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Raptors need Leonard-like difference-maker to emerge after Game 2 loss –



This was the Toronto Raptors team everyone expected to show up for Game 2.

After all, the guys who took the floor in Game 1 bore only the faintest resemblance to their real selves, the team Raptors fans have fallen for even more deeply than the one that won a championship a year ago.

A team with a title in their pocket and chips on their shoulders.

The names on the jerseys were the same, but the passion, the hoops IQ, the determination that has made their NBA title defence one of the most enjoyable seasons in franchise history were all missing.

It might have been the mood after an intense few days, when it seemed like the NBA bubble might burst after the fallout from the Jacob Blake shooting descended on the league like a dark cloud, but the Boston Celtics were dealing with the same issues and they came out blazing.

Would the Raptors respond? That was the question.

Livestream the Raptors’ quest to defend their NBA title with select NBA playoff games on Sportsnet NOW.

It got answered quickly. This time it was Toronto that came out with energy and set the tone for Game 2. When they sprinted out to a quick 15-9 lead, no one was calling ‘game,’ but there was a sigh of relief.

The Raptors were here to compete; to use their blend of smarts, heart and selflessness that makes their whole greater than the sum of their parts — or almost any other team’s parts.

When the Raptors went up 12 late in the third quarter on the strength of a signature 11-0 run that featured Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam making plays, Serge Ibaka knocking in threes and Kyle Lowry diving for steals and making assists before even getting to his feet, there was a sense that the universe was righting itself.

The real Raptors remained on campus at Walt Disney World Resort.

But for how much longer?

Because here’s the catch: it wasn’t good enough, and the Raptors might not be either.

Toronto did plenty of Toronto things, but against a Celtics team featuring a budding MVP-caliber star in Jayson Tatum and a point guard who can score when he wants in Kemba Walker — not to mention A+ role players in Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown — the Raptors got stuck in the mud down the stretch.

Sometimes they tripped over their own feet in the process — as Boston came back for a 102-99 win to earn a commanding 2-0 lead heading into Game 3 on Thursday.

This was always going to be the test for Toronto even as they sailed through the second half of the season, soared in the restart and breezed through their first-round series against a paper-thin Brooklyn Nets team.

What would happen when they ran up against a team with comparable or better talent that was equally well-prepared and equally willing to play a smart, selfless style?

It was hard to know because typically those teams don’t get thrown in your way until the second round of the playoffs and sometimes later.

Last year, the Raptors’ supporting cast could hand the ball to Kawhi Leonard when the game got slow, the refs swallowed their whistles and the three-point line seemed like it had been suddenly moved to 30 feet and the other team was playing with six defenders, not five.

Leonard lifted the Raptors to a championship and then left for the Los Angeles Clippers, and now Toronto is left trying to solve elite defences by committee.

In theory, Siakam was supposed to step into the closer’s role but he’s evidently not ready for it. That is the only fair takeaway after watching him struggle mightily against Boston and play below his standard since he joined the Raptors in Florida.

In Game 2 he showed some signs of breaking out early on against Boston but couldn’t sustain anything and came undone down the stretch.

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The game was hard-fought from the start, but just when the Raptors finally managed to separate themselves in the third quarter, the Celtics were gifted five straight threes — the last one a four-point play — by Smart in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, which wiped out a promising eight-point lead to start the period. The Celtics led 86-85 with just under eight minutes to play.

These things happen.

“I mean it sucks,” said Lowry. “He made five shots, you know, he’s a pro, you know you got five looks and got [an] and-one on one. He got hot and we didn’t cool him off.”

But it was what happened after which is cause for concern.

Toronto kept scrapping and clawing. They kept a lid on the Celtics for the most part, forced some turnovers and grabbed some offensive rebounds and were able to get to the free-throw line a few times, too.

But they struggled to create anything easy. They didn’t have Leonard bulling his way into the paint and pulling up for a fadeaway at the end of the clock. The Raptors shot 5-of-21 from the floor in the fourth and that might have been flattering.

At the key moment they had Siakam — who finished 6-of-16 from the floor and is now 16-of-37 (34 per cent) in his last three games against Boston — trying to score in isolation against the Celtics’ Smart, one of the toughest and most resourceful defenders in the NBA.

