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Gasol’s brief, iconic Raptors run may be nearing end after playoff struggles –



The nature of the beast is this:

When a good team underperforms, someone on the team has to wear it, or at least some of it.

The Toronto Raptors are struggling mightily to score against the Boston Celtics. It’s the main reason they trail their second-round series 3-2, and it’s very likely going to cost them their season — unless they can survive a pair of elimination games beginning with Game 6 Wednesday night.

So, it’s time for Marc Gasol to wear it, or at least some of it.

Understand: The Raptors aren’t slumping offensively, they are cratering.

They are the worst offensive team remaining in the NBA post-season and against the Celtics they are averaging just 99.4 points per 100 possessions — a rate that would have them trail the worst offensive team in the regular season by five points per 100 possessions.

Defensively the Raptors remain ‘fine.’ They are limiting the Celtics to 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which trails the Raptors’ 104.7 regular-season mark but would still be good for 4th in the NBA.

Livestream the Raptors’ quest to defend their NBA title with select NBA playoff games on Sportsnet NOW.

But their offensive woes are so pronounced that their net-rating is -7.4 — the same as the 20-win Atlanta Hawks this season.

And how much better would their defence be if the Raptors could force Boston to take the ball out of their own net a little more, rather than pushing the ball ahead off of misses and attacking while the Raptors scramble to get set?

Things could get worse, too, as the other member of the Raptors’ centre tandem, Serge Ibaka — you know, the one who can score a little — had a walking boot on his left ankle Tuesday and is questionable for Game 6.

Ibaka has been a bright spot for the Raptors on offence, chipping in with 11.8 points per game on 51.2 per cent shooting overall and 50 per cent from three, continuing a run of mostly positive play ever since the seeding games began back on Aug. 1.

A failure to this degree has many parents, obviously, and the Celtics are a good enough defensive team to bury all but the most lethal attacks — a category the Raptors don’t fall into.

But so far the only Raptors performing at or above regular-season levels against Boston have been Ibaka and OG Anunoby. To varying degrees Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell have been held responsible after games when they’ve struggled and to their credit each has had corresponding high points — Powell perhaps the exception so far, but at least the Raptors’ leading regular-season bench scorer keeps looking to score.

Maybe in Game 6 he will.

But Gasol’s offensive inability or indifference deserves its own special category. It’s almost like Raptors head coach Nick Nurse — and even segments of the Raptors fan base — have lowered their expectations for the $26-million player to the point that even him looking at the basket is worthy of an enthusiastic thumb’s up, like he’s the struggling 10-year-old on a house league team.

It’s as if his intangibles make up for Toronto playing 4-on-5 against one of the NBA’s best defences.

But even though Nurse — like any coach — defends his players in public, sometimes the shortcomings are simply too obvious to be unacknowledged.

“We don’t need a ton [of offence from him],” Nurse said Tuesday. “It’s not like we need 25 from him. But we need him to chip in with some, just because there’s opportunities there for him … that’s when we’re at our best, and we need to be at our best to win a game here.”

It’s all very strange given Gasol averaged 15.7 points a game before he was trade from Memphis to Toronto last season and this time last year led Spain to a world championship, a run highlighted by 33-point explosion by Gasol in a semi-final win over Australia.

Meanwhile Gasol has scored 27 points in five games against Boston and has yet to make a three pointer in 10 attempts, even though virtually all his three-point attempts have been wide open and uncontested.

He’s managed a single offensive rebound.

It’s a pattern.

In nine playoff starts — including four against the over-matched Brooklyn Nets in the first round — Gasol is shooting 40 per cent from the floor and is 3-of-21 from three; in seven seeding games before that he shot 6-of-21, or 28.6 per cent. Gasol is shooting 9-of-42 from deep in Florida, all while being largely ignored by the opposing defences.

The Celtics are using their big to hound the ball-handler — typically Lowry and VanVleet — after most pick-and-roll actions. By default that leaves Gasol open, and Gasol either won’t shoot or is converting wide-open shots at such an insignificant percentage that it almost doesn’t matter.

“Yeah, we certainly point ’em out, talk about ’em, show him on the film,” said Nurse. “[We] just got out of the film session – and continue to encourage him and tell him those are shots he needs to take.”

