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Raptors president Masai Ujiri: ‘We have to win this’ fight vs. COVID-19 – Sportsnet.ca

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The range of Masai Ujiri’s concerns are vast.

Some are small, mundane and common such as how to deal with hands chapped from constant washing or noticing how often he touches his face on a video call.

Some are larger and unknowable: How will the pandemic affect the NBA season, or – even bigger – how it might affect less privileged parts of the world, like his native Africa and beyond.

This time of the year the Toronto Raptors president would be immersed in the overlapping spheres of basketball that he’s required to keep abreast of at all times.

He would be dividing his attention between the NCAA tournament, various high school all-star showcases and European basketball playoffs as part of the never-ending search for new talent. Closer to home Ujiri would be overseeing the defending NBA champion Raptors as they begin to position themselves for the playoffs.

If only.

Figuring out ‘load management’ doesn’t seem like such a big deal at the moment.

“I’ve lost where the other world is,” Ujiri said on a conference call Wednesday, his first comments since the NBA suspended play on March 11 and so many things across the globe have been upended due to COVID-19, the virus that has brought much of the world to a halt. “… We’re blessed that the last five, six years, however many, we’re always preparing for the post-season at this time. Very many things happening at this time. Until you said so, I haven’t really thought about it like that.”

Ujiri was on a scouting trip when the Raptors were playing in Utah and against Rudy Gobert, the Jazz centre whose positive test two days later prompted the NBA to put the season on hiatus, an event that is often pointed to as the tipping point in North America’s response to the spread of the virus.

He came to Toronto immediately and began assessing an entirely different set of priorities than were on his plate previously.

Are his team and the members of his organization safe? Is his family safe? What can he, the Raptors and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment be doing to help manage an unprecedented global event?

“Everybody is human, and because we just played against Utah, you know, like there was reaction … I don’t want to say panic because … I think people, players everybody was really calm but concerned. I mean, rightly so,” Ujiri said. “And so we have to take action. I have to take action on deciding you know, like, we were at risk? At that point, you know, like we have to just figure out a way to address that for the people. I’m learning quickly about the rules and regulations of this and how we could really apply them, and then take action.”

But like everyone else he’s quickly realized there is only so much that can be done. For once he doesn’t have any more concrete answers than anyone else. The person who is in an airplane more than most heads of state has to stay home, keep his distance and wash his hands as much as possible.

“I never thought my hands could be this dry,” he said.

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Ujiri is by nature a people person, happy to travel and meet and talk and hug. Now it’s a steady drumbeat of conference calls and video meetings that he breaks up by taking time to do some homework with his daughter or play with his son.

“I think there is also some good to spending time with family and slowing down.”

The sudden shift in priorities means that the business of basketball has taken a back seat.

Ujiri – who has one year left on his contract with the Raptors at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season – has never publicly addressed whether he’s pursuing an extension with the Raptors or will consider other opportunities with other teams or even outside of basketball.

Similarly, much of the team’s basketball operations staff are entering the final year of their deals – including head coach Nick Nurse who was gaining momentum as a coach-of-the-year candidate before the season was suspended with the Raptors holding the NBA’s third-best record.

But those practical matters have been put on the backburner for the moment.

“No, honestly like to be fair, you know it’s not kind of where our minds are at right now, you know, like me certainly. This is a crucial time I think for the world, and those things will come. I’m fine, we’re fine. It’s honestly like the last thing on my mind.

“I’m concerned for the world and I’m concerned about this this pandemic and how we beat it, how we fight it. We have to win this one,” he said.

Not that he’s entirely removed from his basketball role. In a period of unprecedented uncertainty, he’s issued a challenge: Can his organization navigate these weeks or months such that they are better positioned than other clubs?

“That’s what I [am] doing in the sense of business of basketball: How do you come out of this better? How do you come out of this on top? That’s the competitive part and while we’re doing this, you know, just abiding by the rules and staying healthy.”

But otherwise?

“I’m basically stalking Dr. Fauci like the next NBA draft pick you know?” he said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-time director of the United States’ national institute of allergies and infectious diseases who has become one of the most trusted voices on COVID-19.

Dr. Fauci, NBA commissioner Adam Silver or Ujiri can’t solve the one riddle every basketball fan would love an answer for, however: Can the current NBA season be salvaged?

“That’s all of our hope. We love our game and we love what we do,” Ujiri said. “[But] honestly, for now, I think we salvage the NBA season by abiding by the rules and doing everything that we have to do as people, as a community, everything we possibly can. This is not about the NBA, NBA players, NBA fans. It’s about the whole world. This is something that hit globally.

“This is not an earthquake that hit in only one part of the world or a disease that is only in another part of the world or a tsunami — pardon me for mentioning all of these things. But this is affecting the whole world. We can want to plan the NBA all we want, and [want] it to come back all we want.