It didn’t go well.

Siakam drove left with 36 seconds left and Toronto trailing by three, only to have Smart strip the ball. The Raptors retained possession and ran a play to get Siakam an open look in the corner, but Siakam stepped out of bounds and the game was pretty much decided, save for a desperate game-tying effort from the three from VanVleet that fell short.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse defended Siakam, as he should and you would expect, when he was asked about the last two plays.

“I think Smart fouled the [expletive] out of him on the one,” Nurse said. “There’s one for you. Then we ran a good play there, and looked like it was open, for the corner three. It’s not one we use a lot, but you’re saving it for that kind of situation and it’s just unfortunate.

“That’s one thing that’s hard, too – the court has a different feel to it. There have been a lot of guys stepping on the sideline in the bubble, and that’s just probably unfortunate.”

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

Siakam is in his fourth season and made tremendous progress as he earned the NBA’s Most Improved Player nod last season and his first All-Star spot this year. But being the focal point of quality NBA defence in a playoff series is a different level of responsibility and for the moment he’s falling short.

In fairness, he hasn’t had much help. The Raptors shot 11-of-40 from three and are 21-of-80 in the series. VanVleet and Lowry can’t seem to find the mark against a swarm of rangy Celtics defenders as they were 11-of-38 from the floor combined and 3-of-19 from three – echoing their performance in Game 1. Coming off a career year Normam Powell was supposed to provide clutch scoring to help fill the gaps but has been absent, going just 1-of-5 in the 13 minutes Nurse thought he deserved, a story in itself.

“I mean we’re pretty pissed right now we’re down 0-2,” said Lowry. “… This is not a situation we’d like to be in, but you know it’s not a normal situation in the playoffs where we lost two home games. We just lost two games. We got a chance to get enough to get one game. That’s all we gotta do is get one game and take [it] one day, one game at a time and know that the Celtics have been playing extremely well so we got to find a way to, you know, get ourselves going.”

The question is who is going to spark them? Who is going to carry them over the rough patches? Who is going to penetrate defences that seem impenetrable?

They had a guy like that, but he plays for the Clippers now, and the Raptors that remain will have to figure it out on their own.


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Blue Jays sit 1 win away from clinching playoff berth after thumping Yankees –



The Toronto Blue Jays showed Wednesday night why they could be a dangerous wild-card team in the playoffs.

Danny Jansen hit two solo homers as the Blue Jays used a 16-hit attack and eight-run sixth inning to bulldoze the New York Yankees 14-1 at Sahlen Field. Jansen had four hits and three runs to help the Blue Jays move closer to nailing down a playoff berth.

“Putting ourselves in this spot is a great feeling,” Jansen said. “But we’ve still got work to do.”

Toronto (29-27) trimmed its magic number to one with the victory and can secure its first post-season spot since 2016 with a win in Thursday’s series finale.

Cavan Biggio scored three times, Randal Grichuk added a pair of runs and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., had three RBIs. Starter Robbie Ray was effective over four-plus innings and A.J. Cole threw a scoreless fifth inning for the win.

Under Major League Baseball’s expanded playoff structure, 16 teams will reach the post-season. Division winners will be seeded No. 1 through No. 3 in each league, second-place teams will be seeded fourth through sixth, and two third-place wild-card teams will get the seventh and eighth seeds.

The Los Angeles Angels, currently ninth in the AL, kept their faint playoff hopes alive earlier Wednesday with a 5-2 win over the San Diego Padres.

Facing veteran right-hander Masahiro Tanaka (3-3), the Blue Jays took advantage of a couple breaks to put up two quick runs in the first inning.

With Biggio on after a leadoff walk, Teoscar Hernandez hit a double-play ball up the middle that took an unexpected high bounce near the lip of the grass and rolled into the outfield.

Guerrero stroked a single that scored Biggio with the game’s first run. Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez tried to pick the young slugger off first base but a wide throw went down the right-field line as Hernandez trotted home.

