The Toronto Raptors used to be capable of magic.
They could make all seven feet and 300 pounds of Joel Embiid vanish.
It was only a season ago — though it seems like another age — that the Raptors held the Philadelphia 76ers big man scoreless in 32 minutes. Embiid was 0-11 from the floor and 0-of-3 from the line and turned it over four times, too.
That came on the heels of the Raptors reducing Embiid to tears after Toronto booted Philadelphia from the playoffs on route to the 2019 NBA title.
But as the Raptors were trying to avoid starting a season with a three-game losing streak for the first time 15 years the question was could they turn back Philadelphia and Embiid and do it without Marc Gasol, the designated Embiid stopper who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in the off-season?
Not really, it turns out. How much that matters, in the long run, won’t be known until the post-season, potentially. But Embiid was too much for the Raptors on Tuesday night in Philadelphia.
Embiid showed his full skillset as the Sixers pulled away down the stretch as Toronto lost 100-93 to fall to 0-3 to start a season for the first time since 2005-06.
Embiid got to the line — where he lived all night; his presence on defence forced a Pascal Siakam turnover on a drive to the rim and his ball-handling allowed him to attack the paint, collapse the defence and find Seth Curry for a wide-open three that put the Sixers up 96-91 with a minute left as Philadelphia reversed a five-point deficit with seven minutes to play.
It was an ugly game — the Raptors shot 36 per cent from the floor with 19 turnovers while Philadelphia shot 38 per cent with 18 giveaways — but the Sixers proved better equipped to win it as they got to the line 33 times to 14 for Toronto.
Embiid was the difference maker. With Gasol and Serge Ibaka safely in Los Angeles with the Lakers and the Clippers respectively, he could rumble around without fear. His game wasn’t pretty, but it was effective as he finished with 29 points, 16 rebounds and was 14-of-18 from the line, earning more points at the stripe on his own than the 12 points the Raptors did as a team.
Toronto came into the game having started 0-2 for the first time since the 2012-13 season, back when newcomer Lowry was battling it out with Jose Calderon to be the starting point guard and — perhaps not coincidentally — the club was on its way to missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
They were facing a 76ers team that has revamped their lineup — well, most of their organization — after another disappointing season that ended with them being swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Long-time head coach Brett Brown was replaced by Doc Rivers; former Rockets president Daryl Morey was brought in to run the basketball operation and his first move was to add a pair of veteran shooters to the starting lineup up in former Raptor Danny Green and Curry, who shot 45.2 per cent from three for Dallas a year ago, along with Dwight Howard to add depth at centre.
But it still starts and ends with Embiid. The luxury of having one of the NBA’s most talented centres is something Rivers is still getting used to.
“I’m happy. What’s nice to have, and one thing bigs always have been, even in this day of quote-unquote, no bigs, if you know what I mean, they’re run stoppers,” said Rivers, who caught on with Philadelphia weeks after he was let go by the Clippers. “It’s just amazing that you can come out of a timeout and can say, ‘Just throw it down there.’
“What we’re really trying to get Joel to see, and I think he’s getting it, is just because we throw it to him does not mean he’s gonna be the scorer. But the team is gonna benefit because he’s so darn good, if you don’t trap him he’s scoring or getting fouled. If you do trap him, he’s creating action for our team. And what we’re showing our whole team is that’s good either way because the objective is to score.”
How the Raptors would manage what seemed like a clear mismatch — the presence of Howard in a back-up role, fresh off a championship with the Lakers — was the question.
“It’s an interesting one for us,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before the game. “I think it’s usually, like, most teams have a centre of some decent size that you can match up your centre with, and then most teams, similar to us, come in with a backup centre that plays smaller and faster and just a different, it’s either a pick and pop guy or a real athletic pick and roll guy that’s different than the traditional guys. That’s kinda what you see on a nightly basis. But now you’ve got two true fives coming at ya, and for us, we’ve gotta decide, hopefully Chris (Boucher) can take advantage of one of those guys with his speed up and down the floor, but it also is a concern at the other end, you know, just offensive rebound or deep post seals and things like that. It’s hard with the matchups sometimes.”
Embiid came into the game averaging just 13 points on 33 per cent shooting against the Raptors with Gasol in the lineup. Without the big Spaniard Embiid has averaged 23 points on 48 per cent shooting.
Nurse responded by juggling his lineup in ways that could not have been predicted. He gave minutes to big man Alex Len for the first time this season but also to Stanley Johnson — the forgotten man who played just 150 minutes sprinkled across 25 games all of last season, and not at all this year — and for long stretches at the same time.
It was all so very Nurse, who has never found a lineup he’s scared to try and stick with if it works at all. Len gave him a body to impede Embiid and Johnson was another big wing to use against the Sixers’ over-sized wings — Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris.
But it was one of the smaller players on the floor that drove play for the Raptors as is so often the case. The Raptors led by 28-17 after the first quarter but were only able to take a 56-48 lead into the half after Lowry stepped into an open three, created an open three and then hit Fred VanVleet for a full-court layup at the buzzer for an 8-0 run in the space of 39 seconds.
But Embiid made his presence felt, mainly because he kept getting to the free throw line. He was 11-for-11 from the stripe with 18 points in 24 minutes before he had to leave the game midway through the third quarter after tweaking his hamstring.
