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Raptors plan to expand Siakam's offensive role in preparation for playoffs – TSN

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TORONTO – In the final moments of last weekend’s surprisingly competitive NBA All-Star Game, Nick Nurse wanted the ball in the hands of Pascal Siakam.

He had other options, of course. He had an entire roster of good options – team captain and reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, human battering ram Joel Embiid, sophomore inferno Trae Young, the red-hot Kemba Walker, just to name a few.

We’re talking about the best players in basketball and, thanks in large part to the well-executed format change and a rousing tribute to the late Kobe Bryant earlier in the evening, it was the most spirited mid-season showcase in recent memory.

But with the game – and $300,000 for charity – on the line, Nurse turned to Siakam.

“I don’t know if that’s how good [Siakam] is or if it’s because Nurse [was] the coach,” joked Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who was watching from Turks and Caicos. “But I was laughing at him and Kyle [Lowry] trying to close it out out there.”

That Siakam was matched up with James Harden, who isn’t exactly known for his defensive prowess, probably made the decision a bit easier, but make no mistake, Nurse – head coach of Team Giannis – had his day job in mind.

Nurse’s second-place Raptors have had a remarkable campaign. On Friday, they opened the unofficial second half of the season with a 118-101 win over Phoenix to improve to 41-15. Siakam led all scorers with 37 points, including 25 in the first half and another eight in the fourth quarter to help put the game away.

Siakam, last year’s Most Improved Player, has taken another big step after inheriting the featured role from Kawhi Leonard this past summer. There have been growing pains along the way, as you would expect, but he hasn’t looked out of place in the spotlight.

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It’s been far from a one-man show, however. Toronto is a deep and well-balanced team, which has helped them survive countless injuries to key contributors, including Siakam. Once the playoffs roll around, though, they’ll ask for more from their best player. As the level of competition rises and the games become more crucial, teams generally tighten their rotation and lean on their go-to scorer, especially in crunch time.

Given the stage and the stakes, last Sunday’s All-Star Game was a good dress rehearsal. The results were mixed. As both teams raced to the target score of 157, Siakam drew a foul on Harden with his side down 154-152, splitting the free throws. With the opposition, Team LeBron, stuck on game point, Harden stripped Siakam at the rim, though you could argue he was fouled again (and both Nurse and Siakam have made that argument). Nurse, Siakam and Team Giannis would go on to lose the game, but it was a valuable experience for the 25-year-old first-time all-star.

“It was cool,” Siakam said. “[I wish] I made a few more shots. I mean you could argue fouls and stuff. But it was so fun. It was so fun just seeing that at the end of the game, with all those players, and it was like OK, we’re choosing the matchup and we wanna go at it and I was a part of that. It was great. I wish I had made the shots a little bit but it was a pretty cool moment.”

“It was excellent,” said Nurse. “That’s the kind of situation we’re going to need Pascal to be able to score in. High leverage. High talent. Being guarded hard. Being switched on, doubled on, tripled. Sometimes in the block. And I thought he held his own well. I thought if he would’ve gotten a little better whistle he really would’ve played well. I thought he made a couple great moves and got fouled on two of them and had nothing to show for them. They were solid moves with good rhythm and timing — and against really good players.”

With 26 contests and eight weeks to go before the playoffs begin, the Raptors will do what they can to find Siakam even more of those late-game reps and, according to Nurse, expand his overall role in the team’s offence.

The fourth-year forward played an important role in last season’s championship run, but with Leonard around he was the second option on the floor in those critical moments, at best. Now there’s nowhere to hide. He’s the guy for Toronto. Other teams know that and, come playoff time, they’ll do everything they can to try and stop him. One of the Raptors’ top priorities over the next couple months will be to get him ready for what’s to come.

“I think in general we want to continue to give him as many reps as possible in a lot of different scenarios,” Nurse said. “So, I guess his teammates are going to have to be accepting of that. We’re going to probably be more high volume on purpose with him than maybe we would [be] if we were just letting the game flow out or playing to the rhythm of the game or playing to matchups or whatever. So, I just think we need to continue to polish his reps at bringing it up, facing double-teams in the post, certain scoring plays, situations, things like that.”