“[But] because it affects the whole world, something is going to stall that one way or the other, because we have not played by the rules.”

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.

Ujiri has roots in London, Kenya and Nigeria and with a special interest in Africa through his Giants of Africa foundation, so his concerns are wider than how COVID-19 affects the Raptors or the NBA. His foundation is planning the ‘GOA Festival’ in Kigali, Rwanda in mid-August, billed as ‘week-long celebration of basketball, education, culture and entertainment.’

He hasn’t felt compelled to postpone or cancel yet and holds out hope that things may normalize by then.

“I think GOA it’s really one of those things, those events, that I’m hoping it’s a feel-good event,” he said. “… We take time to plan but I think coming out of this there’s always something small or something to do to give people hope, to give youth hope. And as long as we’re abiding by the rules and as long as we’ve paid attention to what the experts are saying, we’ve always gone by what makes people happy; how do we give youth hope in times like this.”

But that’s as far he can go. Like everyone else, all Ujiri can do is look into the future in increments of weeks and months and hope for the best. He’s accustomed to getting people excited, drawing them to his many causes.

Now? He can only wait, follow the advice of experts, enjoy some extra family time and prepare for a new normal.

“It’s been tough, guys I’ll be honest,” he said. “Just being away from everything you do and you do so well, it’s been tough on everybody but this is time for us to rally, be together, be innovative and figure out a way forward.

“I know six, seven months ago we brought the world together in a really special way [with the Raptors championship run] and now I think it’s time we … bring people together by staying apart.”

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Never mind the disallowed goal, Flames couldn’t keep up with the Oilers’ track meet – Sportsnet.ca

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The Calgary Flames built their reputation on Darryl Sutter Hockey – that heavy-forechecking, quality-defending style that smothers opponents and wins back pucks, which makes the burden of creating offence a struggle for their opposition. On the backs of that plan, the Flames allowed the third-fewest goals during the regular season. They were a force.

The Edmonton Oilers can be given no greater compliment than the way the Flames were reduced to playing in the Battle of Alberta, chasing more and more offence to try to keep up with an Oilers top-six that simply could not be stopped. There was a desperation there that we hadn’t seen from the Flames, and by Game 5 I kept thinking, “Just catch the pass and shoot it” rather than trying to rush a one-timer on a hot pass or on one that was in a bad spot. Their usual poise disappeared.

A look at a few of those fanned one-timers in Game 5:

By the end, little of the Flames’ identity was left, not the physical play, not the elite goaltending, or the line of Gaudreau-Lindholm-Tkachuk, which was arguably the best in the league in 2021-22.

The Flames played with offensive impatience, which left room for the Oilers to fly back the other way. Too often it became a track meet, and with that style imposed on the series, the Flames, ironically, were cooked. Rush chances were 11-3 for the Oilers in Game 5.

Apparently, there was also a goal disallowed, but the things below are about how the Oilers got the Flames in a position where one play not going their way could mean the end of the series, and their season.

How did the Oilers do it?

McDavid-Draisaitl

I was tempted to skip over this obvious point because you, the reader, are well aware of what Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl do. But I just couldn’t. How could I? Everything about the Oilers hinged on this, with two players combining for **checks stats** – no, that can’t be right – **checks again** 29 points in five games. They set all kinds of records.

The Flames got much better at slowing down McDavid in Games 4 and 5, but it took all their focus and attention, which opened them up everywhere else.

Depth contributions from Kane, Hyman, RNH

In Game 5, Zach Hyman had one goal and two assists for three points, he was plus-4, he had seven shots, he played nearly 24 minutes, he led the team in hits, he had a big blocked shot, there’s just not much more I can say about this guy.

In the summer, I use a plastic oar to stir my kids’ kiddie pool and get the water going in a “whirlpool,” and that’s what happens when Hyman is on the ice. He’s an oar, and he gets the play going in the direction he’s skating whenever he’s out there.

With McDavid and Draisaitl sucking up all the attention – as they have in years past – the question was asked of the Oilers depth: when those guys see all the best defending, can you capitalize on your extra space or weaker opposition?

Hyman said yes. Evander Kane said yes; he’s on pace to threaten the all-time playoff goals record of 19 (he has 12, so if they Oilers play two more rounds … ?). Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had six points in five games; the Nuge said yes too.

McDavid and Draisaitl were like a collective boxer doing so much damage to the body in the early rounds that their opposition starts to drop their hands, while these guys were suddenly free to take shots at the head.

