TORONTO — Things have changed but much remains the same since the last time the two best teams in the Eastern Conference faced off in Toronto.
There was Drake trolling the Milwaukee Bucks and the entire state of Wisconsin, strolling to his courtside seat with not one but two championship belts over his shoulder, a reminder – as if the Bucks needed one – that Drake’s Toronto Raptors won not only the Eastern Conference championship over Milwaukee last May, but that they went on to win the whole thing.
The intensity was there too.
There were bodies hitting the floor, charges being drawn, and the Raptors throwing their whole roster, seemingly, in the path of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There were a number of Raptors — though not enough in the end — making key contributions from the perimeter as the Bucks remained committed to camping their huge bodies in the paint, daring anyone to finish over them at the rim.
There were differences, though, and they might be concerning if the second-seeded Raptors do end up having to go through the No.1-seeded Bucks to defend their NBA title.
Missing was Kawhi Leonard from the Raptors lineup, and also Marc Gasol – the two Toronto players most responsible for holding down Antetokounmpo and enabling the Raptors to come back from 0-2 and winning four straight on their way to the NBA Finals.
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Would the Raptors be able to contain Antetokounmpo, who seems poised to run away with his second-straight MVP award? Does that remain the formula to upend a Bucks team that has run roughshod over the NBA for nearly two seasons, save for a four-game losing streak to the Raptors at precisely the wrong time – Games 3 through 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals?
The returns were mixed but, from the Raptors’ point of view, concerning. The Bucks won 108-97, dominating most of the second half after the Raptors were the better team early. The Bucks improved to 50-9 while playing on the second night of a back-to-back and their third game in four nights. The Raptors dropped to 42-16 and lost for just the third time in their past 20 games.
Antetokounmpo was unruffled by Drake, first of all.
“That’s good. He cares about me,” he said when asked about the on-going troll job by the Raptors’ Global Ambassador. “I really don’t [care about him]. I’m just here to win games and help my team win. That’s all.”
And for the most part, he showed signs of becoming increasingly comfortable with the all-hands-on-deck defensive the approach that the Raptors used against him in the playoffs and saw him struggle mightily over the Bucks final four-game swoon.
He finished with a relatively modest – for him – 19 points on 5-of-14 shooting. But he did have eight assists (along with 19 rebounds), a total that could have been much higher had his Bucks teammates shot better than 12-of-38 from the three.
Still just 25 years old, Antetokounmpo is gaining confidence dealing with multi-layered defensive approaches like the Raptors executed so well in the playoffs and were showing him again on Tuesday night.
“So I started the game getting the ball on the block, seeing immediately a guy coming off the catch double teaming me. ‘OK, cool. Tonight is not going to be the night,’ said Antetokounmpo. “So I’ve got to find guys … and guys can knock down shots. If guys don’t shoot the ball, it can find me back and I can attack. That’s my mindset.”
It’s been a process. Antetokounmpo is both driven and hugely talented. Going around a problem rather than straight through it doesn’t come naturally.
“Coach Bud says I’m stubborn,” Antetokounmpo says. “One of my best qualities is that I’m stubborn. One of my worst qualities is that I’m stubborn. So when you start the game I want to come out aggressive. … They were sending second guys, they were defending really well. But there’s sometimes you’ve got to mature, and say OK, tonight is not the night. You’ve got to find your open guy and coach Bud has helped me with that a lot. So I’ve tried to be mature and not force stuff as much as possible.”
And this is where the Raptors – and the rest of the NBA – could have a problem come May or June.
Antetokounmpo, who worked himself into a lather two hours before the game while working on his shooting and ball-handling, is improving in all aspects of his game.
And defensively, the Bucks remain a formidable machine, relying on Antetokounmpo and Brook and Robin Lopez to deter any all attacks at the rim. The three of them combined for 10 blocked shots, five by Brook Lopez and three by Antetokounmpo.
With the paint shut down, the Raptors needed to punish the Bucks from beyond the arc, and they didn’t. Toronto shot 35.2 per cent from the floor and 18-of-52 from three. Raptors star Pascal Siakam was 5-of-9 from deep, but just 1-of-5 from anywhere else.
