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First-place Raptors a work in progress

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The Raptors sound like a particularly humble bunch for a team holding court atop the NBA with an 11-1 record.

The refrain following their first-ever 4-0 West Coast swing — ending with a win in Sacramento on Wednesday night — was not boastful, but rather measured and introspective. The way Danny Green, Fred VanVleet, Kawhi Leonard and coach Nick Nurse were talking to reporters in California, the focus is solely on things the team can improve, rather than any accomplishments in this young season.

Kings guard Buddy Hield gets in Raptor Kawhi Leonard’s face in Wednesday night’s game in Sacramento. The Raptors made it four for four on their western swing with a win over the Kings.  (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

There were assessments like “ugly night” and “gut it out, grind it out” and “scratching the surface” to deliver a message that, despite all the wins, they could be playing better.

The Raptors can feel good about where they are, but not too good if they really want to consider themselves championship material, Leonard said: “I think we can still get better. This isn’t our ceiling.”

It will take time, VanVleet added, but there are already lessons to be learned with 12 games under their belts.

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“The first 10, 11 games in, you’re starting to see the flashes, and the next 10 you just try to build on what you did in the previous 10.”

A visit from the 4-8 New York Knicks on Saturday afternoon after a couple of days’ rest presents a good opportunity for the Raptors to start putting some of those improvements into place. Here are a few areas in particular that they will look to shore up:

Glass half empty

Nurse was happy to see his team outrebound the Kings 53-31 on Wednesday night, thanks in large part to big nights from Leonard, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. That has not always been the case: In half of their games, the Raptors have failed to outrebound the opposition. Overall, their rebounding percentage is 50.2, 14th in the league heading into Thursday’s action.

“We haven’t been rebounding very well and I told them in there: We did one rebounding drill today in shootaround and look what happens,” Nurse said post-game on Wednesday. “So, look for some more in practice coming up.”

Toronto is also turning the ball over too often for Nurse’s liking, averaging 14.6 per game, and he’d like to see the Raptors capitalize more when they force turnovers.

“We haven’t been great in our transition offence after creating a turnover. We’ve had a lot of advantages that we’ve let get away, so that’s something we’re going to need to clean up, for sure.”

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Nurse hasn’t added a turnover drill to shootaround — yet.

Getting to the line

The Raptors’ 79.9 free-throw percentage was ninth-best in the league when the trip ended, but the 16.6 buckets they make per night rank 23rd, and they’re 26th in attempts, averaging 20.8. They are also shooting just 34.7 per cent from behind the arc, 24th leaguewide. Green said getting to the free-throw line for some easy points could help the Raptors find their shooting rhythm going forward.

“Teams get up on us and we try to weather the storm, but offence isn’t clear. We’re not making shots. There’s a lid on the basket. You’ve got to find a way to get to the free-throw line or get to the basket,” he said.

Playing to the end

The Raptors have been outscored 333-320 in fourth quarters this season, and outscored the opposition in the final stanza just four times — only twice by more than six points. Stalling late in the game could be a matter of not yet having a full rotation to choose from, but it is a reoccurrence that Nurse will not want to see continue.

Bench boost

The Bench Mob was one of Toronto’s biggest strengths last season. This year, the second unit, which Nurse frequently tinkers with, has yet to find its rhythm offensively or defensively, something the coach has said might occur as players get familiar with ever-changing lineups. Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, C.J. Miles, OG Anunoby and Jonas Valanciunas have yet to see court time as a unit this season, because of injuries and absences. In particular, Miles, who sat out Wednesday’s game against the Kings with a hip injury, has struggled — averaging 4.9 points and 2.1 assists per game.

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Packers' latest collapse to Seahawks might mark end of an era

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SEATTLE — Clay Matthews swooped in from the side and popped the football free, and teammate Tramon Williams lunged onto the turf to recover it, a heavenly takeaway made possible by two veterans acutely familiar with the Green Bay Packers‘ heartrending history at CenturyLink Field.

