Five thoughts on Game 6: Raptors 99, Trailblazers 85

Toronto Raptors at Portland Trailblazers Oct 30

Five thoughts on the Toronto Raptors’ second straight road win, this time against the Trailblazers in Portland…

Lucas Nogueira came back, and started.

Serge Ibaka missed the game with a bad knee, and Jonas Valanciunas remains sidelined with a bum ankle. (Starting to wonder why Jonas came on this trip at all…) Bebe came back from his ankle injury, and it was the usual mixed bag—great, athletic plays off of pick and rolls and lobs, dumb fouls, a three, lackadaisical effort on a loose ball, an offensive rebound tap-out, not paying attention to a Kyle Lowry pass… you just never know what you’re gonna get from this guy. Naturally he finished with career highs in points (17) and blocks (5).

DeMar DeRozan owned the first quarter.

DeMar came out firing; he clearly was feeling it early tonight, scoring 13 of the Raps’ first 15 points on 5/5 shooting with a dazzling array of jumpers, floaters and layups; the Blazers were shooting hot from deep and DeMar kept them in it early. He had a little help from Kyle Lowry, who hit 3 of his first 4 3-point attempts, and the score was tied after 1. Overall the Raps all-star backcourt combined for 44.

OK, so what the heck happened to the Blazers in that second quarter?

Portland scored one (1) (one!) field goal—and it came with 5.4 seconds left, off of an offensive rebound on a broken play. I honestly thought they weren’t going to score a bucket (they had 4 FTs) which I don’t believe I have ever seen before. Part of it was the Blazers missing open looks, and generally looking a bit lost. But you gotta give the Raps’ speed and length some credit. Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Bebe, Delon Wright and OG Anunoby were all getting in passing lanes, bothering shots, and chasing down loose balls. The Raps won the quarter 25-6. Special shoutout to Anunoby who was everywhere on defense (and whose name I shall endeavor to spell correctly going forward).

The marksmanship of the Raptors’ young bench backcourt is, ah, concerning.

That second-quarter lead would’ve been even greater had Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet been able to buy a basket. I’ve been patient with Delon’s shooting, but now he’s out here missing layups (two in the second quarter, at least one more in the fourth) as well as threes (he’s 2-19 on the year now). Meanwhile, I’m not sure what VanVleet is bringing to the table. He’s a smart player and, supposedly, a good shooter. But I’m beginning to think he’s too small and too slow to get his shot off. He’s now 6-24 on the year.

Norman Powell showed signs of life in the third quarter.

Norm had a terrible first half on offense (he was fine on D as usual); his confidence looked completely shot. On one play, DeMar kicked it to Norm on the wing on a delayed break, but he hesitated so long on the J, the D caught up. So Norm drove… right into the teeth of the D… got tied up… jump ball. Gotta shoot that, Norm, I yelled at the TV! (This is a thing I do.) (Often.) The third didn’t start out well for Norm either, as he traveled on his first possession. But then… he hit a three (without hesitation). Missed another. Then hit a drive. Hit another three. Drove and found Bebe on a lob. Could Norm be back? I hope so!

—–

Overall it was an easy win, fueled by defense, and the Blazers didn’t show me much. There are two games left on this trip—tough games at altitude, in Denver and Utah. Can the Raps come home over .500?

Five thoughts on Strangers in Paradise XXV

Strangers in Paradise

Last week I saw the news that Terry Moore will be bringing his romantic comedy / thriller comic Strangers in Paradise back in 2018, with Strangers in Paradise XXV. As a longtime fan, naturally I have a few thoughts (five, of course!) to share on the subject (with minor spoilers if you’ve never read the series):

1. I got someone else hooked on Strangers in Paradise first.

Strangers in Paradise (or SiP) started in 1993 but it was around 1998 that I started reading it. My then-girlfriend was looking for a comic book to read and I’d heard SiP was a “girl-friendly” comic. So I bought the first trade paperback for her. She loved it, and told me to read it, and I fell in love with it too. After we broke up I needed my own collection, and I opted for the “limited edition hardcovers.” These books were expensive and I could only ever find them at the Silver Snail, but even then, I couldn’t find the final two volumes (Volume 3, part 7 and Volume 3, Part 8) for years after the book’s conclusion. Eventually I spotted Part 8 at Jim Henley’s Universe (or whatever that shop is called now) in New York City; I debated getting it since I didn’t have Part 7 but thankfully, I did. About a year and a half later Part 7 showed up with an Amazon marketplace seller for a decent price so the collection was finally complete!

