Why Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas, Masai Ujiri are relying on Nick Nurse for future success - Canadanewsmedia
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Why Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas, Masai Ujiri are relying on Nick Nurse for future success

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If everything goes right for the Raptors and new head coach Nick Nurse, it could benefit Jonas Valanciunas and Masai Ujiri, two guys who need to shine for this franchise to move forward.

If you’re going to change from a coach who just led you to 59 wins and is a favorite to win Coach of the Year in the NBA, then conventional logic would dictate that you should probably veer in a different direction altogether. That’s what it looked like the Raptors might be doing when they followed their dismissal of head coach Dwane Casey with interviews for Euro coaching legend Ettore Messina and Euro playing legend Sarunas Jasikevicius to fill Casey’s spot.

Instead, it was one of the first coaching interviewees who got the Raptors job — Toronto assistant coach Nick Nurse, who made a name for himself with his uptempo style as a coach in Britain and his willingness to take the concept of an offense based solely on 3-pointers and dunks to the limit in what was then known as the D-League.

The Nurse hire figures to have significant bearing on two major components of the Toronto organization. On the floor, that component is center Jonas Valanciunas, who was quick to pick up on the fact that Nurse’s vision of the future of the NBA was something he needed to embrace. If Valanciunas wants to remain relevant in the NBA going forward, he will have to become a better 3-point shooter.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="TRADE RUMORS: NBA exec weighs in on Raps’ chances of moving stars” data-reactid=”25″>TRADE RUMORS: NBA exec weighs in on Raps’ chances of moving stars

He certainly tried last season, much of which was spent working with Nurse on his perimeter shot. Nurse and Valanciunas would launch 100 3-pointers after every practice. Valanciunas had attempted just four 3-point attempts before last season. But as the Raptors went into a revamp of their offense — one that Nurse helped spearhead, with the approval of Casey — getting Valanciunas to spread his range and find some comfort zones beyond the arc became a priority. He shot 74 3-pointers, and made 30 of them, for 40.5 percent.

There are two ways to look at the hiring of Nurse from the perspective of a Valanciunas supporter. First would be that he does not fit the small-ball, 3-point-heavy direction toward which Nurse will surely take the offense. That’s already gotten renewed trade talk bubbling around Valanciunas.

But sources with knowledge of the situation say that’s not likely, that Valanciunas and Nurse will go nicely together. Valanciunas and Nurse had a good working relationship, and there is a sense that Valanciunas will only be encouraged to develop more confidence in his perimeter game, in an effort to space the floor and create passing and driving lanes for guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

If you’re expecting the Nurse hire to be the forerunner of a major Raptors trade, especially one involving Valanciunas, know that it’s unlikely.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="The second component of the Nurse hiring that will be under special scrutiny in the aftermath of this decision will be president Masai Ujiri. Give Ujiri credit, over the years, for not coming into the Toronto organization and clumsily wielding a machete. When he arrived, the thought was that he would fire Casey and trade Kyle Lowry — which he nearly did, except that the Knicks pulled out.” data-reactid=”30″>The second component of the Nurse hiring that will be under special scrutiny in the aftermath of this decision will be president Masai Ujiri. Give Ujiri credit, over the years, for not coming into the Toronto organization and clumsily wielding a machete. When he arrived, the thought was that he would fire Casey and trade Kyle Lowry — which he nearly did, except that the Knicks pulled out.

In the end, Ujiri kept Casey on despite not having hired him. And Casey rewarded him by continually improving the team until its breakthrough (in the regular season, at least) this year. But now Ujiri is sticking his neck out, dumping Casey without making a splashy new coaching move. Nurse has had a fascinating coaching career to this point, but the reality is, he’s just another NBA second-seater until he proves he is up to the job.

Ujiri’s job is not in jeopardy, of course, but the move from Casey to Nurse indicates that he is feeling pressure for change, that somehow the Raptors need to figure out how to win the playoffs, even it’s just promoting one of the assistants. It would have all made more sense if Toronto had gone with a completely outside-the-box selection as coach, but Nurse has always been an innovative thinker.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="MORE: Raptors tweet congrats to recently fired Dwane Casey for Coach of Year candidacy” data-reactid=”33″>MORE: Raptors tweet congrats to recently fired Dwane Casey for Coach of Year candidacy

He’ll have to innovate to get the most out of his center, a player whose limitations — to this point, at least — have made him less useful in the modern game. And he’ll have to innovate to keep his boss, Ujiri, away from the hot seat in the near future.

It wasn’t the expected hire. But if everything goes right for Toronto and Nurse, it could benefit Valanciunas and Ujiri, two guys who need to shine for this franchise to move forward.

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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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