The Raptors seemed to be poised to gain control of the game at that point in part due to the contributions of some roster player who otherwise were invisible to this point of the season.
More than Len or Johnson it was Anunoby who lifted his level after being mostly a rumour in the first two games of the season and in the wake of the four-year, $72 million contract extension he signed on the eve of the season.
Anunoby looked like the kind of two-way player who can take over games on Tuesday night, matching up well with the Sixers’ six-foot-10 point guard Simmons at the point of attack, wreaking havoc in the passing lanes and looking ever so comfortable from deep.
But Embiid came back before the third quarter was over — no sure thing given his injury history — and helped spark the Sixers to a 13-0 run to end the third quarter and send the game into the fourth tied 76-76.
For the third straight game the Raptors stagnated on offence down the stretch — scoring six points in the final seven minutes won’t get it done. In addition to his defence, Toronto may be missing Gasol’s additional playmaking or Ibaka’s ability to score out of the pick-and-roll.
The problem for the Raptors is Gasol and Ibaka are gone and Embiid and the 76ers are still here, very much in the way and there are no tricks to make him vanish.
Mixed Martial Arts-Door is open for YouTube’s Paul brothers in MMA
Logan and Jake Paul would make great Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, Bellator president Scott Coker has said as he targets exhibition matches featuring the YouTube personalities such as the former’s boxing bout against Floyd Mayweather.
Logan Paul went the distance, surviving eight rounds against unbeaten (50-0) five-division world boxing champion Mayweather in an exhibition on Sunday at Miami’s Hard Rock stadium.
USA Today reported the fight brought in one million pay per view buys with $50 million generated from sales in the United States.
It was only the second fight of Paul’s career, while his brother Jake has fought in three professional boxing matches, beating former MMA fighter Ben Askren in April.
Critics have labelled the bouts a sideshow due to the lack of sporting credibility of the duo, who made their names as social media personalities and have millions of subscribers on YouTube.
However, Coker told Reuters the brothers have impressive physiques and the door is open for them to move into MMA.
“I met with Logan Paul about two years ago and I’ve spoken to Jake Paul’s manager and Jake on a zoom call recently… The one thing I said was hey, if you want to do MMA we would love to promote you guys,” the 58-year-old said in a Zoom interview.
“These guys are young, athletic, strong and you saw the fight on Sunday night these guys they came and did their work.
“Mayweather couldn’t finish him and I know he tried, I heard he wanted to knock this kid out so bad,” he added.
“When I heard both had high school wrestling backgrounds in Ohio, which is a prominent wrestling state in the U.S., it really made me interested in pursuing them in some super fights in Mixed Martial Arts – and that door is continually open.”
Bellator, owned by Viacom, is gearing up for a busy month of events, starting with Bellator 260 on Friday with the headline fight between reigning welterweight world champion Douglas Lima and the undefeated Yaroslav Amosov.
However, super fights and exhibitions are where Coker is targeting a younger audience.
“My 14-year-old niece, I told her I was going to the Logan Paul fight and she thought that was the greatest thing,” he said.
“She asked me who he was fighting and I said Floyd Mayweather and she said ‘who’s that?’ – I thought wow, she doesn’t know boxing, she doesn’t know MMA, she’s just a 14-year-old girl on the internet doing what they do.”
As the sporting world gears up for the delayed Tokyo Olympics starting in July, Coker believes MMA will feature in future Games.
“When you think about mixed martial arts, what you’re talking about is boxing, wrestling, judo, taekwondo, karate – those are all Olympic sports,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t mixed martial arts eventually get into the Olympics because six out of the seven disciplines MMA is known to use really is already there.
“There’d be a lot of details to work out but to me I think it will happen, it’s just a matter of time.”
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge,; Editing by Ed Osmond)
Montreal will host the 2024 world figure skating championships
The championships will return to Montreal from March 18-24, marking the 11th time Canada has staged the event.
“Skate Canada has a proven track record of holding successful ISU events and we are looking forward to bringing the world’s best skaters to the fantastic Canadian city of Montreal,” said Debra Armstrong, CEO of Skate Canada, in a statement.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
Andreescu splits with coach Bruneau after French Open exit
World number seven Bianca Andreescu on Tuesday announced she has split with longtime coach Sylvain Bruneau, a week after falling in the first round of the French Open.
The pair had worked together for four years as Andreescu made her breakthrough with three titles in 2019, including the U.S. Open.
“It is with a heavy heart that I would like to inform my fans that my long time coach, mentor and friend, Sylvain and I, have mutually decided to end our incredible coaching relationship,” Canadian Andreescu wrote on Twitter
“Our friendship will live forever … I am very grateful for everything we accomplished together and all of our great memories.
“Sylvain was more than a coach… he is family.”
Andreescu, 20, returned to action at this year’s Australian Open, having missed 15 months due to a knee injury.
A positive COVID-19 test subsequently ruled Andreescu out of both Madrid and Rome before an abdominal injury forced her to pull out of Strasbourg at the quarter-final stage.
Her most recent appearance at Roland Garros ended with a 6-7(1) 7-6(2) 9-7 defeat by Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek.
(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)