2. Strangers in Paradise works because of its two female leads.

The strength of SiP is, of course, in its two main characters, confident bisexual Katina (aka Katchoo) and sexually repressed Francine. The sales pitch was always, “Katchoo is in love with Francine; Francine sees her as a friend; will they ever find each other?” but the book was always so much more than that. There’s David, of course, the third wheel who’s in love with Katchoo and who, as it turns out, has connections to Katchoo’s mysterious past, working as a call girl for the conniving Darcy Parker… who in turn has connections to international crime and politics… and the layers keep peeling back. But the book always comes back to Francine and Katchoo and their relationship and that’s what makes it work.

3. Comics needed women like Francine and Katchoo.

The critical pitch on SiP was always “Moore both writes and draws amazing female characters, who look and act and interact—with each other and the world around them—like actual, real women.” Which is A) totally true and B) such a sad statement, that there are so few comic books that feature realistic women (although we are definitely way, way better off in that regard in 2017 than we were in the mid-1990s). I’d like to think that SiP was one of the books that led us out of the “big boobs/tiny waist” 1990s in comics, and showed publishers that there was an audience for comics featuring realistic women.

4. As great as Strangers in Paradise is, it’s by no means a perfect book.

SiP ran for a total of 107 issues, and any series that long will have some ups and downs. The story almost completely falls off the rails right around the middle; thankfully, Moore manages to get it back on track—by literally rewinding the story, which I’ve always thought was his own acknowledgment that the book had lost its way. It’s a total deus ex machina that I’ll forgive because the book needed it. Beyond that, at times, some of the thriller aspects of it seem ridiculously far-fetched (the far-reaching influence of the Parker girls seemed unbelievable, and the David-as-teenage-assassin part never sat well with me, to use two examples). But even when the book was floundering, Francine and Katchoo were such wonderful characters that you couldn’t help but keep reading to see where the story would take them.

5. That said, what is perfect about Strangers in Paradise, is the ending.

SiP is a series that’s high on emotion and it can be hard to bring something like that to a satisfying conclusion; you have to wrap up all the plot points and character arcs of course, but you also have to pay off all the emotional investment that readers have made in the characters. Moore manages to do it all in the final few issues, and doesn’t do it in too neat a bow, either, which is appropriate for a series featuring such real, human characters. It’s a “happy ending,” sure, but no one comes out unscathed, and that’s just the way it should be.

—–

That perfect ending is what leaves me with mixed feelings on this announcement. Of course I want to see Katchoo and Francine again (and Moore’s work since, including Echo and Rachel Rising, indicates he hasn’t lost a step); but, you always worry that a new story will take away from the wonderful ending. Ah well, I’m in regardless!

Five thoughts on leadership, featuring Steve Kerr, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

Leadership lessons with Steve Kerr

Last summer I read this article in Sports Illustrated on Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors and, from all accounts, an excellent leader and all-around wonderful human being. It’s a great article on leadership, his approach to coaching the Warriors, and how the health challenges Kerr faced last year (complications from back surgery) have forced him to reevaluate things. One part has stuck with me; the author, Chris Ballard, shares with Kerr five practices of exemplary leaders, as defined by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book The Leadership Challenge.

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot lately as that’s where I’m finding my passion as my career evolves. Here are my five quick thoughts on those five practices:

1. Model the Way (set an example for how you want others to act).

Leading by example should be the easiest of these leadership practices, but it’s one I see so many managers and leaders fail at. I’m not sure why. I think a lot of it has to do with simply slowing down, and considering your actions and your words and thinking, how would I respond if others acted this way? If your response is negative, then reconsider your approach.

