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Raptors’ tenacity provides blueprint for identity-deprived Timberwolves

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The Minnesota Timberwolves were in town to play the high-flying Toronto Raptors and it felt like the right time for some compare and contrast:

The Timberwolves might be the lowest-functioning team in the NBA – like the New York Knicks, less the ever-simmering controversy.

But their single playoff showing in 16 seasons (and counting) is always the ultimate truth.

The Raptors, meanwhile, have a championship streak of one and a winning run of 15 straight games. Whatever the Timberwolves are, the Raptors are not.

The Raptors can play hurt, play short-handed, play on short rest and still play without excuses.

“I think we can win, right? I think these guys have proven enough that they can win,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said in trying to explain something that isn’t easily reduced to a single thing.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries this year, but they just keep stepping up and playing and we’ve just gotten used to it. You at least have to go out and give a great effort, give yourself a chance to win, and don’t let them play harder than you. If you think you’re under-talented or undersized or whatever, then you’ve got to take your energy and toughness up a notch and I think we’ve done that most nights.”

They did it Monday night against a team that has done it oh-so-rarely over the scope of its existence.

Minnesota is the franchise that employed Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett for 11 years and advanced past the first round of the playoffs once. It also had two first-overall picks in the starting lineup for the past four years and had one winning season in that span.

The Raptors? They won a title without a lottery pick on their roster, an NBA first.

No wonder Minnesota swung the biggest at the NBA trade deadline last week, remaking their roster with seven new players – four of which were in the starting lineup against the Raptors Monday night – after two deals headlined by moving one-time cornerstone Andrew Wiggins to the Golden State Warriors for D’Angelo Russell, who made his Timberwolves debut against Toronto.

No wonder why there are many NBA watchers that believe getting out of Minnesota could be the best thing that has ever happened to the kid from Thornhill, Ont.

It’s telling that the Timberwolves were so eager to end the six-year Wiggins era that they attached a lightly protected first-round draft pick from what is supposed to be a deep 2021 draft. They exchanged him for Russell, who has a reputation for a lot of empty calories of basketball himself.

These are problems the Raptors can’t relate to – unless we’re going back a decade or two. The Raptors are in their seventh year of making water into wine, or undrafted free agents into borderline all-stars.

As the Raptors were trying to extend their winning streak to 15 games — the longest winning streak by any Canadian-based franchise in any sport — the T-Wolves were one game removed from a 15-game losing streak with decades of under-achieving lottery picks to look back on.

The Raptors’ harder-than-it-looked 137-126 win was a nice parting gift to fans at Scotiabank Arena who won’t see their team at home for nearly two weeks.

The Timberwolves’ new losing skid now stands at one and the Raptors’ winning streak is at 15 with one game left – Wednesday night in Brooklyn – before the NBA All-Star break.

Things didn’t always go perfectly, but it helped that Raptors all-star Pascal Siakam wanted to push this thing over the hump as he took over down the stretch. He scored 14 of his game-high 34 points in the fourth quarter, including nine straight in a two-minute burst as part of the 24-7 run that split open the game.

Ho-hum. The Raptors barely feel like they’re on a roll.

“Obviously I see it on Instagram or something,” said Siakam who was 14-of-21 from the floor and 6-of-8 from three. “But for us, it’s just about every single day coming in and taking every game one at a time and making sure that we go out and execute every single game, have a game plan go with it and whatever happens, happens.”

But it was a team effort – and that’s no cliche. Four of the Raptors’ makeshift starting lineup had at least 20 points and Fred VanVleet had 16 points and eight assists as Toronto shot 57 per cent from the floor and 51 per cent from three with 30 assists on 51 made field goals.

The Raptors’ streak is due to all kinds of factors – a fairly easy schedule among them. But as a whole, it’s evidence of a positive team culture at work. They simply don’t take many – if any – nights off.

The Timberwolves should take notes.

“I’ve always given this team a lot of credit for … their compete level,” said Nurse. “We do have smart guys and the care factor is up there and they’re competing almost every night to try to win and figure out, one way or another.”

