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5 questions facing new Raptors head coach Nick Nurse

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After decades of working his way up the ranks of the basketball world, Nick Nurse has his dream job.

On Thursday afternoon, he will officially become an NBA head coach when the Raptors present him as the ninth bench boss in franchise history.

The challenge of succeeding likely NBA coach of the year Dwane Casey — who led the club to a team-record 59 wins in 2017-18 — and finding a way to move the Raptors forward in the playoffs, will be immense. The hard work in starting that journey begins now.

Here’s a look at five things Nurse will must do, beginning with one that is already underway:

1. Find and bring his assistant coaches on board

Nurse will need a lead assistant, likely one focusing on defence, as well as several other assistants for his bench. Rex Kalamian probably won’t be back (he could join Casey in Detroit or, as Sportsnet reported, he could head home to Los Angeles to join the Clippers). Close Nurse friend Nate Bjorkgren, who has been a head coach in the D/G-League and worked under Nurse at Iowa, was hired by the Raptors as an advance scout after he was purged when Phoenix removed Earl Watson last Fall. Other old friends from Iowa or Rio Grande could also come aboard. A report by Italian writer Zeno Pisani had Italians Sergio Scariolo (the Spanish national team head coach) and Andrea Trinchieri (Germany’s coach of the year and a former Greek national team head coach) as potential additions. The highly successful player development staff is under management’s domain.

2. Shift his voice

No, we’re not talking about Nurse doing impersonations or anything like that, we’re referring to the changed role he will have and all that comes with a move of this magnitude. The players know Nurse as a friendly assistant who has been here for five years working closely with them on player development and film analysis. He’s been much more of an encouraging helper than a fierce taskmaster. The head job is far different. He now wields the ultimate hammer: How many minutes each player will get and he’ll be the one calling them out the most in team film sessions when mistakes are made. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will need to buy in (should both be back next season, which is not guaranteed) and then the rest likely follow, but it will be a big adjustment. He’s running the show now and there are tons of responsibilities and changes attached to that title, including dealing with referees, the media, agents, entourages and management more frequently.

3. Dial the dismal defence back up

While Toronto’s overall defensive numbers looked great last season (No. 5 in defensive efficiency), it was a bit of an illusion. The club slipped to 11th after the all-star break in the same category and it’s not a stretch to say the Raptors simply could not contain the NBA’s elite offensive teams all year long. The ugly numbers bear that out. Plus, only two teams fared worse defensively in the playoffs. Nurse will need some help. Masai Ujiri and his staff need to bring aboard more defensive-minded players or nothing will change, and Serge Ibaka needs to figure out what went wrong and how to do a 180. It is a myth that Nurse is primarily an offensive thinker. While his offensive mind does get most of the praise, colleagues say he also is a strong defensive coach. Few one-way specialists exist anymore. In six years as a head coach in the then-D-League, Nurse’s teams ranked 8th, 14th, 1st, 7th, 15th and 7th defensively (usually out of 16 teams). The year after he left Rio Grande, the Vipers slipped from seventh to dead-last defensively.

4. Keep the revolution going

The Raptors did fine work in going from an isolation-heavy, archaic offensive team to a far more dangerous, modern group of attackers. The 2017-18 results need to just be the start. The Raptors can generate even more quality shot opportunities and can still make life on offence easier with more movement, more cutting, more misdirection plays and more skill development. If Jonas Valanciunas stays put you can expect him to be utilized more often since he has long been a Nurse favourite, with the two spending plenty of time working together on drills after team practices.

5. Roll with the punches

There will be far more pressure on Nurse than he is used to for a number of reasons. All of the regular season success needs to continue, but there will be talk all year about the playoffs and wondering if this team can yield different results under Nurse. He will have to maintain his focus and his message, something Casey was a master at doing. He will also have a target on his back because of Casey’s success and popularity with the media, team ownership and much of the fan base. He might have less overall talent to work with — if one of the all-stars is dealt, if Fred VanVleet signs with another club or if Valanciunas or Norman Powell are lost in a salary dump — and he will likely be dealing with a much better Eastern Conference than we’ve seen in recent years.

rwolstat@postmedia.com

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No Alphonso Davies, no party for Whitecaps in loss to Sounders

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The Vancouver Whitecaps suffered their fourth straight loss away from home, falling 2-0 to the Seattle Sounders in their Cascadia Cup clash at CenturyLink Field on Saturday afternoon.

The dynamic Alphonso Davies was given the “club’s permission” to miss Saturday’s game, and it was apparent that he was sorely missed as the Whitecaps were dour without him.

Here are three takeaways from the match.

No Davies, no party

Alphonso Davies (three goals, eight assists) has been involved in 11 of the Whitecaps’ 30 goals in MLS this season. Only Kei Kamara (eight goals, three assists) has been as integral to Vancouver’s attacking output.

It’s natural for an attack to decline when a key player is unavailable, but it should never be this drastic, especially with Kamara, Yordy Reyna and Cristian Techera starting. All three have been strong contributors.

