Even as his team embarks on yet another unusual chapter in what has been a deeply unusual year, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has an experience he can draw on from a coaching path that has led him here, there, everywhere and now to Tampa Bay, Fla., where his team has been relocated for at least the first half of the 2020-21 season.
The year was 1990 and Nurse was just 12 months removed from his senior season at Northern Iowa University. Having spent the year following graduation as a student assistant while finishing up his studies, he was looking for new challenges. He wrote to a number of teams and organizations and eventually got himself hired as a 23-year-old player/coach with the Derby Rams in the fledgling British Basketball League.
It was a long way from the NBA. They practiced at the Moorways Centre, a multi-sport facility open to the public with a hard-tiled floor that was both indestructible and uncomfortable.
Nurse would have loved to have run his new team through daily practices to get up to speed, except there was one hitch:
“The club could only afford to hire the practice hall twice a week, so we practiced on Tuesday and Friday nights at seven,” he recalled. “Badminton was running right up to seven — like literally it would click to seven and they were taking their last few [swings]. And then they would take the nets down and we’d come out onto the floor … I always say just get me to a practice floor and to the games and I’ll be happy, and we could only get to the practice floor twice a week there, so…”
In that context, the latest challenge lying ahead for Nurse and his staff isn’t quite so daunting.
It’s not nothing, however. Due to border restrictions imposed by the Canadian government, the Raptors have had to set up for training camp at St. Leo University — north of the city — and then will do so for the regular season where they will play at the Amalie Centre – home to the Tampa Bay Lightning – while training in a reconfigured hotel ballroom across the street.
Hardship is relative, of course. Nurse allowed that he was a little disappointed that on his first morning in Florida the temperature was barely above the freezing mark. He was quickly advised that Toronto was in the midst of the first blast of winter, so sympathy was in short supply.
But Nurses’ – and the Raptors’ — level of comfort isn’t relative to the past or what they would normally have available to them in Toronto. Their issue with the need to relocate on such short notice – they only got the final word that they wouldn’t be able to play in Toronto on Nov. 20 – is whether or not it places them at a competitive disadvantage compared to the other 29 NBA teams who are getting ready for what will be a rapid-fire, 72-game regular season in their home markets.
On this point Nurse is determined to remain optimistic, drawing on the Raptors’ largely successful transition to a post-hiatus training camp in Naples, Fla. last July and then into the NBA’s bubble on campus at Walt Disney World for the re-start and the playoffs.
“When people are worried about that kind of stuff or show some anxiety I always say: The Raptors always do things first class and we always do things well,” said Nurse. “I would imagine they’re going to give us a good place to stay, a good place to practice, a good place to lift weights, a good place to meet, and all the things that we need to be successful. I think it’ll all be just fine.”
There are wrinkles though — some bigger than others — but they can add up for a team trying to make themselves at home in a short period of time. Raptors guard Norman Powell would normally be hanging out with his dogs – a pair of pomskies, Apollo and Odin – in his three-bedroom Toronto condo, but he had to leave them with his mother back in San Diego while he gets himself settled in Tampa.
“It’s been tough being away from them,” said Powell. “I was happy to be able to go home and hang out with them, but I plan on taking them to Tampa once I get a house situated and understand my area. I’m excited about that, bring some familiarity back to me.”
While being in the bubble for July, August and September offers the Raptors some recent experience to draw from when it comes to dealing with unusual circumstances, setting up in Tampa is also different because they are no longer cut off from the world around them and will have to govern themselves accordingly in order to avoid the virus that is running at record levels throughout most of the United States.
“It’s gonna be a different look,” said Powell. “Obviously when you have a bubble [it] is more controlled … Who’s coming in, who’s coming out — what’s coming in, what’s coming out in terms of what the teams need, supplies and stuff … When you have 30 teams in different cities like you said, it’s tough … I think those things [teams having positive COVID-19 tests] are gonna happen throughout the season. You’ve just got to handle them as they come.”
