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.”
Blue Jays agree to three-year deal with OF Brantley – TSN
The Toronto Blue Jays have not added Michael Brantley, yet.
Contrary to earlier reports, ESPN’s Jeff Passan writes there is no agreement in place as of yet between the two sides. He notes the Blue Jays are still in on Brantley, and could still reach a deal with the veteran outfielder.
After the Jays reached a six-year, $150 million agreement with Springer late Tuesday night, TSN Blue Jays Reporter Scott Mitchell tweeted there were “legit legs to the Michael Brantley package deal” and the Blue Jays are very open to it.
Mitchell noted Tuesday night that adding Brantley, a 33-year-old left fielder, would create an outfield logjam, but the Jays could use the surplus to upgrade their pitching on the trade market.
Brantley had been the mark of consistency at the plate during his lengthy big league career and that continued once he arrived with the Houston Astros after the 2018 season.
Brantley has hit .309 combined over the past two seasons, good for eighth best in baseball over that span.
Prior to his tenure in Houston, Brantley is known for the 10 seasons he spent with Cleveland, appearing in 1,051 games during that time period. He is a four-time All-Star and a one-time Silver Slugger Award winner (2014).
Brantley was originally selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the seventh round of the 2005 MLB Draft and arrived in Cleveland in a 2008 trade deadline deal that saw left-hander C.C. Sabathia head to Milwaukee.
Edmonton Oilers coming apart at seams through first four games of season – Edmonton Sun
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There’s no word on whether one of them is Maple Leafs Zamboni driver David Ayres.
With Stuart Skinner as the current backup, having a total of zero games of NHL experience, the Oilers are going to be relying heavily on Koskinen, who looked better in the second game against Montreal, but still gave up two soft goals in the loss — one on a wrist shot from the blue line and the other from behind the goal line.
“Yeah of course this is not what we wanted and we can’t get frustrated,” said Koskinen, who has faced 145 shots and conceded 15 goals. “It’s only four games done and we have to keep the work ethic and find a way to win games. It’s going to be a long push and we need to be ready when we play against the Leafs in a few days.”
The Oilers are going to need better than a 3.80 goals-against average and .897 save percentage to get back into the hunt. They’re also going to need the power play to be much better.
A unit that scored once on every three opportunities last season, has two goals on 18 man-advantage situations this year and has already given up two shorthanded goals.
Not having James Neal on the top unit hurts, but Barrie has not made the impact expected yet and his biggest contribution to date was not inadvertently breaking up a drop pass from Draisaitl to McDavid, which led to a highlight-reel goal against the Vancouver Canucks.
“I think we have to shoot the puck more,” Tippett said. “We had some chances but you’ve got to bury some of those chances. Montreal’s doing a good job around the front of your net and you’ve got to pay the price to score. And we didn’t bury the chances and we didn’t shoot the puck enough.
“You look at the two games, I think we had 10 power plays and we came out minus-2 on power plays. That’s an area that should be one of our strengths but it wasn’t the last two games.”
The Oilers can’t rely on McDavid and Draisaitl scoring four points per game to win. The supporting cast put together by Holland on a shoestring budget, after paying the top three forwards $27-million combined, has to start punching above its weight.
If they can’t, then those four playoff spots in the North Division could pull away in a hurry.
On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest
Rivers retiring after 17 seasons in NFL – TSN
Veteran quarterback Philip Rivers told Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune he is retiring after 17 seasons in the NFL, 16 with the Chargers organization.
Rivers spent the 2020 season with the Indianapolis Colts, leading the team to the playoffs before losing to the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card Round.
The 39-year-old threw for 4,169 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.
Prior to his lone season in Indianapolis, Rivers played 16 seasons with the Chargers split between San Diego and Los Angeles.
Rivers was drafted fourth overall by the New York Giants in 2004 before getting traded to the Chargers as part of a deal for Eli Manning.
An eight-time Pro Bowler, Rivers finished his career with 63,440 yards, 421 touchdowns, and 209 interceptions. He ranks fifth all-time in the NFL in both passing yards and touchdown passes.
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