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15 Jun

The team tells you.

Not Brodie Van Wagenen preening that the Mets are the club to beat in the NL East. Not Mickey Callaway with his near-daily invocation that the Mets are on the brink of taking off. They are paid spokesmen for the organization. Their jobs, particularly Callaway’s in the short run, rest on the Mets playing well or, failing that, getting enough folks to buy that they soon will.

But a 162-game schedule is revelatory. A ball can bounce a few times in the NFL and turn 7-9 into 9-7. But 71-91 is not becoming 91-71 in the majors with a few quirky results. Excellence is measured day to day, month to month, relentlessly. And 43 percent into this Mets season, has anyone sensed excellence beyond the hyperbole in their spokespersons’ mouths?

Van Wagenen said Saturday that, “Coming into the games on Thursday and Friday, we were right where we wanted to be.” Really? They were 33-34 and a third-place team. Is that where they wanted to be? Is that the stuff of the team to beat?

Watch the club. That will reveal what you need to know. And what is being revealed is the Mets can bob and weave with .500, but not push beyond it. They went under on May 4 and have yet to do better than break even since. They began Saturday 33-36 with an atrocious defense and bullpen, a league-average offense and a rotation that has been good, but not as elite as hoped when brilliance is the best method to overcome the defense and pen, particularly.

Van Wagenen continued to stress his “mission statement,” which is “to win as many games as possible” in 2019. Time remained to rally. Before 1986, the trade deadline was June 15, which in 2019 was Saturday. The most traumatic moment in franchise history occurred June 15, 1977 — when Tom Seaver was traded to the Reds at the deadline.

This year’s Mets have six-plus weeks until the July 31 deadline to determine if they are going to trade more big starters, such as Zack Wheeler and maybe Noah Syndergaard. For now, Van Wagenen remains in upgrade mode. He completed a minor trade with Cleveland for Brooks Pounders, who was pitching well at Triple-A, and promoted Chris Flexen, believing the righty’s stuff will play up as a reliever. These Saturday transactions fall into the “try something” category when a bullpen is as bad as that of the Mets, who have an MLB-high 16 blown saves plus the NL’s third-worst ERA at 5.31.

“My hope is and my belief is that we can be in contention over the next several weeks and we can continue to push that gas pedal down,” Van Wagenen said.

But can these Mets really speed out of their current condition?

One bromide the Mets offered in the worst of times over the first two months was a version of, “Yeah, we are not performing well, but neither is anyone in the division.” But the Braves have surged, and the Mets began Saturday as many games back of Atlanta in the loss column (seven) as they were ahead of last-place Miami. The Nationals were playing considerably better and were a game behind the third-place Mets. The Phillies were wobbling, but still 4 ¹/₂ games ahead of the Mets and poised to be more active in the trade market.

Van Wagenen noted the home-and-home series approaching with the Braves and Phillies, interspersed with four games at Wrigley Field and two home games against the Yankees. That takes the Mets to the All-Star break.

And what can we expect of the second-half Mets? The Athletics were 34-35 through June 14 last year, then went an MLB-best 63-30 to earn a wild card. But Oakland in this century has regularly surged — the A’s have six of the 65 best second-half records since 2001. The Mets have none of those.

Will this be the year they author one? Well, do you think that is more likely than one of their starters breaking down? And if one of the starters breaks down, who exactly is going into the rotation to help a second-half surge?

“I don’t think we are looking at anything as a lost season,” Van Wagenen said. “We have talent, we have heart and we have a group of people who believe in each other and will pick each other up.”

Those are optimistic words — or spin. Watch the Mets. Do those words line up with what you are seeing? The team always tells you what you need to know.

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15 Jun

Home sour home.

If there’s one helpful angle for sports bettors that jumped out from the NHL and NBA championship series, which both ended this week, it’s that teams playing at home may not be getting as big a boost as the market believes.

