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Raptors must set sights on title defence in final third of season –



TORONTO — On a night when he wasn’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye with the “selective vision” of the officials, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse huddled his players during a timeout with about five minutes to play and offered the following.

“I said, ‘I’m having as much fun as you guys are. Probably less the way I feel now,’” Nurse said after the Raptors out-paced the Phoenix Suns, 118-101, Friday night. “’But we’ve got to dig in together here and go play.’”

And so the Raptors did on a night when Nurse admits “nobody was having any fun out there.” The game certainly lacked a rhythm, a pace and an aesthetic. But it was one of only 27 — now 26 — remaining for the Raptors prior to the playoffs, and while the first two-thirds of the season has been about simply getting through all the injuries, all the jumbled lineups and all the not-so-fun nights like Friday, the final third will be about putting Toronto’s many distinct pieces in place for a championship defence.

The Raptors will spend the next eight weeks learning just what they have, what works and what doesn’t ahead of the playoffs, when Nurse’s rotation will shrink, his playbook will be more focused, and his team will face a series of do-or-die moments over the NBA’s second season.

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To that end, Nurse said this week that the Raptors would make a point of feeding Pascal Siakam a high volume of touches down the stretch, endeavouring to expose the team’s primary scorer to as many situational challenges as possible. And that began in earnest against the Suns, as Siakam took a quarter of his team’s attempts in a 25-point first half.

He didn’t have much of a break over the last week, fulfilling the many obligations and demands that accompany the honour of an all-star selection. And this year, that included taxing on-court minutes in the actual game itself, which featured a physicality and competitiveness rarely — if ever — seen before.

Of course, playing as hard as Siakam did in the fourth quarter of the all-star game is probably more benefit than detriment. Those are the kind of high-leverage repetitions against the league’s best players he needs to continue his growth. The kind he’ll be asked to excel in two months from now.

They’re also the kind he isn’t likely to get against a struggling Suns outfit relying heavily on the madcap play of Kelly Oubre Jr. But the Raptors continued to force-feed Siakam as the game went on, and he responded with 37 points on 23 used possessions, featuring sharp marksmanship from beyond the arc (he hit 5-of-9 three’s he attempted) to draw out defenders and open up room to cut toward the basket.

“It’s just being aggressive, being assertive. Making sure that I just go out there and show that type of energy every single night,” Siakam said. “Just knowing that you have to go at the other player that’s guarding you every single time. Having that mentality, I think that’s something I have to work on. And coming into the second half of the season, that’s something I want to put an emphasis on.”

On the other hand, aggressiveness is not something that’s lacked in Terence Davis’ game, and Friday was no exception as the undrafted rookie ransacked his way to a 14-point effort off Toronto’s bench.

Even though we should all understand what he’s capable of by now, Davis’ athleticism is still mind-boggling at times, like when he turns a corner on his defender as if he’s running a route downfield and, without breaking stride, finishes a one-handed, reverse lay-up over his head from beneath the basket.

It’s way too early to ponder Nurse’s potential playoff rotation, considering the ever-uncertain status of this team’s health and the different permutations that match-ups can force. But then again, how could Davis not be a part of it? Even with Norman Powell presumably back in the fold, and Nurse’s unwavering belief in Patrick McCaw’s effectiveness well established, Davis has to factor in somehow, doesn’t he?

There will surely be nights when he doesn’t have it, which is an easily managed situation considering Toronto’s depth. But on the nights that he does, Davis’ energy and fearlessness taking in-rhythm, without-hesitation three-pointers — he hit a pair Friday night — can help keep the scoreboard moving in the middle of games.

“The pace that he was playing at was opening up the floor,” Nurse said. “And he can just score, man. All he needs is a little space and he can score.”

