The Toronto Raptors closed their exhibition season with a listless-looking 117-105 defeat to the Miami Heat Friday night, playing for the first time in their new temporary home of Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.
Toronto only shot 38 per cent from the field, and outside of a standout performance from Kyle Lowry, was generally flat and looked every bit the part of a team playing its last exhibition game of the season.
Like everything with this season, the exhibition schedule whipped by quickly and the next game the Raptors play will be for real this coming Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Here are a few takeaways from Friday’s pre-season finale.
Lowry looking sensational
After skipping the Raptors’ first two pre-season games in Charlotte because his coach claimed he wanted to preserve him a little — and to play a round or two on the links — Lowry made his pre-season debut Friday and looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.
Lowry finished Friday’s contest with 25 points in just 27 minutes, shooting 7-of-14 from the floor, including a 6-for-10 mark from deep and looked to be in fantastic shape both physically and competitively as he was already seen working the officials and looking his patently grumpy, never-satisfied self on the floor.
“He obviously was really good, excited to play [and] being back,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse after the game. “I wish a couple of guys had gone with him in that same kind of zeal and excitement but they didn’t.
“He was certainly one of the bright spots of tonight’s performance, looked like he was in mid-season form tonight.”
Lowry was also pleased with his performance Friday, though maybe not willing to give the kind of score Nurse would.
“I hope I’m not in mid-season form right now because we just started,” he said. “I just felt good to be out there. It felt good to be playing basketball with the team on the floor in a game. It’s one thing where it’s always good to get back on that floor with the guys and getting hit a little bit from other teams and trying to kinda beat up on other teams.”
With the season right around the corner, it was a positive sign to see that the Raptors’ undisputed leader and best player is still looking exactly like those two things.
Impressions of the new home
As mentioned before, the Raptors played their game in their new temporary home of Amalie Arena.
It was a little odd at first seeing sponsorship signage for Canadian companies like Sportchek and Canadian Tire in a building where the Tampa Bay Lightning play at first, but in the end, it looked and sounded like any other normal Raptors home game.
This was aided by little touches that were brought from Toronto such as a copy of the 2019 championship banner hanging in the rafters and even some of the game ops touches, such as hearing the signature Ric Flair ‘Woo’ whenever Lowry scored.
But what truly made it special was seeing fans in the arena. The Raptors are one of seven teams that will be allowing fans in their arenas when the season starts and although there weren’t as many as there will be allowed during the regular season, having an audience present sounded like a missed part of the NBA experience.
“Yeah, it was certainly nice to see, obviously I think it felt a lot like some of the minor-league games I coached, felt a lot like the crowds we used to have at some of those games smattered across the lower bowl like that,” said Nurse. “But it seemed like there was some people up there having some fun, right? It really, really did and I think that’s nice to see, that’s the main thing, people can get out and enjoy themselves.”
Added Lowry: “It was cool, man. Unfortunately we played the Miami Heat, so we heard a little bit more cheers than jeers for them but it’s always great to be able to have fans in front of us, man. We play for our fans, we play for the fans of the NBA, we play for fans of basketball. The atmosphere was really cool.”
Too many threes?
Here’s an interesting stat for you: About 64.1 per cent of the shot attempts the Raptors took Friday came from the three-point range.
The three-point shot is great and all, but that’s a rather high percentage and, as Nurse said, that’s not exactly how the Raptors want to play moving forward this season, and the reason for all the bombing from deep was more because of what the Heat were doing defensively.
“That was a little bit extreme tonight, yeah I think they play a pack-the paint defence, make you beat ’em from the outside,” Nurse said. “I thought we took 57 [sic], and I thought we turned down another 17. So yeah, I think it was the defence that was kind of presented to us tonight.”
Playing what the defence gives you is one thing. But if that’s exactly what that defence wants to give you, alternative ways to attack still need to be utilized as well, and in this case, it would’ve been more welcome to see the Raptors attack the paint better than they did before.
The Raptors are an excellent team in transition but still appear a little sluggish in the half-court and part of that could be aided by a player who could better get to the rim via cutting or drives to the basket. It’s a problem that Nurse is well aware of.
“We’ve got to do a better job of creating opportunities to get into the paint, and get to the front of the rim for sure,” he said.”
However, given how guard and wing-heavy Toronto’s roster is, getting to the hole may prove more difficult than just said, which is why the majority of those looks Toronto got in Friday’s game came in transition.
If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.
So, in this vein, it would probably make more sense for the Raptors to focus on trying to create transition opportunities for themselves and the best way to do so would be to become the kind of team that Lowry said he envisions it becoming this season.
