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Raptors’ Siakam confident his new approach will bring back old self – Sportsnet.ca

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In the wee hours after the most trying experience of Pascal Siakam’s professional life, there was no time to reflect on what went wrong or why.

Instead, after the Toronto Raptors were eliminated in Game 7 of their second-round series by the Boston Celtics back in September, there was only time to look ahead.

Circumstances dictated it. Teams that were eliminated from the 2019-20 playoffs didn’t have the option of leisurely collecting their things or sleep off an end-of-season party, or even have one.

Teams and staff had to be out of the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando by mid-day.

There were travel plans to make, an aspect complicated in Siakam’s case because he didn’t have a place to go. Ironically, Orlando is his off-season home but his new house was under construction, so that wasn’t an option, and going back to Toronto wasn’t on the table either given the border restrictions.

On a call with his agents at 3 a.m., there was some debriefing and the outlines of a short-term plan were sketched out: a quick vacation to decompress and then a more comprehensive strategy for the off-season would be put in place.

Siakam had an exit interview with Raptors president Masai Ujiri, general manager Bobby Webster and head coach Nick Nurse scheduled for 9 a.m. and was walking out of the lobby of the Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort two hours later.

He didn’t look back. He couldn’t put the bubble behind him soon enough.

As the Raptors prepare to open the 2020-21 season against the New Orleans Pelicans in their temporary home of Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., Wednesday night, one of the most important questions hanging over the franchise is which version of Siakam will lead them onto the floor?

Siakam’s first year as the Raptors’ primary option was like two seasons in one.

Prior to the pandemic, he showed the kind of dynamic two-way play that justified the Raptors signing him to a four-year maximum extension worth $130 million beginning this season.

In the first 53 games of 2019-20, Siakam averaged 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists while shooting a respectable 36 per cent from deep on six attempts a game, all while maintaining his status as one of the league’s more versatile and energized perimeter defenders – the six-foot-nine Siakam flying across the floor to contest an otherwise wide-open three on the weak side remained a thing.

But after the restart, and throughout the Raptors’ playoff run, Siakam was a completely different player. His shooting touch abandoned him, his energy seemed off, his rebound rate crashed, his turnover numbers spiked and he finished poorly inside and didn’t draw fouls. As the stakes got higher, his performance – offensively, at least – continued to spiral, and the Raptors’ fortunes with it.

Against the Celtics, he averaged just 14.9 points on 39 per cent shooting, including an anemic 12.5 per cent from deep. Defensively, he competed – one reason Nurse kept playing him 40 minutes a game – but mostly he was a shell of the player being relied on to beat a team of the Celtics’ calibre.

Coming up short a year after helping the Raptors to a championship as a breakout star was tough to swallow. Certainly there was plenty to chew on while decompressing on the beach during a brief Caribbean vacation, and when he arrived in Los Angeles to begin training again.

“I think for me, obviously, not having the result that we wanted as a team and then, for me personally, not playing how I wanted to do,” Siakam said when asked if he approached the off-season differently. “For me, my summer – or off-season – is always focused on just going back and [getting] better; working on things and making sure that I come back a better player.

“And I think it was no different [this time], but obviously with a little edge, knowing that we didn’t get where we wanted as a team. And then myself, I didn’t play the way that I wanted to.”

What went wrong is the question that Siakam and his agents – Jaafar Choufani and Todd Ramasar of Life Sports Media and Entertainment – and those around him needed to answer to ensure he would resume the steep upward trajectory that has made him one of the league’s best young players.

On a personal level, seeing Siakam’s play fall off in the bubble while powerless to help was difficult for those closest to him.

“Of course I was worried, as a brother, as family, you’re kind of concerned, like, what’s going on,” said Christian Siakam, one four basketball-playing brothers of which Pascal is the youngest. “He’s never been in this situation before. You’re concerned. Is everything OK?”

