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Faced with ultimate test in Embiid, Raptors prove size doesn’t equal destiny – Sportsnet.ca

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Playing ‘small’ — without a big body at centre who can both defend the rim on one end and be dominant enough to collapse defences at the other — has proven to be an effective way to compete in the NBA. When the Golden State Warriors started playing an undersized Draymond Green at centre, it proved to be the key that unlocked a dynasty.

It’s been an option that’s been around for ever. Teams have resorted to playing five slashing, scoring ball-handlers to upset the rhythm of games for years. Like the no-huddle offence in the NFL, it was situational tactic that has become nearly standard because when well-executed, it’s difficult to defend.

Small ball is a fixture.

And why not? It’s not like the NBA is loaded with big men that can punish smaller matchups. Nikola Jokic in Denver is one; Anthony Davis with the Los Angeles Lakers is another, Bam Adebayo in Miami – though he’s more of a hybrid big to begin with. Rudy Gobert with Utah, if his teammates can find him on the roll.

After that, the list gets pretty short.

But at the very the top of any list of bigs who can make lives miserable for smaller players – or almost any player – would be the Philadelphia 76ers Joel Embiid, who is big enough to hide smaller players behind him, has hands soft enough to make him a finisher and shot-maker from all angles and is an 85-per cent free-throw shooter this season on nearly 12 attempt a game. ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ – the tactic where teams would foul Shaquille O’Neal and take chances with his career 52.7 per cent free-throw shooting — is not an option.

After six years of promise interrupted by injuries, the seven-foot, 300-pounder is putting together the season of his career and potentially one of the best ever. He rolled into Sunday night’s match-up against the Toronto Raptors coming off a career-high 50 points against the Chicago Bulls and averaging 30.5 points and 11 rebounds a game while shooting 40 per cent from three.

The Raptors – you may have heard – are lacking when it comes to big bodies they can use to make life difficult for Embiid and, by extension, the 76ers. They’ve had to rely on the burly but otherwise limited Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher, who is long and fast and fearless, but weighs just 200 pounds. Even though they’ve found great success by playing small – with some combination of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam at centre — with Kyle Lowry missing his third straight game with a sprained thumb, the Raptors’ margin for error seemed razor thin.

But against all odds the Raptors were able cobble together enough good moments from enough different players – including Boucher and Baynes – to overcome Embiid in an impressive 110-103 win, the Raptors’ fourth straight, three of them without Lowry as Toronto improved to 16-15 with the win over the East-leading Sixers.

Embiid finished with 25 points and 17 rebounds, but he shot just 6-of-20 from the floor, although going 12-of-14 from the free throw line helped his cause. But the Raptors answered with Boucher, the rail-thin Montrealer who came off the bench to shoot 5-of-6 from deep and score 17 points off the bench – all in the second half and 11 in the fourth quarter. He also had three blocks, including one on Embiid late in the fourth when the Sixers were trying to claw back into the Raptors’ lead.

Baynes wasn’t too bad either, with eight points on nine shots in 28 minutes. Every little bit helped as the Raptors were led by VanVleet’s 23 points and nine assists and Siakam with 23 points and eight assists. The Sixers most effective player was Simmons, who put up 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting, but the Raptors’ team defence was the real star as they held Philadelphia to 38.8-per cent shooting and only really stayed in the game because they held a 35-18 advantage in free throw attempts.

All game long, the Raptors’ means to neutralize Embiid and the Sixers’ size advantage generally was to swarm defensively, push the ball in transition before Philadelphia could set up in the half court and to take – and ideally make — threes.

The strategy came together beautifully late in the third quarter. Trailing by 11 after Embiid had scored on a pair of post-ups with three minutes to play in the period, Toronto scored three quick triples – two by Boucher – on an 11-0 run sparked by a pair of Raptors steals, allowing Toronto to start the fourth quarter down 84-83.

There was some mystery before the game about whether the Raptors would try to match up with Embiid and start Aron Baynes – the closest player Toronto has in size and strength – or would the Raptors continue to play small against the Sixers, who not only feature Embiid but play six-foot-10 Simmons as their point guard?

Nurse suggested playing a group of guards and forwards against Embiid would be too much to ask. Or at least that was his position before the game anyway.

“We had our hands full with him last time (Embiid had 29 points and shot 14-of-16 at the line in the Sixers win back in December), I would imagine we will again today,” said Nurse. “Obviously, the way he’s playing right now is levels up from the way he’s ever played. We’re liking playing small right now, which has kind of been my thought of what are we gonna do here tonight? There’s not much chance of playing small against him. So, I think we’re gonna see what we can do.”

But when the ball went up Nurse decided to stick with his strengths and had six-foot-seven OG Anunoby take the jump against Embiid, with Siakam and DeAndre Bembry – starting in place of Lowry – joined by Fred VanVleet and Norm Powell as starters.

