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Raptors execute game plan in win over rival 76ers

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TORONTO – After dropping the first three games of their opening-round playoff series with Philadelphia last spring, the Raptors were starting to make things interesting.

With a pair of convincing victories under their belt, they seemed poised to do something that very few teams in their position have ever done: force a winner-take-all Game 7.

Then Game 6 happened. The Raptors were embarrassed on their home court, getting blown out by 35 points as Joel Embiid celebrated and sent them into the off-season with a sour taste in their mouths.

Despite coming to camp with virtually the same roster, head coach Nick Nurse hasn’t revisited that game or even spent much time talking about the series as a whole. It’s been at the back of his mind, though; informing some of the things he’s emphasized going into the new season.

“I didn’t think we executed very well in that last game of the series,” Nurse said ahead of Wednesday’s contest, the first of two consecutive against the rival 76ers. “As a coach, when you lose one like that you have to think about it all summer. Our whole thing is we need to play hard on D and we’ve got to execute our schemes. If we don’t do one or the other, we’re probably not gonna be good on D. If we do both, we’re gonna be very, very good.”

After that six-game crash course in defending one of the league’s most dynamic offensive duos, Embiid and James Harden, they were better prepared to execute their game plan on Wednesday night.

The numbers don’t necessarily reflect it. Philadelphia shot 51 per cent, including 16-for-36 from three-point range. Embiid scored 31 points on 12-of-17, even if – at times – it seemed like a disinterested 31 points. He, Harden and third-year star Tyrese Maxey combined for 80 points. But the Raptors set out to make them uncomfortable and, for most of the night, they succeeded.

“I was super happy with the defence,” Nurse said following his club’s impressive 119-109 win, improving their record to 3-2.

Without a big man who could match the sheer size or strength of Embiid, Toronto sent multiple defenders his way whenever and wherever he caught the ball. If nothing else, it put pressure on him to make quicker reads, and unlike most of last year’s playoff series, the Raptors did a good job of flying around and recovering out to shooters.

Coming out of a timeout early in the fourth quarter, Christian Koloko – who was giving up at least 50 pounds in the matchup – fronted Embiid in the post and deflected an entry pass, leading to a fast-break dunk for the Raptors’ rookie. A few minutes later, O.G. Anunoby picked off a Sixers pass, also intended for Embiid, and turned the transition opportunity into a couple free throws. With Embiid off the court, they showed Harden that same defensive pressure, doubling him at the top of the arc and ceding difficult looks in the corner.

The Raptors only forced 13 turnovers, low by their standards, but they turned them into 21 points. Part of that can be credited to Philadelphia’s shaky transition defence, but it’s how Nurse wants to play.

“We’ve got some work to do, for sure, but the effort’s there,” said Fred VanVleet, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. “We’re probably never going to play a perfect game, but I thought we executed the game plan, for the most part.”

Of course, it helps when shots are falling the way they have been to open the campaign. On Wednesday, Toronto hit 16 of its 37 three-point attempts. With P.J. Tucker going under screens and playing the red-hot Pascal Siakam to drive, the Raptors forward made him pay, knocking down his first four threes. As the defence adjusted in the second half, Siakam became a playmaker, assisting on a couple of Gary Trent Jr.’s four third-quarter triples.

A year ago, the Raptors shot 35 per cent from beyond the arc, good for 20th in the league. In the preseason, they shot 24 per cent. Through five games this season, they’re at 41 per cent, third-best in the NBA. While the sample size is small and they’re due for some regression, if guys like Siakam and Scottie Barnes continue to show improvement in their jumpers, that opens things up for the offence.

Say what you will about the Sixers, who have lost four of their first five games and don’t look quite right to start the year, but this was the Raptors’ most complete outing of the young season. They never blew things open, but they were also in control throughout.

“We feel like we’re one of the best teams and [have the] best players anywhere we go,” said Trent, who had a team-high 27 points and was one of six Raptors to score in double figures. “We put our five against anybody’s five, we should be good.”

“We will take the win but at the same time we are not satisfied,” Siakam said after his 20-point, 13-assist night. “We know that a team like that will come back the next game and make adjustments. We have to be ready for that.”

MAKING HISTORY

Midway through the opening quarter, Koloko checked in for the Raptors, joining countrymen Siakam and Embiid on the floor. It was a special moment, marking the first time in league history that three Cameroon-born players have appeared in the same NBA game.

“It’s a pretty huge deal, I would like to think,” Siakam said earlier on Wednesday. “It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. And to think, we’re still a long ways [away], but I think we’re making good steps forward. It’s great.”

