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Short-handed Raptors can’t catch a break as they fall to Celtics – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO – Late in the first quarter of a game that was already showing signs of being beyond the Toronto Raptors’ grasp, the Boston Celtics veered from NBA tradition.

They cleared out and sent their big man Enes Kanter to the low block to post up Raptors reserve centre Chris Boucher.

Back when dinosaurs walked the earth and the NBA decided that having a slate of marquee matchups on Christmas Day was a good idea, posting up big men on the block was an every-other-play occurrence. Think Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers doing damage against the Boston Celtics’ Robert Parrish, or the New York Knicks’ Patrick Ewing dueling with the Houston Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon.

Now big men play above the three-point line and have to rely on screen-and-rolls to eat.

But every once in a while, an opportunity presents itself and the wide-bodied Kanter being guarded by the slim Boucher was one of those.

It was all over in a matter of seconds. Kanter ran to the left block, caught the pass, spun back into the lane and Boucher was powerless to stop him.

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The analogy here is the Raptors were similarly powerless against the visiting Celtics as a whole. A win would have made for a great stocking stuffer for the crowd who turned for the Raptors’ second-ever Christmas Day start and first at Scotiabank Arena.

Alas, all they got was a day out and a lump of coal as the short-handed Raptors’ pluckiness and never-quit factor was ultimately no match for a deep and talented Celtics team that looks like it is poised to be a force in the East a year after a frustrating season where they got caught up in a season-long Kyrie Irving melodrama.

With Irving now the Brooklyn Nets’ problem and newly acquired Kemba Walker meshing perfectly with the Celtics’ existing talent base, only the Raptors’ best are a match for Boston and they didn’t have it on Christmas Day as they fell 118-102 to the visitors.

The Raptors’ scrappiness in the face of injuries is a wonderful thing and a compelling storyline, but it is noteworthy for a reason: playing long stretches of an NBA season without your top talent is exceedingly difficult and the strain is showing.

“We’re pretty short on our roster,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse afterwards. “We’ve played a lot minutes, these guys, a lot of games in a lot of days, the schedule hasn’t been very good to us. This is our third game in four days, one was an overtime game, one was a come-from-30-points-behind game, where we used a lot of energy too, so I don’t know. Maybe we just need a little rest.”

Toronto did lead 10-0 in the early going, but was otherwise a non-factor for most of the game. A Gordon Hayward triple put Boston up by 21 with just under six minutes left after the Celtics led after the first quarter (by nine), at half (by eight) and heading into the fourth (by 19).

There was no roaring comeback in the Raptors’ arsenal this time around.

The Raptors got solid showings by Fred VanVleet (27 points and six assists) in his best game since missing five with a bruised knee and Boucher, who had 24 points on 10 shots – his second career-high in three games. But overall, the Raptors struggled to contain the Celtics, who had six players in double figures, led by Jaylen Brown with 30 on just 13 shots.

Boston was 14-of-33 at the three-point line to the Raptors’ 8-of-23.

The Raptors gave up 13 offensive rebounds, too – three to Kanter, who finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds in 18 minutes.

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.

Clearly the federal government has no sense of NBA gamesmanship or what it takes to make a precious holiday memory.

Kanter wrote a column in The Globe and Mail on Monday thanking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among others, for facilitating his entry into Canada with the Celtics for the Raptors’ first-ever home date on Christmas. Kanter, an outspoken critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, has said his passport was revoked by the Turkish government in 2017. He’s needed special consideration to travel outside the US since.

It was a big day for Kanter.

“I was just definitely so happy,” he said before the game. “And at the end of the day, I’m not a journalist or a politician, my job is as a player to come here and play basketball with my teams and try to help this organization win games. So that’s why I wanted to come here and play basketball and enjoy this time with my teammates. So it’s definitely a very special moment.”

With the Raptors already missing five rotation players – including mainstays Marc Gasol (hamstring), Pascal Siakam (groin) and Norm Powell (shoulder) – it wouldn’t have hurt Toronto’s cause had Kanter’s ability to travel north been delayed until, say, Boxing Day.

“I think even though you’re out-weighted or out-sized, you’ve got to fight for your position a little earlier,” said Nurse of the Kanter match-up. “I didn’t think we got a body on him soon enough so he was getting the deep catches … at the beginning we should have been more prepared for that.”

The point being that the short-handed Raptors needed every conceivable advantage to break their way in order to keep the red-hot Celtics – now winners of four straight and who came in on two days’ rest and having played only 27 games so far this season (three fewer than Toronto and two less than any other NBA team) – in check.

