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There was a time when press conferences featuring Tiger Woods yielded nothing by way of information. He was being reticent by design, to be sure. He didn’t want those on the outside looking in to know more about his private life, and, just as importantly, his peers from getting a better grasp of how he went about his business on the course. As far as he was concerned, winning wasn’t everything; it was the only thing. And for a long, long while, his steely demeanor served to underscore his dominance and singular stature; he was on a pedestal by his lonesome, with all and sundry looking up from a distance -- exactly the way he wanted things to be.
Simona Halep was the decided underdog heading into the Wimbledon women’s singles final. For one thing, her skill set felt suited for any surface other than grass; she boasted of a baseline-centric game that relied on her athleticism and determination to keep balls in play, and until such time when an opportunity to attack presented itself. In contrast, the ultra-fast courts of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club placed a premium on booming serves and powerful groundstrokes -- characteristics that her opponent for the Venus Rosewater Dish just so happened to possess in spades.
The men’s singles final of the 133rd edition of The Championships in Wimbledon established a handful of firsts that won’t likely be eclipsed anytime soon. Yet, even as the epic Sunday match didn’t appear to have an end if not for a newly instituted rule change that mandated a tiebreak on the fifth set after a 12-12 score, it figures to go down in tennis annals as one of the best ever because of who won, and how he did so. Indeed, just about every warm body on Centre Court outside of the box of defending titleholder Novak Djokovic cheered for his opponent, and to a degree that stretched the boundaries of what should be deemed allowable in a so-called gentleman’s sport.
No eyebrows were raised when news of the Thunder going all in on their plan to reboot hit the grapevine following the departure of All-Star Paul George. It was but logical, after all; they couldn’t very well keep funding the most expensive roster in the National Basketball Association only to go one and done in the playoffs. And in their pivot to rebuild, they went about plotting a future without their single biggest driving force since they moved from Seattle close to the turn of the decade. That they were working with former league Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook and his representation to effect the transition served only to underscore its inevitability.
Even in the end, Kawhi Leonard kept everybody guessing. As the most coveted player in free agency, he took his time making a formal decision on where to land, never mind that his heart lay with the Clippers, and that, behind the scenes, he strove to ensure that he would wind up as their marquee superstar. And if the five days he kept all and sundry on #kawhiwatch weren’t enough, yesterday served to underscore his position as master of his fate. The contract he affixed his Hancock to was, indeed, for the maximum salary, but guaranteed only through the 2020-2021 season.
The Thunder were not pleased. They had greeted free agency with guarded optimism, strapped as they were by the repeater tax and yet bent on coming up with solid deals to enhance their competitiveness moving forward. Despite already having the most expensive payroll in the National Basketball Association, they remained committed to investing in talent. And they did, entering into handshake deals with Alex Burks and Mike Muscala. Unfortunately, their plans were overtaken by the prospect of top scorer and erstwhile Most Valuable Player candidate Paul George leaving them. For some reason, he asked to be traded, and specifically to the Clippers.
The Raptors knew they were taking a big risk when they pulled the trigger on the trade for Kawhi Leonard a week short of a year ago. For one thing, he was set to become a one-season rental; free agency in 2019 beckoned, and his camp made no secret of his preference to play in native California. For another, they needed to give up their identity in the process; the Spurs wanted another superstar, and specifically DeMar DeRozan, who, as their ninth overall pick in the 2009 draft, relished being the face of a franchise otherwise lacking in pull. Giving him up meant redefining the unique culture they had built and fortified; yes, they ran their affairs professionally, but they were a family first and foremost, and they took care of their own.
The Lakers were decidedly angry in the aftermath of the stunning news that broke the Internet over the weekend. It wasn’t just that Kawhi Leonard, fresh off a sterling playoff stint that culminated in a championship and a Finals Most Valuable Player award, spurned their advances. It was that he deigned to align himself with the little-brother Clippers and, along the way, toyed with them like puppets on a string. He made them think -- only too wrongly, as things turned out -- that, in fulfillment of his wish to go home to native California, they were frontrunners in the battle for his services, with the prospect of headlining an unparalleled Big Three too enticing to pass up.
Kawhi Leonard got what he wanted in the end. He was angling for a move to the Clippers, but under very specific conditions. And if, in the process, he wound up stringing the Lakers and Raptors along until the end of the fifth day of free agency, it was simply because he needed to have both leverage and fallback to see his vision through. His plan worked, to be sure; he was able to latch on to a first-class organization with an outstanding coaching staff and excellent ownership, front office, and back room support, and, most importantly, the second superstar he felt he required to keep chasing success.