Siakam and Koloko both grew up in Douala, Cameroon’s most populous city, situated on the Atlantic Ocean coast. Embiid hails from Yaoundé, about 230 kilometres east. All three are Basketball Without Borders alums, and Embiid was a coach at the 2017 camp in South Africa, which Koloko attended as a camper.

It’s not the size of their hometowns that makes their unlikely journey to the pros so remarkable – Douala has a population of roughly three million people, about the same as Toronto. Instead, it’s the infrastructure. Douala produced two NBA players despite being home to just one concrete-floored indoor basketball court, located inside the school that Koloko attended.

The talent is there and, with the success that these guys are having at the highest level of the sport, the interest level is rising throughout the country. Still, the playing conditions haven’t improved much. Through the help of his foundation, Siakam is aiming to change that and grow the game back home.

“We’re working on a lot of things and we’re hoping that we can continue to bring awareness to the game,” said the All-NBA forward. “This generation, we’re hoping that more people get there, but I think the younger generation is probably going to benefit from it more.”

The hope is that their success stories, and seeing all three of them on the court together, can help inspire that next generation.

“Hopefully it means something [to them],” Siakam said. “Just having that representation that, for us, we don’t really get to have most of the time. I didn’t watch that much basketball [growing up] but when I did I didn’t really see a lot of people that was from where I was from. So just seeing that in one game, three people in one place, that’s huge. And hopefully that makes younger kids wants to dream to be in the NBA because it feels like something you can touch and something you can feel, because we’re doing it.”

Wednesday night’s game between Toronto and Philadelphia tipped off at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday morning in Cameroon. Koloko remembers pulling all-nighters to watch games live as a teenager. The West Coast games wouldn’t end until after 5 a.m. local time, just before he had to leave for school.

“You watch the game and you’d get like 30 minutes of sleep,” Koloko said. “Sometimes you don’t even sleep because you know if you sleep you’re not going to wake up, so you just go to school and your eyes are red. It’s just for the love of the game, man. I feel like a lot of people are definitely going to do that tonight.”

FINED

Moments before tip-off, the NBA announced that Raptors president and vice chairman Masai Ujiri had been fined $35,000 for approaching the scorer’s table and directing inappropriate remarks towards an official during Toronto’s loss to the Heat in Miami on Saturday.

Of course, that was already an eventful night. Koloko was ejected and subsequently fined $15,000 for his role in an on-court altercation with Heat forward Caleb Martin. Upon review, it was clear that the rookie’s “role” in the exchange consisted of standing up after Martin stood over and taunted him, and then putting his arm on Martin’s back to brace himself as he was tackled into the stands.

The incident sparked a Raptors comeback, cutting a 24-point deficit to three inside the final minute, before coming up short.

So, yeah, you can see why Ujiri may have had a few things to get off his chest.

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Juan Brunetta has a goal and an assist to lead Liga MX All-Stars over MLS All-Stars 4-1

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Juan Brunetta and Maximiliano Meza scored a minute apart in the second half, and Mexico’s Liga MX All-Stars beat the Major League Soccer All-Stars 4-1 in the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday night.

Brunetta (Tigres) scored in transition in the 68th minute to make it 3-1 and set up Meza (Monterrey) soon after in front of a record crowd of 20,931 at Lower.com Field.

It was the first MLS All-Star Game victory for Liga MX in three tries. The MLS All-Stars won in 2022 and won on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw a year earlier.

“It was an incredible game,” Liga MX coach Andre Jardine said. “There were a lot of high-level players. It was a tight game. Both teams definitely came out to play. In the second half they came out with a lot of great names as well. I was a bit surprised. It was a bit difficult, especially in the first 15 minutes, but we had to adjust and ultimately it was a great game.”

There were plenty of big names on the field, but the absence of the brightest and biggest one took some luster out of the event. The league announced Monday that Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi was unable to play because of ligament damage in his right ankle.

The 2022 World Cup champion was injured while playing for Argentina in its victory over Colombia in the Copa America final on July 14.

Fans cheered when Columbus forwards combined to tie the match 1-all in the 17th minute, about a minute after Germán Berterame (Monterrey) scored for Mexico on a header.

From the left flank, Diego Rossi found Crew teammate Cucho Hernandez racing unmarked down the middle of the box for the equalizer.

“Unbelievable for me to score in front of my home fans,” Hernandez said.

Oussama Idrissi (Pachuca) made it 2-1 in the 41st with a strike from the top of the penalty area.

MLS had two chances to tie it in the 63rd when Riqui Puig (Los Angeles Galaxy) hit the crossbar and on the follow, Luca Orellano (Cincinnati) was denied on a goal-line clearance by Unai Bilbao (Tijuana).