Wednesday night, the St. Louis Blues (+150) beat the Boston Bruins 4-1 to win the Stanley Cup. Game-by-game, the visitors went 5-2 through the seven-game affair, including the last three games.

Thursday night, the Toronto Raptors (+2¹/₂ ) beat the Golden State Warriors 114-110 to win the NBA Finals. Visitors went a shocking 5-1 in the series (including the final five in a row). Toronto swept all three games in Oakland. In fact, underdog Toronto won five of six halves played in Oakland. Nobody expected that.

VSiN isn’t about to suggest home-court advantage or home-ice advantage have become any sort of disadvantage. This is a small sample size, all things considered. And, obviously, if Kevin Durant were healthy, and Klay Thompson were able to play more minutes in Game 6, the Warriors probably wouldn’t have wilted. But it is worth remembering that much of what’s considered “a home advantage” during the regular season is based on …

  • Visitor fatigue. A jet-lagged underdog will have more trouble springing an upset over a rested host in the middle of a homestand. In the championship finals, travel fatigue is the same for both teams.
  • The intimidation potential of loud home crowds. High-quality opponents don’t succumb to that. Through history, it’s even fueled the very best. Championship finals usually (though not always) feature high-quality opponents.
  • A visitor’s unfamiliarity with a location. Can strangers adjust to a new environment against a host nestled deeply in its comfort zone? In the championship finals, teams get plenty of time in each city. If there is an adjustment to be made, it lasts only one game.

The Blues and the Raptors went 6-1 straight up (and against market prices) on their roads to their championships. The vanquished Bruins and Warriors went 4-2 away from their home arenas. Basically, it was four championship-caliber teams going eyeball to eyeball with locale irrelevant.

If you’re a bettor who struggled in one or both finals, it’s probably because you wanted to back a favorite you couldn’t visualize losing at home … and then you doubled down because you couldn’t visualize them losing again at home.

Whatever the sport, you’ll be dealing with the question of home value on a regular basis. Squares tend to overrate home value. Sportsbooks shade their lines against public tendencies. Road teams won’t often be as successful as they were in those recent title tilts. But they will provide the “value” side in a betting proposition more often than squares expect.

When championships are on the line, be sure you bet smart.

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15 Jun

OAKLAND, Calif. — One of the Knicks’ hopes for their participation in Kawhi Leonard’s free agency sweepstakes is “Uncle Dennis.’’

Dennis Robertson, who hails from South Orange, N.J., is Leonard’s chief business strategist. His presence in the life of Leonard, whose father was shot and killed in Compton, Calif., 11 years ago, at least gives the Knicks a puncher’s chance. The Post reported the Knicks fully expect to land a free-agent meeting with Leonard.

Robertson worked for 20 years in Manhattan in banking, so he knows about working in the Big Apple. Last season, Leonard spent most of the time he spent rehabbing from his quadriceps strain with Robertson in South Orange.

After Leonard led the Raptors to the NBA title, “Uncle Dennis’’ was not ready to talk free agency, but was about the happy present.

Robertson stood yards away from his nephew late Thursday on the Oracle Arena court as Leonard conducted a guest spot on NBA TV’s post-championship show.

It was a long journey from last June 15, when Leonard demanded a trade out of San Antonio. He played just nine games for the Spurs in the 2017-18 season and was criticized for what some perceived as not wanting to play. “Uncle Dennis’’ admitted Leonard’s reputation took a hit after he requested the trade.

“For Kawhi individually, after all we he went through last year and in the summer, this year was all about having fun playing basketball again,’’ Robertson told The Post. “He came to a team that embraced him and a country that embraced him. It was a team that worked hard and, at the end of the day, he won a championship. You got to feel good about that.’’

But not so good that he will re-sign with the Raptors just to defend a crown. Leonard is expected to explore his options, and the pull of returning home to Los Angeles and playing for Clippers coach Doc Rivers is very real.

