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Raptors settled into Florida, with expectations to be ‘awesome’ –



The Toronto Raptors are built for this. Masai Ujiri is sure of it.

Asked why the strangest end to the strangest season the NBA will ever know could work in favour of his hand-crafted club as they pursue their second-straight championship, the Raptors president didn’t have to qualify his answer.

“Mental toughness, chemistry, just the way our guys are built, the experience we’ve had being together for a long time,” he said, his team’s list of attributes rolling off his tongue easily.

“The chemistry of the team is so important, and the (players’) belief in themselves. I think there’s great camaraderie with them,” he continued on a conference call Monday. “And yes, there’s going to be concerns, but our guys are being responsible as much as we can in these situations.

“Yes, there’s family concerns — everybody is going to miss their families, and these are tough situations, but at the end of the day, you know, there’s a passion for basketball and a love for the game, to play the game at a high level, and go out there and compete and get back to what we’re doing.”

The Raptors were 46-18 — good for second in the Eastern Conference and third overall — when the NBA shut down due to the pandemic on March 11, shocking many pundits who figured they would stumble with the off-season losses of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Instead the Raptors have thrived, even despite six of the top seven members of their rotation missing at least 10 games due to injury.

Now the Raptors are the first team to have their resolve tested as the NBA begins to ramp up for a return to competition. Training camps begin formally on July 9 in Orlando in the so-called ‘COVID Bubble’ at the Disney campus.

However, since the NBA required teams to centralize and begin coronavirus testing two weeks before they could gain access to Disney, the Raptors elected to gather in Naples, Fla., beginning on June 23.

They’v opted to train at nearby Florida Gulf Coast University rather than navigate the 14-day quarantine that would have been required of team members returning from outside Canada had they assembled in Toronto first.

For all the discussion and speculation around the unique challenges entailed in defending their NBA championship, reality began to set in for Fred VanVleet last Sunday when he arrived at the Raptors’ current home base – a Ritz Carleton hotel that had otherwise been closed during the pandemic. The Raptors were able to hire out to serve as their own pre-bubble for a party comprised of 45 players, coaches, executives, medical staff and support staff.

“I think I was the first player here,” he said Monday. “So, it was like five people in a hotel. Walking around in an empty hotel for a while was weird.”

As the rest of his teammates and other members of the organization filtered in, the vibe grew a bit more familiar – kind of like training camp except with nowhere to go for dinner; everyone is wearing masks and having to be tested for a potentially deadly disease every other day.

“I think we’re just keeping it simple,” VanVleet said. “Going to your workout, staying in your room and eating. That’s kind of your time to mingle, when you’re going to and from places. Everyone’s masked up. All the staff are taking their precautions. I think I’m going into it trying to get ready for Orlando…it’s just been different and not ideal.

“But these are the times that we’re in. I think us getting here (early) was a good thing. Hopefully going forward we’ll be ready.”

Ujiri is confident. He’s witnessed about a week’s worth of individual workouts – full practices and scrimmages are still a no-no until all 22 NBA teams are on campus in Orlando – and is enthused about what he’s seen, even beyond pictures of a svelte-looking Marc Gasol or Kyle Lowry on Instagram.

“I think they’re going to be awesome,” says Ujiri, who last season put together the first team to win an NBA championship without a lottery player (i.e. a player drafted among the top-14 picks) and his hoping the Raptors can be the first to win a title the year following losing the Finals MVP.

“Watching them work out, they’re all, there’s anxiousness to come back and play. They’ve been away from the game for a while, and I think it will be good to see the whole league back together again, and the whole process of, just the NBA, and playing. So, they’re competitive by nature and they want to go out there and compete, but just playing the game that they love, I think, will be fulfilling to them.”

The potential complications are many and varied. A number of Raptors have young families and the NBA’s restart plan coupled with the Raptors two-week stint in Naples means the soonest they will be able to see their loved ones will be the middle of August after the first round of the playoffs wrap up. By then the Raptors will have been separated from their children and partners for nearly seven weeks.

“I’ve been gone a week and I miss my kids already,” said VanVleet, who has a daughter and a son, each under three. “I think that is the plan for my family (having them join him in the bubble). I will re-evaluate once I’ve been in Orlando for a little while. If it’s something that suits us, then we will do it. If not, then we won’t.

“But I like having my family around for sure (but) I’m here by myself for a while and I still will be able to make that decision if they are able to come before the date that allows them to come. I will be there for a month or more before they are actually allowed to come. So I will have some sense of what it is like and what things are like and how risky or dangerous it is.”

In the meantime, there’s plenty of downtime.

“It’s been different. I think that is the word I will keep using. It’s just different from the norm, from what we are used to. My routine has been pretty simple. I wake up really early and get tested and check all your vitals and then go work out. Then I have the rest of the day to do whatever. I have been catching up on some sleep. Being a stay-at-home dad over the last three-and-a-half months, I haven’t been sleeping too much so catching up on that, playing some video games.