“They’re good. They’re a good defensive team. They clog the paint,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet who was 5-of-14 from the floor and 3-of-9 from three, while Kyle Lowry was 1-of-7. Serge Ibaka was 1-of-10. “They give us those shots. Those are our shots. Sometimes you make them and sometimes you don’t.
“… All in all, we know that they’re a great defensive team. At the same time, I don’t think like anybody is thinking we didn’t get the shots we needed to get to beat them. Didn’t make enough plays, didn’t do enough. And that’s a great team, so you’ve got to play up to their level in order to get a win like that.”
Trailing by 13 to start the fourth quarter, Toronto cut the Bucks’ lead to five midway through the period, but couldn’t answer when the Bucks surged back. A corner three by Antetokounmpo put Milwaukee up by 10 with less than two minutes to play and Toronto was stymied from there.
The Raptors’ first goal was not to get blown out. The Bucks came into Scotiabank Arena with a point differential of 12.2 per game – on pace for an NBA record.
The Bucks specialize in blowing teams out early, which is why they can afford to play Antetokounmpo 30.7 minutes night, which makes his 29.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists averages all the more remarkable.
Forcing Antetokounmpo to play 38 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back was a small victory in itself.
And Toronto controlled big chunks of the game, holding Milwaukee without a field goal for the first two minutes and Antetokounmpo off the board for the first four minutes. Of course the only team in the NBA with better defensive metrics than the Raptors are the Bucks. Midway through the first quarter, the score was tied 10-10.
Toronto led 27-25 at the end of the first quarter, holding the Bucks to 40-per-cent shooting and Antetokounmpo to five points on 1-of-3 shooting as they built a wall on the free-throw line to block his path to the rim and then swarmed him with a variety of double teams once his momentum was stalled.
Same old, same old.
And the Raptors had some new elements begin to come into play as their emerging bench looked determined to prove their worth in the Eastern Conference showdown. Their plans were signalled loudly when spindly Chris Boucher flew through the lane for a spectacular put-back dunk over Antetokounmpo in the first quarter and then drew a charge on the Bucks star a few plays later. Boucher was feeling it, and added a pair of triples to put up a quick 10 points in just over nine minutes of action.
He was just setting the tone.
Little-used sharpshooter Matt Thomas got some run in the second quarter, with Nurse finding suitable matchups with the Bucks’ crew of smaller wings. Just one game removed from scoring an NBA career-high 17 points in mop-up duty against the Indiana Pacers, Thomas knocked down three triples on three chances in his seven minutes of floor time in the first half and added a couple of clever assists as the Bucks’ defence began to overreact to him outside the line.
The Raptors went up nine early in the second quarter and were up 12 with just under three minutes to play in the half after Ibaka found a cutting OG Anunoby for a dunk that Giannis couldn’t get to the rim in time to defend.
The Bucks pushed back, finishing the second quarter on an 11-2 run, but the Raptors still had a 52-50 lead to start the third quarter. Things threatened to get out of hand at that point as the Bucks’ top-rated defence began to tighten and Toronto had a hard time scoring in the third. They shot 7-of-20 from the floor and made five turnovers as Milwaukee won the period 34-19 and entered the final frame leading 84-71.
The Raptors couldn’t close the gap. For now, it doesn’t matter. They have until May to see if their rivalry with Milwaukee will have a different ending.
But if Antetokounmpo is beginning to feel like he might be on the verge of figuring out how to manage his own stubborn nature and the kind of defences with which Toronto has had so much success, the Raptors – and the rest of the NBA – could be in a lot of trouble.
Even with more important things on his mind, Nick Nurse misses his Toronto Raptors team – TSN
TORONTO – Over the last couple of weeks, Canada’s sports networks have teamed up to give Toronto Raptors fans an opportunity to relive last spring’s historic championship run.
It’s been a fun and necessary distraction in dark and uncertain circumstances, especially without any live games or sporting events to pass the time. And most of us have had a lot of time to pass.
That team and that run brought so many people so much joy. Even now, a year later and with far more pressing things on most of our minds, the Raptors and everything they’ve accomplished over the past 12 months can be a beacon of hope.
On Tuesday, 850,000 Canadian viewers tuned in to watch the rebroadcast of Toronto’s Game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers – a game that featured Kawhi Leonard’s iconic series-clinching, buzzer-beating shot.
Nick Nurse and his wife, Roberta, were among those viewers.