Whether the Raptors will get a chance to handle them from Toronto at any point this season is a question that won’t likely be answered until well into the schedule. There is a break planned in mid-March that could provide an opportunity to play out of Scotiabank Arena and train at the OVO Centre, depending on the progress of the virus at that point, presumably.
But until then there is little choice but to find a way to make things work, regardless of the inconveniences.
Nurse led the Raptors to a record-setting regular season, within an eyelash of the Eastern Conference Finals a season after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from a championship team, and did so in the midst of a pandemic. He’s not about to make excuses for not aiming high because they have to set up shop in Tampa.
“You guys know I’m not shy about telling you guys how much I love being in Toronto — it’s our city and it’s our team and our organization. There’s a lot of unsettling feelings about having to leave, to be honest. It’s not easy. Right?” he said. “It’s not easy to pick up and leave that behind. Everything new and different seems strange for a moment.
“[But] I’m not making any excuses and I’m going to get to work and we’re going to expect to play at a super-high level, and that’s it … We’re going to do our best to focus in on just becoming the best basketball team we can become. And we do that by starting with accepting here’s where we are. Put a smile on our face, get out on the right side of the bed, positive attitude and go to work.”
The bright side is he’ll be in Florida in winter and his team will have access to a practice court any day they choose — and they won’t have to wait for badminton to finish.
From that perspective, things aren’t that bad.
Canadian Nick Taylor finishes second round strong to lead in Hawaii at Sony Open – TSN
It wasn’t the best start for Nick Taylor, but the finish was pretty good.
Taylor played the first five holes of his second round of the Sony Open in 1-over and looked as if he might have trouble making the cut. Instead, he went 9-under over the next 13 and takes a two-shot lead into the weekend.
“Early on today, the first four or five holes, I made some nice par putts,” said Taylor. “I was 1-over and then I started hitting it better and giving myself opportunities and kept making putts.”
His hot stretch started on the 15th hole, his sixth of the day, when he hit his approach to seven feet and made the birdie. He made a four-footer on the next hole to get to red figures, and then pitched in for eagle on par-5 18th to close out the front side.
He made five birdies on the back nine, none more eventful than his final hole of the day. His tee shot darted left, coming to rest against a fence that bordered the driving range. At first, it appeared Taylor would have to play his shot left-handed and hack it back into play, but he got relief from the netting above the fence and was able to play a full shot into the fairway. A wedge to three feet and a simple putt added a final birdie for a round of 62.
“Whenever you get another birdie, it’s obviously a nice finish, but after everything that happened, it’s nice to walk away with four,” said Taylor. “It was a fortunate break and nice to take advantage of it.”
The Canadian, who is leading the tournament in Strokes Gained: Putting, will have to keep making birdies if he hopes to earn his third PGA Tour win. There are five players grouped two shots back and another eight players trailing by three shots. The cut came at 4-under with the Waialae Country Club course playing easier in the afternoon as the winds that usually provide a defense, died down.
“I feel like you can make four, five, six pars in a row you’re probably getting lapped,” Taylor stated, “especially with how the fairways are running.”
It marks the second time in his career that Taylor has held the 36-hole lead. The other time was last year at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am where he went on to win. Since that victory, however, he hasn’t finished inside the top 25 in 15 starts.
The 62 is also his career-low on the PGA Tour; he’s posted rounds of 63 on four previous occasions.
“I’ve always liked this golf course,” Taylor said. “It kind of suits my eye off the tee. I’ve driven the ball well the last couple days and really putted well. Obviously when you’re doing that you’re going to shoot some good scores, and reading the greens well, so hopefully I’ll keep doing that.”
Taylor tees off in the final group with Stewart Cink and Webb Simpson at 5:50 pm ET.
Mike Weir and Mackenzie Hughes, the two other Canadians to make the cut, will play together at 3:50 pm ET.
Maple Leafs’ Robertson to make NHL regular-season debut vs. Senators – Sportsnet.ca
Nick Robertson will make his NHL regular-season debut Saturday in prime time for the Toronto Maple Leafs — and his coach predicts the teenager to come out flying.