Even in the midst of the frenzied activity that has enveloped social media since the National Basketball Association officially declared open season on free agents over the weekend, the rapid-fire scrambling that occurred stateside on Twitterverse as Kawhi Leonard engaged with the Raptors the other day proved nothing short of remarkable. Across the border, it also made for must-see TV as a Canada-based broadcast network that just so happens to have the same parent company as the franchise wooing the reigning Finals Most Valuable Player saw fit to cover his travel arrangements.
Of all the handshake accords that went through within the first six hours of free agency in the National Basketball Association, the Warriors’ deal with the Nets (later expanded to include the Timberwolves) was, perhaps, the most mind-boggling. To be sure, they scrambled to create value out of Kevin Durant’s departure; they didn’t want their erstwhile top dog to leave without any compensation in return. Even as the decision made sense on paper, however, it came at a cost, and a not inconsiderable one that, if nothing else, formally marked the end of its dynasty.
The second day of free agency in the National Basketball Association came and went with the status of Kawhi Leonard officially still up in the air. Even as a flurry of moves involving majority of marquee names of note served to include a full quarter of franchises in the title mix, his own figures to be the biggest game changer in the league’s most open season in recent memory. Which is why all and sundry remain transfixed on his plans for the 2019-20 season and beyond. He’s fresh off a remarkable playoff run that established his status as a dynasty killer and king of the hill, and his would-be decision shifts the balance of power to where he will ply his trade.
In retrospect, the writing was on the wall long before the doors of free agency opened yesterday. Kevin Durant wasn’t going to return to the Warriors, not after his much-publicized flare-up with teammate Draymond Green early in the 2018-19 season fed into the narrative that his joining them in 2016 was for his benefit and not theirs. For all his talents and evident status as their best player over the last three years, he could not quite shake off the reasonable contention that they were already formed and formidable to begin with. So in line with his objective to cement his legacy as an all-time great, he simply had to start anew elsewhere.
If there’s anything the current offseason in the National Basketball Association has shown, it’s that players want to control their destiny. They’re making plans based on developing realities and seeing how they can conceivably come closer to meeting their ultimate objective. Given the surfeit of talent, they understand that getting ahead means getting support. Which is why marquee names are constantly engaging with each other and cooking up scenarios where individual goals dovetail with collective pursuits.
As expected, Kevin Durant has declined his $31.5-million option with the Warriors, paving the way for his foray into free agency at the end of the month. Prior to the formal transmittal of his decision early this week, a number of quarters made the case that he would benefit from exercising it given his protracted recovery from surgery to repair his torn Achilles tendon. By the time he’s good to go next year, they argued, he can command top dollar whether he decides to stay or not. The premise is flawed, however. Even now, he has no shortage of suitors willing to break the bank for his services, hence eliminating the need for him to wait for his humongous payoff.
When the Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers held a news conference the other day, it was for the purpose of introducing draft choices Jordan Poole, Alen Smailagic, and Eric Paschall. Nonetheless, discussions in the presser invariably veered toward the impending free agency of All-Stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. It wasn’t simply that the prospect of offering them max contracts, long seen as academic even in the face of luxury tax concerns, became muddled after their injuries in the immediate past NBA Finals will effectively red-shirt them throughout the 2019-20 season. More importantly, it was due to seeming changes in their own mindsets given the manner in which they suffered from unfortunate twists that required surgery and prolonged convalescence.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s acceptance speech lasted all of five minutes, and it could have been over in much less time had he not kept on choking up. He was clearly overwhelmed by the occasion, never mind that he had long been tipped to claim the Maurice Podoloff Trophy in leading the Bucks to a regular-season-best 60 wins. Even as he failed to cap his 2018-19 campaign with a championship, he proved to be the best of the best of the National Basketball Association by far. Like all and sundry, he knew how well he did -- enough, at least, to prepare for his time in the podium yesterday.
When Andy Murray announced his impending retirement from tennis in early January, there was ample reason to lament the loss of a player who made significant strides on and off the court. If there was universal disappointment in his departure, it underscored the degree of respect for his competitiveness with a racket in hand and his status as an ambassador for the sport. He wasn’t perfect, but if he had fits under pressure, he directed it mostly to himself in an outward reflection of his demanding nature; he knew the extent of his talent, and lashed out demonstratively when he couldn’t translate potential to practice.
Free agency in the National Basketball Association doesn’t officially start until the evening of June 30, and yet quite a few movements have already been marked as done -- or, at least, as good as done. Among them are the departures of Celtics linchpins Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, the willingness (desire, even) of top management to keep them notwithstanding. Due to an unfortunate confluence of events, a campaign that was looked upon with loads of promise this time last year instead wound up dealing tons of disappointment. Dysfunction reared its ugly head, thus making divorce all but a foregone conclusion.