Friday was an interesting illustration of the Raptors trying to learn what they have in terms of centre depth, as well. Marc Gasol will be on the shelf for some time, and Serge Ibaka can only play so much, which mean Chris Boucher will have plenty of opportunities over Toronto’s next several games to show the club’s front office it doesn’t need to sign a bought-out big prior to the March 1 cut-off for playoff eligibility.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and OG Anunoby will likely see some time at centre as well, undersized as they are. But the optimal situation is that those two remain fours while Boucher takes his opportunity and runs with it, leveraging his energy and athleticism to create defensive disruption like this:

You can’t really teach that. And Boucher did it again in the fourth, sending a Dario Saric three-point attempt into the second row for his fourth block of the night.

Still, Boucher’s minus-five in a 17-point win is telling, as was the fact he played only 14 minutes on a night when Ibaka picked up his fifth foul early in the third quarter. Boucher struggled at times in an admittedly lopsided matchup with Phoenix’s much thicker, much stronger centre tandem. But he’ll keep getting his opportunity, and it’ll be up to him how far he carries it.

“I want Chris to carve out this role and keep it,” Nurse said before the game when asked how he’d deploy Boucher in Friday’s unideal match-up. “We’ll give him his chance. And if it looks good, we’ll let his stint roll and we’ll give him a second stint. If it doesn’t, we start shifting around.”

Now, if the Raptors are at full health during the playoffs, Boucher likely doesn’t leave the bench during meaningful minutes. Maybe if Nurse wants to match up with an uber big lineup. Maybe if Gasol or Ibaka are in critical early foul trouble. Brass tacks, it would take an “if.”

Thing is, the Raptors being at full health is a pretty big “if,” too. It really hasn’t been the case at any point this season. The club’s obviously hoping it’s getting the worst of its adversity over with now. But a heavy workload and previous injuries are fairly reliable predictors of future injury. And the Raptors, who played more games than anyone last season and have been hurt for most of this one, satisfy those criteria. There’s no guarantee Toronto will suddenly hit a run of better injury luck come playoff time.

So, keeping a down-bench player like Boucher well accustomed to Toronto’s on-court rhythm and familiar with the in-game tendencies of his teammates could be a boon sometime this spring. Only so much of that can be accomplished on the practice court. In-game repetitions are paramount. Even against a team still half on vacation like the Suns were Friday night.

And even with Gasol and Ibaka healthy, Toronto’s rebounding at both ends has been a quiet, lurking issue all season. Entering Friday, the Raptors ranked No. 22 across the NBA in offensive rebound percentage and a much-more-concerning No. 26 defensively. Opponents had come down with 29 per cent of available offensive rebounds, which led to the Raptors surrendering an average of 13.9 second-chance points per 100 possessions, the fourth-worst mark in the league.

The problem hasn’t necessarily been put-backs or unnecessary opportunities beneath Toronto’s basket, as the Raptors are actually the second-best team in basketball at limiting opposition paint points, averaging 41.4 per 100 possessions coming into Friday night. Rather, it’s the long rebounds off missed shots that have ended up in the hands of an opponent on the perimeter and created a fresh, 14-second possession.

A lot of that’s luck. You can’t control the behaviour of the ball when it’s out of your hands. It’s going to bounce where it’s going to bounce, and sometimes that’ll be right into the grasp of an opponent. But it’s also a product of Toronto’s run-and-gun approach in transition, as all Raptors know that if they get a head start in the opposite direction off a stop, one of the team’s facilitators is liable to push the ball up to them. An added emphasis on staying home and securing the rebound may be necessary going forward.

Boucher ought to be able to help improve those rebounding numbers, considering his urgency and craftiness beneath the basket. But he’ll have to play better to remain on the floor to do so. Friday, he came up with only one offensive rebound and two on the defensive end. Meanwhile, the Raptors surrendered 10 offensive boards.

So, some of what the Raptors wanted to work on Friday came through. Some didn’t. What matters is a win, and making the most of an opportunity to continue putting the pieces in place for an impending title defence. Regardless of how much fun the head coach is having or not.