Kanter being available was just one example of a break that could have gone the Raptors’ way but didn’t. It meant the Celtics could dress the NBA’s most efficient offensive rebounder against the Raptors, who rank as the league’s third-worst defensive rebound team and are only worse without Gasol on the floor.

Not that Kanter was the difference alone. The Celtics are too deep to have the balance tipped by a single role-playing big off the bench, but Kanter made himself felt. His spin move on Boucher helped put the Celtics up 28-19 after the first quarter, with Kanter contributing six points in just under five minutes. By the time Kanter finished the second quarter with a layup on Boston’s last possession, the Turkish big man’s 12 first-half points had helped Boston to a 55-47 lead.

The past couple of games, a second-half deficit hasn’t meant much to the undermanned Raptors. They came back from down 30 in their historic comeback against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday at home and wiped out a 10-point halftime hole in the third quarter against the Indiana Pacers – a game they ended up losing in overtime.

But like a dog chasing cars, chasing the lead in an NBA game will eventually end badly.

The Celtics’ primary weapons are the trio of Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and by the time Boston had pushed its lead to 19 heading into the fourth quarter, they had each made their presence felt. Walker had 20 points and five threes, Tatum was struggling from the floor, but had five helpers, while Brown was doing whatever he wanted, as he was 9-of-10 from the field for 27 points in 29 minutes. Toss in Hayward – another max player capable of making plays for himself and others – and the Raptors had their hands full.

“We’ve done that [make comebacks] the last couple of games,” said Kyle Lowry, who has sparked the comebacks the past two games but was flagging in his first Christmas Day start of his career as he was 4-of-13 from the floor with five turnovers. “And that’s a well-coached team, hard-playing team, Jaylen Brown and Kemba (Walker), those guys played extremely well, they made a lot of shots, so trying to get back was a little tougher tonight than before.”

The loss was the second straight for the Raptors as they – having played 13 games in 25 days this month – get a couple off before heading to Boston to complete the home-and-home Saturday night.

The gift they could use more than any other is a return to full health, but on that front, Santa skipped them this year.

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Maple Leafs’ Tavares, Marner reunite on top line with Matthews out vs. Oilers – Sportsnet.ca

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The showdown between the hockey’s most dangerous goal-scorer and its most prolific point-getter has been put on hold until Monday, at the earliest.

Auston Matthews, who leads the NHL with 18 goals, will be sidelined with a nagging wrist injury Saturday in Edmonton as the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

Matthews aggravated his wrist during Wednesday’s overtime victory over the Calgary Flames when he crashed hands-first into the boards. Matthews completed the game, gathering a pair of assists, but coach Sheldon Keefe shielded his top centre from taking faceoffs.

Listed as day-to-day, Matthews missed the team’s full practice Friday and skated with the reserves Saturday morning at Rogers Arena:

“He’s played through some stuff here all year long, and he’s been a complete stud,” Joe Thornton said.

Toronto (15-4-2) has already missed 55 man-games due to injuries this season, and this will mark Matthews’ second absence against the red-hot Oilers, who carry a five-game win streak into the night.

The Leafs will welcome back a trio of healthy players to their lineup, however.

Shutdown defenceman Jake Muzzin (fractured face bone) will don a full cage, and veteran Joe Thornton (lower body) jumps back into the top six.

Beloved backup goalie Jack Campbell (2-0-0) gets his first start since suffering a leg injury on Jan. 24.

“He’s amazing. He was watching some tape [on the plane], and I was laughing because on every clip he makes the save and he tapped someone that’s closest to him,” Justin Holl said, with a smile. “Like, it doesn’t even matter. It could be me, and I didn’t even do anything on the play.”

Matthews’ injury paves the way for a John Tavares–Mitch Marner reunion on the front line.

“We’ve already played a game this season without Auston against the Oilers. Putting John and Mitch together, they’ve got a long history of playing together, and having Joe available today will give our whole group a boost,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.

Tavares enjoyed his most productive season, 2018-19, with Marner on his wing, and the elite playmaker will try to help the captain out of an offensive funk that has seen Tavares score one goal in his past 10 outings.

Thornton skated alongside that duo Friday, staying on the ice to take extra reps with Tavares.

“He just wants the puck all the time, and I think that’s a good sign,” Thornton said of his fellow No. 1 draft pick.

“He always wants to distribute and handle the puck, and he’s not afraid of the puck coming to him so I like that. And, off the ice, a real good guy, an easy guy to talk to. And when he opens up, he’s a surprising guy. It’s nice.”