Not for the first time, Brian Schmetzer and the Seattle Sounders coaching staff knew immediately how to shut down the Whitecaps attack. With Kamara up front, there is always a steady stream of crosses into the box. No player has won more aerial duels per game in MLS this season than Kamara, per WhoScored.com, but unfortunately for him, Chad Marshall and Kim Kee-hee are pretty dominant in the air themselves.

Kamara finished the game without a single duel won in the air.

The Whitecaps didn’t stray from that strategy, either. Almost all of their passes into the box were rather direct.

Coach Carl Robinson would benefit by giving his forwards more creative freedom. It adds more unpredictability and provides far more options when attacking. Perhaps the inclusion of Anthony Blondell, who is far more involved in the build-up than Kamara, would help, too.

However, this isn’t the first time the attack was completely nullified and it likely won’t be the last.

Whitecaps midfield struggles. Again.

Another major issue for the Whitecaps in this game, and throughout the season, has been the midfield.

Up until Nicolas Mezquida entered the match on 59 minutes, no player was making runs between the Sounders’ lines. It’s significantly easier for an opposing defence to keep an attack at bay when there are no runners penetrating those deep blocks.

The midfield trio of Efrain Juarez, Felipe and Jordon Mutch barely cut into the final third. One of them have to follow their passes, run into the pockets of space, receive the ball, and then the opposition’s shape becomes disjointed. That was sorely lacking for Vancouver.

Pass map for Juarez (6), Felipe (8) and Mutch (77).

Considering the Whitecaps had a numerical advantage in the midfield – the Sounders started Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson in the middle – it’s inexcusable for such little circulation in the central channels.

The buildup from midfield was also incredibly slow, which helped the Sounders, who were exposed in the middle, as seen below.

Average positioning for the Whitecaps (left) and the Sounders (right), via SofaScore.

Defensively, the Whitecaps midfield was a mess as well. The second goal was aided by Stefan Marinovic’s gaff, but no one closed down Nicolas Lodeiro, who had tons of space and time to place his shot.

In total, the three Whitecaps midfielders won a combined eight duels. Roldan and Svensson had 10 as a duo. Osvaldo Alonso, who was substituted into the match right before halftime, recovered possession four times.

The Whitecaps clearly lost the midfield battle and it showed.

Indiscipline rears its ugly head for Vancouver

If losing 2-0 to their Cascadia rivals wasn’t enough, Efrain Juarez wrapped a bow on the proceedings with an unnecessary red card.

After a needless challenge on Lodeiro, Juarez profusely protested the booking. After bumping referee Chris Penso and shouting in his face, the Mexican international received another yellow and a sending off.

That was the Whitecaps’ seventh red card of the season, the highest total in MLS. It’s also the 30th sending off in all competitions for the team under Robinson.

After Brek Shea was sent off for dissent against Toronto FC on March 18, 2017, head coach Carl Robinson said he “100 per cent” doesn’t condone indiscipline.

Seventeen months later, players are still receiving unnecessary red cards.

Whatever the issue may be with this, it needs to be eradicated, or else the Whitecaps will keep shooting themselves in the foot.

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Ryan Straschnitzki returns to the ice for 1st time since Humboldt Broncos bus crash

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Ryan Straschnitzki was back on the ice Friday, for the first time since the tragic bus crash that changed his life.

Straschnitzki and his father Tom both played sledge hockey for the first time Friday in Okotoks, Alta., where they were given a tutorial by Team Canada's Chris Cederstrand.

For Ryan — who wore his Humboldt Broncos gear — the day was both emotional and a little frustrating, too, said Tom in an interview with CBC.

"It was huge for him just to get on the ice.," he said.

"Last time he was on the ice was the day before the accident, so this was his first time [since] on there. And as soon as those blades touched the ice, I've never seen a smile that big. It was massive.

"And then he just took off."

Humboldt Broncos survivor Ryan Straschnitzki does muscles strengthening exercises during a physiotherapy session at the Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia on June 25. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Ryan was left a paraplegic in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April that left 16 people dead and 10 others injured.

A whole different geometry

While returning to the rink was a joyous turning point for Straschnitzki, it was also a moment of discovery in many ways, as he learned that sledge hockey has its own unique geometry, and even a few secret tricks.

"He was trying to figure out how to turn," said Tom.

"So we're saying, drop a shoulder — then he gets the hang of it."

Shooting from a sled is different too.

"You have to have the stick flat now to get the shot off — like the whole stick," Tom said.

"Where in hockey, you're standing, and you kind of angle it — so it's a whole new different way shooting — so it's just [like] re-learning hockey."

Ryan can be a perfectionist, too, Tom said.

"If he can't do anything, he will practice and practice and practice until he can get it done," he said.

"He already texted me this morning and wanted me to bring the sled into the parking lot of the hotel, so he could practice shooting."

"I said yeah — let's take a day off pal. He was pumped."