Good coaching

I thought Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft showed a willingness to be flexible and go away from what’s worked if it wasn’t working on a given night. Case in point: Kane had been on an unbelievable run alongside McDavid, as mentioned above. It would’ve been easy to leave him in that role, no matter what. This is speculation on my part, but I don’t think the Oil loved how Kane defended a Flames set breakout early in the game, followed by his positioning on the Andrew Mangiapane goal. Whether it was that or something else, Woodcroft bumped Kane off that line for Hyman, who did … all the things I mentioned in the section above. It was the perfect change in a game McDavid didn’t have an inch of room and couldn’t create much or drive play. Hyman did it for that line at times.

I also given Woodcroft credit for sticking with what would give the team the best chance in the big picture: Mike Smith over Mikko Koskinen. After Game 1, he could’ve bailed on Smith and been justified. Then Game 2 starts with two softies, where you’d think he’d have a hair trigger, but he stuck with Smith yet again. The roller coaster Mike Smith Experience includes the type of highs you need to get by great opponents, and Woodcroft gave their team the chance to see that through.

An exposed weakness, and a surprise goaltending slump

Flames coach Darryl Sutter gave a telling response in a post-game when he talked about their “inexperienced defence.” They don’t have guys who’ve seen deep runs playing D for them, and, in the end, the little defensive gaffes made just enough room for the Oilers (a miscommunication with Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm on the OT winner cost them) to expose them. In Game 5, the Oilers had 18 slot shots to the Flames’ nine.

The Flames needed goaltending to bail them out, but Edmonton has had Jacob Markstrom’s number all year. He ended up posting just an .852 save percentage in the series, and the crease was supposed to be where the Flames had a clear advantage. I haven’t heard it said much lately, but McDavid is in an awkward body position on that OT winner and doesn’t get a ton on it. They needed a few more saves from Markstrom.

When all is said and done, the Battle of Alberta was decided because the Oilers’ best players had their ‘A’ games, and that dictated everything that came next from the Flames. Calgary was reduced to counterpunching, when it had been used to coming out swinging.

In the NHL, the sport’s all-time greats almost always find their way to a championship, as at some level they become all their opponents can think about and the team around them is free to rise up. That’s what’s been happening for the Oilers, and no matter who their next opponent is, that game plan has every chance of being effective in yet another round.

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Rangers focused on forcing Hurricanes to deciding game – Sportsnet.ca

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The New York Rangers return home knowing they need a win at home to keep their post-season going. The Carolina Hurricanes are still looking for their first road victory in these playoffs.

After Carolina won 3-1 on Thursday night to take a 3-2 series lead, the Rangers will be looking to force a deciding game in the second-round series when they host the Hurricanes in Game 6 on Saturday night (8 p.m. EDT, ESPN) on Sportsnet.

“We lost a game and we didn’t play as well as we could have, so I was disappointed,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said Friday. “That’s playoffs, that’s the way she goes. We’ll be ready to go tomorrow night and that’s what we’re looking forward to.

“Just worry about tomorrow and take care of business.”

A must-win game is nothing new for these Rangers. They trailed 3-1 against Pittsburgh in the first round, then won three straight — becoming the first team in NHL history to rally from a deficit in three consecutive elimination games — to advance.

“We’ve been in this position before,” New York forward Ryan Strome said. “I like our chances on home ice. … We’re familiar with the situation. Got a chance at home to push it to (Game) 7 and that’s all we’re worried about now.”

The Rangers also trailed in this series after losing the first two games in Carolina. They returned home and won Games 3 and 4 to even the series. Now, they have to win at home again to tie the series one more time.

“The feel in that dressing room is super confident at all times and I think the first series helped a little bit,” Strome said. “And having to win Games 3 and 4 (in this series), those are pretty must-win games and we did a pretty good job. We can draw from those experiences.”

And what those experiences have taught the Rangers is to have a singular focus on the task at hand, and not worry about the series or deficits.

“Well, your backs are against the wall,” Gallant said. “You go out and you play your game. You know if you lose this game there’s no tomorrow. We did that real well last series, hopefully we can do it again tomorrow. I don’t think we change anything strategy-wise. We just go out there and play our game.”

Forward Chris Kreider agreed, adding: “We’ve got to win one game. … Lot of things we could take from (Game 5 loss) and do a better job of. Learn from that and win one game. Win the first shift, win the first period and go from there.”

The Hurricanes are also trying to win one game — on the road, for the first time in the post-season. After their latest victory, they improved to 7-0 at home, but are 0-5 on the road.

Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour isn’t concerned by the team’s lack of road wins, though he acknowledges people talk a lot about it.

“That’s a non-issue,” he said. “It’s all I hear about endlessly. We haven’t played poorly on the road. Our game’s been fine. There’s a couple of things that have gone squirrelly. … We’re playing good teams. That’s how it goes.”

The Hurricanes regained the series lead with a strong defensive effort in Game 5, limiting the Rangers to 17 shots on goal — including five in each of the first two periods.