“I think it was actually the first time I’d ever watched it other than in a highlight,” Nurse said in a Friday morning conference call. “Obviously you see it all the time on highlights, just moving around the city or the arena or the practice facility or whatever, but that was the first time I’d ever seen [the full game since it happened].”
“It obviously lets it sink in a little bit. I don’t know if it’s good or not, but it’s enjoyable to see the guys play so well and it’s enjoyable to see the crowd and it’s enjoyable to see [all the fans] outside [the arena], and it’s somewhat enjoyable to see some of [the media] on camera doing your work too.”
Like any epic tale, the story of that 2018-19 title-winning Raptors team has plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns. It has heroes and villains. It has a beginning, middle and satisfying conclusion.
However, the sequel, which was shaping up to be just as intriguing, has been left open-ended, at least for now.
Toronto was in the middle of a remarkable campaign when the NBA season – along with just about everything else around the world, in and outside of sports – was put on hold in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
At the time in which play was suspended on the evening of March 11 – after Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus – the Raptors were 46-18; second in the Eastern Conference and owners of the league’s third-best record. Despite losing Leonard over the summer and being decimated by injuries to key players throughout the season, there they were, defying the odds and exceeding all expectations.
Pascal Siakam was growing into a superstar before our eyes. Kyle Lowry was continuing to stave off Father Time and cement himself as the greatest player in franchise history, while also building a compelling case for the hall of fame. Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby were all enjoying career seasons, and Nurse was running away as the top candidate for NBA Coach of the Year.
All the while they bonded over scarves and through hard play.
In late February, after what ended up being their final home practice before the pandemic closed their facility and forced them into self-isolation, the team’s most prominent players shared a fun moment together.
With SLAM magazine in town and featuring the Raptors in an upcoming edition, Toronto’s top-7 players posed for photos and recorded a brief and light-hearted video as a group.
Getting that many players together to participate in something like this is exceedingly rare after training camp, let alone this late in the season, but given the platform and the subject matter they all seemed genuinely excited to make it happen. And they clearly enjoyed poking fun at each other on camera.
They tried to coerce Anunoby into breaking out some of the dance moves he had shown off on TikTok a few weeks earlier. Ibaka playfully called Lowry out for trying to skip out on practices. They all gave Ibaka a hard time for his fashion choices and healthy eating. If they were likeable last year, they’re downright loveable now.
The cover of SLAM’s 227 issue, which dropped in the middle of March, read “After Ours: The reigning champs are running it back.”
We don’t know when or if their story will have an ending. The NBA is keeping its options open in the hopes of salvaging the campaign – or, at minimum, an abbreviated version of the playoffs – but the reality is there’s simply too much uncertainty in the world at this time to determine whether or not that will be feasible. Needless to say, there are more important things going on right now.
There are hundreds of good reasons to hope that life goes back to normal soon. In the grand scheme of things, seeing how the NBA season plays out should be very low on that list. Still, with that very important disclaimer out of the way, it would be nice to see if the feel-good Raptors can finish what they started.
“This is a really good team, and it’s a really fun team to coach,” Nurse said. “It’s a shame that we don’t get to be around each other and play some games and keep this thing going a little bit, you know what I mean? Shoot, I could coach these guys 12 months a year… They’re fun to be around and fun to coach. They compete and they’re tough, and they figure it out. It’s a true joy [to coach them] and they are missed, there’s no doubt about it.”
Nurse has been using this time to take a bit of a break from basketball and focus on what’s important. He was an early proponent of the guidelines most people are now following to stop the spread of COVID-19 – things like social distancing and frequent hand washing.
Occasionally he’ll flip on the TV and watch an old game or jump on a conference call with his coaching staff to “divvy up some projects” in the interest of “staying sharp”. But, mostly, he’s been spending time with his young children, playing his beloved piano or guitar, or starting to learn Portuguese.
Like a lot of people, he’s itching to get back to work. This is the time of year he and his staff would usually be ramping up their preparation for the playoffs, which were scheduled to begin on April 18 – two weeks from Saturday.
He was also looking forward to coaching the Canadian senior men’s team in Victoria, B.C., this June, as they made a last-ditch attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics the following month. With the Olympics rescheduled for next summer, and the qualifying tournament likely to follow, Nurse remains “100 per cent” committed to the cause.