2. Inspire a Shared Vision (get buy-in for a common goal and believe in it passionately).

I think a lot of leaders find this one daunting, because they don’t feel they are inspiring and because the word “vision” itself can seem intimidating; after all, most jobs are just that, jobs, and don’t exactly inspire great visions. But succeeding at this one starts with a combination of modeling the way, and of setting team goals, with well-defined objectives and clear expectations for all team members. No grand vision required: just a path to success.

3. Challenge the Process (see risks as opportunities).

Ah, the one every leader likes to say, and most want, but few can actually do, especially in large organizations. Creating actual change can be extremely difficult, and politics and hierarchies often throw up roadblocks that force people into the same patterns and bad habits. The important thing is for leaders to avoid throwing up their hands in frustration. Do that behind closed doors. When your team comes to you and their struggling to move forward, use the “Yes, and…?” approach to acknowledge their challenge and encourage them to think of solutions.

4. Enable Others to Act (empowering those around you).

This is the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. Sometimes it’s easy, when you have those go-getters on your team who know exactly what they want and all you need to do is say “yes, go.” The challenge is helping those who don’t know what they want, figure it out. To me, that comes with getting to know people, caring about them, listening to them—even, and perhaps especially, when they’re not talking about work or their career or ongoing development. And then start with providing ownership of little things. Make them responsible for updating a report each month. Have them attend a meeting instead of you. And grow those responsibilities over time.

5. Encourage the Heart (focus on the humanity of people, and make them “feel like heroes”).

I am finding that even though organizationally, businesses are getting a bit better at focusing on employees as human beings, in marketing, we might be going in the opposite direction. We’ve placed such an emphasis in the last 10-15 years, with the advent of digital marketing, on data and measurable results that some of the “soft skills” are being ignored. As a leader I think the most important thing you can for your team is have their back. Recognize them when they succeed (especially in front of others, where appropriate) and use constructive feedback and positive reinforcement to put them back on the path to success when they fail.

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None of this is rocket science; it usually all comes down to communication and consistency. But I do think it’s important to stop and remind ourselves of these things every once in a while; even the most experienced leader can lose sight of them.

Five thoughts on five thoughts

On Friday I wrote a blog post offering five thoughts on the Fantastic Four. I’ve had that one in my head for a while—since I restarted this blog actually. Originally it was going to be four things about the Fantastic Four—which, obviously, makes sense thematically. But I’ve been writing five thoughts about the Raptors every game and I’ve found myself enjoying it; so much so that I’m actually considering writing every post that way.

As a matter of fact… I have five thoughts about it:

  1. It’s a bit gimmicky. But it’s also a decent hook for a blog that doesn’t have much connective tissue beyond “things I like to write about.”
  2. There are some inherent challenges—but challenges are good. The first challenge is that it’s a constraint, a structure that I’m locking myself into that may not always fit “what I like to write about.” But I think that’s a good challenge. If it’s one of those short little curated pieces, maybe it’ll make me think more deeply about it. If it’s something I initially want to write more about, maybe it’ll help me focus my thoughts. And if I can’t make it fit the format… then maybe it isn’t right for the blog?
  3. If I really want to go deep, I can always do “five more thoughts.”
  4. My Photog category—which was essentially my Instagram replacement—definitely doesn’t fit this format. But I have a couple thoughts on how to make it work… and besides, I haven’t been using it much anyway. If this little idea works—and we’ll see at the end of this week—
  5. Part of the reason I’m doing this blog at all is to try new things and experiment with my writing. Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t!