“He’s got lots of energy and lots of confidence. He’ll be movin’ out there tonight, for sure,” said Sheldon Keefe, less than three hours before puck drop in Ottawa.
“We’re looking for him to make an impact on each shift that he gets—and he has the ability to do that. He showed that even in the bubble.”
The 19-year-old Robertson appeared in four of the Leafs’ five post-season games in last summer’s Columbus series and registered his first goal.
He then remained in Toronto throughout the off-season to train with his teammates, skipping out on Team USA’s gold-medal run through the world junior championships in order to pour all his efforts into cracking the big leagues.
Tonight, Robertson will replace seldom-used fourth-line winger Alexander Barabanov in the lineup as Toronto looks to avenge Friday’s 5-3 loss to the Senators. Barabanov has yet to register a point and is a minus-1 through two NHL appearances.
Keefe said he is eager to see how the OHL’s leading goal-scorer has improved his details away from the puck and how Robertson looks from a strength perspective, facing a bullish Sens squad that outhit the Leafs 33-12 on Friday.
“Over the off-season, he has put in a lot of work. How can he handle the physicality of the NHL and the strength of the defenders?” Keefe said. “He and I have talked about that that was a big area that took out of the Columbus series, that gave him some struggles.”
Despite his Leafs scoring eight goals over their first two games of the season, Keefe has been unsatisfied with his offence at even strength, prompting the lineup change.
Second-string goaltender Jack Campbell will get the start in net for Toronto, and third-stringer Aaron Dell will back up, giving No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen a full two days’ rest ahead of next week’s busy schedule.
On the Senators side, coach D.J. Smith announced Mike Reilly would sub in for Christian Wolanin. Smith would not confirm whether forwards Colin White and/or Alex Galchenyuk would play. Both were healthy scratches in Friday’s Ottawa victory.
NFL Divisional Round: What to watch for in Saturday’s games – Sportsnet.ca
Now things get real.
With wild-card weekend in the rear-view mirror, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC have entered the playoff chat.
Divisional weekend kicks off with a Saturday double-header that features the 2020 MVP favourite against arguably the league’s top defence and a pair of electrifying young quarterbacks squaring off in Western New York.
To help get set for the action, here’s what to watch for in the NFL playoffs on Saturday.
LOS ANGELES RAMS AT GREEN BAY PACKERS
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
What Vegas is saying: Packers -6.5 | O/U 45.5
Packers: Kingsley Keke, DE (Out, concussion)
Rams: Cooper Kupp, WR (Out, knee); Terrell Lewis, LB (Out, ankle); John Wolford, QB (Out, neck); David Edwards, G (Out, ankle)
How they got here
Packers: With Aaron Rodgers back in MVP form, the Packers thrived in head coach Matt LaFleur’s second year in charge on the way to an NFC-best 13-3 record behind the league’s highest-scoring offence.
Rams: Sean McVay’s team was able to survive a worst-case scenario at quarterback on wild-card weekend thanks to an absolutely dominant defensive performance against division rival Seattle.
What To Watch For
MVP favourite Rodgers faces toughest test yet
It’s been a renaissance season for the 37-year-old Aaron Rodgers, who led the league with 48 touchdown passes in the regular season and quarterbacked his team to the second-best record in football. Along with a top offensive line (even without All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari), arguably the best receiver in the game in Davante Adams and a dangerous run game, Rodgers and the Packers are an offence to be reckoned with.
But in their first game of the playoffs, Green Bay faces what might be its toughest test of the season in the Rams defence, which allowed both the fewest points and yards in the regular season and is fresh off smothering Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offence last Saturday.
With juicy matchups all over the field – Adams vs. Jalen Ramsey and the Packers offensive line vs. Aaron Donald being our favourites – how the Packers fare against Brandon Staley’s defensive unit is must-watch TV.
Can elite Rams defence steal another one?
It’s been laid out above so we don’t need to belabour the point: the Rams defence is dominant.
