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Lowry provides heroics as Raptors begin navigating the unknowns of injury woes – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Before the ball went up there was a sense the Toronto Raptors were stepping into the great unknown.

For instance, with three regulars out — joining two others already on the injured list — the sequence of pre-game shooting was thrown way off.

Players take the floor in groups of three or four in 15- or 20-minutes intervals — kind of like batting practice in baseball. The lower you rank on the seniority list, the earlier you go out.

Roughly, it’s rookies first and vets last.

But with Pascal Siakam (groin), Marc Gasol (hamstring) and Norman Powell (shoulder) all sidelined indefinitely, and the likes of Matt Thomas (finger) and Stanley Johnson (groin) already out, the floor was open.

Malcolm Miller, in his third season with the team, typically goes out to shoot shortly after 5 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. tip. He wasn’t due until 6:25 on Friday and by 6:15 found himself in the locker room still counting down the spare minutes.

“I’ve eaten, lifted, stretched and I’m still twiddling my fingers,” he said.

Figuring out how to thrive in unfamiliar situations was the theme of the night as the Raptors played their first game since Gasol, Siakam and Powell were all injured in Wednesday’s win against Detroit.

Let’s just say the road ahead may have some bumps.

NBA on Christmas Day

The Raptors and Celtics tip off a full Christmas Day schedule on Sportsnet, Sportsnet ONE and SN NOW with coverage starting at 11:30 a.m. ET/8:30 a.m. PT, followed by 76ers vs. Bucks, Lakers vs. Clippers and Nuggets vs. Pelicans.

The Raptors needed 26 points and nine assists and – most significantly – 40 minutes from Kyle Lowry to finish off the otherwise non-threatening Washington Wizards. Some shaky bench minutes from the Raptors suddenly razor-thin reserves allowed the Wizards to come back from down 12 in the fourth quarter to tie the game with 3:43 to play.

A five-point Lowry flourish in the final two minutes and four key free throws by Fred VanVleet (18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists) in the final 9.9 seconds were enough to hold the Wizards off despite 37 points from Washington’s Bradley Beal.

They will have to get used figuring things out on the fly as none of the missing regulars are expected back sooner than two weeks at least, with Siakam thought to be the closest to returning. Gasol and Powell could be out significantly longer. Meanwhile the Raptors have a heavy holiday schedule to plow through.

It was not for nothing that Toronto head coach Nick Nurse grabbed a random roll of duct tape left on the lectern before the game and joked: “just what I needed.”

Taping together a starting lineup wasn’t all that difficult. Serge Ibaka was in for Gasol – reprising the role he’d before the big Spaniard was acquired by trade last season. Fred VanVleet was thinking he might get another game to heal a bruised knee that had kept him out of the past four, but no such luck. He returned to the starting spot that Powell had looked so comfortable filling in for Lowry and lately VanVleet.

The wildcard would be who would soak up Siakam’s 37 minutes. Nurse opted to go small and start Patrick McCaw, who was playing just his fifth game since missing 19 after knee surgery.

It wasn’t what might have been envisioned out of training camp, but it was familiar.

After that? Nurse was open to pretty much anything from the 11 healthy bodies he had on hand.

“I look at it as it’s a chance, it’s certainly a big opportunity for some some guys. And it’s not just the new guys that are playing, there’s more usage and shots et cetera going for OG and Serge and hopefully McCaw,” said Nurse before the game. “Then now you’re getting Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] and Chris [Boucher] are back into a serious rotation, where they know they’re gonna be in the rotation … and you usually get better play out of ’em there when they can relax a little bit.

[So] maybe we’ll learn something and find something new out about some of these guys. One thing is we’ve gotta go play the games. Nobody’s gonna hold up and wait on us, so we’ve gotta go play ’em, and I expect us to play ’em with great energy and confidence, and play really really hard, because we’re gonna have to.”

There were some rough patches, to be sure.

“Well, we won the game. That helps, but it’s going to be a work in progress,” said Lowry afterwards. “I think guys are just going to continue to get more comfortable every game and we’re going to continue to have to have everyone step up.”

It stands to reason that when you lose three key pieces and elevate two bench players to the starting lineup there might be some gaps elsewhere.