The Knicks hope coach David Fizdale’s charm and his familiarity with New York from last season will be in their favor, too. Fizdale is also from the Compton area and he and Leonard both went to college in San Diego (Leonard at San Diego State, Fizdale at University of San Diego).

“Uncle Dennis’’ admitted this title run came as even a surprise to him.

“I had no idea,’’ Robertson said. “I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon and say I knew it was going to happen. I knew they had a good team, knew if everything went well and stayed healthy, once the season got on, you always think have a chance.’’

After winning the title, Leonard, 27, declined to answer a free-agency question during the championship ceremony, saying he needed to enjoy this first. So whether winning the title has him leaning toward staying is unclear.

On Rachel Nichols’ ESPN show Friday, Leonard took the set with Kyle Lowry and joked: “After today they don’t want me here no more. They got what they got.”

Leonard said it while laughing. But Lowry sounded like he would understand if Leonard didn’t stay around to defend Toronto’s first-ever title. One-and-done?

“He’ll make the decision himself and I’ll be happy any decision he makes,’’ Lowry said. “Of course I want him as my teammate, but he’s got to do what’s best for him and family. I’ll support him. At the end of the day, he helped me get what I wanted to get.”

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15 Jun

LAS VEGAS — The final numbers are in, and the NBA Finals were a smashing success for Canada all the way around.

The NBA said Friday that 56 percent of the Canadian population watched at least some part of the NBA Finals, with an average viewership of about 8 million for the Toronto Raptors’ title-winning victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 6.

The league also said the total combined U.S. and Canadian audience for the finals was up 11 percent over the combined viewership of the 2018 title series between Golden State and Cleveland.

Thursday’s game was the most-watched NBA game in Canadian television history, a record that was toppled several times during this postseason because of the Raptors’ popularity. Viewership for each of the six finals games rank among the 10 most-watched television programs in Canada so far this year.

“Everybody who supported us during the season, all the fans in Toronto, everyone in Canada — this is for you,” Raptors forward Serge Ibaka said after Toronto’s first NBA championship. “This is for Canada, baby. You should be proud.”

And not only were Canadians watching, but they were buying.

The NBA said that online sales through the league’s official portals smashed records for the day following the end of a championship series, up more than 80 percent from the previous mark (set when Cleveland beat Golden State in 2016) and were more than 100 percent over sales on the day following the Warriors’ sweep of the Cavaliers last season.

The Raptors are planning a parade in Toronto on Monday, one that will likely take more than two hours.

“This means so much to our city and to many in Canada, and we are looking forward to showing everyone the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Monday,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said. “Bringing the NBA championship to Toronto is the realization of a goal for our team and for our players, and we are thrilled to be able to celebrate together with our fans.”

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14 Jun

This time, Jordan Spieth had a right to be angry.

Spieth’s second round at the US Open was nearly derailed Friday when he hit a rake trying to come out of a fairway bunker on the second hole (his 11th) at Pebble Beach.

“Oh, it hit the rake. There’s a rake there,” Spieth said to caddie Michael Greller in disbelief.

The thoughts and prayers were out for Greller — as the position of the rake is his responsibility — after the mixup and Spieth’s display of anger from Thursday.

“Legit afraid Jordan Spieth is gonna attack his caddie, Michael. #USOpen,” reporter Jeff Eisenband live tweeted.

Spieth was able to save bogey after pitching out from the top of the bunker and then hitting a brilliant fourth shot.

Spieth, who was 1-under after 14 holes on Friday, erupted at Greller on Thursday.

“I hit two perfect shots and they both ended up in the wrong location,” Spieth said. “Two perfect shots there, Michael. You got me one in the water and one over the green.”


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14 Jun

Professional volleyball player Eric Zaun jumped to his death from the 29th floor of an Atlantic City casino earlier this week, police said.

Eric Zaun, 25, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was found unresponsive in the parking lot of the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa early Tuesday evening after apparently jumping from the window of his hotel room, police told News 12 New Jersey.

