The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
The fight is on.
After a charming five-game winning streak, the Toronto Raptors have lost three straight. After blowing out the Boston Celtics three weeks ago, the Raptors weren’t up for a repeat.
The Eastern Conference is deep and the Raptors’ path to the promised land of a top-six spot and thus avoiding the play-in tournament is going to be fraught. Even finishing in the 7-10 range isn’t a given.
It’s not news — it would be if it was otherwise. But after a slow start and a promising surge and now a road-heavy schedule approaching, reality is setting in.
The Raptors fell to 6-6 after dropping a 104-88 rock fight to the Celtics, who were eager to avenge the surprising 32-point blowout the Raptors put on them in October.
The Celtics (5-6) are finding their game after an awful start and all that means is they’re joining an already log-jammed Eastern Conference playoff picture.
“It’s funny, I was just talking to Bobby Webster, our GM, on the way over and I said, ‘Man, the league is competitive this year,’” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “Just watching games on a night-to-night basis, teams are really playing hard and I think there is a lot going on.
“He kind of started a conversation about the East. I won’t repeat it exactly but this will give you a sense. He started going through the teams, listed a whole bunch of them, and he forgot like four. That’s kind of what you do: Brooklyn and Milwaukee, and then you forget four teams that are pretty good. It’s really deep, super competitive. The games each night are really good.”
Against Boston, the Raptors’ effort was fine, but their execution never quite rose to the required level. They trailed all game and by 12 heading into the fourth quarter and could never get over the hump. They pulled within eight with seven minutes to play but never closer. Their five fourth-quarter turnovers all seemed to come just when the Raptors were gathering some form of momentum, which was a problem.
“It just takes the momentum, it takes the energy [away],” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet. “You know we’re trying, we’re playing hard, but sometimes it doesn’t go your way, so there’s like the normal turnovers that’ll happen, and there’s the unforced turnovers, and I just thought we didn’t have a great rhythm offensively or defensively all night.
“We’ve got to find ways to create it when it’s not there and then usually we can do that on the defensive end, but every stop we got it felt like they got an offensive rebound, when we got a breakout in transition, sometimes the ball just ended up out of bounds, or missed a layup … it was one of those nights.”
On the night the Celtics stole liberally from the Raptors preferred formula: They gathered 12 offensive rebounds — eight by Robert Williams III — to six for Toronto while the Raptors turned it over 18 times to 15 for Boston, the latter a low number for the Raptors, who lead the NBA in opponent turnovers.
Scottie Barnes finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists, one of the few bright spots as Toronto shot 42.9 per cent from the floor and just 6-of-24 from deep, off-setting a decent defensive effort as they held Boston to 44.7 per cent.
Overall, the Raptors are still trying to find their bearings with Pascal Siakam working himself back into the lineup after off-season shoulder surgery. Siakam remains on a minutes restriction — he played 30 minutes and may be held out of Thursday’s back-to-back in Philadelphia. He contributed defensively, giving the Raptors one more switchable defender while his two steals hinted at his activity on defence, offensively he was clearly out of sync with four turnovers through three quarters, having a hard time simply finding shots and spots on the floor. He finished with eight points on seven shots.
Patience will be required.
“I was just was trying to reassure him and keep telling him: just keep going ’till you figure it out. He’s finding himself, finding his legs,” said VanVleet. “It’s a different lineup, you know, without a big out there most of the time and the spacing is a little different. … I think it’s gonna take some time, obviously, and we would all like for it to be tonight or yesterday or whatever. But, you know, that’s not how those things work. So we just got to stay together and keep working.”
Before the game Nurse was expecting the Celtics would be looking to respond after the Raptors tore them to pieces on the Celtics home opener, which simultaneously suggested Toronto might have a little more upside than pre-season projections would indicate and revealed some cracks in the Celtics foundation.
Boston ended up starting the season 2-5 and had to resort to a players-only meeting to gain their bearings. They responded with blowout wins over Orlando and Miami.
“I would expect this to be a little bit of a street brawl tonight, I really would. They’re gonna come with some physicality,” Nurse said.
The Celtics were without Jaylen Brown, their leading scorer so far, but scanning through their key players — Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Al Horford — all came into the game shooting well below their career averages. As a team, the Celtics were shooting just 33.2 per cent from three, 20th in the league.
That can’t last all season and the Celtics were able to find their rhythm in the early going. They shot 5-of-9 from three in the first quarter as Boston jumped out to a 33-25 lead. Toronto going 6-of-14 in the paint – an area of concern all season – also worked in the Celtics’ favour.