In broad strokes, the consensus is the forced isolation following the pandemic hit Siakam especially hard. His fitness was compromised by months of relative inactivity and when he couldn’t perform to his standards on the floor, his confidence withered too. He wasn’t the same person after the restart, let alone the same player.

“I mean the world is crazy right now … there’s so many different things that we all have to deal with as individuals, and I think it was no different for me,” said Siakam. “Just dealing with different things from the virus, to just all the things that are going on in the world. Family problems to, like, everything … I didn’t feel like I was where I wanted to be physically and mentally. … It was weird watching myself.”

The problems began during the lockdown.

Due to visa issues, Siakam had to stay in Toronto and because he was concerned for his health, the health of others and his privacy, he remained in his apartment for weeks at a time, venturing out only in the evenings for walks, with his brother Christian, doing errands.

There were in-home workouts the Raptors set up, but Siakam didn’t respond to them the way some others did – Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby were in similar circumstances in Toronto but played some of their best basketball after the NBA’s four-month hiatus. When Siakam was finally able to travel to the U.S. and begin training before the restart, an athlete who thrived on his fitness and quickness was moving in quicksand.

“I would equate it to flying into a windshield,” said Choufani, one of his agents. “It’s the extremes, I think. You’re constantly going and then you stop suddenly – I think people’s bodies react differently. And mentally there’s an adversity there. You’re in the bubble, they’re looking for answers and physically you’re not responding the way you normally would.

“He doesn’t party, he doesn’t drink, there’s none of that. You just have to assume it’s the being stagnant and that’s the reaction that came and then the pressure of it all.”

Dealing with pressures on and off the floor is part of the entry-level job description for NBA players. Figuring out how to deal with them when things go wrong is a career-defining skill. Siakam’s new status as a “max player” only makes the spotlight hotter.

“I think just the lens that people view him in has changed,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “I think depending on what kind of glasses you’ve got on when you’re watching him, you’ll see what you want to see. I think, for me at least, I think that he looks like himself. And I said it the other day, I’m excited about the year that he’s going to have and he’s going to be a big key for us this year and a big part of what we do. So, we’re all excited and we’ve got his back and just ready to get out there and get it going … [but] I’m not sure if Pascal is getting that benefit of the doubt anytime soon.”

Kyle Lowry says he dealt with his playoff failures earlier in his career by reading and absorbing every criticism and using them as fuel.

That wasn’t Siakam’s approach, however.

“Obviously, I know a lot of things went wrong and I wasn’t excited about it. But I think, for me, people talking about whatever doesn’t really matter. So I don’t pay attention to it,” he said. “I want to be happy and find that joy again of just playing and having fun and I don’t think me focusing on what people say is going to help me do that. I don’t really focus on that.”

Instead, guided by his agents, he channelled his energy into how he can continue on the path that led him from being an unheralded “energy” player taken late in the first round to becoming an all-star and All-NBA player in his fourth season.

But Siakam’s stumble in the bubble may have provided him a jumpstart in that critical area that is fast becoming an arms race of sorts across the NBA. Always a hard worker, Siakam was determined to become a smarter and wiser one, too.

“All these guys, the ones who are at the top level, that make All-NBA, all-star, max players, that’s what they do,” said Choufani. “That’s what you have to do. There is no rest. You have to put in more.”

Ramasar’s analogy is of the athlete as the Formula 1 car supported on all sides with a multi-disciplinary pit crew dedicated to peak performance.

There have been reports that the ageless LeBron James spends more than $1 million on personal support staff to keep him playing at an MVP level as he heads into his 18th season. It’s an approach Raptors veteran Lowry has been ahead of the curve on for years and a big reason he’s gunning to make his seventh straight all-star appearance in his age-35 season.

Just getting shots up and lifting in the off-season won’t cut it anymore.

“I was just laughing with Kyle this morning before practice,” said VanVleet, who broke in with the Raptors with Siakam and, similarly, is in the first year of a lucrative new contract to begin his fifth season at age 26. “When I just came into the league, some of the things [Lowry] did I couldn’t really understand it. Like, I wasn’t in the space to understand why he did certain things on the court or off the court, at practice, outside of practice, at the games. Now I’m like, ‘I see.’