Seven seconds into Thursday night’s crucial clash with the Seattle Seahawks, the Packers had made a swift and emphatic statement, forcing a Chris Carson fumble and recovering at the Seattle 29-yard-line. And as Aaron Rodgers skipped onto the field to take his first snap of the night, the 14th-year quarterback could barely contain his glee.

As Rodgers recalled later as he exited the stadium, "What a way to start. I thought, Here we go! This is gonna be our night."


Instead, to the quarterback’s dismay, it was another Seattle nightmare in the making. And history may look back on the Pack’s 27-24 defeat to the Seahawks as the night the music died in Titletown.

"We’ve lost too many games like this — that’s the most frustrating thing," Rodgers said following Green Bay’s latest coulda/woulda/shoulda setback in a season full of them. "We’ve had a chance in almost all our road games — especially against the Rams and the Patriots, and again tonight. We’re right there. But we just can’t get it done."

In the game’s early stages, it looked like the Packers had found their mojo in a stadium full of miserable memories. As every green-and-gold loyalist is painfully aware, CenturyLink was the sight of the infamous Fail Mary in 2012 and, two years later, the place where the Pack — seemingly Super Bowl-bound — endured a collapse of epic proportions in the 2014 NFC Championship Game.

Thursday’s fast start against the Seahawks (5-5), fueled by veterans familiar with those emotional scars, seemed to signal the Packers were hell-bent on taking chance out of the equation. Three plays after Williams’ fumble recovery, the Packers were celebrating halfback Aaron Jones‘ 8-yard touchdown run. Then, with 3:10 left in the first quarter, Rodgers made an insane-in-the-membrane throw that dropped 69,007 jaws in unison at Century Link and pushed the Green Bay lead to 14-3, unleashing a 54-yard haymaker — while on the move and in the air — to tight end Robert Tonyan.

At that moment, the ever-dangerous team led by the planet’s most skilled quarterback looked fully capable of disrobing the Seahawks in their home stadium and using the victory as a springboard to Super Bowl contention.

Two hours later, Rodgers (21 of 30, 332 yards, two touchdown, no interceptions) and the Packers trudged off the field flummoxed by a loss that all but eliminated their remaining margin for error in 2018 — and may well have ushered in the end of an era. With a 4-5-1 record heading into its next game, a Nov. 25 road showdown with the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay is very much in jeopardy of missing out on the playoffs for a second consecutive season, a development that could bring an end to Mike McCarthy’s 13-year tenure as the team’s head coach.


Though McCarthy has guided the Pack to the postseason nines times, including eight consecutive appearances with Rodgers as the quarterback from 2009-16, the franchise has only one championship to show for it. The window won’t stay open forever — Rodgers turns 35 on Dec. 2 — and the frustration in the locker room is starting to become palpable.

A 29-27 defeat to the Rams in Los Angeles late last month left several Green Bay players enraged at a teammate some regarded as selfish (backup running back and kick returner Ty Montgomery was traded to the Baltimore Ravens two days later). The following Sunday in Foxborough, the Packers seemed on the verge of taking control of a game against the New England Patriots, but a fumble by Jones sent them on a downward spiral.

On Thursday, after Green Bay failed to protect a second-half lead it held until 5:11 remained in the game — and punted the ball away on fourth-and-2 from its own 33 with 4:20 to go, never to get it back — the inability to put away opponents was a recurring topic of discussion.

"Most definitely, we should have (put them away)," said Williams, the 12th-year cornerback who returned to the franchise last March after a three-year absence. "There’ve been too many games where we didn’t finish, where we couldn’t maintain momentum. We’ve just gotta get that win."

Specifically, Williams was upset that the Packers went down to defeat without Rodgers getting a chance to produce the kind of late-game magic that propelled the team to victories over the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers earlier this season. Going for it on fourth-and-2, to Williams, seemed like a no-brainer.

"I want to go for it," he said. "I want to play to win. We’ve got Aaron Rodgers. We (should) play to win — period. We don’t want to put it in anybody else’s hands. We’ve got the best quarterback in the league. We’ve got to put it in his hands and let him do what he does."