“I think we should become a real-life defensive monster,” said Lowry. “That’s what I would like us to become. I don’t want us to be this offensive juggernaut. I want us to be a defensive team where every single possession, every single night the team who is coming in knows that it’s going to be a slug-it-out game, and they’re going to get hit, they’re going to get beat up. They’re not gonna be roaming free. That’s one thing I would love for us to become.”
Making a team feel you on one end and then running the ball down their throats while they’re still recovering from the latest bruise sounds like a pretty good recipe for success.
Roster battle update
It’s looking clearer every day that DeAndre’ Bembry will have a rather sizeable role to play on the Raptors this season.
On Friday he got some time with some of the starters and looked like he fit in just as seamlessly as he’s appeared with the second unit.
“I think he’s gonna be great for us,” Lowry said of Bembry. “I think he gives us a chance to have another ball-handler. I think he gives us a guy who can give myself and [Fred VanVleet] opportunities to get off and run around and be us and get open looks. On the defensive end, he can guard anybody one through four, his aggressiveness, his assertiveness. And he’s very smart. He knows how to play defence and offence. He knows when to cut and when to get out of the way.”
Chris Boucher is also a player who’s looking like he’ll be getting more consistent burn this season and on Friday he showed what kind of weapon he could be, scoring 11 points, including going 3-for-4 from three-point range.
The kind of offensive skillset Boucher brings to the Raptors differs so dramatically from what Aron Baynes or Alex Len can give the team, although it seems Nurse may still have some concerns about his game that he wants to see the Canadian big man shore up.
“I think first and foremost, Chris has got to be a defender for us, and a rebounder and a rim protector. He’s got to be. He can’t be a guy that’s not being able to hold his own on his position on offence and hope he gets it back at the other end,” Nurse said. “I always say that he can play offence, hit the shot as we saw tonight, he can roll and dunk. A lot of that’s kind of icing on the cake offence for us. Again, first and foremost he has to play with great energy, be a great defender and a rim protector first and foremost.”
Finally, an intriguing battle here right before rosters for the season must be finalized is the job Japanese forward Yuta Watanabe has done to impress the Raptors brass enough to give them pause about whether they want to bring on board, officially.
Watanabe signed an Exhibit-10 contract as, essentially, a training camp invite, but at six-foot-eight with good length, a nice-looking three-point stroke and some play-making in his game he looks like an interesting developmental piece with possibly high upside not unlike Boucher was when the Raptors first brought him into the organization.
Nurse, at the very least, seemed impressed by the 26-year-old and indicated that Watanabe’s future with the club could be determined soon.
“Yeah, I mean he played really good in all three games, there’s no doubt about it. I think he’s done everything he possibly can do,” Nurse said. “I’m going to go into a meeting here shortly to talk with the front office and we’ll see how it shakes out, but he’s had a heck of a camp.”
McIlroy hoping for ‘close to normal’ Ryder Cup
(Reuters) – Rory McIlroy said he is hopeful that a near-capacity crowd will be able to attend the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September.
McIlroy said organizers had made the right call by deciding not to stage the event without fans last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m excited for the Ryder Cup,” McIlroy told the European Tour’s website.
“Hopefully, with how the vaccine is being rolled out, we are starting to see some light at the end the tunnel with this pandemic.
“It may not be the full, full capacity that a Ryder Cup usually is, but hopefully it will be very close to what a normal Ryder Cup is and I am excited for that.”
McIlroy, who is playing at the Abu Dhabi Championship this week, said he was in a good frame of mind.
“I’m raring to go after the Christmas break, I’ve done some good practice and you come into the new season with renewed optimism and a lot of goals,” McIlroy said. “I guess that has translated into some good golf here.
“I keep getting myself into contention and someone goes out and has a really good Sunday but I need to take the initiative and have one of those really good Sundays myself to get over the line.”
The Ryder Cup will be held from Sept. 24-26.
(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford)
Canadiens’ penalty killers simply perfect in Edmonton
“We had some good sticks tonight,” said Weber. “(The Oilers) were trying to hit seams and we were able to get sticks in lanes. (Goaltender Jake Allen) was able to make the first save and we were able to clear the puck after that.”
Julien rotated seven forwards on the PK to ensure there were fresh legs on the ice.
“Having more bodies allows us to be more aggressive,” said Weber. “Obviously, our forwards are trying to use their speed against the other team and that allows us to be more aggressive.”
Artturi Lehkonen completed the Montreal scoring with a short-handed goal. Not only did the Oilers go 0-for-10 on the power play in the two games in Edmonton, but they also gave up short-handed goals to Lehkonen and Jake Evans.