Late in the third quarter of a game the Raptors had largely controlled, Nurse rolled out what was left of his bench along with Lowry. Safe to say that Boucher, Miller, Terence Davis and Hollis-Jefferson struggled to create offence unless Lowry was doing it for them. Miller and Boucher in particular looked uncertain at times, but their job was really to hold the fort.

Over a six-minute stint spanning the end of the third and the start of the fourth quarter against the bench of the NBA’s worst defensive team, the Raptors were outscored 21-16. The ball movement was not – let’s say – fluid.

Nurse went back to more starter-heavy unit at that point but the Wizards had momentum as a Beal triple cut the Raptors lead to seven with 6:58 to play and another three by Admiral Schofield cut the lead to two a moment later and an Ish Smith three tied the game with just over five minutes left, setting up an unnecessarily tight finish.

If the Raptors are going to break even during their short-handed stretch, they’re going to have to find production from their second unit, if only to take pressure off their thinned out starters.

To that end, not only will Lowry be playing heavy minutes, he’ll be wearing many hats:

“Mentor, scorer, playmaker, just a confidence giver,” he said of his duties with the second unit. “Continue to give these guys confidence in what they are doing. Kick the ball ahead and make sure they shoot their shots and if they miss their shots, never put their head down. Just continue to communicate with them.”

But there were bright spots too as the Raptors won their fourth straight and improved to 20-8.

The first quarter couldn’t have worked out better for the undermanned Raptors. It helped that Lowry looked determined to set the tone as he played 10 minutes and shot 4-of-5 from the floor with a pair of triples. He stuck around after the starters filtered off to organize a bench unit made up of Boucher, Hollis-Jefferson, Malcolm Miller and rookie Terence Davis.

On that stint there was no let up as a pair of quick Davis threes sparked an 11-4 run that helped the Raptors open up a 40-23 lead.

It helped that the Raptors were playing the Wizards, decimated by injuries themselves and who limped in with an 8-18 mark and sporting a league-worst defensive rating of 116.1 per game which their fourth-ranked offence can’t quite offset. That Wizards sharpshooters Beal and Davis Bertans combined to shoot just 5-of-22 from three probably helped matters, too.

Still, it was encouraging to see Ibaka finding room to operate in the pick-and-roll with Lowry and VanVleet – a marked difference from Gasol who tends to drift along the three-point line. Ibaka scored eight of his 23 points in the period and was a force at the rim with three blocks in the first half alone. His last one of the half sparked a fast break that Anunoby finished with a dunk off a pretty feed from VanVleet that gave the Raptors a 68-52 lead at the half.

Things will get more difficult from here as six of the Raptors next opponents are in playoff positions, beginning with the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday and then Indiana Monday before hosting Boston on Christmas Day, but Toronto can only do what they can with what they have and Friday they did enough.

“We’ve got capable guys, and we certainly can’t have any other mindset than that [we can survive.]” said VanVleet. “Those guys [out with injury] there’s no magic pill for them to be better by tomorrow. And we want them to take their time and get as healthy as they’re gonna get. In the meantime the rest of us have to band together and do our best given the circumstances.”

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Sinclair to lead Canadian women’s team in her fourth Olympics

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Christine Sinclair, the all-time international goal-scoring record holder, was named to her fourth Olympic squad on Wednesday and will headline a Canadian roster at the Tokyo Games that features a mix of veterans and youth.

Led by Sinclair, whose 186 goals for her country are the most by a female or male soccer player worldwide, Canada won medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was the only nation to make the podium in both competitions.

“I am looking forward to doing whatever I can to help take this team back to the podium and make history again,” said Canadian captain Sinclair. “Our team is in a good spot, we are excited, we are hungry and we are ready to go.”

The 18-player roster features 12 members of the squad that competed at the 2016 Rio Games while a quintet including Vanessa Gilles, Jayde Riviere, Julia Grosso, Adriana Leon, and Evelyne Viens will be making their Olympic debuts.

Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan travelled to Rio in 2016 as an alternate.

Canada will kick off their Tokyo 2020 journey when they face Japan on July 21 and continue Group E play against Chile on July 24 and Britain on July 27.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)

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Which of the Canadians Picked in the 2021 NFL Draft Will Thrive This Season?