Coming into Friday’s game, Siakam had a 34 per cent usage rate in crunch time situations (score within five points or fewer in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime) – just behind Leonard and LeBron James and ahead of Anthony Davis and Paul George, so it’s not like the offence hasn’t been running through him down the stretch already.

The issue is that Toronto hasn’t played many close games with Siakam in the lineup. The Raptors have logged 100 “clutch” minutes this season – 11th-fewest in the NBA – but 37 of them came during the 11-game stretch that Siakam missed with a groin injury between mid-December and early-January.

The ending of Friday’s win over Phoenix didn’t qualify as a “clutch” opportunity, thanks in large part to how well Siakam played early in the game. He was aggressive right out of the gate, bullying sophomore Mikal Bridges in the post, facing up in the mid-range, and drilling threes – he hit five of his first six shots from beyond the arc. The Suns did cut Toronto’s lead, which was as large as 26 points, to seven inside five minutes, but Siakam scored eight points and hit all four of his shots – each of them coming in the paint – over the final few minutes to help his team pull away.

The Raptors will happily blow teams out like they did for most of their 15-game winning streak, which just so happened to coincide with a friendly stretch of the schedule. Their remaining slate of games is more challenging, though. Theoretically, that should lead to tighter finishes.

They’ve fared well when the ball’s been in Siakam’s hands late in games, for what it’s worth. The forward is shooting 17-for-37 (46 per cent) when the score is within five points or fewer in the final five minutes and Toronto has outscored opponents by 26 points in those situations. Zoom in even further and Siakam is 9-for-16 (56 per cent) when the score is within five points or fewer in the final two minutes, and Toronto is a plus-33.

Despite his inexperience in that role, he’s the type of player you feel good about trusting in that spot. He’s versatile enough to be unpredictable. He’s unselfish and savvy enough to make a play for his teammates, if the situation calls for it. He’s crafty enough to get to the rim or draw a foul, and he’s extended his range to the point where you’re comfortable with him taking a mid-range shot or a three.

There will almost certainly be a learning curve as he adjusts to the level of pressure and defensive attention he’ll see in April and May (and June, if Toronto is fortunate enough), but the young man rarely seems fazed by a new challenge, if ever. His game has already grown at an unprecedented rate, which is an encouraging sign for the Raptors, who will need him to take another big leap this spring.

“For myself, I expect to continue to get better,” Siakam said. “This is a new thing for me and I just continue to get excited about the process and knowing one day you might have 10 points and another you might have 30 and understanding what you need to do to keep it consistent where you have that high level of play every single game.”

“When you see us play out there it doesn’t matter who is making shots, who is making plays, we just trust the person that’s playing well at that time. But when it comes down to it I think we all know as a team who’s that person we want to go to when we need something easy or if we need a little relief. I think everybody knows that and I know that, and I’m glad to be that guy.”​

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Leafs keep up their California roll with win over Sharks – Toronto Sun

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The Hotel California has not always been kind to the Maple Leafs.

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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.

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“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.”

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin (38) collides into San Jose Sharks right wing Kevin Labanc (62) during the first period at SAP Center at San Jose.
Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin (38) collides into San Jose Sharks right wing Kevin Labanc (62) during the first period at SAP Center at San Jose. Photo by Stan Szeto /USA TODAY Sports

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.

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“(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.”

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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.

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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).

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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.

lhornby@postmedia.com

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Senators Expected To Waive Matt Murray – prohockeyrumors.com

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On Friday, Senators goaltender Matt Murray was a healthy scratch against Anaheim.  One day later, he has been placed on waivers for the purpose of assignment to AHL Belleville.

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.

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Italy, Portugal drawn in same bracket for World Cup qualifying playoffs – CBC.ca

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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.”

Italy’s forward Federico Chiesa (L) challenges Switzerland’s defender Ricardo Rodriguez during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification Group C football match between Italy and Switzerland on November 12, 2021 at the Olympic stadium in Rome. (Akberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

Other matchups

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.

Scotland players celebrate as they leave the pitch after the FIFA World Cup 2022 Group F qualification football match between Scotland and Denmark at Hampden Park in Glasgow on November 15, 2021. (Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

Intercontinental draw

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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