Now my next challenge is finding a better way to title these posts! I can’t keep calling them “five thoughts on…” every time…

Five thoughts on Game 5: Raptors 101, Lakers 92

Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Lakers Oct 27

Five thoughts on the Raptors squeaking out their first road win of the season:

  1. Pascal Siakam started for the second straight game; he earned it with his excellent play in the Warriors game, and he played just as well tonight. All told he’s 17-22 with 38 points in his two starts! He’s only grabbed 7 total rebounds, which isn’t ideal for a starting SF, but he’s also only turned the ball over once, which is impressive for a second-year player. Much like fellow sophomore Jakob Poeltl, I’m really impressed with his hands and his touch; big men and rookies often have a hard time catching tough passes, and getting the ball up on the rim or backboard quickly. Both of these guys have quick hands, are able to grab passes even when they aren’t on the money, and don’t need a lot of time to gather themselves and shoot.
  2. Speaking of Poeltl, he and the Raptors bench finally came back down to earth after four solid games. They pretty much crapped the bed at the end of the first quarter and into the second, giving up a 17-6 run and looking completely listless on both ends of the floor. Poeltl seemed outmathced by Julius Randle, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright couldn’t get anything going outside or going to the rim, and OG Anonuby, while playing with good energy once again, shot 2-8. The Lakers bench definitely seemed like the better second unit!
  3. Thankfully, the Raptors starters finally delivered a decent all-around game. Kyle Lowry continues to shoot poorly, but he did earn a triple-double, and hit the game-sealing three with a minute left (after a wonderful, Steve Nash-ian zig-zag dribble right under the hoop, back out through the paint to the three-point line). DeMar DeRozan carried the Raps in the fourth with his usual array of midrange shots. Serge Ibaka and Siakam combined for 16-20 shooting. (You won’t believe this, but Ibaka finished with 0 assists.) Norm Powell is still struggling big-time on offense, but managed to finish with a +17, so he must be doing something right out there. Overall the five Raps starters were all positive in plus/minus, and the five bench players all negative. The Lakers? Exact opposite.
  4. Lonzo Ball is gonna be a good pro, no doubt about it. Everything everyone says about his court vision, awareness and timing is spot-on. He sees the floor extremely well; and not just when he has the ball, he just seems to be in the right place at the right time, even on defense, which is impressive for a rookie (even though his actual 1-1 defense isn’t strong yet). But that jump shot… I can’t believe the Lakers aren’t trying to correct that. His accuracy is terrible, so defenders are letting him shoot. But the mechanics are so poor—he shoots, basically, from the side of his chest—that, if he ever does get his accuracy up, defenders will stick to him and he won’t be able to get that shot off. So strange.
  5. As for the rest of the Lakers, it’s a weird team, man. Everyone’s heard the rumors that the team’s in a holding pattern, waiting for LeBron James to sign there next summer… and looking at the roster, you can’t help but think, “yep, they didn’t give a crap about this season.” I mean, they’re long and athletic,  they have nice young players in Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Randle… but no one on this team can shoot! And they can’t defend for anything. If they Raptors could shoot, and if their bench didn’t look like they spent all night partying in Hollywood, I think the Raptors blow the doors of this team. But if they have indeed preserved enough flexibility to acquire LeBron James and another star and team them with Ball, then I guess they’re the winners in the long run!

The road trip is half-over! Up next, it’s the Trail Blazers in Portland.

The Fantastic Four: Five thoughts on the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine

The Fantastic Four #1

A couple months back, the comic shop up the street from me put a large selection of silver age (1961-1970) Marvel comics up for sale, including a large number of Fantastic Four issues from that era. I became quite nostalgic as Fantastic Four was my favorite comic as a kid, and the title whose back issues I sought out the most. My goal was to one day own every issue of Fantastic Four! Seeing those old FFs at the shop brought back memories of the days of hunting down back issues at shops and comic cons, so I pulled out my old, hand-made checklist and thought, “why not?” And off hunting I went!