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It was a good NFL Draft for Canadian players in 2021.

Some four stars from north of the border were selected by NFL franchises in the free agency pick ‘em, and that is tied as the highest number of Canadians drafted in the 85-year history of the event.

Of course, the hope is that these young talents are more than just filler and roster depth, but can any of the quartet make the breakthrough into the big time?

Here’s a look at which of the NFL’s newest Canadian additions can shine in 2021/22.

Jevon Holland

The defensive back was the number 36 pick in the Draft by the Miami Dolphins, who beat off a number of rivals in the hunt for the Coquitlam native.

A versatile defender, Holland is a former Jim Thorpe Award semi-finalist thanks to his exploits in the NCAA back in 2019 with the University of Oregon.

He sat out the 2020 campaign, but representatives from dozens of NFL teams were in town to watch Holland go through his paces at the Oregon Pro Day.

The 21-year-old is following in the footsteps of his father Robert, who turned out for the Detroit Lions, and he is expected to force his way into the starting line-up at the Dolphins. And, who knows, maybe Holland could go all the way in his first season, with Miami priced at +2500 in the Super Bowl 2022 American football odds.

Benjamin St-Juste

When you’re six foot three, 205 pounds and still able to run 40 yards in 4.51 seconds, it goes without saying that you have the physical credentials to succeed in the NFL.

Benjamin St-Juste is the man that can, and he will bolster the roster at a Washington Football Team that will be looking to improve upon their playoff showing in 2020.

The 23-year-old may only have been a third-round pick, but he comes with a burgeoning reputation thanks to a successful time at the University of Minnesota. An All-Big Ten special mention in 2019, more than 50 NFL recruitment personnel attended the college’s pro day – largely to catch a glimpse of St-Juste going through his paces.

Both Brian Gutekunst and Jon Robinson made the trip but, in the end, it was Washington who snapped up the powerhouse from the Draft.

Chuba Hubbard

The third Canadian to be drafted in 2021 was Chuba Hubbard, who became the first Canadian running back to be selected from the Draft in 25 years.

It’s the Carolina Panthers who have taken a chance on the 22-year-old and with his credentials, you can see why. Hubbard finished eighth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 2019 after a stellar campaign – he served up 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, an NCAA best. He was named the Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

While running backs are not the hottest of properties in the Draft, Hubbard provably has the talent to cross into the end zone with regularity – the Panthers might just have got their hands on an unheralded gem here.

With these three Canadians taking the step up to the NFL, the future of the sport north of the border looks in safe hands.

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Berrettini ends Murray’s comeback at Queen’s

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Andy Murray‘s grasscourt return was cut short in brutal fashion at Queen’s Club as Italian top seed Matteo Berrettini dished out a 6-3 6-3 defeat to the former world number one on Thursday.

The 34-year-old two-time Wimbledon champion, playing in his first singles tournament on grass for three years, could not handle the ferocious pace of Berrettini as he slid to defeat.

Murray eased past Benoit Paire in his opening match on Tuesday but world number nine Berrettini was too big a step up.

Berrettini’s huge first serve and forehand did most of the damage but the Italian also showed plenty of silky touch on the slick lawns to register his first career win over Murray.

Berrettini, 25, finished the match off with a powerful hold of serve, banging down four massive first serves before sealing victory with a clubbing forehand winner.

He faces British number one Dan Evans in the quarter-final after Evans beat Frenchman Adrian Mannarino.

Murray, a five-time winner of the traditional warm-up event but now ranked 124 after long battles with hip injuries including resurfacing surgery in 2019, has been handed a wildcard for the Wimbledon championships.

Apart from a slight groin niggle, Murray said he was reasonably happy with his condition, considering this was only his third Tour-level tournament of the year.

“I think obviously I need to improve,” Murray told reporters. “I actually felt my movement was actually quite good for both of the matches. My tennis today was not very good today. That’s the thing that I’ll need to improve the most.

“I felt like today that that sort of showed my lack of matches.”

Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez, who won the singles title in 2019 and the doubles alongside Murray, was beaten 6-2 6-3 by Canada‘s Denis Shapovalov.

(Reporting by Martyn HermanEditing by Toby Davis and Pritha Sarkar)

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