Insider tips

Straschnitzki also got a few insider tips from Cederstrand, who arranged ice time at the Okotoks rink.

They were joined by former Flames draft pick, Corban Knight, who's now with the Philadelphia Flyers.

"Chris was showing us little tricks they did in the Olympics," Tom said.

"Once you're ahead of a guy, it's hard for them to catch up. And to get ahead of him, you do the little tricks, like move the nose of the sled because you turn the opposite way, because there's no blade at the end. The blade is under your butt.

"If you lean back too far, well your feet are going straight up in the air."

A summer of physiotherapy

Straschnitzki is home doing physiotherapy for the summer, and hopefully picking up the nuances of sledge hockey ahead of the Cowboys and Sleds tournament and fundraiser set for Sept. 15 in Okotoks.

It's a joint fundraiser for Straschnitzki and first responders, and there will be chuckwagon drivers, NHL players, Team Canada sledge players, in addition to Tom — who says he's terrible at sledge — and Ryan.

Tom Straschnitzki and Ryan try out sledge hockey in Oktoks (Tom Straschnitzki)

Living in hotel during renovations

In the meantime, the family is living in a hotel while their home gets renovated to make it accessible for Ryan.

It might have been the first time back on the rink, but it didn't take long for him to settle in.

"We couldn't get him off the ice," Tom said. "But eventually the rink rats had to come in and go, 'OK guys, the ice is rented for someone else.'"


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Stroman stellar over seven as Jays win

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TORONTO — Marcus Stroman was feeling so great on the mound Saturday that not even a slight jab from Baltimore’s Adam Jones could bring him down.

When the Blue Jays pitcher missed badly on a breaking ball to Jones in his at-bat in the sixth inning, the Orioles star responded by mimicking Stroman’s signature shimmy.

Stroman didn’t seem fazed. And he got the last laugh anyway.

The right-hander pitched seven solid innings and Toronto scored three unearned runs to beat Baltimore 4-1 in the second game of a series between the AL East’s worst teams.

“Me and Jonesy were kinda talking to each other during the ABs and during the game,” Stroman said. “I love Jonesy, he’s been someone who’s reached out to me when I got into the league and he’s been a mentor of mine. … He’s someone who’s always been there for me and he makes the game very fun.”

Stroman (3-7) allowed one run while scattering five hits over a season-high 107-pitch performance. Three of those hits came in the first inning and included an RBI single from Jones that gave Baltimore (28-71) its only run.

The damage was minimized when Toronto left-fielder Teoscar Hernandez threw a laser into the infield to tag out Jonathan Schoop at second base for the first out.

“I didn’t come out very strong today, just kinda leaving pitches up in the zone. Whenever you can get a big play like that from your defence it’s definitely a momentum shifter,” Stroman said. “It kinda told me I need to kick it in gear and start making better pitches.”

Stroman struck out seven, hit a batter and issued two walks, continuing a strong stretch since a stint on the disabled list caused him to miss six weeks of the season.

He has a 3.03 earned-run average over his last six starts, compared to a 7.71 mark in seven starts before hitting the DL.

“Since he’s come back from the DL he’s been really good,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “I just think he’s pitching like he’s always pitched. I thought he did a good job today working ahead in the count.”

Second baseman Devon Travis said Stroman’s “got his fire back.”

“Stro’s got the ability to ignite an entire team,” he said. “Obviously he’s a very animated guy. He brings a lot of energy, very competitive. You can feel that, you can feel that behind him. It give you a little extra edge. I’m just happy to see Stro getting back to his old self.”

Randal Grichuk and Luke Maile drove in runs for the Blue Jays (45-52) and Hernandez scored on a balk.

Ryan Tepera pitched the ninth for the save, getting some help from Grichuk on a nice defensive catch in deep centre field on the first out.

Jones, who also doubled in the fourth inning, was 2 for 4 at the plate just hours after he and some teammates were stuck in an elevator at their hotel. The incident, which Jones shared on his Instagram account over a series of videos, happened after Friday night’s Blue Jays win in extra innings and lasted about 30 minutes. They were rescued by Toronto firefighters.

Alex Cobb (2-13) allowed four runs — only one of them earned — and four hits over five innings. He struck out four and walked three batters.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Cobb developed a blister during his start.

Toronto scored three unearned runs to take the lead in the fourth inning, after an error on Tim Beckham, his fourth in six games.

Toronto and Baltimore are fourth and fifth respectively in the AL East this year, a stark contrast from two seasons ago when the Blue Jays edged the Orioles in a thrilling wild-card game at Rogers Centre en route to Toronto’s second straight ALCS appearance.

With a playoff spot fading fast, Stroman said Toronto’s goal for the rest of the season is to “show up every day and compete.”

“I think that’s something that us as Blue Jays have been able to do over the past few years regardless of what the expectations are,” he said. “I love my team, I wouldn’t want any other guys. It’s just a matter of going out there and knowing what we’re capable of.”

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