More on the outcome of that hunt later, but ever since, I’ve had the FF on my mind. Why has Fantastic Four been my favorite comic for 30 years? A few thoughts…

  1. The Fantastic Four—scientist Reed Richards, his fiancee Sue Storm and her kid brother Johnny, and Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm, are a family, not just a random collection of super-heroes. They have interpersonal conflicts whose roots extend well beyond the first issue of their comic, where they got their powers; they have a shared history. None of them have adventures in solo titles, with the odd exception, and even then, not very successfully—they work best when they’re together.
  2. Their shared goal isn’t to defend the weak or innocent, or to stop criminals or threats other heroes can’t handle—it’s “to help mankind.” Much loftier than your usual super-hero!
  3. In fact they’re not even really traditional super-heroes; they’re explorers, adventurers. Or as Mark Waid dubbed them, “imaginauts”—the places they explore and things they discover are only limited by the writers’ imaginations. They also don’t have secret identities, which, nowadays isn’t that unique, but in 1961 and when I discovered them in the ‘80s, was definitely unusual.
  4. Because they’re not traditional super-heroes, their stories have a much more science fiction-y flavor to them than action adventure. They make contact with alien races, travel through time, discover new universes and dimensions, invent new technologies and devices. Their headquarters and vehicles are like something out of Star Trek.
  5. They live “real lives” – again, all comics do this now, but it used to be a big deal that the FF lived in New York City, that Reed and Sue got engaged, married, and had a kid and then a miscarriage and finally a second kid, that Johnny had his heart broken by Crystal and that Alicia Masters left Ben (for Johnny!). The status quo changed, often, in the first 100 issues or so—less so, after, as the demands of serialized storytelling over decades took its toll, but still. You felt this family growing older (slowly!) together.

People cite the reasons above and others when talking about what makes the Fantastic Four distinct from other super-hero teams, and while they’re all true to an extent, it’s really the combination of them all together that makes them work; the whole is greater than the sum and all of that.

I have many more thoughts on the FF rattling around my head these days—more to come!

Five thoughts on Game 4: Warriors 117, Raptors 112

Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Oct 25

Five thoughts on the Raptors’ tough loss to the reigning NBA champs:

  1. Kyle Lowry continues to struggle for the Raptors, and I’m starting to worry. This team isn’t going anywhere if its best player continues to average 13 points on 38% shooting, 28% from three, and a PER of 12. I hope it’s rust, and that he shakes it off soon. The rest of the starters seem to be settling in; DeMar DeRozan is shooting 50%, Serge Ibaka is shooting 40% from deep (although my God Serge, pass the ball sometimes, man), and Norman Powell—while still not scoring much—is making positive plays in limited minutes. But Lowry is the weak link right now, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
  2. Jakob Poeltl watch: Came in in the first quarter, immediately got two offensive rebounds, a steal and two buckets off of great passes from CJ Miles. And did you see that play in the fourth where he set the screen on a Lowry PNR, Lowry missed a three, and Poeltl got the board and putback? Also: I just realized I’ve been spelling his last name wrong all along.
  3. Bebe watch: Injured. As Blake Murphy pointed out on Twitter, this was—unbelievably—the longest Lucas Nugueira had made it into a season without getting hurt. Three games! I was a bit surprised Poeltl didn’t get the start, to be honest. I generally like Casey’s “keep the bench unit together” approach, but thought that Poeltl earned those minutes following his play the last two games. But, can’t argue with the results; the start went to Paskal Siakam, who did not disappoint—a career high in points, dunking and hitting threes, running the floor like a champ, sticking to guys on some solid defensive possessions. And Poeltl was—again—a stud off the bench.
  4. As for the final minutes… You can pin the loss on the Raptors falling back in to old habits at the end of games—it was Lowry and DeRozan iso-ball on the final few possessions, abandoning the ball movement that had given them the lead just moments before. I didn’t mind the shots themselves—a couple 15-footers from DeMar and a floater from Kyle—but there was no movement to get those shots, the defense was completely set, rebounders were firmly entrenched. But old habits die hard, and the progress overall through four games is promising. The play in the final two minutes that just killed me was Kevin Durant’s three. Shame on Serge Ibaka for backpedaling way too far when everyone and their brother knew that, down three with the ball in his hands coming off a stop, Durant wanted to take the pull-up 3. Ibaka gave him the space. Durant took it. And nailed it. And that was it.
  5. The Warriors are the champs, and they’ve won a billion games the past three years. We should be used to their greatness by now… but man, they are something else. The length, the speed, and the shooting… that 9-0 run in the second quarter happened so fast, and they make it look so easy. And then the run to close the game… mistakes against this team, or any failure to capitalize on a stop or offensive rebound, will kill you. They are so deadly. They’re a joy to watch… against any team but your own, of course.