However, as Nurse stressed, the Raptors, the NBA, the Olympics, professional sports in general – all of those things can wait.
“I think that if they can figure out a way to play and it’s safe and we’re not putting people at risk, then I think we’ll play, if we can,” said Nurse. “But I don’t know anybody that has any feel for any of that stuff right now. I don’t know if anybody around the world’s figured out how to resume things at all and I guess we’ve just got to wait and see. But, I mean, I think that’s everybody’s hope. We all want to get back to work. Whether it’s basketball or reporting or writing or restaurant, whatever. We all want to get back to work and I think we hope and pray that when there’s a time that it’s safe for us to do so we’ll all join the world again, hopefully, in a healthy way.”
Raptors’ Nick Nurse gets rare chance to catch breath during shutdown – Sportsnet.ca
For the first time in a long time, Nick Nurse can catch his breath.
The circumstance are less than ideal and he would contend he didn’t need to, but now that COVID-19 has brought the NBA season and just about everything else to a full halt, the Toronto Raptors head coach has time on his hands.
He’s been going mostly full out since June of 2018 when he was hired for his first NBA head coaching job, immediately jumping into the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas and then jetting around the continent to connect with his new players while meeting and hiring his staff and preparing for training camp and the addition of Kawhi Leonard.
His rookie NBA season couldn’t possibly have gone better as everyone knows. He was on the sidelines for 82 games and 24 more in the post-season, culminating in the Raptors winning their first NBA title in Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Oakland on June 13.
Then it was a celebration, a parade, free agency and Summer League again. There was a brief pause in late July but then it was back to Toronto to prepare the Canadian senior men’s team to play in the FIBA World Cup of Basketball in China, returning in mid-September when he jumped right into preparing the Raptors for their title defence.
“It was a pretty good run, from June 13, 2019, on, it was a pretty fast, fast, fast-lane life for a little while,” said Nurse. “Really moving in from one thing to the next constantly. So it has, has enabled me to slam on the brakes and catch my breath a little bit, which is good and I don’t feel like I really needed it. You know what I mean. But now that it’s here, you know when you’re looking for silver linings or positives about it you can say it was, you know, it’s been OK.”
The brakes slammed pretty hard for Nurse — as they did for just about everyone else.
On March 11 he was at the launch party for his charitable foundation aimed at implementing basketball, music and literacy programs in and around Toronto when news reports began circulating that Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus. It was barely an hour later that the NBA season was suspended. The Raptors had just come home from their longest road trip of the season, one which took them through California where a state of emergency was declared while they were there and which finished in Utah where two Jazz players – Donovan Mitchell was the other – eventually tested positive.
Nurse went from a party at Hotel X to testing at North York General Hospital to being quarantined in his room for the next 14 days. No one in the Raptors’ travelling party has tested positive for the virus.
“Obviously it hit really close to home because it was, really, a member of really the NBA family,” said Nurse. “So I think the… immediacy of it. And the closeness of it. I think made it very serious for all of us.
“I think I shifted into the mode of right away, ‘let’s do what we’re supposed to do, let’s get home and stay home and try to start spreading that message of, ‘let’s make sure we do what we’re told here and try to stay healthy.’
“…people were concerned about working out and going to the [training facility] and all this stuff, and I was really, really strong in my messaging to everybody that we’re gonna close this and stay shut,” said Nurse, who recorded a number of public service announcements about the importance of hand-washing and social distancing.
“Let’s make sure we get out and if we can provide any messages, washing hands and those kinds of things, I just really wanted it to be focussed on that.”
The forced rest has provided unexpected benefits. Rather than preparing for what would have been a much-hyped showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night and likely a battle between the first and second seeds in the East, Nurse is at home helping tend his toddlers, aged three and one.
He’s even been able to watch last year’s title run from a different perspective, tuning into the replays of the games running every night on Sportsnet and TSN, including Game 7 against Philadelphia which ended on Leonard’s iconic shot from the right corner, directly in front of Nurse and the Raptors bench.
“I think the other day when Game 7 against Philly was on, I think it was actually the first time I’d ever watched that other than in a highlight,” he said. “Obviously you see it all the time on highlights, just moving around the city or the arena or the practice facility or whatever, but that was the first time I’d ever seen it.”