The Maple Leafs assigned Kenny Agostino and Timothy Liljegren to their taxi squad for this five-game western road trip, while newly acquired forward Alex Galchenyuk and defenceman Martin Marincin have been loaned to the AHL Marlies.

Liljegren, 21, has impressed early this season, putting up six points through eight games with the Marlies.

“Regardless of his start,” coach Sheldon Keefe notes, “he’s someone we’ve wanted to get some games.”

Saturday’s projected lines:

Thornton-Tavares-Marner
Barabanov-Kerfoot-Nylander
Hyman-Engvall-Mikheyev
Petan-Boyd-Spezza

Rielly-Brodie
Muzzin-Holl
Dermott-Bogosian

Campbell
Hutchinson

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Canadiens changes to watch for under interim coach Dominique Ducharme – Sportsnet.ca

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Will the real Montreal Canadiens please stand up?

The Canadiens’ first 10 games of the season, they were the best team in the NHL. Their last nine games: 29th.

Montreal’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday was a microcosm of their season to date. A solid first half followed by a disastrous second half. The Canadiens led 3-1 halfway through Thursday’s game and then fell apart. Winnipeg scored five unanswered goals en route to a 6-3 win.

“We cracked,” said the Canadiens newly appointed interim head coach Dominique Ducharme. “We cracked mentally. We cracked physically.”

It all started well enough. In the first period the Canadiens looked like the early-season team that torched their opponents with quick puck movement and speed. Joel Armia scored twice on quick-ups that caught the Jets defence off guard.

That’s the Canadiens team we saw in their first 10 games. A team that played on its toes, not its heels.

When Montreal is attacking as they did in the first 30 minutes of Thursday night’s game, they are a tough team to handle. Montreal led the NHL in rush chances and goals through its first 10 games of the season. It’s no coincidence that when the offence dried up, so too did the wins.

While the Canadiens excelled at creating and capitalizing off the rush early in the season, those chances faded away as their opponents adapted. The Canadiens adapted as well and more or less made up the difference in scoring chances/expected goals by creating offence in different ways. In the final eight games of Claude Julien’s tenure, Montreal ranked third in cycle scoring chances and first in chances off the forecheck and off rebounds. In-zone offence as opposed to the high-volume off the rush opportunities.

The plan to score goals once set up in the offensive zone under Julien was fairly straightforward. Move pucks low-to-high and shoot from the point with traffic in front of the net. Deflections, rebound chances, screens and recovering loose pucks was the name of the game.

While this strategy did produce a fair amount of quality shots due to the sheer volume of shots the Canadiens produced, Montreal struggled to score goals once defending teams were set up in the defensive zone. The Canadiens simply could not convert these chance types at even a league-average rate. It was rush or bust and the rush was gone. Entering Thursday’s game, the Canadiens had scored 39 per cent of their goals this season off the rush. No team relied more on rush offence than Montreal.

Ducharme hinted that the Canadiens’ strategy in the offensive zone would be tweaked, emphasizing more puck support to give the puck carrier more options. We saw examples of this Thursday night. Midway through the first period Jonathan Drouin had a chance to move the puck to the point, but instead tried to pass it into the slot. Moments later, he worked a give-and-go with Nick Suzuki that created a scoring chance.

Late in the second period, Joel Armia has the puck behind the net and looks for Drouin in the slot, but he’s covered. So, Armia works the puck to the blue line, but instead of a point shot from Shea Weber, Drouin makes himself available in the middle of the ice where Weber hits him with a pass. After fumbling the puck, Drouin stick-handles himself out of trouble for a scoring chance.

These are the type of plays Canadiens fans can expect to see more of under Ducharme.

Whether this in-zone adjustment will prove more effective than the low-to-high, volume-shooting approach Julien favoured remains to be seen. One game is a small sample but sure enough, all three of Montreal’s goals against Winnipeg came off the rush.

That said, how Montreal creates its offence may not matter much if the Canadiens can’t do a better job of keeping the puck out of their own net. Defensive breakdowns and an inability to get a timely save cost the Canadiens more than anything in their loss to the Jets. While Carey Price wasn’t the reason Montreal lost the game, the goal he allowed to Nate Thompson that proved to be the game-winner was the type of deflating goal that can sink a team.

“I just think maybe I’m overthinking things,” Price said after the loss.

Perhaps taking some time to recapture his game is what will serve Price and the Canadiens best right now. When he’s on his game, there are few goalies better in the world. So far this season, Price’s performance has been below average, though.

GM Marc Bergevin acquired Jake Allen to give Price something he has not had in recent years: A competent back-up capable of easing Price’s workload when needed. This might be the time for that. Allen has not only outperformed Price in the seven games he’s played this season, he’s been one of the best goalies in the goalie graveyard that is the North Division.