The why is a bit of a mystery. Gasol shot 40.2 per cent from deep before the 2019-20 season went on hiatus, even while in and out of the lineup due to recurring hamstring problems. He shot 38.2 per cent from three in the playoffs last year and 44.2 per cent with Toronto after arriving from Memphis.

When Gasol returned from the hiatus having lost considerable weight — remember ‘skinny Marc Gasol?’ — he made his intentions clear:

“What’s important [is] we’ll all be measured by winning games and getting another ring,” he said as the Raptors arrived at the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World Resort back in July. “That’s what we’re all for. We’re all trying to be in the best situation personally to do that.”

It hasn’t worked.

When the Raptors were rolling — they won 11 of their first 12 games in Florida — it didn’t matter and Gasol’s lack of offensive production could be written off because of contributions less obvious but no less significant, his defence and playmaking in particular.

But here’s the problem: It’s not just Gasol’s offence that has fallen off.

Sportsnet producer Chris Black dug up some of Gasol’s year-over-year advanced statistics and even in those areas, he’s falling short of his standards.

During last season’s championship run, Gasol was second among Raptors regulars in WinShares per 48 with .151; this season he’s last among their seven-man rotation at 0.36.

His deflections are off by nearly half (2.1 last year to 1.2 this year); he’s contesting less shots (from 9.5 to per game to 6.6) and opponents are having more success against him at the rim, converting 68 per cent of their plays compared to 60 per cent a year ago. His playmaking is his calling card offensively, but even there his assists are down and his turnovers are up.

The Raptors remain a better defensive team with him on the floor, a tribute to his smarts and will. But at what cost?

Gasol will forever be part of Raptors lore as the stabilizing veteran who was the finishing piece in a championship puzzle; making 7-foot-1, 300-pound Sixers centre Joel Embiid disappear will be his most famous trick, although his performance at the parade alone makes him deserving of a statue.

But barring a sudden reversal the 35-year-old pending free agent’s usefulness to the Raptors has largely run its course, and it will go down as a brief relationship that produced tremendous highs but ended with a whimper.

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Clutch for the clinch: Ryu brilliance stymies Yanks as Blue Jays lock up playoff spot – Toronto Sun



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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays dives safe to home plate as Kyle Higashioka of the New York Yankees misses the tag during the sixth inning at Sahlen Field on September 24, 2020 in Buffalo, New York. Photo by Timothy T Ludwig /Getty Images

When Alejandro Kirk ripped a two-RBI double into the left-field corner to score two more in the sixth, not only did the legend of the 21-year-old catcher grow yet again, the Jays had doubled their lead to 4-0 and the socially-distanced (somewhat) celebration was that much nearer.

The anticipation was tantalizing the rest of the way and when reliever Rafael Dolis got the final out, the Jays spilled out of their dugout to celebrate. The ear-to-ear smile of manager Charlie Montoyo could be seen beneath his mask as the players and donned t-shirts that blared “Respect Toronto.”

“I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” an emotional Montoyo said on a post-game Zoom call. “The ups and downs, the tough games. we kept believing in ourselves. “It’s awesome I’m the happiest guy right now.”

The second-year manager was not without company, especially from the young core of his team, most of whom played together at multiple levels in the minor leagues.

“We pictured bringing a winning mindset to Toronto and the major league level,” Biggio said. “In my mind this is just the start of it. We played with a little bit of an edge and we worked our way here.”

Even with the elevated stakes, it was clear from the outset that the Jays were playing with a sense of purpose on Thursday.

They were crisp and near flawless on defence, no more so than a running catch at the top of the wall by Randal Grichuk to end the eighth inning with the bases loaded.

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From homeless to playoff bound, Toronto Blue Jays' wild 2020 ride isn't over yet – TSN



TORONTO — Three months ago, the Toronto Blue Jays barely had a home.

Now, they have a spot in the postseason.

Call it entertaining.

Call it fortunate.

Call it a good stepping stone.

Call it the start of a Cinderella run.

You can call it whatever you want, and assess it in many different ways.

