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The Raptors Have Lost Their Swagger. Can They Get It Back? – The Ringer

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Toronto is off to the NBA’s most disappointing start and it seems the rest of the league has figured out its All-Star forward. What can Nick Nurse do to right the ship?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s getting late early for the Raptors, who dropped to 1-5 with a blowout loss to the Celtics on Monday. Toronto has been the most disappointing team in the NBA so far. Its biggest problem has been the regression of Pascal Siakam, who’s coming off the first All-Star season of his career. His play began to dip in the bubble and has gotten worse since then. It has gone beyond just a slump at this point. The league has adjusted to Siakam, 2019’s Most Improved Player, and now he has to figure out how to adjust back. The Raptors’ season depends on it.

Siakam scored a season-high 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting on Monday, but the double-digit defeat still revealed many of the issues that have plagued him. He hasn’t been the same player since his disappointing performance in the Raptors’ second-round loss to the Celtics last postseason. Boston has the personnel to defend him, with multiple long and athletic wings who can suffocate him on the perimeter and still contest his shot once he gets inside. After seeing Jaylen Brown shut Siakam down in the playoffs, the rest of the NBA has started putting smaller defenders on Toronto’s 6-foot-9 forward. The result has been a significant drop in points (from 22.9 to 17.6 per game) and field goal percentage (45.3 to 40.7) from last season.

The difference is striking when you compare the lists of his most frequent defenders from this season to last. The latter features a lot of 6-foot-10 and taller players (Jonathan Isaac, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford, and Tristan Thompson) while the former is mostly players players 6-foot-7 and shorter (Rudy Gay, Keldon Johnson, Josh Hart, and Brown). Defenses have figured out that they don’t need to match up with Siakam’s size. The key is matching up with his speed.

The Celtics game was a perfect example of what happens when that plays out. The Raptors raced out to a 22-10 start largely because Boston started two traditional big men in Daniel Theis and Thompson. Siakam was cross-switched on defense multiple times with Thompson, who lost him on the perimeter and allowed him to get free for two open 3s. But things fell apart once the Celtics downsized and started playing Brown, Jayson Tatum, or Semi Ojeleye at the 4. There’s no obvious way for Siakam to attack those types of defenders. Beating them off the dribble requires a level of precision and touch that he doesn’t have, and he’s not a great post scorer:

Siakam is at his best when he can attack in space and use his combination of size and speed to get to the rim. He has always been great in transition. But he hasn’t gotten as many of those opportunities this season. Not only is he dealing with different types of defenders, he’s playing in different types of lineups. He was paired with a platoon of stretch 5s last season in Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. That was the best of both worlds: The Raptors had one of the biggest frontcourts in the NBA while still possessing elite floor spacing. Their entire rotation was 3-and-D players, allowing them to punch above their weight despite losing Kawhi Leonard.

That is no longer the case, with Gasol and Ibaka replaced by Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher. Baynes has the worst net rating of any player in their rotation (minus-13.2 in 122 minutes) besides Siakam. He’s shooting 20 percent from 3 on 2.5 attempts per game this season, and doesn’t have the size or athleticism to be a threat at the rim. He needs to regain the shooting stroke he found in Phoenix last season. There have been too many sequences like this, in which the Celtics collapsed on Siakam and Baynes couldn’t punish them for it:

Boucher has given the Raptors some offensive pop, averaging 12.7 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from 3 on 3.0 attempts. The problem is that he’s so slight (6-foot-9 and 200 pounds) that he gives them the defensive and rebounding issues of a smaller team without the offensive benefits of having another ball handler and playmaker on the floor. Toronto coach Nick Nurse dusted off journeyman center Alex Len for nine minutes on Monday, but that didn’t work, either.

Process of elimination leads to one remaining option: smaller lineups with Siakam and OG Anunoby at the 4 and 5. Nurse, for all his flexibility as a coach, has never liked playing that small. He waited until the Raptors were facing elimination in Game 6 against the Celtics before he tried it. But that adjustment was the key to forcing Game 7. Siakam (6-foot-9 and 230 pounds) and Anunoby (6-foot-7 and 232 pounds) could match up with Boston’s undersized centers on defense, and shifting them up a position would make them more dangerous on offense.

Toronto would be giving up a lot of size in that scenario, but that adjustment might jump-start an offense that is no. 28 in the NBA right now. Both Siakam and Anunoby are relatively limited scorers who need the game simplified as much as possible. They need to play in more space, with more shooting and playmaking around them. It’s the one move Nurse has left up his sleeve. He has played those lineups only 12 minutes this season, with six of those coming in the fourth quarter against Boston.