“I guess I didn’t really realize that Kawhi put so much arc on that shot, that was my first takeaway. My other takeaway is you don’t really remember some of the specifics. And… I was sitting there watching it with [his wife] Roberta, and she was like ‘what happens here? How does it get to be a tie game.’ I go, ‘well, Kawhi must have missed one of these free throws’ [Leonard was at the line with 10 seconds left and went 1 of 2, opening the door to the Sixers tying the game on a lay-up with four seconds left, setting the stage for Leonard’s dramatic game winner].
“So you’re seeing things and obviously you don’t remember every little detail. But yeah, the big picture stuff, it obviously lets it sink in a little bit.”
What hasn’t sunk in yet is what shape the basketball calendar will take when it does get up and running.
Already postponed until 2021 are the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Nurse said he remains “100 per cent’ committed to coaching the Canadian senior men’s team through qualifying and ideally into the Olympics next summer.
As for the remainder of the NBA season, Nurse is like anyone else — unsure of what comes next.
In the meantime he’s meeting with his coaching staff regularly, if virtually. Normally they would be well into preparing for any of the No. 2-seed Raptors potential playoff opponents with each member of his coaching staff being assigned a particular opponent to study, the result presented to Nurse in long individual meetings at his office.
“It’s probably a two-hour video that we would go through in about three hours, on each of the certain teams, in the East, and then a handful of them in the West as well,” said Nurse. “The coaches had started in on that already, and they’ll continue on that, the only difference is there’s no real one-on-one time with me yet.
“The way we can do it they’ll probably just have to send me their edit and I’ll just have to watch it, and talk to them on the phone or something like that; FaceTime or something.”
Otherwise? The time at home with his kids has been “fantastic,” and Nurse has been pecking away at his musical hobbies — piano and guitar. He’s even trying to learn Portuguese [his wife Roberta is from Brazil].
But like everyone he’s eager for routines to resume and with the Raptors in the middle of a promising title defence, hungry to find out how good his team can be.
When that might be or in what format — there have been reports that the NBA might attempt to finish out the season by quarantining teams in a single location and playing games for the benefit of a television audience only with a truncated playoff system — Nurse doesn’t know and hasn’t thought too much about.
“What I do think about it in terms of is this: this is a really good team, and it’s a really fun team to coach, and I think about it in terms of… it’s a shame that we don’t get to be around each other and play some games and keep this thing going a little bit,” he said.
“You know what I mean? I’m not saying it very well, but this is a really unique situation that I don’t think happens every day in this type of team. Shoot, I could coach these guys 12 months a year, just keep on going, we could keep playing all the time, they’re fun to be around, and fun to coach and they compete and they’re tough, and they figure it out.
“And it’s a true joy, and they are missed, there’s no doubt about it.”
U.S. Women's Open postponed, moved to December – Golf Channel
The 75th U.S. Women’s Open is the latest major championship to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but golf fans won’t have to wait to learn the new dates.
With Friday’s news of the postponement, the USGA also announced Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas, will host the event Dec. 10-13. The club was originally scheduled to host June 4-7.
It will mark the first time a women’s major championship will be played in December.
This is the third women’s major of the year to be rescheduled. The ANA Inspiration was originally scheduled to be played this week but was moved to Sept. 10-13. The Evian Championship was moved back two weeks to Aug. 6-9.
With reduced daylight hours in the new U.S. Women’s Open December dates, the USGA plans to play the first two rounds over both the club’s Jackrabbit and Cypress Creek courses. The final two rounds will be played on the Cypress Creek Course.
U.S. Women’s Open qualifying dates will be rescheduled, with the possibility of some new locations.
The USGA is also reviewing the possibility of altering exemption categories.
“The USGA remains committed to hosting the U.S. Women’s Open in 2020,” USGA CEO Mike Davis said. “We are grateful to the LPGA and our broadcast partner Fox for their terrific collaboration in finding a new date for the championship. Our priority remains ensuring the safety of all involved with the U.S. Women’s Open, while still providing the world’s best players the opportunity to compete this year.”
The latest a women’s major has ever finished is Nov. 28. Kathy Whitworth won The Titleholders on that date in 1965.
The average high temperature in Houston in mid-December is 65 degrees. There’s almost four hours less of daylight in mid-December than there is in June in Houston.
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