Ray earns timely outs

Ray breezed through the first inning but issued two walks in the second. Gio Urshela singled to load the bases and a passed ball allowed Luke Voit to score the Yankees’ lone run.

New York loaded the bases with none out in the fifth inning. But Cole (3-0) held off the heart of the Yankees’ order by fanning Giancarlo Stanton and getting Voit — who leads the majors in homers — on an infield fly and then Gleyber Torres on a flyout.

“That was really the game,” Jansen said. “Saving that was huge for us. Bases loaded, no outs, coming in and getting that. There’s a lot of momentum swing right there.”

Toronto followed New York’s lead by putting its first three batters on base in the sixth. The Blue Jays took full advantage by batting around with a two-run single by Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Biggio’s two-run double serving as highlight blows.

The victory came a day after New York dumped Toronto 12-1.

“Today was a big game after yesterday,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s what they’ve done all year — come back from top losses. It was great to see, facing another good pitcher like Tanaka, coming back tonight and scoring all those runs. A big win for us.”

New York (32-24) had four hits and a season-high four errors. The Yankees have a magic number of one to secure a second-place finish in the East Division.

Ray, who was pulled after the first two batters reached in the fifth, allowed three hits, four walks and had five strikeouts. Tanaka gave up three earned runs, eight hits and three walks while striking out five.

Jansen, who went deep off Tanaka in the fourth, added another shot in the eighth off Yankees catcher Erik Kratz, giving the Toronto backstop six homers on the season.

Toronto was a wild-card entry when it last reached the post-season four years ago. The Blue Jays went on to reach the AL Championship Series for the second straight year.

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Jays win big, magic number is 1 – Bluebird Banter



Yankees 1 Blue Jays 14

Our magic number is now 1. A win tomorrow (or in any of our last four games) would put us into the playoffs.

It is nice when the other team forgets how to play baseball. The Yankees made 4 official errors and a few unofficial ones. They were just playing bad baseball all night.

We got a good start from Bob Rae (as much as it hurts the old man in me to say that 4+ innings is a good start). Through four innings he allowed just 2 hits and 3 walks with 5 strikeouts. There was an unearned run against him, scoring on a passed ball (he and Jansen got crossed up, Ray threw a fastball, Jansen thought something bendy was coming). He went to full counts too much, but he kept the Yankees off the bases.

Ray allowed a walk and a single to start off the fifth and that was it. A.J. Cole came in a gave up a walk to load the bases. Looking at the final score, it doesn’t seem like there should have been a big moment of the game on the pitching side, but this was a big moment. We were up 5-1 with Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Viot and Gleyber Torres coming up. But Cole got a strikeout, popout and fly out. It was nice to see because Cole has had a rough time of it lately.

Ross Stripling pitched the last four inning, giving up just 1 hit with 1 strikeout. He gets a save on a game we won by 13.

We scored 2 in the first, 1 in the third, 2 in the fourth, 8 in the sixth and 1 in the eighth. Our hitters:

  • Cavan Biggio was 2 for 5 with a walk, double and 2 RBI.
  • Bo Bichette was 2 for 4, with 2 walks, double, 2 RBI (he had 3 walks on the season before tonight).
  • Teoscar Hernandez 1 or 4.
  • Randal Grichuk 1 for 4, 1 walk, 1 RBI.
  • Vladimir Guerrero was 2 for 5, double, 3 RBI. He had an interesting night. He misjudged a popup in the first inning. Thankfully it didn’t cost us a run. He drew a pick off throw from Gary Sanchez, by taking a few steps towards second on a strike and Sanchez threw wide of first, getting us a free run. Then an crushed RBI double in third, an RBI ground out. And he made a very nice play, again a going a long way off first to get a ball, but Stripling got to the bag at first in plenty of time, and Vlad made a nice throw hitting the moving target.
  • Lourdes Gurriel was 3 for 5 with an RBI.
  • Travis Shaw was 1 for 5 with an RBI.
  • Joe Panik only managed a walk.
  • Danny Jansen hit 2 home runs on a 4 for 4 night, with 3 RBI. Yes, one of the home runs was off Yankees’ catcher Erik Kratz (but it still counts).