Zaun, who was named the Association of Volleyball Professionals’ Rookie of the Year in 2017, was identified by authorities Thursday.

“The AVP is deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Eric Zaun,” the organization posted on Instagram. “Our prayer and thought are with his family and friends at this time. He will be deeply missed.”

Zaun attended Limestone College in South Carolina, where he played as an outside hitter before moving to California and making his professional debut with the tour in 2017, according to his league bio.

Zaun, known affectionately as “Road Dawg” on the volleyball circuit, played in last weekend’s AVP New York City Open, where he and partner Avery Drost finished tied for ninth place, VolleyballMag.com reports.

“This is a huge loss for the entire volleyball community,” USA Volleyball CEO Jamie Davis told the website. “Eric was a talented young beach player and stepped up this spring to play snow volleyball for the US. He will be missed.”

Known for his outgoing, gregarious personality, the 6-foot-3 Zaun was a popular fixture at tour events. He detailed his 2016 cross-country trek in a van from New Jersey to southern California in a lengthy profile a year later, saying he made the trip out of the love for the game.

“I love the culture and the lifestyle associated with beach volleyball,” Zaun told VolleyballMag.com. “It’s great to be able to travel around the country to different beaches and locations doing what you love. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people in the sport and a lot of great fans. All the people involved make it awesome.”

In his final Instagram post a week before his death, Zaun seemed excited about his upcoming summer schedule.

“June is gonna be a good month,” he wrote.

News of Zaun’s death rocked his fellow competitors, including fellow New Jersey native Ryan Doherty.

“RIP Eric Zaun,” Doherty tweeted Wednesday. “If you are going through something dark or just having a hard time, think about reaching out to someone. A good friend, a complete stranger, a professional; whatever makes sense to you.”


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14 Jun

OAKLAND, Calif. — After the on-court championship celebration, Kawhi Leonard carried the Finals MVP trophy off the court and into the locker room with a big smile. And Leonard rarely smiles.

The Raptors have their first-ever title and Leonard has his second championship. A year ago, he was clouded in mystery and Thursday night at old Oracle Arena, he was clouded in joy — for him.

The question is how long the joy will last in Canada. Leonard will be a free agent June 30 and the Clippers and Knicks are expected to vie for his services.

On the stage, ABC/ESPN’s Doris Burke asked Leonard how this title may shape his future decision. He continued playing poker.

“I’m about to enjoy this with my teammates and coaches and I’ll think about that later,’’ Leonard said.

He forced a trade out of San Antonio after a misunderstanding over his quadriceps injury timetable and it all worked out for the best as he completed a title run as arguably the NBA’s best player. He entered the interview room wearing red champagne goggles.

“The opening-day meeting, the focus was on the now,’’ Leonard said. “Let’s make history here. That’s what I did. I knew they were talented team because they were making runs in the playoffs and I came in with the right mindset. I said [to Kyle Lowry], ‘Let’s doing something special. I know your best friend left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out.’ And here we are today.”

Lowry, who indeed was best friends with DeMar DeRozan, traded to San Antonio for Leonard, has grown to appreciate how spectacular Leonard is by being his teammate during Toronto’s championship run. Leonard’s understated style can fool you.

“I think he’s the best two-way basketball player in the NBA,’’ Lowry said. “I’ve seen some stuff from him this year that just you say, ‘Wow.’ You appreciate the work that’s put in. He works extremely hard at his game and works extremely hard on his body. And he loves this basketball thing. He loves it.”

By virtue of the new phrase “load management,’’ Leonard played 60 regular-season games without commissioner Adam Silver on his back.

Leonard has said the lighter load was key to him being healthy enough during the title run.

“It’s great to have teammates on your team that have confidence in you,’’ Leonard said of Lowry’s praise. “It helps give you extra drive, an extra push to be better. When you play or don’t play with someone, you can see how good or not good they are once you’re on a team with them. I guess he’s seeing me now.”