There were problems immediately. Embiid’s first bucket was a post-up against the six-foot-six Bembry, who he outweighs by 60 pounds. He picked up a pair of free throws when six-foot VanVleet tried to battle him for a loose ball. At the other end the sure-handed Powell suddenly couldn’t finish with Embiid looming in the paint, and when the chance presented, Simmons was galloping the floor as a one-man fastbreak. In a blink, the Sixers were up 22-8.

But the advantages of playing five players based on skills instead of positions or size is you end up with a lot of playmakers on the floor and after their initial stumbles, Toronto began to find their way back. Making bombs from three is always a great equalizer. The Raptors made four of them in the space of two minutes late in the first quarter that were the backbone of 20-2 run that Toronto used to end up leading 28-24 after one quarter.

At that point the big man the Raptors struggled to contain was Simmons, who put up 13 points in the second quarter, alternating between full-court attacks on the rim while helping generate the Sixers’ 19-4 edge in free throw attempts — which, along with the Sixers’ 8-2 edge in offensive rebounds, were a better indication of the true tilt of the first half than the Sixers’ 55-52 lead necessarily was.

But the Raptors seemed determined to prove this season that size is not destiny. There is no greater test of that than Embiid and the 76ers, and the Raptors passed it with relative ease.

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Doping raises its head as BMX marred by crashes

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American swimmer Ryan Murphy stoked controversy at the Tokyo Games on Friday when he raised the spectre of doping after losing his second Olympic title to Russian rival Evgeny Rylov.

Murphy, who won three gold medals at the 2016 Rio Games, said his 200 metre backstroke final was “probably not clean” after he lost to Rylov, competing as part of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).

The comments threw an unwelcome spotlight on doping for Tokyo 2020 organisers as the blue riband athletics competition got under way, on a day further marred by accidents on the BMX track, including a horrendous spill that saw 28-year-old American favourite Connor Fields rushed to hospital.

Held in Tokyo without spectators and after a year’s delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Games have been characterised by tumult and scandals from the get-go.

With China and Japan jostling for top spot in the medal tally https://graphics.reuters.com/OLYMPICS-2020/MEDALTALLY/rlgpdynkjvo/media-embed.html ahead of the United States, it hasn’t been a ratings boon for global broadcasters either.

Data from the opening ceremony and the first few nights show the Tokyo Games are so far the least watched Olympics in recent history across Europe and in the United States.

TV viewership is up in Australia and Japan, however.

COVID-19 infections have also risen, totalling 3,300 in Tokyo on Friday, after hitting a record 3,865 a day earlier, adding to the strain on the medical system.

The government broadened a state of emergency to four more prefectures and extended Tokyo’s until the end of August from Aug. 22.

‘THOUGHTS WOULD GET ME INTO TROUBLE’

Murphy, who won gold in the 100 metre and 200 metre Rio finals, surrendered both titles to Rylov in Tokyo.

“I’ve got 15 thoughts, 13 of them would get me into a lot of trouble,” he said when asked by a reporter if he had any doping concerns about his races, subsequently suggesting the 200m had been tainted.

Later, said he had no intention of making an allegation against his opponent. Rylov said Murphy was entitled to his thoughts given that there had been scandals.

The World Anti-Doping Agency handed Russia a four-year ban from top sporting events in 2019. Those sanctions were then lessened by a sports arbitration court.

More than 300 Russian athletes are competing at the Tokyo Games as part of the ROC. While they are not allowed to compete under their own flag, they can wear their tri-colour uniforms.

In other swimming events, the medals were again spread between countries other than traditional powerhouses.

South African Tatjana Schoenmaker won the women’s 200 metre breaststroke in a world record time, while China won their first men’s swimming gold in Tokyo with Wang Shun’s victory in the 200 metre medley.

Emma McKeon won the 100 freestyle for Australia’s sixth gold in the pool, holding off Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey down the final straight to win by 0.31 seconds.

BILES’ STRUGGLES

In gymnastics, Zhu Xueying led China to the top two podium positions in the women’s trampoline as Canada‘s Rosie MacLennan was denied a golden hat-trick.

That sport has also been overshadowed by drama around U.S. star Simone Biles. On Friday, she spelled out her struggles to perform, days after pulling of competitions, but shed no clear light on whether she would take part in further events.

In fencing, the top four teams in the men’s team epee crashed out in the quarter-finals. One of the day’s biggest surprises, Japan, ranked eighth, defeated top-ranked France, who will miss out on a medal for the first time since 1992.

In badminton, world number three Nozomi Okuhara was beaten by number nine China’s He Bing Jiao. Another surprise was the entry of world number 59, Guatemala’s Kevin Cordon, into the men’s quarter-finals.