“I didn’t have much fun out there tonight coaching. It wasn’t very enjoyable,” Nurse said. “But when I sit here and look back on it right now, I don’t mind that it got a little tough and tight and we had to bounce back and respond and guard and execute down the stretch.

“It’s a nice little learning moment, I guess. Confidence booster, actually. So, I’m getting happier as I keep talking here. And I know you’re all concerned about my happiness.”

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Ottawa Race Weekend cancelled due to COVID-19 –



Ottawa Race Weekend is the latest event to be cancelled due to COVID-19.

Organizers announced Monday they’re calling off the annual race, scheduled this year to take place May 23-24, over fears it would be impossible to maintain a safe distance between runners of the marathon, half-marathon, 10K, 5K, 2K or children’s event.

It’s the first time the event has been cancelled since it began in 1975.

But before you hang up your Vaporflys and hit the couch, Run Ottawa, the organization behind Race Weekend, is offering an alternative that will allow runners to compete while still following the physical distancing guidelines set out by Ottawa Public Health.

Competitors will be offered a spot in a virtual race, where they’ll determine their own route and run or walk their chosen distance through their own neighbourhood. The virtual race will start as early as May 23, but will be spread out over the spring and summer months, until August 31. They’ll receive a race kit, including medal, T-shirt, and even a photograph of them crossing a virtual finishing line.

A runner holds a rubber chicken as he begins the half-marathon in Ottawa on Sunday, May 27, 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press )

“Part of having a long runway to complete the event is that maybe things will be a little bit different further into the summer, and will allow people to run in groups of two or three,” said Ian Fraser, executive director of Run Ottawa.

Run Ottawa said it will partner with the international race timing company Sportstats to create a virtual finish line, using “e-bibs.” Participants will be able to share their results with friends and family, and compare their times with other runners once the final results are published.

The reality is that a full refund for all participants would bankrupt us, and there wouldn’t be a race weekend in 2021.– Ian Fraser, Run Ottawa

Registration, which was halted two weeks ago with around 18,000 runners signed up, will be reopened to allow for more people to join up for the virtual races. 

“There’s a great spirit in the running community that I think is going to see this as something they can celebrate, to push something positive forward in difficult times,” Fraser said.

Run Ottawa had been expecting some 33,000 runners this year.  

The virtual race won’t be a sanctioned event, and the results will not qualify runners for major marathons elsewhere, such as Boston. 

No refunds

There will be no refunds, according to Fraser.

“Pretty much all of the registration money that we take in is spent quite a ways before you actually get to the start line,” he said. “The reality is that a full refund for all participants would bankrupt us, and there wouldn’t be a race weekend in 2021.”

Instead, people who have already registered will be given a 50 per cent discount on next year’s race, which is scheduled for May 28-29.

Run Ottawa considered postponing the event until fall, but worried about the crowded running calendar, and the possibility of ongoing mitigation efforts over COVID-19.

“We’re also not certain that the world’s going to be in a better place by then, and we were really mindful to not double disappoint our participants,” Fraser said.

The decision to proceed with a virtual event is meant to encourage runners to keep going with their fundraising efforts for local charities. In years past, runners have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities including The Ottawa Hospital Foundation. 

Fraser said he understands people will be disappointed.

“I’ve been a runner since I was eight years old,” Fraser said. “I understand the hard work that goes into preparing for one of our events. But the journey to get to the finish line is every bit as important as the actual event itself…. I think using running as a way of coping with what we’re going through is really important. I think there are more people running now than I’ve ever seen before.”

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Belarus defiantly keeps playing while the rest of the sports world goes on hiatus – The Globe and Mail



Fans react during the Belarus Championship soccer match between Torpedo-BelAZ Zhodino and Belshina Bobruisk in the town of Zhodino, Belarus, on March 27, 2020.

Sergei Grits/The Associated Press

With most sports around the world shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic, longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko is proudly keeping soccer and hockey arenas open.

