (2013-14), and 6.8 in 15 minutes per game (2014-15). He was Wesley Matthews’ backup.

As of right now, McCollum’s situation is TBD. It is to be determined whether he can be a consistent 20-point scorer for the Blazers, and Lillard’s sidekick.

I don’t want to sound like a “hater” because Curry, and his Warriors deserve all the accolades they receive. They deserve all the praises they obtain. I’m just of the mindset that you can’t overlook players, and coaches who overachieve just because their team has a record that is not quite as good as another team.

This reminds me of the 2013 NFL season when Peyton Manning like Stephen Curry re-wrote the record books on his way to his fifth MVP, while Tom Brady like Damian Lillard took a supporting cast that left everyone screaming “Belichick is jeopardizing Brady’s last years” all the way to the AFC Championship game.

So, while this NBA series is not in the Western Conference final, I can’t help but see the resemblance, and feel bad for Dame and Brady.

Before the season began every pundit, every analyst, and everyone that follows basketball declared the Portland Trail Blazers as a lottery team. And, yet the undersized, underrated superstar point-uard nicknamed Dame kicked open the superstar status door, and declared “sorry for dropping in!”

And delivered a season to remember. Dame you the real MVP.

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LaMarcus Aldridge makes Spurs, not Warriors, team to beat in NBA

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The NBA semifinals are underway, and, so far have been nothing short of sensational. But, of all the great players, teams, and coaches still fighting this post-season one stands out as, clearly thus far, the best player in the NBA.

He is none other than LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs.

The newest free agent signee of the San Antonio Spurs has been on a tear against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In the first game of the series he scored 38 points on 18/23 shooting only to follow it with a 41 points on 15/21 shooting performance. He is the first Spur to have back-to-back 35 + points performances in the playoffs since Tim Duncan in 2003.

At the beginning of the season, Aldridge struggled mightily to find his groove in the Spurs’ system with the nadir coming on January 25th, in the form of a 30-point beat down to the Golden State Warriors. In that nightmarish game, Aldridge scored five points on 2/9 shooting.

Due to the hellish start of his season some people thought his signee was a bit of overrated; however, in a true Spurs fashion he aged well.

From October until mid-January, Aldridge averaged 15.9 points per game on 48.7 per cent from the floor. While this may be a career year for most players, it was well below his anticipated production. And, on top of his lack-of-production – by his standards – the Spurs were about to be dealt a new blow. Tim Duncan would miss some time with right knee soreness. But, Duncan’s soreness turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the new Spur as he found himself.

Between January 23rd and February 18th, Aldridge’s scoring average increased from 15.9 to 20.8 points per game on 54.7 shooting from the floor. And, from February 18th to March 17th, he average 20.2 points per game on 52.6 per cent from the floor.

LaMarcus-Aldridge-Spurs-NBA-Playoffs-Jumper

Since then LaMarcus Aldridge has been firing on all cylinders for the Spurs, and helped them to the greatest regular season in team history. In any year, the 67-15 Spurs would have been, against their will, the talk of the media, but the 73-9 Golden State Warriors and the drama surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers overshadowed them.

Now, as they prepare for Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against their newly archrival Thunder, the most dominant franchise of the past decade has gotten even better.

The former “Big Three”, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, is still intact but a new “Big Three” is emerging with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge as the catalysts, and either Patty Mills or Danny Green as the third member.

One of the big reasons behind Aldridge’s early season struggles is because he plays a very similar style of basketball to Tim Duncan; therefore they were stepping on each other’s toes on offense, and in a way neutralized each other.

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Since coming back from injury, Duncan has gladly accepted his role as a mentor, and passenger on the Spurs bus driven by number two and 12. He has become a secondary scorer on the team, to his and the team’s benefit, and moves to help free-up Aldridge as oppose to score.

Although Aldridge can muscle his way in the restricted area against anybody in the league, his strength lies in his mid-range jump shot. Coincidentally this is Duncan’s strength although Aldridge has much more range than Duncan.

LaMarcus-Aldridge-Spurs-NBA-Playoffs-Jumper-OKC-Thunder

In the first two games of the series against the Thunder, Aldridge has ran a number on Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams with his devastating jumper. The Spurs use pick and roll and screens to free him from his defender.

What makes the Spurs’ signing of LaMarcus Aldridge so deadly is that both the Spurs and Aldridge have become famous over the years for pick and rolls, screens, double-screens, and mid-range jump shots.

LaMarcus Aldridge was destined to be a Spur, and his signature could not have come at a better time.

Thus far in the series, Aldridge has connected on all 11 free throws he attempted, including the three free throws with 13.5 seconds left in the game and his Spurs down by four. The former Trail Blazers scored .783 per cent in game 1 and .714 in game 2.

Billy Donovan, the rookie head coach of the Thunder, has, so far, refused to double-team the Texas alumni or try defending him with Kevin Durant. The main reason that has Billy Donovan reluctant to switch Ibaka and Adams with Durant is Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard is the best player in San Antonio. The Spurs will go as far as he takes them. For all of LaMarcus Aldridge’s greatness, he takes a back seat to Kawhi Leonard.

This season, and most likely for the near future, the Golden State Warriors will hold headlines, breaking news, and magazine covers, but the San Antonio Spurs will respond, in a homegrown fashion, with their play on the court as oppose to the cameras.

Who knows what the future will hold for the franchise based in the Alamo City, but if the present is any sign of things to come Spurs fans are in for a treat, and another 15 years of championship aspirations, and greatness.

Despite the headline-grabbing Warriors (rightfully so!), I believe that the San Antonio Spurs will win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and be crowned World Champions in 2016, and LaMarcus Aldridge will be Finals MVP (if he keeps playing at this level).

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