To be fair, there are clear downsides. Toronto doesn’t have much perimeter size to make up for going smaller up front. They start two point guards 6-foot-1 or shorter in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, and would be choosing between two undersized shooting guards in Norman Powell and Terence Davis at the 3, or the offensively limited Stanley Johnson (6-foot-6). Davis, who has not played much after an offseason arrest for assault, would have to seize a bigger role. He had his best game of the season against the Celtics—13 points on 4-of-8 shooting and three assists—with much of that production coming when the Raptors went small in the fourth.

But Toronto still only played Boston even in those minutes. The Raptors’ biggest problem was rebounding, with Robert Williams III repeatedly punishing their lack of size on the offensive glass:

After the game, Lowry was blunt about the Raptors’ issues. “We just need to get a little bit grittier, get a little bit tougher and a little bit nastier, and have a little bit of a swagger to us. Right now we have no swagger to us. We have nothing. There’s nothing to us. Teams are looking at us like, ‘All right, let’s go eat.’”

Nurse has to try something different. Going small won’t fix all their problems, but it looks like the best idea in a bad set of options. The Raptors’ schedule won’t get much easier over the next month. They will need more offense from Siakam, even if it comes at the expense of their defense. Defenses have changed how they guard him from last season. He no longer has the same matchup advantages, or the offensive structure that allowed him to thrive. Toronto needs to force the issue by downsizing and making defenses adjust to them.

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Smith weighs lineup changes after 7-1 loss – TSN

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It appears changes could be coming to the Ottawa Senators lineup after a 7-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday night.

The Senators, who dropped to 1-4-1 on the early season, are winless since defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in their opening game on Jan. 15 and have been outscored 17-5 over their past three games.

“We got some guys that maybe are taking for granted positions in the National Hockey League,” Senators head coach D.J. Smith said. “We’ve got to find the right combination and we’ve got to give some other guys opportunity to see if they want to play a little harder than some of the guys that are playing now.”

Smith added that he considered pulling Matt Murray after the second period for a second straight start, but elected to keep the off-season addition in net. Murray allowed seven goals on 35 shots, including three on 14 shots in the third period.

“Certainly he didn’t have a very good game, but he’s got to work through it and find a way to battle for us there,” Smith said of Murray. “He’s no different than any other player and he’s got to find his groove here.”

Murray has a 1-3-1 record this season with a .862 save percentage and a 4.47 goals-against average. Backup Marcus Hogberg, who got his first start of the season on Saturday, is 0-1 with a .875 save percentage and a 3.80 GAA.

The Senators, who sit last in the North Division with three points, will face the Canucks again on Wednesday and Thursday before heading to Edmonton to continue their current road trip. 

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Conor McGregor and the problem with being the man who has everything – MMA Fighting

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In hindsight, Conor McGregor’s most recent legacy-building moment may have been the worst thing that could have happened for him.

Twelve months ago, McGregor was back. “The Notorious” had been sidelined for 14 months, with a humbling loss to rival Khabib Nurmagomedov followed by a year of McGregor ending up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Smashing a cell phone in Miami. Punching a man in an Irish pub. And before all that, an accusation of sexual assault in Dublin, which resurfaced this past week in the form of a civil claim, along with new alleged details.

McGregor also teased a retirement in March 2019 (the second such time he’d done so), a stunt that didn’t feel remotely permanent. It was obvious McGregor needed something big to regain the faith of the masses, but what?

A second Nurmagomedov fight wasn’t happening, and a trilogy bout with Nate Diaz was stuck in limbo. Eventually, McGregor was handed a favorable matchup with the popular Donald Cerrone, an all-time great who was also a non-factor in the contenders’ rankings. No matter, McGregor made the most of the opportunity, blowing Cerrone out of the water in 40 seconds at UFC 246 and restarting the “What will Conor do next?” news cycle.

On Saturday at UFC 257, McGregor was back again, this time getting a chance to replay one of his old hits. What better way to show that he was never gone than to once more vanquish Dustin Poirier, a former featherweight rival who now stands as one of the best lightweights in the world? This was McGregor’s chance to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

That wasn’t the case, however. Poirier completely outclassed McGregor, making brilliant use of his wrestling and low kicks in round one to wear the former two-division champ down before flurrying in round two and leaving McGregor flat on his back in perfect position to become the next big meme. McGregor has lost before, but for the first time in his UFC career, it didn’t just look like he’d ran into a superior opponent or a difficult style matchup; no, it looked like his best days had passed.

Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor
Zuffa LLC

How did we get here? Let’s look at the Cerrone matchup again. With respect to “Cowboy,” one of the best to never win a UFC title and someone who could probably compete until he’s 50 if he wanted to, he entered the matchup with McGregor as a potential showcase opponent. Cerrone was coming off of back-to-back lopsided losses to Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, and while there’s no shame in that, it wasn’t expected he’d last long against McGregor either.

The booking was considered such a layup for McGregor that Cerrone had to suffer the indignity of actually having to respond to critics suggesting that he was going to take a dive for McGregor and the UFC. Cerrone’s ensuing loss only opened the door for more criticism, much of it coming from talking head pundits that are barely qualified to analyze rec league soccer, much less the highest level of combat sports. But I digress.

It was everything McGregor wanted. A highlight-reel win over a known property. The chance to rehabilitate his image with a respectful buildup and an appreciative opponent. He even hugged Cerrone’s grandmother afterward.

Jerry Cerrone and Conor McGregor
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It was too perfect, and exactly the sort of thing that could make one overlook the fact that McGregor’s game wasn’t any different and that Cerrone was his first win since November 2016. Nothing had changed for McGregor other than the fact that he bit the bullet and signed on for another UFC fight.

He was still a multi-millionaire, still beloved by countless fans, still a shining star in Dana White’s eye even as their public confrontations became more frequent. If this was supposed to be the turning of a page for McGregor, the words sounded too familiar.

If Cerrone was the right man to welcome McGregor back last year, then Poirier was exactly the wrong man to welcome him back this year. “The Diamond” did nothing but sharpen his edges since first fighting McGregor in 2014, moving up to the loaded lightweight division and dominating the competition outside of a blip against Michael Johnson. McGregor was a former lightweight titleholder, but his actual achievements at 155 pounds paled in comparison to Poirier’s.

So when Poirier had his chance for revenge, he put on one of the best performances of his career while McGregor wilted. It looked exactly like what it was on paper, one fighter who had scraped his way to an interim title one win at a time versus a fighter who had done a brilliant job of maneuvering himself into position to win a second undisputed title. There’s a difference.

White wasn’t wrong when he said at Saturday’s post-fight press conference that McGregor has grown complacent. He’s the highest-paid athlete in MMA. He was chilling on a yacht in Abu Dhabi while the rest of the fighters were whittling away their time at a hotel. He was able to bring his family with him to Fight Island while a fighter like Dan Hooker wouldn’t see his for another few weeks due to strict COVID-19 safety measures in his native New Zealand.

In the grand scheme of things, there is simply no consequence to McGregor losing anymore outside of a little public humiliation. And that’s nothing that a few seven-figure checks can’t fix. How can one maintain the edge they once had when they were literally fighting to put food on their table and now have reached the level of success and comfort that McGregor has? We can’t blame McGregor’s shortcomings completely on his affluence, as there are plenty of other athletes and fighters (including Poirier) who have only elevated their games as their bank accounts have increased. It’s not an excuse. It’s a weakness, and it’s costing him in the cage.

They say that good living is the best revenge. It certainly isn’t the best motivation. So while McGregor can be content with the incredible financial security he’s created for himself and his family for generations, he may also have to accept that his days as a legitimate UFC contender are behind him.

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Morning Report: Georges St-Pierre discusses lost fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov – MMA Fighting

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For the past several years, UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and his team have been stating their desire to fight UFC Hall of Famer Georges St-Pierre. However, things changed last year when Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, passed away due to COVID-19. Khabib fought one time after his father’s passing, a successful title defense against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254, and then announced his retirement right there in the cage. It was a decision that caught everyone off guard, including St-Pierre, who was doing French-language commentary for the event.

“I was in the same boat as everybody,” St-Pierre told Michael Bisping on his Believe You Me podcast. “I thought maybe he would have called me out to maybe pressure the UFC to organize the fight.”

Khabib’s decision was perhaps more shocking than it should have been because in the lead up to UFC 254, Khabib’s team gave little indication of his intention to retire, talking about potential next fights. In fact, heading into UFC 254 the general assumption seemed to be that Khabib would defend his title against Gaethje and then look to set up a retirement fight against St-Pierre next, to hopefully leave the sport at 30-0 as tribute to his father’s dreams for him. But even if Khabib hadn’t retired, St-Pierre says there was no guarantee the fight would have happened anyway.