“…It’s like a ticking time bomb that you’re fighting against as you continue to get older. You’re trying to get better and your body is going the other way. So you’ve got to keep being creative and keep finding new ways to get better and that’s the fun part about it, but that’s the challenging part about it.”

Siakam has always been a hard worker – his breakout was in many ways launched in off-season skills sessions with Rico Hines in Los Angeles that were gathering views on social media well before he started putting NBA defenders in a blender.

But the juxtaposition of his lack of proper preparation heading into the restart with his sub-standard play in the bubble put into sharp relief the value of the work he had always done and, simultaneously, whet his appetite for more.

Fortunately, his agents have pushed to be on the cutting edge of sports science, believing it can be an area they can separate their agency and their clients from the pack in a highly competitive market.

It helped, too, that Siakam signed an off-season endorsement deal with Red Bull and in the process gained access to the energy drink brand’s team of sports science experts.

By the time Siakam had finished his vacation, his off-season plan was assembled and in place.

All the elements of his training and performance – from strength training to skills development to nutrition to biometric analysis – would be coordinated and supervised by Dr. Andrew Barr, founder of Los Angeles-based Quantum Performance, which offers leading-edge training and recovery methods to some of the best athletes in the world.

Barr has worked with Siakam for three years and been impressed with his professionalism, but he sensed a different and broader level of commitment and openness this past off-season. With the wounds of his playoff failures still fresh, Barr had a client willing to go the extra mile to return to his pre-pandemic heights and beyond.

“I think what’s really changed, or what the difference is, he’s got perspective and experience now,” said Barr. “He’s reflected on things he knows he needs to do to maintain and to improve.

“When he wasn’t able to do the things that helped him prepare for that that was a good realization for him, how important it is for him to have the right prep and do the right things.

“His perspective now is more open and trying to grow and trust in people that are there to help him and trust in the process and be open to try things he hadn’t done before to get gains he maybe didn’t value as much. He’s got a growth mindset.”

Most NBA players have off-season access to individual skills trainers, physiotherapists and strength coaches. What was different about Siakam’s program, though, was the level of detail and the coordination.

Barr would lead weekly conference calls to make sure everyone was on the same page. It was vital to make sure the strength and condition work was complementing specific attributes Siakam was trying to develop on the court – balance and power off one leg at the rim, for example – annd that the physiotherapy program was properly identifying and correcting deficiencies that enhanced his strength work, and that all of it was being done in a progressive way so he wasn’t fatigued and at risk of injury.

Siakam consulted with a nutritionist to help him identify diets that fuelled both performance and recovery. He worked with a sports psychologist to help identify useful thought patterns and habits and displace less productive ones. His blood was tested to make sure he was resting, eating and healing optimally. He even committed to documenting the process in a multi-part mini-series on his YouTube channel.

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“This year I put extra focus on it, making sure … outside of basketball I can look at everything and know that I put everything in my game and I make sure that I was healthy; eating the right things; and have a strength and conditioning person with me all the time to make sure that I keep, stay, at my best and things like that,” said Siakam.

It was dizzying at times, and hard to process even for someone who gave up soccer for basketball as a 16-year-old and has been navigating the fast track ever since.

“Sometimes just getting on a call with those people was just crazy to see that amount of people just focusing on me and making sure that I’m good and wanting to make me the best player that I can be,” said Siakam. “I think we did an excellent job – my team, my agent, all the people around me just making sure I had everything that I needed.”

Siakam is optimistic that what has been a significant investment of his time, money and trust will pay off, not only now but in the future.

At the very least, being back in the gym, in his element, fighting back against diminished expectations, felt comfortable to him.

“It was almost like a slap in the face,” Christian said of his younger brother’s bubble struggles. “He got hit in the face, he shook it off and now it’s time to get up and be greater. He loves that challenge.”

