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Stanley Johnson surprise a positive step in Raptors’ process – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — All the Toronto Raptors have to do is trust the process.

At least, that’s what they’d make you want to believe after they fell to the Philadelphia 76ers, 100-93, Tuesday night, dropping them to 0-3 to start the season.

And contrary to how the team’s insatiable fanbase is feeling at the moment, there’s no panic to be had yet with these Raptors. Urgency? Sure. But panic? Not yet at least.

“I think there’s a little bit of unsettledness with the team,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “I think it’s evident with a lot of the guys’ offensive play being so erratic. I think some of that is carrying over to the other end. We’ve got to stretch out our good moments. We’ve played some great moments in all the games.”

Added Kyle Lowry: “We’re definitely in a bad spot. We haven’t won a game but we could be 3-0. We were in a position to win all three games and unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us.”

Yes, for the third game straight the Raptors saw themselves up double-digits, looking to be in control, only to see an uncharacteristic dry spell rear its ugly head at an inopportune time, resulting in a blown game.

Another concern, of course, has been the poor play of Pascal Siakam. While looking great in the first half of games, Siakam has faltered in second halves and really looked out of sorts on Tuesday, picking up five of the six fouls that booted him from the game within about the last six-and-a-half minutes of the fourth quarter while scoring just two points on 1-for-4 shooting in that frame.

It’s clear the Raptors need more from him.

“I’d say he’s our closer. I think, again, he’s going to get the opportunities there and I think the increased reps will get him there,” said Nurse of Siakam. “He’s got to find his balance, he has to find his strength a little bit, he’s going to have to produce on a few more of those shots.”

But, as mentioned before, this is a process the Raptors are going through, and while the negatives are glaring and certainly can’t be ignored, there are positives to be found as they stumble as well.

Like, for example, the big performance of OG Anunoby Tuesday, who after looking timid offensively broke out against the 76ers to the tune of 20 points, six rebounds and five steals while going 7-for-11 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range.

Or how about the fact the much-maligned Raptors defence looked much-improved Tuesday? Toronto held Philadelphia to just 38.1 per cent shooting, forcing them to turn the ball over 18 times. Sure, they ultimately couldn’t capitalize on it because their offence goes through droughts at poor times in contests, but when you’re in a tailspin like the Raptors are, finding small victories will be important if they aren’t going to just crash and burn.

“We kinda flew around a little bit more. We kinda were a little bit more active in the sense of us getting to spots and kinda making them take some tough shots,” said Lowry. “But at the same time we’ve gotta be a little bit better. We’ve gotta be a little bit better with how we finish our possessions and finishing them with rebounds. But it was a better effort tonight.”

The sight of the Raptors playing more Raptors-like defence was an encouraging sign as it seemed to indicate a return of the team’s missing identity to start the season. Something that was reinforced thanks to a little signature Nurse ingenuity.

Facing a Sixers squad that boasts a lot of size, Nurse decided to mix up his rotation Tuesday and played Stanley Johnson, the sparsely-used forward who only played a total of 150 minutes over 25 games last season.

A player who was almost exclusively used in garbage time a season ago — and for the majority of his NBA career — Johnson checked in at the 4:44 mark of the first quarter and ended up playing 22 impactful minutes, coming in as the main defensive matchup against Philadelphia star Ben Simmons when Anunoby was sitting for a rest.

Johnson finished Tuedsay’s game with seven points and eight rebounds with no two points cooler than when he slammed home a putback dunk off a free-throw miss midway in the fourth quarter.

Johnson managed to catch the Sixers napping and effortlessly swooped in from the three-point line to jam the free-throw miss home, thanks in part to some communication between himself and Lowry.

“Kyle had a heads-up play,” said Johnson. “I wanted to do it, and [the 76ers] kind of were keeping it out, and Kyle saw them keeping it out, so he told me to be quiet, and he went to the free-throw line, they thought I wasn’t going and then I went. A lot of guys don’t pay attention to stuff like that, but it’s always available.”

Added Lowry of the play, who claimed he doesn’t deserve any credit on it: “It was all Stanley, to be honest with you. He felt something and when my teammates feel something I say, ‘OK, cool.’ I was about to put him on the line and he was like, ‘That’s OK.’ Simple as that.

“When my teammates feel something I’m going to go with it. I try not to question my teammates and he made an incredible play and Stan played his butt off tonight and that’s the opportunity he’s been waiting for.”

Despite being so unevenly used, Johnson has stayed ready and he impressed enough Tuesday that there’s a chance he could see even more floor time in the future.

“He does a good job daily in his workouts. He really practices like a pro, etc.,” Nurse said of Johnson. “There was an opportunity for him tonight. The depth of the roster looks like there’s a need for a backup three, four, and he might take that over. I hope he can give us just what he gave us tonight. If he can, he’s got a shot in the rotation. That’s what it comes down to, some consistency.

“I think he’s gonna earn a lot of favour with the veteran guys if he’s gonna play that hard and defend like that.”

Seeing a relatively surprising move like using Johnson was a familiar sight from just a season ago. As you may remember, the Raptors were among the most injured teams in the league last season and managed to weather the storm in part because of the emergence of then-mostly-unknown players like Chris Boucher and Terence Davis II.

Toronto’s in a different situation this season, obviously, but finding more options — like Johnson — certainly can’t hurt Nurse and Co. as they try to navigate the waters they’re in now and right the good ship Raptors.

At 0-3 and with a multitude of problems plaguing them, the Raptors are going to need to take their time tackling each issue one-by-one. It’s hard to say for certain yet, but the pleasant surprise of Johnson Tuesday is a positive step forward and not one that should be dismissed.

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Report: Blue Jays still trying to sign outfielder Michael Brantley – Sportsnet.ca

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With George Springer secured, the Toronto Blue Jays are still trying to sign free-agent outfielder Michael Brantley, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.

Brantley is represented by the same agency as Springer and the pair were teammates for two seasons with the Houston Astros.

Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins have history with Brantley when they were in Cleveland. Shapiro acquired the now 33-year-old in the CC Sabathia trade with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008.

Brantley, 33, batted .300/.364/.476 with five home runs and 22 RBI in 46 games with the Astros last season.

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Report: Blue Jays, George Springer closing in on contract – Sportsnet.ca

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The Toronto Blue Jays are closing in on signing star outfielder George Springer, MLB Network’s Joel Sherman reports.

Sherman adds that while a deal between the two sides is not done, “optimism is strong.”

Springer, 31, is widely considered the best free agent hitter on the market and one of the outfielders in baseball. He joins the Jays after spending his entire seven-year career with the Houston Astros and brings three All-Star appearances, two Silver Slugger awards and a World Series MVP award on his resume.

Last season with Houston he hit .265/.359/.540 with 14 home runs and 32 RBIs.

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Toronto Raptors waive centre Alex Len after just seven appearances – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Toronto Raptors waived seldom-used centre Alex Len on Tuesday.

The Raptors signed the seven-foot, 250-pound Len on Nov. 25, but he appeared in just seven games for Toronto, averaging 2.3 points, 1.6 rebounds and 10.8 minutes.

Len signed with Toronto after playing 55 games last season with Atlanta and Sacramento. The Ukrainian-born player was selected No. 5 overall by Phoenix in the 2013 NBA draft.

The centre position has been a weak spot for Toronto since Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka departed during free agency.

Aron Baynes, who also joined the Raptors during free agency, has struggled at the position. Canadian Chris Boucher, however, has been excellent coming off the bench.

Boucher is averaging career highs of 16.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.5. He had 21 points and 10 rebounds in Monday’s 116-93 victory over Dallas.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2021.

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