“There’s not really a whole lot to do. But just trying to get back and ramped up in terms of basketball activity and getting your body ready for what is to come. I think even us being here is going be different than being in Orlando. I mean I know we’re in Florida, but I think we still get to control all of our environment here and I don’t know if that will be the case when we go to Orlando. There will probably be more rules and things we have to go by with much more people inside the bubble, obviously.”

Navigating those rules and finding a way to keep focused on the task at hand will be a challenge that unfolds over time. If the Raptors advance to the NBA Finals and it goes the full seven games, they will have spent an estimated 94 days in Florida, almost entirely consisting of practising, competing and hanging out at their hotel. It’s not coal mining, but it’s a long stretch removed from the standard freedoms NBA players – and most people – are accustomed to.

But it’s precisely those wrinkles the Raptors believe make them well-suited for the road ahead.

“I don’t know if this benefits anybody but I think that we’ll have everything back and we’ll go into something new and fresh and it’ll be different and we’ve got open-mindedness,” VanVleet said.

“Nobody on our team is too cool for anything or too accomplished to do anything. So, we’re definitely in a good spot to be able to win the rest of the season as it is because it’s such a different thing. I think we’re a very, very flexible team. Just gotta get back to work and hopefully everybody stays healthy and try to win one.”

Win one more, he means.

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Uncle Toni After Seeing Djokovic At 18: 'Rafael, We Have A Problem' – ATP Tour



Some players have a special aura. They have magic in their hands. At Wimbledon in 2005, an 18-year-old Serbian was introduced to the world as one of the biggest talents of the future. Making his tournament debut, he was still yet to break into the Top 100 of the FedEx ATP Rankings.

It only took a few points for Toni Nadal to appreciate his talent from the stands. The coach of the reigning Roland Garros champion, crowned a few weeks earlier in Paris, was sidetracked en route to the locker room from Aorangi Park, the training area at the All England Club. He decided to pay a quick visit to Court 18, where Argentine player Juan Monaco — his nephew’s habitual sparring partner and friend — was playing against a player he had never seen before.

“Who’s that kid?,” Toni asked.

“He’s 18 years old and he’s 100 and a bit in the world,” came the answer.

“What’s his name?” Toni responded.

Novak Djokovic.”

Toni Nadal burned the name into his memory. After watching the match for a few minutes he continued his walk to the locker room, where Nadal, who was just a year older than the kid who had just stunned him with his game, was waiting. When they met, Toni Nadal made a famous statement that would prove prophetic: “Rafael, we have a problem. I’ve just seen a really good kid,” said Toni.

Later, they heard the news that the Serbian, still unknown to the public, had beaten Monaco 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3. It was just his second victory in a Grand Slam (2-2), after making his major debut earlier in the year at the Australian Open. But in London he was starting to show signs that, sooner rather than later, he could become a player to keep an eye on. In the second round on the London grass, Guillermo Garcia Lopez awaited Djokovic.

The Spaniard produced faultless tennis at the start of a match and seemed to be in complete control with a 6-3, 6-3, 5-3 lead.

“It was incredible because I had it practically won. At 5-4 and 40/30 in the third set, I hit a great serve into the ‘T’ and I was left with a mid-court forehand onto his forehand to win the point. I looked at the line judge and he called it in and I celebrated victory,” said García López.

However, his elation was fleeting. As the players approached the net to shake hands, the umpire overruled the call and said that the ball was out.

“The match continued. I lost my concentration in that game and we got to 5-5. I broke back and went 6-5 up, 40/0 on my serve. I had three more match points,” said Garcia Lopez.

But the Serbian saved each one and made it through the third and fourth sets 7-6(5), 7-6(3). Djokovic claimed the deciding set 6-4 to seal his first comeback win in a Grand Slam after four hours and eight minutes.

That 18-year-old boy, who had surprised Toni Nadal a few days earlier, was competing like a veteran.

“He was a player that never ever gave up, he had huge potential,” said Garcia Lopez. “His baseline shots were so solid on both sides. Maybe another player wouldn’t have come back against me. With that scoreline, coming out on top of that match means he is a born competitor.

“You could see he had the potential to make it, of course. Djokovic has so much belief in himself. He is a winner with a lot of qualities in terms of agility, mobility and shotmaking.”

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NHL reveals tentative dates for Stanley Cup Final, draft –



The 2020 Stanley Cup Final will tentatively end on Oct. 2 at the latest, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman has learned.

The date is one of several tentatively listed in the NHL and NHLPA’s Memorandum of Understanding.

The draft is currently scheduled for Oct. 6. Training camps for 2020-21 are slated to open Nov. 17, with the new season aiming for a Dec. 1 start date.

The NHLPA’s Executive Board approved the CBA extension and 2020 return-to-play plan on Tuesday. The entire NHLPA membership is now in the process of voting on the two agreements with a simple majority required to ratify them.

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MLS is Back Tournament awards predictions | Andrew Wiebe –



Creators Network

Public Service Announcement: These predictions will, invariably, be wrong. I’m OK with that. Yours will be, too, so don’t be offended by my honesty. Instead, let’s all take a moment to take a deep breath and reflect on the fact that MLS predictions have always been and will always be a fool’s errand and nothing about the world makes sense right now anyway.