Entering his fifth season, Siakam is trying to put both the best and worst season of his career in the rear-view mirror as he gets settled in Tampa where the Raptors will call home for the first half of the 2020-21 NBA campaign.

“We all get better, man, we all try to improve and for me, from where I came from to be at this level is a blessing,” Siakam said. “And I always want to improve and get better [and] find things that I can do better to help me become the best player I can be.

All those things you learn, you learn on the fly and I’ve always been able to do that.”

He’ll get to leave the bubble, and all it represented, behind for good when the clock turns over to start a new season Wednesday night.

Siakam is confident his new approach will bring back his old self.

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Laine winner caps sparkling performance as Jets extinguish Flames in overtime – CBC.ca

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Patrik Laine let his play on the ice speak volumes Thursday night with a three-point performance that should squash questions about his committment to the Winnipeg Jets.

After registering a goal and an assist in regulation, the 22-year-old Finnish winger scored the overtime winner, leading the Jets to a season-opening 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames.

“Hopefully I can just build off that game,” Laine said after the victory. “There’s a lot of things I need to look at. The three points isn’t going to tell the whole truth of the game. But it’s a good start.”

His big night comes after Laine’s agent made comments during the off-season suggesting that both the powerful forward and the Jets could benefit from his being traded. Laine ducked questions on the subject as training camp opened.

WATCH | Laine’s 3-point night helps Jets beat Flames:

Patrik Laine records 2 goals and adds an assist in Winnipeg’s 4-3 overtime victory over Calgary. 1:15

His commitment to the team seemed clear Thursday as Laine not only lit up the scoreboard, but stood up for his teammate.

With less than a minute to go in the second period, Calgary’s Noah Hanifin cross-checked Laine’s linemate Kyle Connor into the boards.

Laine responded by going after Hanifin and a scuffle ensued, with Laine and Flames left-winger Matthew Tkachuk exchanging blows.

“That’s just the type of guy he is. He’ll go to battle for his teammates,” Connor said. “He’s a pretty selfless guy and I think you can see that. I have his back out there and vice versa. He’s just an all-around great teammate, I’d say.”

Hanifin was called for cross-checking, and Laine and Tkachuk were each sent to the box for roughing.

It was somewhat of a disappointing result for Laine, who rarely drops the gloves and was hoping he’d register a Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, an assist and a fight.

“The one time I drop my gloves, I get a two-minute penalty. So that’s kind of embarrassing,” he said.

WATCH | NHL season begins amid rising COVID-19 cases:

The NHL season returned to the ice on Wednesday with many questioning if it was the right decision amid rising COVID-19 cases. The league is hoping the season will go off without a hitch, as businesses that rely on the games are looking for ways to save their bottom line. 2:01

The tussle helped ignite a Winnipeg (1-0-0) side that was tepid at times on Thursday.

Calgary (0-0-1) dominated play through much of the first period, starting just 4:28 in when Tkachuk scored on the second shot of the game with a deflection in front of the Jets’ net.

Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm added goals before the end of the first frame, and the Flames held a 3-1 lead heading into the break.

During the intermission, Jets coach Paul Maurice went into the locker room and told his group to relax. His words changed the way the group played heading into the second period, said Paul Stastny.

“Sometimes when you’re kind of thinking too much, your feet are in quicksand, you’re looking around too much. Everyone was kind of hoping for things to happen,” he said. “The first game of the season it always kind of happens like that. I think it’s just nerves, in a sense.”

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo breaks down 9 NHL talking points:

Rob Pizzo identifies the key things to watch as the season begins. 1:54

Thirty-four seconds into the second period, Nikolaj Ehlers took a shot from the slot and, while Jacob Markstrom made the stop, he couldn’t control the rebound. The puck squirted out to Mark Schiefele who popped it in from the side of the net to make it 3-2.

Connor’s power-play goal evened the score at 3-3, and Laine buried the winner 1:18 into overtime, streaking from deep in his own end all the way past the Calgary blue line. He fanned on his first shot but quickly recovered and beat Markstrom on his second attempt.