But in the shortened 60-game sprint with expanded playoffs, the Blue Jays did what they needed to do to become one of eight American League teams to move on, and despite what looks to be an uphill battle against one of the best teams in baseball in the Tampa Bay Rays, there’s both belief internally and lots of daily evidence across baseball that absolutely anything can happen in a three-game series.

Based on how this season has gone for a young and inconsistent ballclub that authored a seemingly endless string of comeback wins, followed by a seemingly endless string of lopsided defeats, in order to clinch their first postseason berth since 2016, expecting the unexpected when the playoffs start next Tuesday is probably the smart bet.

These are the Buffalo Blue Jays, after all, and this is the year 2020.

“Man, I’m just so proud of my club and everything we’ve gone through all year,” manager Charlie Montoyo said amidst the post-game celebrations at Sahlen Field.

“I think the pressure’s off. Honestly. Just go and play and have fun and enjoy it.”

It’s hard to quantify chemistry, but this team has been quarantining together since the month of July began and they believe that’s played a large role in their ability to persevere through adversity.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve had is chemistry,” said Cavan Biggio, a jack-of-all-trades, heart-and-soul player who has been tremendously important to the success of this Blue Jays team on a night in, night out basis. “We’ve been a tight group of guys this whole time. You can make it as bad as it is or as good as you want. Going into our situation, not being able to play in Toronto and coming to Buffalo and playing on the road for the first couple of weeks, we could have easily looked at it as if, ‘Man, our backs are up against the wall, it’s okay if we don’t win this year, it’s kind of a crazy year.’ 

“The way we took it is we’re here for each of us in that locker-room and I think it’s shown over the longevity of this long year with injuries and guys going down and guys stepping in and picking it right up.”

Things didn’t look good when Ken Giles went down on the opening weekend of the season, and Montoyo shouldered the criticism for leaving his star closer on the mound as he winced in pain.

It really didn’t look good when Bo Bichette was lost to a freak knee injury in the middle of August, and Nate Pearson followed with an elbow injury a few days later.

Instead, the Jays took off, going 11-5 to close out the month of August after the Bichette injury.

An extremely inconsistent month of September has followed, but the Jays had done enough to convince GM Ross Atkins to make a push at the deadline, and while they in no way mortgaged the future for an underdog run, that faith has been proven right in the end.

“We have the pieces and we have the depth, but most importantly I think our chemistry is pretty special,” Biggio reiterated.

“Kind of the cool part about this team is we’re never really out of a game,” he added.

It’s the eighth trip to the postseason in franchise history, and this one is truly unique.

From an ongoing pandemic to a 60-game season to significantly expanded playoffs, this October is much, much different than any other and the Blue Jays have without a doubt been beneficiaries.

But when you look at the big picture, it can’t be ignored that the Jays took a leap from a 95-loss team to one that is now guaranteed to finish with at least a .500 record with three relatively meaningless games to go in the regular season.

The offence has gone from one of the league’s worst to top 10 in baseball, averaging around five runs per game.

They paid Hyun-Jin Ryu $80 million over four years to be an ace and he delivered, posting a 2.69 ERA and the Jays went 9-3 in his 12 starts.

Without him, they aren’t a playoff team.

Talent-wise, Biggio, Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez and now Alejandro Kirk form a lineup core that’s only getting better.

Biggio can see that a mile away.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface on what we’re going to be able to do at this level,” Biggio said. “To see it coming out this early on in our careers, it gives us a little glimpse of what we could end up doing in the future.”

Bichette saw it coming together quicker than many imagined back in February.

Before the pandemic. Before expanded playoffs.

“I expect us to compete,” Bichette said to open spring training. “I expect us to do really well. We have a lot more talent than people realize. I don’t think people are taking into account that some of our guys are going to take steps forward and become really impact players.”

The question now is how many more steps forward do they have in them this season?

They’ll start to answer that next week.​

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Blue Jays clinch playoff spot for first time since 2016 –



BUFFALO, N.Y. — A two-word message — Respect Toronto — was emblazoned on the T-shirts the Blue Jays put on shortly after locking down a playoff berth Thursday night.

A team that many baseball observers didn’t think would make the cut for the expanded playoffs has proven the doubters wrong. The Blue Jays are in — likely as the eighth seed in the American League — but are resolute in the feeling that they belong.