But that was hardly the most important statistical advantage Boston staked out. In their first meeting of the season, Toronto had a 21-10 advantage on the offensive glass and a 25-11 edge in turnovers. The result was a massive 100-82 edge in field goals attempted.
The Celtics weren’t going to let that happen a second time on their home floor. The Celtics opened up an 18-point lead and went into the half with a 62-46 edge thanks in part to a 9-4 edge in offensive rebounding and a 6-5 edge in turnovers and a 54-44 advantage in shot attempts.
The Raptors were missing Khem Birch for the second straight game due to a swollen knee and his absence was felt. He’s not a “true” big but his combination of size, quickness and hoops IQ gives allows him to figure things out most nights.
But without Birch there weren’t any lineup configurations Nurse tried that provided an answer for the blunt force that is Celtics big man Williams, who was 7-of-8 from the floor in the first half and gathered seven offensive rebounds on his own.
The Raptors only counter was rookie Barnes, who had 13 points and six rebounds at half. Take away his numbers and Toronto shot just 37 per cent from the floor and going 3-of-14 from deep didn’t help.
The Raptors showed some fight in the third quarter as they were able to turn the Celtics over with four early steals that gave them a chance to get out in transition. A jumper from Gary Trent Jr. cut Boston’s lead to 11 midway through the quarter and a VanVleet triple trimmed it to nine with 3:44 to play in the quarter. But the Celtics held their ground, taking an 80-68 edge to start the fourth.
The Raptors couldn’t reel them in from there, and their challenge in the East will be holding their ground against a deep field, Boston just one of many.
The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.
That’s changed on this trip, two lopsided wins and the chance for a rare sweep of the Golden State. The Leafs followed up a 6-2 win in Los Angeles with Friday’s 4-1 domination of the San Jose Sharks.
While rookie Joseph Woll finished strong with 30-plus saves for his third win to give Jack Campbell another rest, the other end of the ice belonged to the team’s top guns. William Nylander, Auston Matthews and John Tavares helped drive ex-Leaf James Reimer from the cage.
It was Toronto’s sixth straight road victory and eighth of the past nine allowing two goals or less. Most important for coach Sheldon Keefe, the team didn’t relax in the warm California sun. They weren’t given a day off since arriving from a win on Long Island.
“We made it very clear, it’s very much a business trip coming out here,” Keefe said before the game. “That’s not an easy thing to do, because it is a beautiful place to be and it’s a great time to enjoy that as you start to move on to the winter months. But our guys have been focused. We’ve had a enough time after practice to enjoy a few hours of sunlight.”
Another win Sunday in Anaheim, likely to be the toughest stop, would be their first 3-0 run here in four years with very few before that.
“Certainly the morale of this team right now is the best it has been all season,” said Keefe, who had his 77th win as Toronto coach to pass Paul Maurice for 14th place in team history. “We feel we had a really good camp and pre-season and felt really good about our group and had a few days together (in Gravenhurst, Ont.) where I thought there was a lot of growth inside our team. Then obviously the season didn’t start well, it took us some time to get rolling, get people comfortable in their roles.
“(But) we can’t get too focused on that. It’s a long season, a daily thing (to maintain). The confidence is there right now, but you need that every day. You hope to be 1-0 every day.”
With 15 wins in 22 games, the Leafs are still pressuring division leading Florida. The first five minutes and change produced three of night’s haul of goals. It took just 32 seconds for the Leafs, who survived a scramble around Woll and headed up-ice, Tavares with a nice pass to send Nylander in alone. After a long stretch without a goal, Nylander’s 111th tied him with Ace Bailey for 50th in team history.
A few moments after Nick Bonino took advantage of rookie Kirill Semyonov being caught out too long, Wayne Simmonds chipped a David Kampf shot past Reimer. It was his fourth point in five games, though trapped as the last man back on defence, he was beaten by ex-Leaf Alex Barabanov on a close call. Woll stopped that and then Jonah Gadjovich on a breakaway, but forced his mates to kill a second minor in the period when he came out to clear a puck that eluded Justin Holl, only to fire it over the glass.
Matthews missed on some good looks in the middle period, then directed blueline traffic for a point shot to give himself an easy rebound on the lip of the crease, making it 3-1. His eighth since Nov. 1 made him one of four NHLers with at least that many this month — Leon Draisaitl (15), Matt Duchene (10) and Alex Ovechkin (9).
While Toronto’s eighth-ranked penalty kill added three more to its total, the No. 1 power play unit stayed out for the duration and didn’t take its foot off the gas until Tavares knocked in a rebound with 20 seconds remaining, his team-high 10th and the 13th time in his career he’s reached double figures.