Laine has worked harder in training camp than any other time during his career in Winnipeg, and is bigger, stronger and more mature than ever before, Maurice said.

“He’s a very driven young man. He wants to be great. And sometimes you have to learn how that unfolds,” the coach said. “What he got tonight he earned. He didn’t get lucky, he didn’t have a bunch of bounces go for him. He just worked and worked.”

Markstrom was making his debut for Calgary after signing a six-year, $36-million US deal in free agency and stopped 30-of-34 shots Thursday.

Connor Hellebuyck, the NHL’s reigning Vezina winner, had 23 saves for Winnipeg.

The game was a rematch of last year’s playoff series where the Flames dispatched with the Jets in four games in the qualifying round.

It was also the first of nine meetings between the two clubs in the pandemic-condensed 56-game season.

The Flames will host the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, and the Jets are set to visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday.

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo ranks the all-Canadian division:

For the first time, all 7 Canadian teams will be in one division. Rob Pizzo predicts which four will make the playoffs. 5:47

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Connor McDavid goes super-nova in 5-2 Edmonton Oilers win over Vancouver – Edmonton Journal

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Article content continued

ZACK KASSIAN. 6. That was more like it. Zack Kassian was skating better and was involved in the play more over-all, chipping in 3 hits and 3 shots. Unlucky to have not scored, as Thatcher Demko absolutely stoned him in close with a terrific glove save on an early chance. Set up McDavid for a chance a shift later. Part of a 3-way sequence that led to Nugent-Hopkins ringing one off the post. More, please.

DARNELL NURSE. 8. Darnell Nurse will be asked to carry a heavier load this year with Oscar Klefbom on the shelf for the season. If tonight is any indication, Nurse is up to it. 2 shots, 5 hits, 2 blocks in a team-leading 23:54 of TOI. A nifty take-away and shot in the 1st. 61% CF (30-19 at even strength). He was a tower of power. +3.

ETHAN BEAR. 7. Had a terrific game. Always on the right side of his man. Made a number of nice, crisp outlet passes. A key clear on a 1st Period PK, again on a 3rd period penalty kill. A shot, 2 blocks, and played in all 3 disciplines across 23:44. Nurse nudged him out in ice time by 10 seconds. +3.

LEON DRAISAITL. 9. Dominant on both sides of the puck. Put up 4 assists, the first a shot off the post that Nugent-Hopkins back-handed home. Won the faceoff with just 2.5 seconds in the opening frame which led to McDavid’s 1st. His drop pass was part of the high-light reel goal by McDavid described above. Then, Leon set up Connor’s hat trick goal with a sublime, no-look backhand pass that was just out of this world. Without the puck he also chipped in 3 hits, was 71% in the circle, and also had an impressive 1st Period back-check that broke up a dangerous Canucks sortie in the 1st. What a player.

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Steve Nash has his hands full with the Brooklyn Nets – CBC.ca

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This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

Steve Nash is blessed — and also maybe cursed

There’s an element of Greek tragedy to it. The gods (or, in this case, Brooklyn Nets GM Sean Marks) grant our hero a gift that can make him more powerful than all his rivals. But it comes with a catch that threatens to destroy him.

That’s where Nash, the Canadian basketball legend and NBA coaching rookie, finds himself after the Nets’ blockbuster trade for James Harden. The kraken of a deal (technically two deals), officially completed today, involves four teams, seven players, six draft picks and four pick swaps. The gist is that Harden is moving from Houston to Brooklyn, Caris LeVert from Brooklyn to Indiana, and Victor Oladipo from Indiana to Houston. Brooklyn is giving Houston three first-round picks and the right to swap first-rounders in four other years, and the Rockets grabbed another first-round pick from Cleveland. Whew.