“I think we’re a pretty scary team,” said Toronto infielder Cavan Biggio. “We’ve seen what we can do with the bats. It’s hard to put us out of games, especially with the way we can score runs.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., homered and ace Hyun-Jin Ryu threw seven shutout innings as the Blue Jays beat the New York Yankees 4-1 to secure their first post-season berth in four years.

When Rafael Dolis fanned Aaron Hicks in the ninth for his third strikeout of the inning, the celebration was on at Sahlen Field. There were no fans in the stadium but the Blue Jays still whooped it up near the dugout of their temporary home in this pandemic-shortened season.

“We keep believing in ourselves,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “It’s awesome. I’m so proud of this group. I’m the happiest guy right now.”

The Blue Jays survived some nervous moments after a stellar performance from Ryu. Reliever Anthony Bass struggled with control in the eighth and it nearly proved costly.

Bass was pulled after loading the bases with his third walk of the frame. Dolis came on and got pinch-hitter Gary Sanchez to fly out on a ball that Randal Grichuk caught against the wall in left-centre field — missing a grand slam by a couple feet — for the third out.

The Blue Jays (30-27) were in control of their playoff destiny after entering play with a magic number of one. The two teams that had a chance of catching Toronto — the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners — were idle.

Regular-season play continues through Sunday and the playoffs will begin Tuesday. All first-round series will be best-of-three matchups.

It’s possible the Blue Jays could still move up in the seeding order, but they are good bets to stay in the No. 8 position. If the season ended Thursday night, Toronto would meet the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays.

“I think the pressure is off — honestly,” Montoyo said. “Just go out and play and have fun. We’re going to enjoy every minute of it. We know that what’s coming is not easy, but that’s fine. It hasn’t been easy the whole time.”

Under Major League Baseball’s expanded playoff structure, 16 teams will reach the playoffs. Division winners will be seeded Nos. 1-3 in each league, second-place teams will be seeded fourth through sixth, and two third-place wild-card teams will get the seventh and eighth seeds.

“I think not many teams are going to want to face us just because of the edge we play (with), the offence and the bullpen that we have,” Biggio said. “It’s going to be exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”

Guerrero had three of Toronto’s 10 hits on Thursday night. He hit a solo homer off New York starter Jordan Montgomery in the second inning and scored on Alejandro Kirk‘s two-run double in the sixth inning.

Ryu pitched into the seventh inning for the first time this season, allowing five hits and two walks. He had four strikeouts and threw 62 of his 100 pitches for strikes.

Gio Urshela doubled off Ryu (5-2) in the second inning to extend his hitting streak to 13 games. He was left stranded when Clint Frazier struck out.

Guerrero turned on a 1-1 pitch from Montgomery (2-3) in the bottom half of the frame for his eighth homer. Back-to-back doubles from Biggio and Bo Bichette in the third made it a 2-0 game.

The Yankees (32-25) threatened in the sixth inning after singles by Luke Voit and Hicks. But Ryu struck out Giancarlo Stanton, got Gleyber Torres to fly out and then retired Urshela on a groundout.

Kirk, a rookie catcher who served as designated hitter, lashed a pitch from Adam Ottavino into the left-field corner to help the Blue Jays double their lead. Grichuk scored ahead of Guerrero, who hustled around third base and slid just under Kyle Higashioka’s tag.

New York can’t catch first-place Tampa Bay in the East and has a magic number of one to secure second place in the division.

The Blue Jays won the wild-card game en route to an appearance in the American League Championship Series in 2016.

Toronto’s last World Series victory came in 1993. A long playoff drought followed until the Blue Jays reached the ALCS in 2015.

Notes: The game took three hours 11 minutes to play. … Dolis earned his fifth save. … Before the game, the Blue Jays activated right-hander Nate Pearson after a month-long stint on the injured list due to right elbow tightness. Reliever Wilmer Font was designated for assignment. … The Blue Jays will start a three-game series against the visiting Baltimore Orioles on Friday. The Yankees will close their season with a weekend set against the Miami Marlins. … Toronto won three of four against New York and split their 10 games against the Yankees this year. … The Blue Jays improved to 15-8 at Sahlen Field.

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