Phil Mickelson was nothing if not engaging in his presser on the eve of the Travelers Championship. He’s typically ebullient, to be sure, but his bright spirits yesterday likewise stemmed from fond memories of the tournament, having claimed it in successive years at the turn of the century. And were it not invariably scheduled right after the United States Open, he may well have added to his tally of victories at TPC River Highlands. Instead, he wound up skipping it from 2003 onwards, and only a change in his frequency of appearances on tour paved the way for his return.
Not a few quarters have deemed the blockbuster Anthony Davis trade as a win-win development, and with ample reason. The Pelicans, thought to have a future ransomed by their erstwhile top dog, received an embarrassment of riches slated to propel them to respect and respectability through the medium term. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in the limelight for one dramatic on- or off-court misstep after another, found themselves hogging headlines in a manner befitting their storied past. The outlook became much brighter for both, their distance from their desired destination and their continued movement of pieces on the board notwithstanding.
Make no mistake: The spectacular swap that sent do-it-all Anthony Davis to the Lakers is a gift for the Pelicans that will keep on giving for the next half decade and beyond. Even as trade grades are invariably stacked in favor of the quarter that received the best player in the deal, there can be no denying the humongous gains they made in the aftermath. They could have been dead in the water, what with their top dog already certain to walk away next year with no recompense to them. Meanwhile, the bidding war they hoped for failed to materialize following the Celtics’ understandable inability -- as well as the Knicks’ perplexing refusal -- to go all in. Instead, they came off with a treasure trove of assets that figure to support their forced rebuild sans the requisite pains.
Considering the countless ways in which the blockbuster trade between the Lakers and Pelicans can be viewed, it’s no surprise that both praise and criticism have been heaped in equal measure. From the vantage points of the dramatis personae, however, there can be no questioning the necessity of the deal pushing through. For one quarter, it represents the consummation of a pursuit for a superstar that was highly publicized and thereby resulted in bruised egos and fractured chemistry. For the other, it provides an opportunity to minimize the pain normally associated with reboots. Simply put, a win-win situation was reached, making the development a rarity in the cutthroat National Basketball Association.
Competition never stops in the National Basketball Association. For those locked in battle for the ultimate prize, the next challenge comes in the here and now. It’s why the Raptors managed to hog news headlines for all of one day before their status as champions became overshadowed by subsequent events. As they celebrated in Las Vegas, they found themselves alongside the supposedly woebegone Lakers, fresh off a tumultuous season and a still-hazy offseason and yet already installed as favorites for the 2020 title following a triumphant bid for all-world Anthony Davis.
When the Raptors go for the jugular today, their will be determined to move past the literal and figurative near misses they had in Game Five of the Finals. They were up by six points with three minutes and change to go, prompting behind-the-scenes preparations for their coronation as the finest of the finest of the National Basketball Association. Instead of firming up their date with living legend and Larry O’Brien Trophy presenter Bill Russell, however, they found themselves snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They called back-to-back timeouts that stunted their momentum. They missed five of their last six shots, including a wide-open three point attempt, and committed a costly turnover that helped the defending champion Warriors complete a comeback for the ages.
Hindsight always makes for 20/20 vision, so the wave of second-guessing that occurred in the aftermath of Kevin Durant’s ill-fated return to the court the other day was nothing if not predictable. The conditions behind his cameo appearance in Game Five of the Finals served only to make it more pronounced. He had been out for a month due to a right calf strain, and, with the Warriors down 1-3 and needing him to suit up just to survive, he -- and, just as importantly, those around him tasked with giving him the medical clearance to play -- faced the kind of pressure that leans, if not clouds, judgments in favor of taking on more risk. And, following the unfortunate turn of events, pundits have seen fit to view the decision in a manner that depicts all who gave the green light as reckless gamblers.
For a while there, it looked as if the Raptors were on their way to making a date with destiny by once again riding on the coattails of superstar Kawhi Leonard. When he checked in with nine minutes and change left in the fourth quarter, they hitherto seemed unable to overcome the obstacle erected courtesy of the cameo appearance of injured Kevin Durant. But no matter; with the game on the line and the championship within sight, he promptly went to work. In a little over three and a half minutes, he came up with a block, a rebound, two points, an assist, a rebound, three points, two points, three points, and two points to preside over a 12-point turnaround and get them six up with just about the same period left to play. Scotiabank Arena was ready to explode.