“It doesn’t mean I would have accepted,” St-Pierre said. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, when is it going to happen?’ I never said I wanted to do it. It depends (on) the conditions too. I could think about it seriously if the conditions are right in terms of the weight class and all that, but there’s no way I’m gonna go down to 155 now. I’m 39 years old and this is out of the window…

“We’re both about the same size. I’m not gonna lie. I wake up in the morning and I’m about 183 pounds. I’m sure he’s about the same weight as me if not probably bigger. So I think the weight class — it’s like a novelty fight, a superfight — you need to stipulate the rule maybe no weight class or maybe (that) you cannot be more than three percent different in terms of weight. I don’t know but there’s ways to do it. You don’t have to cut weight and damage yourself to do something like that.”

Historically, Khabib has shown little interest in competing outside of his weight division, however, the point is moot now as even UFC President Dana White has finally had to admit that Khabib’s retirement appears to be genuine. That means that fans can only imagine what a superfight between the two would look like, but St-Pierre has his thoughts on how he would have approached the contest.

“If in a hypothetical world this fight would happen, I think I would need to use all my tools,” St-Pierre explained. “I’m good at what I do and it’s not because I’m fighting Khabib that I’m gonna change my way of fighting. The way I fight, that’s how I’ve been successful all of my career. I think the mistake that a lot of guys are doing when they fight Khabib is that they change the way they’re fighting because Khabib is very known to be probably the best wrestler in the sport. (But) I’m good with the takedown, to mix it up. It’s not because I’m fighting Khabib that I’m not gonna mix it up with him. If I have a chance to put him down, I’m gonna try to put him down. I believe in my chance to put him down and I’m confident in myself. I think confidence is a very important piece of the puzzle in MMA to be successful and I believe a lot of guys when they fight a legend fighter status, part of that confidence and their skill goes out the window. That’s one of the mistakes I would not do because I know Khabib would not do it against myself.”

Unfortunately, the end of the Khabib-GSP superfight signals not only Khabib’s retirement, but likely also the last hope for one more St-Pierre fight. St-Pierre retired in 2019 after talks for a Khabib fight were summarily rebuffed by the UFC but has since lingered with the possibility of a return specifically for that fight. Now that Khabib has walked away, St-Pierre admits he’s not sure what it would be, but it would take something special to bring him back.

“If the UFC would want me back, it’s not me that would try to go and beg for a fight. ‘Hey please, can I come back?’ They’re gonna lowball the sh*t out of me!” St-Pierre said. “It would be the most stupid thing I could do. If they have an offer to make to me, an offer I cannot refuse, Dana knows where to reach me.”


Drawing board. Conor McGregor plans to ‘regroup,’ interested in Dustin Poirier and Nate Diaz trilogy bouts.

Let it go. Dana White: If Khabib Nurmagomedov doesn’t want to defend title, ‘I won’t push it anymore’.

Fanciful. Michael Chandler hopes Khabib Nurmagomedov returns for one last fight so ‘he becomes 29 and Chandler’.

Sad. B.J. Penn arrested, released on suspicion of DUI, video shows belligerent encounter.

Apology. ESPN apologizes for technical issues that plagued UFC 257 pay-per-view.


Top ground and pound in Bellator.

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Marc Goddard talks about good stoppages vs. bad stoppages.

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Michael Chandler thinks he’s up next.

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Chandler’s KO.

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The Co-Main Event. Discussing the fallout from UFC 257.

UFC Unfiltered. Interviews with Gilbert Burns and Michael Chiesa.


Nate has some thoughts.

Do it.

He’s going to rebuild . . .

Motivation.

Ready to do it.

Rivalry.

Thanks for clarifying.


Robert Whittaker (22-5) vs. Paulo Costa (13-1); UFC Fight Night, Apr. 17.


Remember when Nate fought for the lightweight title? Khabib fighting him would be . . . not good for Nate.

Thanks for reading and see y’all tomorrow.


Poll

Who would have won?

  • 63%

    GSP

    (199 votes)

  • 36%

    Khabib

    (112 votes)



311 votes total

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If you find something you’d like to see in the Morning Report, hit up @JedKMeshew on Twitter and let him know about it. Also follow MMAFighting on Instagram and like us on Facebook.

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