Lowry said it took the playoffs to bring out Leonard’s greatness, perhaps because he played modest minutes and never played back-to-back games in the regular season.

It should not be a surprise after Leonard was a key force for the Spurs’ two straight Finals’ squad, but these playoffs certainly may have lifted Leonard in the stratosphere as the NBA’s best player, only glorified by his modesty, sharing credit and low-key nature. This isn’t a guy posting look-at-me Instagrams.

During the playoff run, it has come to light how the shooting death of his father 11 years ago in Compton, Calif., was the huge motivating factor in his bid to be great and that he would have been a mathematician if not an NBA superstar, always loving his math classes over any other subject.

“I guess [math] just made more sense to me to use in everyday life,’’ Leonard said Wednesday.

Last season was a train wreck for Leonard in his mysteriously chaotic return from a quadriceps injury that resulted in playing just nine games while he rehabbed in New Jersey with his uncle Dennis as adviser. The root of his dissension with the Spurs is believed to be management wanting him back sooner rather than later.

That way of thinking has been put under a new microscope in the wake of Kevin Durant rupturing his Achilles after coming back too soon from a calf strain. And Leonard had a grain of advice as KD looks at a long rehab that will cost him the 2019-20 season.

“Just from my own experience, I can talk from what I’ve been through,’’ Leonard said. “We work so hard to get to this point and the game gets taken away from you, especially with leg injuries. You’re not really able to run or do anything on the floor. So you really just have to change your mindset on things and try to attack each day of getting better and just know that you’re going to play again one day.

“You want to come back as the player that you were. Make sure you come back when you feel healthy and you feel good enough that you feel confident enough in yourself to go back out there on the floor. Know that that day will come. Attack each day. That’s your assignment, to get back to the thing that you love to do.”

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13 Jun

Everyone did the math yesterday, including the Boston Celtics.

The All-Star guard opting out of the final year of his deal with the Celtics and a reported switch in agents — he’s expected to join with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation — fueled speculation that he’s prepared to sign with the Nets when free agency hits.

According to the Boston Herald, a source within the agency says the move is coming for Irving, who grew up in New Jersey, and that the Celtics front office is operating under that assumption.

Nothing, however, can be done before July 6, and other Thursday reports also claim Irving could consider staying with the Celtics after testing the market. Irving’s dream scenario is said to have involved bringing fellow marquee free agent Kevin Durant with him to Brooklyn, though Durant’s ruptured Achilles and subsequent surgery may have put a pin in that idea.

The Nets have made it clear they plan to be big players this offseason, having recently cleared up cap space by trading Allan Crabbe on the heels of their first winning season since 2013-14 and first playoff berth since 2014-15.

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13 Jun

A potential Lakers-Pelicans blockbuster trade for Anthony Davis likely hinges on one player: Kyle Kuzma.

The Lakers are reportedly trying to keep the promising power forward out of trade talks, but the Pelicans remain determined to acquire him, according to the LA Times.

Kuzma built upon an impressive rookie season, scoring 20.3 points a game last season, and New Orleans covets the 23-year-old more than any other Lakers star. However, that same sentiment is shared within the Lakers organization, and they are reluctant to part ways with him.

“This is my first go-around with this type of stuff,” Kuzma said in January when he first emerged in Davis talks at the deadline. “It’s always a good thing to be in trade rumors. It means you have value, and it means potentially you could be in this league a long time. People want you … You can’t control your destiny in this league, but you can control your work ethic and how great you want to be.”

Should the Lakers agree to include Kuzma, they might be able to keep their No. 4 pick. But Kuzma is a known quantity and the type of shooter the Lakers would ideally want to have around Davis and LeBron James.

The Lakers have made Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball available in talks. The Celtics have also engaged the Pelicans in trade discussions recently, but Davis’ agent Rich Paul has made it clear that the forward will not re-sign with Boston.