But the offence, which is usually a strength of L.A.’s under Sean McVay, is in a bit of a funk these days because of a very sticky situation at quarterback. Not only is Jared Goff dealing with the effects of recent thumb surgery but he hasn’t been at his best in the second half of this season even when healthy.
John Wolford, the backup QB who led the Rams to the playoffs with a Week 17 win when Goff was sidelined, is out for Saturday’s game after suffering a neck injury against Seattle. So the options at quarterback are slim for an offence that has been struggling to find the end zone.
That means an upset win will almost definitely fall on the shoulders of the defence… again. Can they repeat last week’s performance and shock the Packers at Lambeau? It’s going to be a tall task, but the good news is defensive superstar Aaron Donald is a go despite leaving the wild-card game with a rib injury last week.
BALTIMORE RAVENS AT BUFFALO BILLS
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
What Vegas is saying: Bills -2.5 | O/U 49.5
Bills: Darryl Johnson, DE (Questionable, knee)
Ravens: D.J. Fluker, G (Questionable, knee); Marcus Peters, CB (Questionable, back)
How they got here
Bills: Buffalo survived a scare from Philip Rivers and the Colts on wild-card weekend in the best game of the first round, mostly thanks to another MVP-type performance from Josh Allen.
Ravens: Lamar Jackson got the monkey off his back last weekend, earning his first playoff victory with a win over the Titans in which the reigning MVP torched Tennessee with his legs and the Ravens defence stuffed rushing champ Derrick Henry.
What To Watch For
Can Bills slow down Lamar and the Ravens?
Josh Allen put on a show in last week’s tight win over the Colts, and we expect the third-year Bills quarterback will be able to keep up his stellar season against the Ravens. But the biggest question heading into the divisional round for Buffalo is how the defence will slow down the quarterback on the opposite sideline.
Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier had success against the Ravens in their matchup last season, holding that prolific Ravens offence to its lowest total yards in a game in all of the 2019 regular season.
But that Bills defence was a top-three unit; the 2020 edition of the Buffalo defence is still above average but has had its ups and downs, which includes giving up 472 total yards to Indy last weekend.
Jackson and the Ravens offence has been explosive throughout their six-game win streak, averaging 425.5 total yards of offence – including 262.2 yards per game on the ground – and more than 34 points per contest over that span.
Can the Bills defence rebound from wild-card weekend to slow Lamar Jackson and get big stops? That will be the key to Buffalo advancing to its first AFC title game since 1993.
Will blitz-heavy Ravens get after Josh Allen?
During the regular season, no defence blitzed more than the Ravens: Baltimore rushed five or more players on 44.1 per cent of dropbacks, according to Pro Football Reference.
It’s a strategy that’s worked well for a defence that has been among the league’s best under defensive co-ordinator Don “Wink” Martindale the last three seasons, including in 2019 against Buffalo when Josh Allen struggled in a big way against the Ravens’ blitz.
In Josh Allen’s previous matchup with the Ravens, he was blitzed on a career-high 64% of dropbacks.
Allen was sacked 5 times on blitzes (tied for the 2nd-most in a game since 2016) and lost -17.7 EPA (6th-worst by a QB).#BALvsBUF | #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/ywICPZOrHW
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 14, 2021
But, unfortunately for the Ravens, success against the blitz is among the many incredible transformations Allen has undergone as a passer this season, and in 2020 the Bills QB has emerged as among the league’s best in that category.
Despite that marked improvement, Martindale says his defence won’t shy away from bringing the house against Allen in Saturday night’s prime-time showdown – and with good reason seeing how well it work last time. But Baltimore did show an openness last week to change tactics when blitzing wasn’t getting the desired results, and cut the percentage of dropbacks on which they blitzed Ryan Tannehill in half in the third and fourth quarter last Sunday – and it worked.
So will the Ravens blitz Allen Saturday at their normal rate, and if so, how will Allen fare? If Allen continues his success against the blitz, will Baltimore adjust on the fly?
Whatever happens, Saturday’s clash between two of the AFC’s most prolific teams will be fascinating.
Canadian Nick Taylor finishes second round strong to lead in Hawaii at Sony Open – TSN
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