The last stat on the graphic above — goals saved above expected — shows that Allen is saving his team approximately one goal every three games beyond expected, based on the shot quality and quantity he faces. Price is costing the Canadiens roughly a goal every two games. Among 47 qualified goalies, Allen ranks ninth overall in that statistic, while Price ranks 43rd.

It will take more than one game for the Canadiens to familiarize themselves with how Ducharme wants them to play. Certainly more than one game for the team to start executing with a high degree of consistency. A few more saves at key times might be the difference between a win or a loss in the coming games, which is significant for a team that looks as fragile as the Canadiens do right now.

The Canadiens get another crack at the Jets Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada. We’ll see which Habs team shows up. The first half team that plays on its toes or the second half version that plays on its heels.

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With six coaches out, Sergio Scariolo steps in to lead Toronto Raptors to win – ESPN

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For Sergio Scariolo, this was just another game.

The Toronto Raptors assistant coach slid over into the head coach’s chair, leading the team to a 122-111 win over the Houston Rockets in Tampa Bay on Friday night. The win came despite Toronto being without star Pascal Siakam, head coach Nick Nurse and five other Raptors assistants because of health and safety protocols.

But even with Toronto down another assistant in Chris Finch, who earlier this week became the head coach in Minnesota, the Raptors still had a pretty experienced man on the bench to handle the job.

Scariolo has 25 years of coaching experience overseas, and since 2009 has been the head coach of the Spanish national team, with which he won the FIBA Eurobasket tournament three times (2009, 2011 and 2015) and the FIBA World Cup (2019). He also coached Spain to a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics and a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics.

So no, this wasn’t his first rodeo.

In fact, Scariolo served as a head coach just last week as he coached Spain for the Eurobasket qualifiers in Poland on Feb. 19 and 21. Spain won both of those games.

“It’s a 3-0 week,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said.

Originally quarantining this week after he returned from Poland, Scariolo became available to rejoin the team on Friday, just as the health and safety protocols took out the coaching staff. Scariolo said he got back from Poland on Monday and spent the rest of the week away from the Raptors. He drove to Miami, where the Raptors played on Wednesday, but still stayed separate from the team; he drove back to Tampa in the same car the day after the game.

Scariolo said the team started to put a plan in action Thursday, with the Raptors having reassigned tasks to the coaches who would still be able to be with the team by Friday morning. The team also had to alter its pregame routine because tests didn’t come back on time, so the Raptors had to have one joint film session before getting on the floor without a walk-through.

“So it was kind of reacting every time to something different, but at the end of the day, we got the W, so who cares,” Scariolo said.

Scariolo said he had a video call with Nurse before the game and credited Nurse’s philosophy and the teamwork he has instilled in the coaching staff for helping to make the transition as smooth as possible. He also credited his own experience as a head coach.

“Honestly, it didn’t feel too much difference with the 1,500 games I’ve coached before,” Scariolo said. “I felt that we were prepared getting into the game because everybody made his contribution and this is what it takes in a team sport like basketball.”

Lowry and guard Fred VanVleet tried to downplay the situation as much as possible, but Lowry made sure to grab the ball after the buzzer and present it to Scariolo after the game. Scariolo said that basketball will go next to other balls players have given to him following medal games or other championships throughout his career.

VanVleet said the team tried to keep things the same as much as possible so as not to try to overcorrect something that didn’t need to be corrected.

“I think I kind of came to grips with that pretty early on once they made a decision that obviously those coaches were going to be out. I didn’t really want to overreact to it,” VanVleet said. “I think it’s one of those things that you probably put a little bit too much stock into, but the game doesn’t change.

“The way we need to play doesn’t change. The way we play doesn’t change. So just having a different voice out there, obviously, that’s why you have a strong coaching staff for situations like this. Obviously, Sergio has been a great head coach for a long time. He’s been doing it at a high level, so plugging him in was pretty simple to do.”

The Raptors didn’t release the names of the coaches who missed the game, but Jim Sann, Jamaal Magloire and Mark Tyndale were spotted along the Raptors’ bench and received shoutouts from VanVleet and Lowry after the game.

Scariolo said he doesn’t know how long he’ll serve as the acting head coach, adding that the team will continue to operate on the fly until it knows more. While he had talked to Nurse before the game, he hadn’t talked to him before meeting with reporters postgame. There were more important matters to take care of first.

“I will make sure I get tested first, this is my first test and I don’t want to make a mistake right now,” he said. “We can’t afford it. Then, for sure, we’ll talk.”

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