Long before McCarthy’s decision to punt, the Packers missed out on an opportunity to parlay their early start into a runaway victory — something that jibes, thematically, with the franchise’s overall philosophy during much of Rodgers’ career. Though highly skilled at picking players, former general manager Ted Thompson, who stepped aside after last season, was reticent to make trades or aggressively pursue big-name free agents, an approach which seems to be changing under his successor, Brian Gutekunst.

With Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy having taken a more hands-on role since the front-office switch, there’s a growing sense that McCarthy may be replaced — barring a dramatic turnaround in the team’s fortunes. If so, he’ll surely look back at Thursday’s game as one of those that got away.


"You couldn’t have asked for a better start," Matthews said. "I know we’re young and we’ve got a bunch of new guys, and a new scheme, but we’ve gotta make plays, cause in this league, close doesn’t count. Now we pretty much have to win out to have a shot."

The Packers got some monster plays on both sides of the ball. Third-year linebacker Kyler Fackrell was a one-man wrecking crew, hounding Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson (21 of 31, 225 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) all game in an effort that included three sacks, four quarterback hurries and a deflected pass that Wilson caught for an 11-yard loss.

Meanwhile, Davante Adams, who has emerged as one of the NFL’s top receivers, caught 10 passes for 166 yards, including a pair of glorious deep balls by Rodgers, totaling 98 yards on those receptions alone. Tight end Jimmy Graham, the prize of Gutekunst’s first free-agent class, had a rough return to Seattle, suffering a thumb injury that is feared to be serious and leaving the game for good late in the first half.

On the play of the night, Rodgers thought he was hooking up with Graham, only to realize his target was, in fact, a first-year, fourth-string tight end from Indiana State.

With the Packers up 7-3 and facing a second-and-10 from their 46, Rodgers took a snap from under center, dropped back and felt the pocket collapse. He pumped the ball once before escaping to his right, point his finger downfield while evading several Seahawks in pursuit. As he approached the sideline, just past his own 40-yard-line, Rodgers left the ground as he unleashed a searing spiral toward the goal line, where Tonyan was tightly covered by safety Bradley McDougald.

"That was niiicccee," Rodgers admitted afterward, shortly before heading to the team bus. "I let it go and I stared at it and said, ‘Oooooo yeah…’ To be honest, I thought it was Jimmy. I let it go and looked at it and then I said ‘Whoa! That’s Bobby.’"

Tonyan’s scoring catch seemed to signal that the Packers were on the road to a blowout victory. Yet unlike Rodgers’ famous girlfriend, Danica Patrick, this team does not seem comfortable putting its foot on the gas. The Seahawks took the lead 17-14 with 3:22 left in the first half, and though Green Bay reclaimed it on Rodgers’ 24-yard pass to Jones with 44 seconds remaining, the Pack would manage only three points the rest of the way.

As great as Rodgers’ pass to Tonyan was, there was one brutal throw he wished he could have had back, as it directly preceded McCarthy’s decision to kick the ball back to the Seahawks. After Wilson’s 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ed Dickson put Seattle up 27-24 with 5:11 to play, the Packers took over at their own 25, and soon faced a third-and-2 from the 33. Rodgers, after taking a shotgun snap, had rookie receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling open to his right for what likely would have been a catch-and-run well past the first-down marker.


The ball, however, never got there, hitting the turf well short of its target.

Asked if he was upset that the Packers punted on fourth-and-2, Rodgers replied, "I’m mad about the third-and-2. It just stuck to my hand. That’s a throw I make 100 times out of 100. Just incredible."

One person who wasn’t mad about McCarthy’s decision to take the ball out of Rodgers’ hands: Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

"Oh my God," he said afterward. "I was like, ‘Please! Punt! Punt! Punt!’"

Four running plays and two first downs later, the Seahawks were in victory formation — and the Packers were down to perhaps their last chance to salvage a season. Rodgers has led them on remarkable runs before, so it would be crazy to completely discount the possibility. Yet Williams, for one, believes that such dire circumstances warrant a go-for-broke attitude that has been missing thus far, and he wasn’t afraid to voice it after another heartbreaking defeat.