Let’s see how the Raps do Friday night against the new-look Lakers!

Five thoughts on Game 3: Spurs 101, Raptors 97

Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Oct 23

Five thoughts on the Raptors’ first road game, and first loss, of the season:

  1. There are two obvious answers to why the Raps dropped this one, after keeping it close for most of the night: Shooting and rebounding. Two kinda important things! But the Raps shot 10-37 from three (34-80 overall) and were out-rebounded 55-34. Perhaps the Spurs would’ve blown the doors of them if they themselves hadn’t shot so poorly from distance (5-20) and the free throw line (16-23). I won’t read too much into the shooting this early into the season but the rebounding is a concern. The Spurs are big, yes, and the Raptors were missing their starting centre, but one has to wonder if this team as constructed has enough size? Norman Powell is small for a starting SF, and CJ Miles is small for a backup SF. Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet are a small backup backcourt (and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan aren’t huge either). Yes, the Raptors seem to have a glut of centers but Lucas Nogueira is unreliable, Jakob Poetl is still foul-prone and Serge Ibaka, who can slide in there, isn’t a huge rebounding presence. Again, it’s game three so not something to panic about—but something to watch.
  2. Speaking of centers, Poetl was undeniably impressive off the bench yesterday. He was the Raptors’ only rebound presence (he had 12; Nogueira had 6; no one else had more than 4). He showed his quick hands and soft touch again, getting the ball off the glass and up on the rim quickly. He blocked shots, got his hands on loose balls and ran the floor well; he ran a great pick and roll with Miles. It’s only three games, but three excellent games, and he showed enough promise last year that I’m starting to think they may have really struck gold with this guy.
  3. Bebe, on the other hand, was a disappointment. This is a big year for Bebe, his fourth in the league; it’s the time that he really needs to show whether he belongs and if he’s worth a second contract beyond his rookie deal. And, getting the start for Jonas Valanciunas, this was a great opportunity. But he looked lost out there. He looked good against the Sixers, and I know the Spurs, with their incredible execution, make a lot of players look bad, but he had a serious quickness advantage over Gasol and Aldridge but didn’t bring anything to the table. He executes the pick and roll as well as anyone on the team—he sets great screens and finds the seams beautifully. And he plays with energy. But I’m not sure there’s much else to his game.
  4. The starting lineup was overall a disappointment again. I still managed to observe a few highlights, not the least of which was Kyle Lowry getting all ornery with Dejounte Murray and one of the officials, getting a foul call, then a bucket, then getting called for a foul. I love ornery Kyle. (And speaking of ornery… Ibaka does seem to have a way of getting under people’s skin, doesn’t he? He and Aldridge went at it in the fourth!) Norm’s game didn’t show up in the stat sheet, and his shooting was off again, but he made a number of nice plays (including a steal and bucket at the end of the first half that should have counted). Overall though, the Raps need more from their starting five than 59 points on 40% shooting and 16 (!) rebounds.
  5. The Spurs remain the Spurs—good, and ageless. It’s amazing that guys like Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili (and Tony Parker though he’s hurt at the moment) contribute so much so late in their careers. And the young guys they find… I mean, Patty Mills and Danny Green are known quantities now. But Kyle Anderson? And Murray! I’m super impressed by Murray. He’s aggressive, shoots the ball well. Their scouting department is top notch.

Let’s see if the team can get more balanced production between the starting unit and the bench Wednesday night against the champs.