That was all for Reimer on 17 shots, marking the fifth time he’s not finished a start against his old club, one of those an injury on that crazy night when he and current Leaf Petr Mrazek were hurt and local Zamboni driver David Ayres filled in for a Carolina win. Adin Hill didn’t get much respite from Toronto’s breakaways, born of 11 takeaways through 40 minutes.
Kampf was back in the lineup after missing all but a shift of Wednesday’s win in L.A. with an upper body injury, though linemate Ondrej Kase was scratched for a rest, replaced by Semyonov. The latter was about the only Leaf not to shine, Keefe keeping him on the bench for a spell in the middle period after some rough spots.
The 27-year-old is in his second season with Ottawa after they flipped a second-round pick and prospect Jonathan Gruden to Pittsburgh to get him back at the 2020 draft. At the time, they felt they had their starting goalie of the foreseeable future, quickly inking him to a four-year, $25MM contract; his $6.25MM AAV is the sixth-highest in the league among goaltenders this season.
What have they received in return for that money? Not a whole lot. Murray struggled considerably last season, posting a 3.38 GAA with a .893 SV% in 27 games, the worst numbers of his career. This season, those numbers aren’t any better – a 3.26 GAA and a save percentage of .890 in six games. Those numbers are below average for a backup let alone a starter.
Ottawa’s decision to dress Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson against the Ducks was a strong message from head coach D.J. Smith that he has lost faith in Murray. At this point, getting him down to Belleville for a stint to try to give him an opportunity to find his game again against lower-level competition certainly makes some sense.
Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch suggests the Sabres and Coyotes could be teams to keep an eye on with regards to a potential claim. Both teams have a need for a goaltender but with two years still left on his contract and both teams operating as lower budget squads, it’s hard to imagine they’d be willing to take him off waivers with how poor he has performed in Ottawa. A trade with retention after he clears and maybe some games in the minors would be a likelier scenario.
Assuming he does indeed clear on Sunday, the Sens will get a small bit of cap relief as $1.125MM of Murray’s AAV will come off their books when he’s sent down. Of course, with Ottawa being a team that’s closer to the Lower Limit of the cap than the Upper Limit, that relief won’t be worth a whole lot to them but they’ll be able to move forward with a Forsberg-Gustavsson tandem for at least the time being while giving Murray an opportunity to get back to form in the minors.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report that Murray would be waived.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The World Cup in Qatar is sure to be without either Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, were drawn into the same qualifying playoff bracket Friday, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year’s tournament.
Italy will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.
Four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1958 after losing in the playoffs to Sweden. Now, after winning Euro 2020 in July, it may have to beat Euro 2016 champion Portugal to avoid a second straight failure.
“It’s not a great draw and it could have gone better,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini acknowledged. “Just like we wanted to avoid Portugal, they would have wanted to avoid Italy.”
Ronaldo has led Portugal to every World Cup since 2006 and this could be his last attempt at winning international soccer’s biggest trophy. He will turn 37 before next year’s tournament starts.
Ronaldo helped Portugal get through the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Sweden that featured an epic duel between superstars, with Zlatan Ibrahimović netting twice for the Swedes.
“It’s not worth thinking about (Italy),” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “It’s important that we concentrate on beating Turkey.”
Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.
Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.
Scotland looks to end a 24-year wait to play at the World Cup while Wales’ only appearance was in 1958.
“At the moment, the way the team is playing, the confidence the boys have got, we would be happy to play anyone, anywhere,” said Scotland coach Steve Clarke, whose team has won six straight since September.
However, Ukraine won at Hampden Park in June, in the Euro 2020 round of 16 against Sweden, and went unbeaten through a World Cup qualifying group won by France.
Sweden will not have Ibrahimović for its semifinal against the Czechs. The 40-year-old forward has a one-game ban for getting yellow cards in the qualifying group.
“We already did it last time (in 2018) and we of course (know) that we can do it again,” said Sweden coach Janne Andersson.
The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg games March 24. The three finals are played five days later.
The three winners will complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.
FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.
The European playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year.
Also, FIFA said Qatar will host the intercontinental playoff in June that will decide the last two qualifiers for the tournament.
The intercontinental draw paired the team from Asia against the team from South America, and a team from North American region CONCACAF against Oceania’s representative.
Those qualifying campaigns are still being played.
The winners of the two single-leg games on June 13-14 will complete the 32-team World Cup lineup.
The intercontinental playoff was originally scheduled for March 2022 as two-leg, home and away series. The games were pushed back as the global qualifying program stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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