"I don’t want to play a regular game all the time," Williams said. "I want to come out and make a statement. We know what we’ve got. We’re at a point in our season where we have to win. We’ve got nothing else to do. We’ve got the best quarterback. We’ve got too much to be losing games so close. We’ve gotta get over the hump. And we’ve got to risk some things to do it."

If the Packers don’t pull it off, there may be some very big changes awaiting them at season’s end.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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Leafs at Ducks Game Day

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Toronto Maple Leafs at Anaheim Ducks

Friday, 10 p.m., Honda Center

TV: TSN, Radio: TSN 1050

THE BIG MATCH-UP

G Garrett Sparks vs. G John Gibson

Sparks get the grimy side of another back to back, but as he humorously points out he’s 1-0 against Anaheim, beating current Leaf No. 1 Frederik Andersen in a 6-5 shoot-out in Toronto in March of 2016. Gibson goes for his 100th NHL win on Friday, though he was pulled during a 5-0 loss in Vegas on Wednesday.

KEYS TO THE GAME

1. HOLD THE FORT

Don’t expect much artistic value in this game as the Leafs wrap up three in four nights in the West and a week away from home all tolled. Score early, dig in and keep their play rolling, currently twice as potent as Anaheim’s on paper. The Leafs might use spare forward Trevor Moore as well as one of extra defencemen Martin Marincin and Justin Holl.

2. DUCK HUNTING SEASON

The Leafs have been lamenting Auston Matthews’ injury, but a spate of mishaps, the latest a puck in the face of top defenceman Cam Fowler, has Anaheim close to 120 man-games lost to injury already.

3. HOME STICKING

Ducks have been doing okay at Honda Center, but overall, have two goals or less in six of their past eight starts including a 5-0 loss to Vegas. Despite the injuries, it’s vital they do well at home the next week as they’re slogging it on the road much of the next few weeks through Christmas.

4. RACK ‘EM UP

Rickard Rackell represents the best of a struggling offence for the Ducks, with four goals in nine career games against the Leafs.

5. HE GETZ IT

At Honda Center, Ryan Getzlaf has been able to produce points in five of the past six. He’s looking for his 50th winning goal with this franchise, trailing only Teemu Selanne (77) and Corey Perry (63).

LEAFS GAME DAY LINES

FORWARD LINES

Zach Hyman John Tavares Mitch Marner

Patrick Marleau Nazem Kadri Kasperi Kapanen

Andreas Johnsson Par Lindholm Connor Brown

Tyler Ennis Frederick Gauthier Josh Leivo

DEFENCE PAIRINGS

Morgan Rielly Ron Hainsey

Jake Gardiner Nikita Zaitsev

Travis Dermott I. Ozhiganov/M. Marincin

GOALIES

Frederik Andersen

Garret Sparks

Sick Bay

C Auston Matthews (shoulder)

DUCKS GAME DAY LINES

FORWARD LINES

Rickard Rakell Ryan Getzlaf Pontus Aberg

Andrew Cogliano Ryan Kesler Jakob Silfverberg

Nick Ritchie Adam Henrique Ondrej Kase

Brian Gibbons Kalle Kossila Ben Street/Kiefer Sherwood

DEFENCE PAIRINGS

Hampus Lindholm Jacob Larsson

Andy Welinski Josh Manson

Marcus Pettersson Brandon Montour

GOALIES

John Gibson

Ryan Miller

INJURIES

RW  Corey Perry (knee)

RW Carter Rowney (upper body)

LW Maxime Comtois (lower body)

F Patrick Eaves (shoulder)

D Cam Fowler (facial fracture)

D Korbinian Holzer (wrist)

SPECIAL TEAMS

POWER PLAY

Toronto 28.3% (5th)

Anaheim 14.3%  (26th)

PENALTY KILLING

Toronto 82.7% (7th)

Anaheim  82.4% (9th)

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Kapanen's 2 goals lead Maple Leafs past Sharks 5-3

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  1. Kapanen’s 2 goals lead Maple Leafs past Sharks 5-3  The Daily Courier
  2. What we learned from Kings’ 5-1 loss to Maple Leafs  Los Angeles Times
  3. Full coverage



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