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Raptors continue to find a way to win keeping a streak



TORONTO – Word began to spread in the Raptors’ locker room about two and a half hours before game time.

Serge Ibaka, Toronto’s fill-in starter, was under the weather and wasn’t going to play on Monday. He probably could have gutted it out, or at least would’ve given it a shot if this were a playoff game. Of course, it was not. It was a Monday in early February, just a few days before the all-star break, against a bad Minnesota team.

The obvious call was to play it safe but it meant that, once again, Nick Nurse and his club – or what was left of it – would have to get creative. Fortunately, they’re used to it by now.

“It was like 5 o’clock, a little bit before the jump ball and [some of my teammates] were like, ‘Hey, Serge is sick,’ ” said Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. “I heard it from a player. I didn’t even know if it was true. And then we went upstairs [to the team’s old practice gym on the third level of Scotiabank Arena for the pre-game walkthrough]. It was like 5:30 and [the coaches] were like, ‘Rondae, you’re [starting]’. I was like, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ ”

Hollis-Jefferson was one of four Toronto players to record at least 20 points, scoring 21 in a spot start, as the Raptors pulled out a 137-126 win over the Timberwolves, extending their franchise-record winning streak to 15 games. It was the latest chapter in a remarkable run that has highlighted their unexpectedly impressive season, while battling adversity.

Having to adjust and improvise on the fly is nothing new for a Toronto team that has been one of the most banged up in the NBA this year. They’ve had to manage injuries to almost every single rotation player, often multiple at a time. Still, this seemed like a unique challenge.

Marc Gasol, the team’s starting centre, would be missing his seventh straight game with a hamstring ailment that also cost him 12 contests earlier in the year. Now, his very capable replacement was out as well.

The Wolves came in with a record of 16-35 and had recently overhauled half their roster at the trade deadline, but they would feature talented seven-footer Karl-Anthony Towns – a big and physical all-star calibre centre. The Raptors wouldn’t have a healthy five-man to match his size and strength.

Instead they went with Hollis-Jefferson – a versatile forward generously listed at 6-foot-6, though he joked he’s closer to 6-foot-4 without shoes on. Nurse considered going even smaller in the starting lineup and shifting OG Anunoby to power forward and Pascal Siakam to centre. However, he trusted that Hollis-Jefferson was both physically and mentally strong enough to hold his own in the matchup, and his effort might help make up for the size disparity.

Toronto’s lack of size was apparent early on. The Raptors were red-hot offensively, shooting 64 per cent through 24 minutes, but without a big and intimidating presence in the paint, they were bleeding points around the rim.

However, as they’ve done for most of the campaign, they found a way to get it done. Anunoby scored a career-high 25 points and grabbed 12 boards, which matched a personal-best. Siakam turned in his best two-way performance since coming back from a groin injury last month, scoring 34 points and hitting six three-pointers. Kyle Lowry was typically excellent, recording 27 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists.

As they started to pull away in the third quarter, and then again when they put the game away in the fourth, they were playing bigger than their size. They out-rebounded Minnesota, 41-38, on the night.

Despite giving up more than half a foot and over 30 pounds in the matchup, Hollis-Jefferson did an admirable job as the primary defender on Towns. He had some assistance from his teammates – particularly Siakam, whose help defence was great in the second half – but Nurse credited the 25-year-old forward with getting underneath Towns, pushing him out of the paint and fighting him on the catch.

Towns scored 23 points in 36 minutes but shot just 5-for-13. Most of his damage came at the free throw line.

“It’s definitely different,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “The battle, the battle in itself, holding your own ground. It’s definitely about being mentally tough, having that resiliency. Coming where I come from, I was born with it. I inherited it. For those that don’t know, I’m from Chester, PA, thank you. I love a challenge at the end of the day.”

It’s not like Nurse had many other options. Chris Boucher has the length to contend Towns’ shot out on the perimeter, but doesn’t possess the upper-body strength to battle with him in the post. Even Dewan Hernandez, Toronto’s rookie big man who’s only appeared in four games this season, remains out with a badly sprained ankle.

In the end, Hollis-Jefferson got the job done and several of his teammates stepped up to fill the void around him, with Gasol, Ibaka and Norman Powell out of the lineup. That’s been the underlying theme of the winning streak, which is now tied for the 11th-longest in the NBA over the last decade.

They’ve had to win in different ways and with different guys contributing. On some nights they’ve had to overcome injuries, on others they’ve had to come back from big deficits. They’ve given up big leads but have found a way to pull out games that seemed lost.

One way or another, they’re confident that whatever happens they’ll be able to figure it out.

“It’s never been perfect,” Siakam said. “We’ve barely had our team and we’ve always had to adjust and figure it out. And I’m sure guys know now that you have to be ready every day. You never know what’s going to happen. Today you might be sitting on the bench and the next day you’re starting. That’s just got to be the mentality and I think everyone knows that.”

“I think these guys have proven enough that they can win,” said Nurse. “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 [the other team] 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 think we’ve done that most nights.”​

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Penny Oleksiak back to lead Canada in Tokyo pool



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



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?



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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