One of the only things that feels logical and predictable in the upside down is that awards still always end up on the mantels of winners. Win games, score goals, go far in the MLS is Back Tournament and you’ll be in the running for individual plaudits. Don’t do many or all of those things, and you’re not going to have any official mementos to remember the tournament by.

In case you need reminding – I am sure you don’t if you are reading this column – the opening match of the MLS is Back Tournament sees Orlando City and Inter Miami play their first-ever Copa del Sol match on Wednesday at 8 pm ET (ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada).

Golden Boot presented by Audi

(Note: As part of Audi’s Goals Drive Progress and their commitment to the growth of soccer and building future MLS stars, at the end of the tournament, Audi will award the MLS is Back Tournament Golden Boot winner an additional $10,000 for his Academy Club.)

Greg Seltzer put together his top five candidates here. I almost went with Raul Ruidiaz myself, but it seems, for the time being at least, that Seattle will play one fewer group stage game than everyone else, which makes the numbers game tougher for the Peruvian.

Thankfully, Greg omitted my clear and obvious favorite, meaning I won’t have to share the glory if I am right/lucky: Sporting KC’s Alan Pulido.

Sporting KC have trained together longer than anyone else, the climate in Kansas City isn’t quite as hot and humid as Orlando but it isn’t far off and Pulido has proven, both in Liga MX and two games in MLS, that he’s particularly suited to two things: finishing by any means necessary in the 18-yard box and burying penalty kicks.

I expect Sporting KC to make a deep run in this tournament, and I expect there to be some blowouts thanks to the variation in preparations between the squads, the conditions and decision making that’s in preseason form. Sporting’s chance creation was not the issue in 2019, and the Mexican will get plenty of opportunities to pad his total from the run of play. Tired legs, four months of rust and Video Review ought to give him some from the spot, too.

Here’s one I haven’t heard anyone else say: the Union’s Kacper Przybylko. That’s my ultimate Hipster Golden Boot pick.

Player of the Tournament presented by adidas

I already wrote this. You can read it!

If you put me on the spot and said pick ONE player … I’d go with … Alejandro Pozuelo.

Here’s what I wrote about him a week ago. None of it has changed:

Toronto are a tournament team. They’ve proven that, over and over. They did it last year without Jozy Altidore. They did that collectively and because they have Pozuelo, who can impact the game from just about any attacking position.

Whether it’s from a free kick, in transition, finding the right gap and timing to break down a packed in shape or scoring the goal himself, with either foot, the Reds’ No. 10 is a complete attacking player in a complete and tactically flexible team. If Altidore is better than 70 percent – he’s still in individual training after returning from Florida – fit and in any way sharp watch out.

Golden Glove presented by Allstate

Two names, on either side of the bracket: Stefan Frei and Sean Johnson. Both are likely to make deep runs with Seattle and New York City, which we already know are a prerequisite to winning any individual award. I think these two ought to have been the previous two Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award winners. They didn’t get the votes. Call this a consolation prediction if you want.

If you pushed me, I’d go with Johnson. Mostly because I think the Eastern Conference is slightly weaker, and therefore his path to the final and glory is a tad more likely.

Young Player of the Tournament presented by AT&T

Again, I’ll split my predictions because this is more of a thought exercise than an official ballot. This time the split is American/Canadian vs. international.

For the former, I’m going with Brenden Aaronson, who is, incredibly, still just 19 years old and has three goals in his past eight MLS regular-season games. That’s a good trend. Aaronson knows the next step in his development is a consistent final product, and unlike many teenage American talents, he’ll get the minutes to put up numbers with the Union. As my Kacper Przybylko shout shows, I am high on the Union. I’ve got them winning Group A in my Bracket Challenge.

Aaronson does a little bit of everything, which I think will help him stand out, but it’s the goals and assists that I expect will get him enough attention to be in the running for the Young Player of the Tournament award. With Jamiro Monteiro, Alejandro Bedoya and a dedicated defensive midfielder behind him, Przybylko and Sergio Santos in front of him and Raymon Gaddis and Kai Wagner running the flanks, Aaronson will get chances to deliver on his potential as a budding American No. 10. I hope and expect him to deliver.

That said, my prediction is Ezequiel Barco. Adam Jahn is not Josef Martinez. He never will be, and this is the last time I’ll mention it. But Jahn can occupy central defenders, has soft feet for a big man that allows him to hold and distribute and he makes hard runs at the near post. If he does those things, Barco and Pity Martinez are going to be able to roam and find space, and they’ll be extremely difficult for defenders to track, especially in counterattacking situations.

Barco is 21 years old now. The potential phase of his career is over, and he delivered at the level expected in the season’s first two games (2 G, 1 A). I picked him to win 22 Under 22 last December. I’m not backing off that now. Time to deliver. His career needs it. Atlanta United need it.

MLS is Back Tournament Best XI

This is not a traditional Best XI. It’s a “Players I want to have a good tournament for a variety of reasons” XI. I readily admit that. Enjoy the soccer!

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