Minutes later, Liga MX put the game out of reach.

MLS recognized the revival of the Columbus market by awarding it the All-Star Game. The Crew, a 1996 charter member, were threatened in the fall of 2017 with relocation to Austin, Texas, by then-owner Anthony Precourt.

A grassroots movement called Save the Crew drew international attention and helped persuade Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam to buy the team and keep it in Columbus.

The Crew won the MLS Cup in 2020 and 2023, reached the final of the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup and opened Lower.com Field in 2021, where there have been 28 straight sellouts for MLS matches.

“It shows everyone the courage of the owner,” Crew and MLS All-Stars coach Wilfried Nancy said. “Listen, this is a representation of what Columbus is and the passion for the soccer.”

The All-Star squad had five Crew players. Hernandez and Rossi were joined by midfielder Darlington Nagbe and defenders Rudy Camacho and Steven Moreira.

UP NEXT

MLS and Liga MX continue the rivalry with the start of the Leagues Cup on Friday All 47 teams will compete in a World Cup-style format, with the championship match on Aug. 25. There will be 77 matches in the United States and Canada. Inter Miami is the defending Leagues Cup champion.

___

AP soccer:

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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Chelsea salvages 2-2 tie with Wrexham in friendly at Levi’s Stadium

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Lesley Ugochukwu scored in the 82nd minute to help Chelsea salvage a 2-2 tie with Wrexham in a friendly match Wednesday night at Levi’s Stadium.

Ugochukwu rolled a shot from the middle of the box through traffic into the right corner.

Wrexham took a 2-1 lead when Jack Marriot scored on a counterattack in the 72nd minute.

Luke Bolton also scored for Wrexham, the Welsh team co-owned by Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds that was promoted this year to the third tier of English soccer.

Christopher Nkunku scored first for Chelsea in the perennial Premier League power’s first pre-season match and its first under manager, Enzo Maresca, the former Leicester City manager.

Nkunku fired a shot from the middle of the box into the left corner of the net past goalie Arthur Okonkwo in the 35th minute off an assist from Marc Guiu after a corner kick.

Wrexham tied it in the 58th minute when Bolton scored from the right wing off an assist from Sebastian Revan, who connected with Bolton on a crossing pass.

Chelsea goalkeeper Robert Sanchez blocked a breakaway shot from James McLean in the 29th minute.

Chelsea beat Wrexham 5-0 in a friendly last season.

UP NEXT

Wrexham: Visits the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday.

Chelsea: Plays the Celtic on Saturday at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

AP soccer:

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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Preseason Opener: Enzo Maresca’s Chelsea Takes on Wrexham

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Welcome to the first match of the summer, the first preseason game, and the first chance to see Enzo Maresca’s Chelsea in action. While the main focus today is on fitness, this game will undoubtedly spark analysis and excitement among fans.

Football, sort of, is back! Let’s see how the teams line up for this highly anticipated friendly.

Chelsea Starting XI:

  • Sánchez
  • James (c)
  • Tosin
  • Badiashile
  • Colwill
  • Lavia
  • Chukwuemeka
  • Nkunku
  • Madueke
  • Guiu
  • George

Substitutes:

  • Beach
  • Bergström
  • W. Fofana
  • Veiga
  • Acheampong
  • Gusto
  • Chilwell
  • Santos
  • Ugochukwu
  • Sterling
  • Ângelo
  • Broja

Wrexham Starting XI:

  • Okonkwo
  • Cleworth
  • Brunt
  • O’Connor
  • Bolton
  • Jones
  • Dobson
  • Lee
  • Revan
  • Palmer
  • McClean (c)

Substitutes:

  • Howard
  • Burton
  • Boyle
  • Barnett
  • James
  • Forde
  • Evans
  • Ashfield
  • Cannon
  • Davies
  • Bickerstaff
  • Waters
  • Dalby
  • Marriott

Match Details:

  • Date / Time: Wednesday, July 24, 7pm PDT; 3am BST (next day); 7:30am IST (next day)
  • Venue: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA, USA
  • On TV: ESPN (USA); none (UK); elsewhere
  • Streaming: ESPN+ (USA); Chelsea TV (int’l pay-per-view)

Both teams will be eager to test their tactics and players ahead of the upcoming season. Chelsea fans are particularly excited to see how new manager Enzo Maresca will shape the team, while Wrexham supporters are keen to see their team perform against top-tier opposition.

Let’s see how the starting formation and tactics unfold as we get a first glimpse of what’s to come this season. Stay tuned for an exciting game!ea

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