On one hand, Nash is blessed. It’s every coach’s dream to see his front-office go all-in like this on a championship run. In his first season as a head coach at any level, he now commands one of the best triumvirates ever assembled in pro basketball. Harden is one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the sport, the winner of the last three NBA scoring titles and a former MVP. Kevin Durant is a two-time Finals MVP who owns four scoring titles and a regular-season MVP. Kyrie Irving has hit a championship-winning shot and is one of the most dazzling ball-handlers and finishers anyone has ever seen.

But the Nets’ Achilles heel is painfully obvious. All three of their superstars are difficult personalities who have worn out their welcomes with other teams. Harden forced his way out of Houston by demanding a trade and then showing up for the season out of shape and sullen, alienating teammates and fans. Durant, despite great personal and team success in Golden State, never found the fulfilment he sought in joining the Warriors’ dynasty. He clashed with teammates and the media during his final, sour season there.

And then there’s Kyrie. After unhappy endings in Cleveland and Boston, he could be headed for another one in Brooklyn. Irving is currently on an unspecified, indefinite leave from the team — the reasons for which remain mysterious. No one knows when — or even if — he’ll return to the NBA. So, at this point, the Nets’ Big Three exists only in theory. And, oh yeah, there’s still only one ball for everyone to share.

Time isn’t on Brooklyn’s side either. Harden and Durant are both on the wrong side of 30. Kyrie turns 29 in March but seems like one of the NBA’s oldest souls. So there’s tremendous pressure on Nash to win right now.

The Nets recruited the universally beloved Canadian for this job over far more experienced coaches because of his “soft” skills. He has the ability to relate to, empathize with — and command the respect of — modern superstars. Those talents were put to the test with just Durant and Kyrie on the team. With Harden, the degree of difficulty — and the stakes — have been raised.

Depending partly on how Nash plays this, Brooklyn could win the championship this year. Or go down in flames. And no one would be surprised either way.

James Harden, a 3-time scoring champion, adds another prominent figure in the Nets’ locker room. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Quickly…

Another province cancelled its curling playdowns. Saskatchewan joins B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Northern Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia in deciding not to hold tournaments to determine its representatives for this year’s Brier and Scotties. Unlike most of the others, Saskatchewan isn’t simply sending last year’s provincial champions. Instead, it considered recent results and landed on the teams skipped by Sherry Anderson, whose last Scotties appearance was in 2018, and Matt Dunstone, who finished third at last year’s Brier. Both the Brier and the Scotties will be played in a bubble in Calgary this winter, and Curling Canada announced yesterday that it’s expanding the fields to 18 by adding two extra wild-card teams to each event. Read more about Saskatchewan’s decision in this story by CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux.

Another track star broke doping rules. Reigning Olympic 100-metre hurdles champion Brianna McNeal didn’t test positive for a banned substance, but the 29-year-old American has been provisionally suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit for “tampering within the results management process.” Read more about the ruling here.

A five-time Olympic swimming medallist was charged for taking part in the U.S. Capitol riot. The FBI caught Klete Keller after a video apparently showed him, wearing a U.S. Olympic team jacket, among those storming the building. He’s charged with knowingly entering a restricted building to impede an official government function, disorderly conduct and obstructing law officers. Keller, 38, competed in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics. He won two gold and a silver medal as part of relay teams, plus a pair of individual bronze. Keller was known to be an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump on social media. Read more about Keller and the charges against him here.

And finally…

A Mickey Mantle baseball card sold for $5.2 million US. That’s a new record for a sports card, shattering the $3.94 million paid for a one-of-a-kind Mike Trout rookie only five months ago (yes, cards are a thing again). Unlike most super-expensive cards, this Mantle is not a rookie. But the 1952 Topps is special for a few reasons. As ESPN notes, that was the first year Topps produced an annual set, and the company ended up dumping thousands of them into the Hudson River because of overproduction. Also, this particular Mantle card was graded PSA 9, and only six in that condition are believed to still exist. The record may not last, though. There are three known ’52 Topps Mantle cards graded PSA 10 — also known as “gem mint” condition. Those are valued at more than $10 million.

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