Kevin Durant finally trekked to the court with his teammates the other day. In the intervening month since he was sidelined late in Game Five of the Golden State Warriors’ semifinal-round series due to a right calf strain, he had seen them crest with defining performances to earn a fifth straight attempt at claiming the Larry O’Brien Trophy. In dispatching the Rockets and Blazers en route, they appeared to show they would do just fine without him. Against the Toronto Raptors, though, their supposed progress in his absence proved to be fool’s gold. And, with a lone win to their name after four matches in the Finals, they found themselves needing his services simply to survive. Needless to say, his presence in their short practice on the eve of Game Five was a decidedly welcome one.
For a while there, it looked as if Novak Djokovic would cruise to a fifth straight appearance in the final of a Grand Slam tournament. Prior to his Round-of-Four meeting with World Number Four Dominic Thiem, he carried an air of invincibility at Roland Garros; he made short work of his previous opponents, barreling through five straight-sets victories without surrendering more than three games in each set. And it wasn’t simply because he had momentum; in eight previous matches against the only player standing between him and a date with defending champion Rafael Nadal, he had emerged triumphant six times.
For the first time in the Finals, the Warriors managed to have a significant advantage in shot attempts yesterday. After taking just 78 and 81 stabs at the basket in their stints at Scotiabank Arena, they came away with a whopping 91 in Game Three. If nothing else, it was indicative of their conscious effort to dictate the pace to their liking. Unfortunately, they couldn’t translate it to actual production; with Klay Thompson joining Kevin Durant in the sidelines, they had only Steph Curry to rely on for points. And as much as they moved the ball and strive to find open shots, their depleted lineup told on their capacity to make the most of their opportunities.
Roger Federer must have been feeling good about himself -- literally -- to commit to a return to clay for the first time since 2016. True, that he did so on short notice indicated an ambivalence borne of the seeming incongruity of his strengths to the demands of the surface. Nonetheless, his choice was, if surprising, justifiable. After all, he does have three major wins over the last two and a half years, as clear a manifestation as any of his climb back to the sport’s elite. And he does have an affinity for the mineral aggregate, on whose courts he first started, and particularly for red clay, on whose bounces the Coupe des Mousquetaires is decided.
As if the Warriors needed more obstacles to come between them and a third consecutive National Basketball Association championship, their return home was greeted by news that slotman Kevon Looney looks to be out for the remainder of the Finals with a fractured collarbone. With Kevin Durant still decommissioned by a right calf strain, DeMarcus Cousins nowhere near to peak form just six weeks removed from a left quadriceps muscle tear, and Andre Iguodala playing through a left leg injury, the last thing they needed was yet another development that portrayed them as walking wounded.
Tiger Woods knew he had no chance of claiming victory at the Memorial Tournament even before he walked to the first tee for his final 18 yesterday. He looked to be in position to contend early on in the third round, making the turn at 32 following birdies on the odd-numbered holes, but found his aim for a provisional spot close to the leaders stunted by a double bogey on the 10th. He limped with an even-par showing from then on, leaving himself in the mid-20s and 11 strokes off the pace. As he noted in his post-mortem, “I’m so far back ... I’m not going to win.”
All eyes are on the Warriors now. Even diehard fans, ultra-confident of victory heading into Game One of the Finals, find themselves shaken by the ensuing turn of events to wonder how -- or even if -- the defending champions can recover. And it isn’t because the status of top two-way stalwart Kevin Durant remains iffy moving forward; they are, after all, still loaded and experienced enough to overcome hurdles en route to their expected finish. Rather, it’s due to their inability to be themselves in the face of solid coverage from the long, wiry, crafty, and mostly interchangeable Raptors.
The Raptors have every right to celebrate their first-ever appearance in the National Basketball Association Finals today. No matter what happens in Game One and through the rest of the championship series, they will have already succeeded in proving to all and sundry their arrival as a real force. Even as they contended in previous playoffs, their seeming competitiveness was always deemed fool’s gold given their failure to emerge as the East’s standard bearers when the battlesmoke cleared. This season, they’ve managed to go over the hump, beneficiaries as much of boldness as of no small measure of good fortune.
Caroline Wozniacki didn’t exactly have a good runup to the French Open. In fact, her groundwork for the second major tournament of the year was snagged by a spate of injuries that, among other things, compelled her to retire at the Madrid and Italian Opens. Still, she remained confident in her capacity to at least live up to her standing as the 13th seed. Even as she failed to do better than reach the quarterfinals twice in 11 previous stints at Roland Garros, she believed that all her hard work would pay off; if nothing else, it’s how and why she claimed the Australian Open last year.