“They can trade for him, but it’ll be for one year,” Paul told Sports Illustrated. “I mean: If the Celtics traded for Anthony Davis, we would go there and we would abide by our contractual [obligations] and we would go into free agency in 2020. I’ve stated that to them. But in the event that he decides to walk away and you give away assets? Don’t blame Rich Paul.”

Kuzma was taken in the 27th pick in the first round of the 2017 draft, but worked his way onto the 2018 NBA All-Rookie First Team.


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13 Jun

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Dustin Johnson maintains Brooks Koepka is still “one of my best friends,” even though Koepka has supplanted Johnson as not only the No. 1-ranked player in the world, but also the most intimidating presence in golf.

Johnson, with his length off the tee and soft putting touch, was expected to get on a major roll after capturing the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont. But it remains his only major championship triumph, while Koepka has won back-to-back U.S. Opens and back-to-back PGA Championships.

“Obviously, what he’s done is fantastic,” Johnson said heading into Thursday’s opening round of the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. “It’s very impressive. He’s a great player. It seems like he steps up and plays really well in big events. That’s a sign of a really good player. Obviously, him being one of my best friends and we train a lot and practice and do a lot of things together, it’s cool to see.”

It has to be irritating, too. Johnson was once the next big thing in golf. But it’s Koepka, with his bulging biceps and growing collection of major championship trophies, who is the current king of golf.

It was interesting Tuesday when Johnson made it seem as if he and Koepka remain workout partners. Koepka earlier in the day, had said, “We don’t work out together anymore.”

Apparently, they still maintain a friendly, but competitive relationship.

“I’m sure he wants to kick my butt just as much as I want to kick his,” Koepka said.

Regardless of where their relationship stands, Johnson has to view this week’s venue as a golden opportunity to capture his second U.S. Open and second major. Pebble Beach suits his eye. Has two wins at the AT&T Pro-Am, played here annually in February, and he was also the 54-hole leader at the 2010 U.S. Open here before shooting 82 in the final round and finishing tied for eighth. Don’t count on that happening again if Johnson is in the hunt Sunday.

“It’s a golf course that I’m very comfortable on,” Johnson said. “Obviously, this time of year, it plays much different than it does in the AT&T. But it still is very helpful to know the golf course.”

Johnson flirted with winning his second major at this year’s Masters and at the PGA at Bethpage. He finished one stroke behind Tiger Woods at Augusta National and trailed Koepka by one stroke with three holes to play at the Black before suffering back-to-back bogeys at the 16th and 17th. The near misses have only heightened his confidence coming to Pebble Beach.

“It’s going to play difficult this week,” said Johnson, who has two wins and eight top-10 finishes this year. “But I feel like the game is in really good form. If the weather is like this the rest of the week, it’s going to be a fantastic week of golf. If I can putt well this week, I feel like I’ll be in contention on Sunday.”

Johnson normally has an advantage with his length off the tee. But Pebble Beach is the shortest U.S. Open course, at 7,075 yards, since Merion in 2013, allowing most of the competitors to use irons off the tee for accuracy.

“You’ve got to get it in the fairway,” Johnson said. “It’s going to play tough. You’ve got to be very, very precise.”

His 2010 Sunday meltdown is long forgotten. It was the first time he’d taken a lead into the final round of a major and a mixture of bad luck and shaky nerves doomed him. Now he has the comfort of his brother, Austin, as his caddie and much more experience in pressure situations.

It would be compelling to watch Johnson going for a second major and Koepka going for a three-peat in the final group on Sunday.

“I think we all know how tough [Johnson] is,” Koepka said. “I think we know he’s going to win a couple more majors. It’s inevitable. He seems to play well at Pebble just about every time he tees it up. So I would expect him to be up there come Sunday.”

Then we’ll see if they really are still good friends.

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