As good as the PK was, the fact that it had to work so hard indicates that the Canadiens have to do a better job of staying out of the box. It should also be noted that Weber and Romanov received cross-checking penalties. It might be a coincidence, but the penalties came in the wake of complaints that the Canadiens manhandled Auston Matthews last week in Toronto.
The Canadiens are bigger this year and they are playing bigger. They also outhit the Oilers 31-17 Monday.
“We were playing hard, we have many hits,” said Romanov. “We’re playing like a team, we’re playing like a family.”
It should be noted Allen deserved a shutout. He didn’t get one because Jonathan Drouin misplayed the puck at his own blue line and that led to a breakaway goal by Shore.
The nasty look Weber directed at Drouin told you everything you need to know about the play.
Source: – Montreal Gazette
Ehlers scores OT winner as Jets rally for win over Senators – TSN
OTTAWA — Nikolaj Ehlers and the Winnipeg Jets have yet to lead a contest in regulation and yet they’ve won two of their three games to start the NHL season.
Ehlers scored in overtime as Winnipeg twice rallied from a two-goal deficit en route to a 4-3 win over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night.
The Jets (2-1-0) opened their season Thursday night with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Calgary Flames and were coming off a 3-1 loss Monday night to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ehlers scored his first goal of the season at 2:20 of overtime, moments after Winnipeg goalie Laurent Brossoit made a nice stop on Ottawa’s Drake Batherson. Blake Wheeler forced overtime for the Jets, scoring with 1:17 remaining in regulation with Brossoit on the bench for the extra attacker — a goal originally credited to Josh Morrissey before an official scoring change switched it to the Winnipeg captain.
“It (winning despite not leading in regulation) shows we don’t give up,” said Ehlers. “We battled our (butts) off to stay in the game . . . it feels good to have the two points.”
Ehlers heaped lavish praise upon Brossoit, who got the start after Connor Hellebuyck played Monday night.
“He kept us in the game,” Ehlers said. “They had a lot of good open chances, especially the last one there before our goal.
“We know we’ve got two goalies back there that keep us in games and do a great job. We’re trying to do our best to limit the shots they get, but if they play the way they’re playing right now, we’re happy.”
Added Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice: “He (Ehlers) can be so dangerous, such a dynamic player late in a game, just the speed to get into that hole and then make the play that finishes it,. We need him to feel confident and healthy and strong and when he is he’s just so very dynamic.”
Adam Lowry and Kyle Connor also scored for Winnipeg, which was outshot 41-28 in the contest.
“I guess you should wrap all of us up in our goaltending,” Maurice said. “That’s the key in our game, our goaltending has been outstanding.”
Josh Norris, Chris Tierney and Alex Galchenyuk scored for Ottawa (1-1-1).
The game was the first of three in five days between the two clubs. They’ll square off again in the nation’s capital Thursday night before returning to Winnipeg on Saturday.
Winnipeg was minus forward Patrik Laine (upper-body injury) for a second straight game. He’s listed as day to day.
Rookie forward Tim Stutzel, who’s dealing with a nagging minor injury, didn’t play for Ottawa. The third overall selection in the 2020 NHL draft, who has a goal through two games with the Senators, is also considered day to day.
Maurice said Tuesday’s game was an indication of just how important it is for a team to continue playing hard and believing in the process, regardless of the score. Ottawa controlled much of the play and held leads of 2-0 and 3-1 but couldn’t break Winnipeg’s will.
“That’s the most important piece for any team, that the score on the clock doesn’t dictate your effort level and your compete level,” Maurice said. “The late comeback wins have a really nice impact on your team.
“You carry those for a number of games. You always feel that you have a chance.”
Ottawa dominated the first, outshooting Winnipeg 18-9, and was rewarded with the opening two goals of the contest.
Norris opened the scoring on the power play at 4:41. He registered his first NHL goal when he slid the puck in off Brossoit’s skate.
Conner came close to putting Winnipeg on the scoresheet when he fired a shot off the goalpost on the power play. But Tierney put Ottawa ahead 2-0 with a deflection at 10:31 for his second of the season.
Lowry pulled Winnipeg to within 2-1 at 18:09. He deflected Neal Pionk‘s shot from the point past Matt Murray — making his third straight start in goal for Ottawa — for his first of the year.
It was more of the same in the second as Ottawa outshot Winnipeg 14-8 in the period and went back ahead by two goals at 11:47 of the second on Galchenyuk’s power-play blast. It was his first of the season but Winnipeg countered with Connor’s goal with the man advantage at 16:12.
It was Connor’s third of the season. He’s scored in all three Jets games in 2021.
“He’s scratching the surface here,” Maurice said of Connor. “He hasn’t been lucky in his start and he’s putting up great numbers.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan 19. 2021.
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