Those habits were tested in an uncharacteristically sloppy first half for Toronto. It’s worth pointing out that the Minnesota broke its losing streak by putting up 142 points against the Los Angeles Clippers a couple of nights ago, so it wasn’t a complete shock that they outscored Toronto 75-74 after two quarters.

Somewhat surprising was Toronto’s 14 first-half turnovers – matching their season average (they only made four in the second half). It was a big reason the Raptors could shoot 64 per cent from the floor and 60 per cent from three and still trail.

Toronto simply flipped the switch, which they believe they can do, almost to a fault.

“I think we’re used to it at this point, and we could get a little lackadaisical sometimes as you see,” said VanVleet. “But I think that it’s a huge tool for us to be able to use in certain situations.”

Put the Raptors’ temporary woes up to one more new starting lineup. While the new-look Timberwolves were still getting everyone’s names straight, Toronto’s lineup was in its typical injury-riddled, paint-by-numbers state. Kyle Lowry returned after missing only one game from whiplash, but out was Serge Ibaka due to flu-like symptoms, joining Marc Gasol (hamstring) and Norman Powell (finger) on the sidelines.

Start six-foot-seven Hollis-Jefferson at centre? Sure, why not?

That Hollis-Jefferson was able to credibly guard T-Wolves star Karl Anthony-Towns (who finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, but failed to dominate the matchup) while chipping in a season-high 21 points seemed inevitable, even it was almost spontaneous.

“He does guard just about everybody,” said Nurse. “But he didn’t find out until late. We didn’t know Serge wasn’t playing until very late in the day. We didn’t even decide that until late, in the walk-through at five o’clock. That’s when we finally made a decision.”

Toronto’s iffy start would put to the test one of the Raptors’ other traits: the ability to adjust as games go on.

It has set the Raptors apart over the streak — their ability to adapt as they adjust to different, injury-depleted lineups while finding ways to win games regardless.

It hasn’t been without hiccups. The Raptors have looked shaky but held on in wins against the Hawks, Knicks and Cavaliers. They had to mount a furious comeback from down 10 with 2:27 to play against the Indiana Pacers to set the franchise record with their 12th straight win last week and then barely held onto an 18-point third-quarter lead against the Brooklyn Nets for their 14th win on Saturday.

Their offence has been flawless – heading into Monday night, the Raptors were first in offensive rating over their undefeated stretch – but defensively they have slipped a little bit, giving up 107.8 points per 100 possessions compared to 103.8 before it started. Toronto ranks 28th in defensive rebounding percentage over the streak, too.

Both tendencies were on display in the first half.

Defensively, the Raptors finally began to look more like themselves in the third quarter as they held Minnesota to a more-than-tolerable 19 points over 12 minutes on 33 per cent shooting by turning up the activity on defence, switching almost all pick-and-rolls and then double-teaming Russell as the half wore on as well. Toronto forced six turnovers in the third and maintained their own offensive crispness and gained separation with a 10-0 run that put them up 106-94. Having OG Anunoby go off for 16 of his season-high 25 points in the frame on seven shots was helpful, too.

The Raptors eventually figured it out. They always do. The Timberwolves are just one more example of a franchise still trying to find their way.

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Penny Oleksiak back to lead Canada in Tokyo pool

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Penny Oleksiak, the first Canadian to win four medals at a Summer Olympics, will lead a Canadian swimming team eager to build on their efforts in Rio de Janeiro at next month’s Tokyo Games.

Swimming Canada unveiled a 26-member squad (16 women, 10 men) on Thursday that is a mix of experience and youth that officials hope is capable of improving on the six medals won in Rio, the country’s best haul in the pool since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

“I think the mix of veteran leaders and new faces is awesome,” said Kylie Masse, a bronze medallist in the 100 metres backstroke in Rio and one of 10 returning Olympians. “That’s kind of how sport works, there are always older and younger athletes, and it’s a great dynamic to have.”

Leading the charge at the 2016 Rio Games was Oleksiak, who became Canada’s youngest Olympic champion winning gold in the 100m freestyle as a 16-year-old, while also grabbing silver in the 100m butterfly and two relay bronze.