“Does it transfer over, obviously we hope so,” Brind’Amour said. “I don’t usually take a lot of stock one game into the next, good or bad. It’s always about the next game and it takes a life of it’s own but definitely the way we want to do it.”

If the Hurricanes keep up their trend this post-season, the deciding Game 7 would be Monday night at home. But that’s not something they want to think about right now.

“We’re going to give it our best,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re going to try to win (Saturday). We do every night. Nothing really changes. Obviously, we don’t want to come back (home) and have another game. We’re going to do everything we can to win tomorrow night.”

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Warriors top Mavs in Game 5, advance to NBA Finals – TSN

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — As the clock ticked down the final seconds, Klay Thompson began dancing on the sideline before nearly being moved to tears during a celebration with his teammates.

After two major surgeries and two years of grueling rehabilitation, Thompson is rounding back into form and shot the Golden State Warriors back into the NBA Finals.

Thompson shimmied his way to 32 points and the Warriors advanced to their sixth finals in the past eight seasons by beating the Dallas Mavericks 120-110 in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday night.

“It’s hard to put into words really,” Thompson said. “This time last year, I was just starting to jog again and get up and down the court. Now to be feeling like myself, feeling explosive, feeling sure in my movements, I’m just grateful.”

Thompson tore his left ACL during a season-ending Game 6 loss in the 2019 NBA Finals against Toronto and then tore his right Achilles’ tendon just before the start of the 2020-21 season. After Golden State missed the postseason in both seasons he was sidelined, Thompson finally returned to action in January.

The performance against the Mavericks showed he is getting close to returning to his old level of stardom.

Thompson scored 19 points in the first half, including a 3-pointer that he punctuated with teammate Stephen Curry‘s signature shake as the Warriors raced out to a 17-point halftime lead and coasted the rest of the way.

“You could see how much was missing the last couple of years,” Draymond Green said. ”We’re lucky to have the Klay Thompson we know back because we know how good he is.”

Andrew Wiggins added 18 points and 10 rebounds, Green scored 17 points and Curry had 15 points and nine assists. He was named the MVP of the series.

Luka Doncic overcame a slow start to score 28 points for the Mavericks. Spencer Dinwiddie added 26.

After missing the playoffs in 2020 and ’21 in back-to back injury-plagued seasons, the Warriors are returning to a familiar stage. They join the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the 1980s and Bill Russell’s Celtics in the 1950s and ’60s as the only franchises to make it to the NBA Finals at least six times in an eight-year span.

“For our team, our guys, especially the core group, to be part of that six times in eight years, I don’t even know what to say,” coach Steve Kerr said. “It just takes an enormous amount of skill and determination and work.”

Golden State will host the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between Boston and Miami on June 2 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The Celtics hold a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 at home on Friday night.

The Warriors followed their pattern from the first two rounds by bouncing back after squandering a chance to end a series on the road by winning at home. Golden State is now 9-0 at the Chase Center this postseason, tying the 2017 team for the the most consecutive home wins in a single postseason in NBA history.

After making just seven 3-pointers in the first four games of the series, Thompson had eight this game for the record-setting fifth time in the playoffs.

The last two have come in clinchers the last two rounds against Memphis and Dallas, prompting the question on whether his nickname should switch from “Game 6 Klay” for his history in that game to “Clinching Klay.”

“I’m satisfied with ‘Game 6 Klay.’ I don’t need another nickname,” Thompson said with a smile. “It’s nice not having to bring him out yet.”

Thompson gave the Warriors a 13-point lead in the first half when he hit one from the corner before dancing and added two early in the third quarter for a 23-point lead.

Dallas cut a 25-point deficit down to eight in the final minute of the third quarter but couldn’t get over the hump in the fourth.

“I don’t like losing, especially not like this,” Doncic said. “I played terrible. But if we’re talking about our season, I’m really proud of this team. … Nobody had us here. But I promise we fought until the end.”

SLOW START

Doncic had a rough start, shooting 2 for 10 in the first quarter. His eight misses were tied for the most in the opening quarter of a playoff game since LeBron James missed all nine of his attempts in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta in 2015.

Doncic was held to six points in the first half, his lowest opening half of his postseason career, on 2-for-12 shooting before finding his stroke in the third quarter.

“We need Luka to go big a lot of nights just to give us a chance, and unfortunately the ball just didn’t go for him tonight,” coach Jason Kidd said. “I think he carries the load as well as anyone, and I think for us as an organization, we’ll help lighten that load as we go forward.”

MOODY MANIA

With Otto Porter (left foot) sidelined for a second straight game, the Warriors got a big boost in the first half from 19-year-old rookie Moses Moody.

Moody scored all of his seven points in the second quarter with his 3-pointer giving Golden State a 56-38 lead. Moody scored just six points the first three games of this series for the Warriors before scoring 17 the past two games with Porter sidelined.

___

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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