The final day of Olympic rowing also delivered thrills when Greece’s Stefanos Ntouskos upset the favourites in the men’s single sculls and Canada ended U.S. dominance of the women’s eights. Four-time Olympian Emma Twigg, of New Zealand, ensured her country kept a grip on the sport with another gold in the women’s single sculls.

Athletics exploded into life with the women’s 100 metres round-one heats. Ivorian Marie-Josée Ta Lou roared across the finish line with a blistering 10.78 seconds at a hot and spectator-less Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

Defending Olympic champion Jamaican Elaine Thompson-Herah ran a scorching 10.82 seconds to advance, while compatriot Shelly Anne Fraser-Pryce posted 10.84 seconds.

AMERICAN “AWAKE” AFTER CRASH

Reigning BMX champion Fields, who crashed heavily in the third run of his semi-final, was “awake” in hospital awaiting further checks to determine the extent of his injuries, an American team spokesperson said.

He was close to the front heading into the first steeply-banked corner at the Ariake Urban Sports Park and appeared to tangle with another rider, crashing heavily.

The semi-finals were marred by other crashes after a 45-minute rain delay, although the course was dry and did not appear to be a factor.

“I don’t think that the track or the weather had anything to do with the crashes,” Dutch rider Merel Smulders, who took bronze in the women’s race after her sister Laura also crashed in the semi-finals, told Reuters.

“I feel like there were a lot more crashes in Rio. But there were some bad crashes today and no one wants to see that.”

(Reporting by David Dolan and Mari Saito; Writing by Leela de Kretser and David Dolan; Editing by Stephen Coates and John Stonestreet)

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Pistons select Cade Cunningham with No. 1 overall pick in 2021 NBA Draft – Sportsnet.ca

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The Detroit Pistons selected Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft Thursday night.

Cunningham had been widely expected to be the first name called in New York, though Pistons general manager Troy Weaver wouldn’t reveal plans earlier this week and said the team would look at every scenario, including trades.

In the end, Detroit stuck with the 19-year-old mentioned as a potential top pick before ever stepping foot on the Oklahoma State campus.

The 6-foot-8, 220-pound point guard from Arlington, Texas, lived up to expectations with his size and fluid game to become a first-team Associated Press All-American. He averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists with a game that allowed him to hit from 3-point range, score off the dribble or find teammates out of traps.

Cunningham — the first player in Oklahoma State history to be picked No. 1 overall — joins a Pistons franchise that has won 20 games for two straight seasons and hasn’t finished better than .500 for five straight years.

Cunningham was the headliner of a class that included scorers, playmakers and potentially elite defenders at the top. That group included Southern California freshman big man Evan Mobley, Gonzaga freshman point guard Jalen Suggs and Florida State freshman forward Scottie Barnes.

There are also a pair of preps-to-pros prospects in guard Jalen Green and forward Jonathan Kuminga, both of whom bypassed college basketball to play in the G League.

The draft is later than its traditional late-June slot for the second straight year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that interrupted the 2019-20 season. The 2021-22 season is scheduled to return to its normal schedule, with next year’s draft set for June again.

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NBA Draft 2021: Toronto Raptors select Scottie Barnes with the 4th overall pick – RaptorsHQ

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The Raptors have upended consensus in the 2021 NBA Draft, opting to select Florida State forward Scottie Barnes with the fourth overall pick. To say this was a complete shock is not entirely true — there was buzz the Raptors were at least somewhat intrigued by Barnes’ potential — but it also felt like Toronto would not take the gamble (e.g. it felt like Jalen Suggs at no. 4 was a lock).

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Barnes joins the Raptors just before his 20th birthday. He’s listed at 6’9” and 227 pounds, which puts him in the small forward category, by my math. Barnes spent one season at Florida State during which he averaged 10.3 points, 4.1 assists, and 4.0 rebounds per game across 24 contests. Admittedly, the numbers don’t exactly pop — Barnes only started seven games — but Toronto must love his potential.

Said potential is what our guy JD got at in his column here. Barnes has serious defensive skills, a player who can already guard almost every position via his strength, speed and know-how. The broadcast compared him to Draymond Green, which is not a bad place to be — particularly for a Raptors team that obviously values defensive ability and versatility. Like Green, Barnes has flashed an advanced play-making game for a forward, and he also has a limited offensive arsenal. Few are looking at Barnes, who shot 28 percent from three and 62 percent from the free-throw line, to be a lights-out gunner. Maybe he gets there in time, or maybe his skill-set is less dependent on his shot.

So then the risk: did the Raptors just get a player who can’t start for the current squad with OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam locked in at the small and power forward position? Could it be that Barnes only tracks as another second or third-ranked player on a championship calibre team? (If that; some are worried he’s the next Stanley Johnson.) In all, the question remains: will Toronto regret missing on Suggs?

Or do the Raptors have something else planned with regards to their roster construction? Right now it’s unclear, but we do know one thing for now: Toronto has selected Scottie Barnes in the 2021 NBA Draft.

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