The stage is set for a new star to emerge in Tokyo in 14-year-old Summer McIntosh, who edged Oleksiak in the 200m freestyle at the trials and breezed to victory in the 800m free.

At the other end of the experience and age spectrum is 37-year-old Brent Hayden, who came out of retirement to earn a spot on his fourth Olympic team, becoming the oldest Canadian Olympic swimmer in history.

Bronze medallist in the 100m freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics, Hayden clinched his spot with a win in the 50m freestyle at the Canadian trials that wrapped up on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)

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Sinclair to lead Canadian women’s team in her fourth Olympics

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Christine Sinclair, the all-time international goal-scoring record holder, was named to her fourth Olympic squad on Wednesday and will headline a Canadian roster at the Tokyo Games that features a mix of veterans and youth.

Led by Sinclair, whose 186 goals for her country are the most by a female or male soccer player worldwide, Canada won medals at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was the only nation to make the podium in both competitions.

“I am looking forward to doing whatever I can to help take this team back to the podium and make history again,” said Canadian captain Sinclair. “Our team is in a good spot, we are excited, we are hungry and we are ready to go.”

The 18-player roster features 12 members of the squad that competed at the 2016 Rio Games while a quintet including Vanessa Gilles, Jayde Riviere, Julia Grosso, Adriana Leon, and Evelyne Viens will be making their Olympic debuts.

Goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan travelled to Rio in 2016 as an alternate.

Canada will kick off their Tokyo 2020 journey when they face Japan on July 21 and continue Group E play against Chile on July 24 and Britain on July 27.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)

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Which of the Canadians Picked in the 2021 NFL Draft Will Thrive This Season?

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It was a good NFL Draft for Canadian players in 2021.

Some four stars from north of the border were selected by NFL franchises in the free agency pick ‘em, and that is tied as the highest number of Canadians drafted in the 85-year history of the event.

Of course, the hope is that these young talents are more than just filler and roster depth, but can any of the quartet make the breakthrough into the big time?

Here’s a look at which of the NFL’s newest Canadian additions can shine in 2021/22.

Jevon Holland

The defensive back was the number 36 pick in the Draft by the Miami Dolphins, who beat off a number of rivals in the hunt for the Coquitlam native.

A versatile defender, Holland is a former Jim Thorpe Award semi-finalist thanks to his exploits in the NCAA back in 2019 with the University of Oregon.

He sat out the 2020 campaign, but representatives from dozens of NFL teams were in town to watch Holland go through his paces at the Oregon Pro Day.

The 21-year-old is following in the footsteps of his father Robert, who turned out for the Detroit Lions, and he is expected to force his way into the starting line-up at the Dolphins. And, who knows, maybe Holland could go all the way in his first season, with Miami priced at +2500 in the Super Bowl 2022 American football odds.

Benjamin St-Juste

When you’re six foot three, 205 pounds and still able to run 40 yards in 4.51 seconds, it goes without saying that you have the physical credentials to succeed in the NFL.

Benjamin St-Juste is the man that can, and he will bolster the roster at a Washington Football Team that will be looking to improve upon their playoff showing in 2020.

The 23-year-old may only have been a third-round pick, but he comes with a burgeoning reputation thanks to a successful time at the University of Minnesota. An All-Big Ten special mention in 2019, more than 50 NFL recruitment personnel attended the college’s pro day – largely to catch a glimpse of St-Juste going through his paces.

Both Brian Gutekunst and Jon Robinson made the trip but, in the end, it was Washington who snapped up the powerhouse from the Draft.

Chuba Hubbard

The third Canadian to be drafted in 2021 was Chuba Hubbard, who became the first Canadian running back to be selected from the Draft in 25 years.

It’s the Carolina Panthers who have taken a chance on the 22-year-old and with his credentials, you can see why. Hubbard finished eighth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy in 2019 after a stellar campaign – he served up 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, an NCAA best. He was named the Big 12 Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

While running backs are not the hottest of properties in the Draft, Hubbard provably has the talent to cross into the end zone with regularity – the Panthers might just have got their hands on an unheralded gem here.

With these three Canadians taking the step up to the NFL, the future of the sport north of the border looks in safe hands.

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