Considering the ease with which Serena Williams claimed the second and third sets of her campaign-opening match in the French Open the other day, it’s clear that she still possesses the power, precision, and, perhaps most importantly, passion to stamp her class in the sport’s grandest stages. That she succumbed to unseeded Vitalia Diatchenko in the first set after claiming only two games, however, likewise underscores her increasing vulnerability at this stage in her career. She had been ousted in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament just once in 70 previous appearances, but, for a while there, she looked legitimately out of sorts and in danger of early elimination anew.
Rafael Nadal began his quest for a third straight -- and record-extending 12th -- title at Roland Garros yesterday, and he couldn’t have done so under more favorable circumstances. He’s lumped in a relatively easier bracket that has him going up against qualifiers in his first two rounds and then, assuming things fall into place, against longtime nemesis but on-the-wane Roger Federer in the semifinals. And, what’s more, he has momentum, too, fresh off a triumphant run at the Italian Open; with a podium finish at stake, he wound up handing World Number One Novak Djokovic a first-ever bagel en route to a three-set victory.
For a while there, it looked as if the grand Kawhi Leonard experiment wound wind up an abject failure. Notwithstanding the strides they had made since trading for him in the offseason, they didn’t risk letting go of erstwhile top dog DeMar DeRozan just so they could again be eliminated early. They were angling for the first-ever opportunity to vie for the Larry O’Brien Trophy and, in the process, turn him into much more than a one-year rental. In their progress, they figured his fruitful experience in the driver’s seat would entice him to stay on and keep doing the job for the foreseeable future. And, certainly, losing Games One and Two of the East Finals wasn’t the way to convince him.
Wikipedia has a good many uses, never mind its susceptibility to inaccuracy given its crowd-sourcing predilections. Creditably, its contributory nature likewise lends itself to speedy corrections in line with its mandate as a purveyor of facts. Edits to entries, particularly new ones, are frequent and constant in the name of truth. That said, the mistakes, intended or not, last long enough for social media hounds to preserve for posterity; in this regard, the targets are mostly those with a humorous bent, and the goal is to generate laughs.
The Lakers haven’t had a good year. In fact, they’ve arguably gone through one of the worst seasons in their storied history -- a development made even more shocking in light of the promise it had at the beginning. To be sure, much of their travails can be traced to sheer bad luck; their campaign for their first playoff stint in six years was beset by a rash of injuries to key players, prized recruit LeBron James included. On the other hand, even more is attributable to self-inflicted wounds that showcase their capacity to be their own worst enemies.
In crucial moments the other day, the Raptors appeared to be finding ways not to win. Down zero to two and with their backs against the wall in the Eastern Conference Finals, they came up with a crucial adjustment that allowed them to battle the otherwise-superior Bucks to a standstill until crunchtime of Game Three: They solved the problem that was Giannis Antetokounmpo by slotting top defender Kawhi Leonard on the presumptive Most Valuable Player along with a consistent blitz, and it worked. Unfortunately, their own offense continued to sputter, and especially with the outcome of the match on the line in regulation.
No matter what can and will be said of Brooks Koepka’s sputtering finish to his round yesterday, there’s no doubt about one thing: He wound up on top of the PGA Championship all the same. His retention of the Wanamaker Trophy was deemed even by his critics as a foregone conclusion, so far ahead was he of his closest competitors. Indeed, the seven strokes the rest of the field spotted him entering the final 18 was the most in major tournament history, and it was but logical to crown him early in light of his de facto status as the best of the best in the best.
It’s all over but the shouting. The Blazers tried as well as they could to protect home court and, in the process, bring down their deficit in the Western Conference Finals to a single game, but their effort at the Moda Center yesterday ultimately left much to be desired. As in Game Two, they greeted the opening tip with purpose and kept the pedal to the metal in the first half. And, as in Game Two, they then saw fit to coast on a seemingly comfortable lead -- a no-no given the relentless nature of the Warriors. They played not to lose when they should have kept playing to win, a recipe for disaster against the defending champions.
If there ever was any game the Toronto Raptors could best steal at the Fiserv Forum, yesterday’s appeared to be it. They headed into the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals with significant momentum borne of a dramatic victory in the rubber match of their semifinal-round series against the Sixers. The monumental shot that set up their date with the regular-season-leading Bucks looked to have been a gift from the hoops gods, coming right at the buzzer and bouncing four times before finding the bottom of the net. And it was so defining for a franchise usually snakebitten this time of the year that Kawhi Leonard, its creator, could not but be feted in the aftermath as a savior destined to lead them to ultimate success.