Jays of the Day: Cole (.119 WPA), Vlad (.190) and Jansen (.107).

No Suckage Jays. Shaw had the low mark at -.063.

Tomorrow is our last game of this four game series against the Yankees and then we have a weekend series against the Orioles to end the season.

We had 847 comments in the GameThread. I led us to victory (and I didn’t even have a beer tonight). But I did have a nice day. I took a drive out in the country and saw the changing of the colours, while avoiding the news for a day. I’d say it was a mental health day, but there really is no mental health left.

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Lightning’s Stamkos secures place in Cup lore with Game 3 goal vs. Stars –



EDMONTON — Seven seconds.

That’s how much time the puck spent on Steven Stamkos’s stick blade on this night, and perhaps that’s all it will spend there throughout the entirety of this Tampa Bay Lightning playoff run.

That’s all the hard-luck captain needed to secure his place in Stanley Cup lore. Seven freaking seconds.

Somehow, after spending 60 days as a practice-only player inside the NHL bubble and going 210 days between games, Stamkos scored the biggest goal of a career overflowing with them.

He was in full stride down the right boards when Victor Hedman hit him in the neutral zone. He blew past Esa Lindell, who defended the play poorly and managed to settle a bouncing puck in time to tuck it up under the crossbar behind Anton Khudobin.

The Lightning bench exploded. Jon Cooper said the reaction was “just a little bit louder” than any of the others during a playoff run that has included five overtime goals. The coach saw it as a sign his team wouldn’t be denied, and they weren’t while grabbing a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars with a 5-2 victory Wednesday.

“It was pretty damn cool,” said Cooper.

Stamkos called it a dream come true.

Forget the unfortunate timing of the injuries that have cost him big playoff games and a chance at playing for Team Canada at the Olympics in recent years. Just being trapped inside the bubble with no guarantee of playing would be agony for someone who has given as much to the Lightning as Stamkos.

And then to get in for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, and only be able to play five shifts and score on one of them after not playing for seven months?

Hollywood might not accept that script.

“At this time of the year, you want to do anything you can to help your team win,” said Stamkos. “I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is, and to be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true and I’m so proud of these guys. And to be able to share that moment with them and just even be on the bench and watch how well we played tonight, I have told these guys before: It’s inspiring.

“It was great to be part of.”

Quickly, the backstory: Stamkos underwent core muscle surgery on March 2 and was supposed to be recovered in time for the second round of a normal playoffs. Then we had the COVID-19 pause, he had some kind of setback while preparing for the NHL’s return to play and the Lightning have gone on a run without him.

But he’s remained a large figure in the shadows.

You could see him dousing Brayden Point with water after he scored a quintuple overtime goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1 and he was summoned to the ice to help the Lightning accept the Prince of Wales Trophy after they eliminated the New York Islanders.

Everything he had to endure in order to even play for two minutes 41 seconds of Wednesday’s game has happened behind the walls. And based on the fact he sat on the bench while not taking a shift for the final 46 minutes here suggests we might not see him in uniform again for the rest of this series.

So that goal? That was something.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get back to a spot where he could play,” said Brayden Point. “Just seeing him day in and day out — the positivity that he brings, and the leadership that he brings. It’s nice to see him work that hard to get back into the lineup. And then to score one? It’s pretty inspirational for everyone.”

Added Victor Hedman: “This is how much he means to us as a teammate and as a leader and as a friend. We were just super happy for him.”

Stamkos played six games against the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Final and didn’t manage to score. In this situation, the Lightning put him on the fourth line alongside Cedric Paquette (zero goals this playoffs) and Pat Maroon (one goal this playoffs) and he produced one in limited minutes before his injury forced him to become a spectator.

What happens next will determine what this means historically.

But what it meant to Stamkos and the Lightning won’t change no matter what. He’s only going to get so many chances like this one.

“It was amazing to be a part of a huge win for us,” he said. “I was just really happy to obviously contribute in a game that I didn’t play too much.”

This was a kid who used to go to shooting school twice per week and fire 500 pucks per session. That’s a skill that endured the injuries, the layoff, everything.

It made this moment possible.

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