The Eastern European nation of nearly 9.5 million even started a whole new soccer season this month as coronavirus cases rose.

The move has the full support of Lukashenko, who took to the ice in an amateur hockey tournament on Saturday with a few hundred spectators in the stands.

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“It’s better to die standing that to live on your knees,” he said, defending Belarus’ refusal to introduce isolation measures and border restrictions like its neighbours, such as Russia.

Soccer fans in need of their weekly fix are turning to Belarus, home to one of the few professional leagues that is still playing. Reuters

With foreign sports networks having little to show and few other options for sports betting, Lukashenko says the pandemic is a perfect opportunity to put the country’s soccer league on display.

“I look at Russia and some people there are winning a lot on bets, because beforehand they didn’t really know our teams,” Lukashenko said. “Someone’s losing, someone’s winning. It’s all useful.”

Fans entering the stadiums in Belarus are given antiseptic hand gel and some have their temperatures monitored by medics. Few wear masks because they’re not considered necessary for open-air events, Belarus soccer federation spokesman Alexander Aleinik said.

Belarus doesn’t publish daily figures on the spread of the virus. On Friday, the last day for which statistics are available, the country recorded 94 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with no deaths.

The Belarusian league isn’t usually an international attraction. Crowds this season barely average 1,200 and UEFA ranks it the continent’s 25th strongest, just below Norway, Israel and Kazakhstan.

But Russian TV has given its games prominent slots on state sports channels and betting firms around Western Europe are streaming them for customers.

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British fans on social media have picked teams to follow and thrown themselves into a new fandom, elevating obscure players to hero status and berating coaches for supposedly negative tactics.

There isn’t much competition, with betting sites offering little more than Nicaraguan soccer, Tajikistan basketball and Russian table tennis as rivals.

Sergei Melnikov is one of those hoping to make an impression on the mostly empty global sports stage. He is the director of the Isloch club, which beat Smolevichi 1-0 on Sunday to keep pace with the leaders on points.

“The whole world is watching our soccer right now,” Melnikov said. “That means we have to show the best that we’ve got.”

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

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CFL postpones the start of Training Camp –



TORONTO — The Canadian Football League issued a statement Monday morning saying it will be postponing the start of 2020 Training Camps due to the ongoing global pandemic.

The statement, attributed to Commissioner Randy Ambrosie, reads as follows:

“As of today, the opening of CFL training camps will be postponed. The ongoing global pandemic and the resulting directives issued by various governments make it unsafe to proceed with plans to gather our athletes and coaches together as scheduled. (Until today, full CFL training camps had been scheduled to open on May 17, and rookie camps had been scheduled to open as early as May 11.)

As for our future plans, we are in the hands of our public health officials, the advice they are providing governments, and the directives those governments are issuing to us all, and we acknowledge their timetable will be dictated by the virus itself . We will make further decisions when we can and share them with our fans and the public as soon as possible.

The CFL and its member clubs would like to take this opportunity to thank our fans, partners, players, prospects, coaches and staff, for their dedication and patience as we face this challenge. We are facing it together, even if we have to be physically apart. An additional thank you to everyone doing their part to fight the virus. Please wash your hands, stay home and practice social distancing. The sooner we stop the spread, the sooner we can get back to normal – and back to football.

Finally, but most importantly, we want to express our gratitude to the people on the front lines of healthcare and the supply chain. Your hard and courageous work – to inform us, feed us and care for us, our communities and our loved ones – makes you our champions.

We at the CFL are pragmatic optimists. Our pragmatism dictates that, unfortunately, training camps cannot go forward as scheduled. But our optimism remains strong. We continue to look forward to a CFL season and the Grey Cup.”

The postponement of the start of Training Camp is the latest in a handful of necessary responses from the CFL to adapt to the ongoing pandemic. Last week, the league announced it was postponing its Global Draft until the start of camps. The week before, the league cancelled its remaining Combines for the 2020 season.

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