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Toronto Raptors 115, Cleveland Cavaliers 109

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The Toronto Raptors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers last night, making them 3-0 against the Cavs this year, giving them their ninth straight win, solidifying their second-place standing (1.5 games up on Miami), and moving them to just one game off the pace of last year’s championship team.

So why didn’t that win feel very good?

Playing down to the Competition

I know the Raptors were missing a starter and a key reserve, but there’s no way the Raptors should have needed to cling to a late lead and need

During this nine game winning streak, the Raptors have played seven sub.-500 teams. They’ve let five of them hang around:

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  • The Timberwolves were within two early in the fourth, before the Raptors ran away with it
  • The Hawks were within two with less than a minute to go (after being down by as many as 17)
  • The Knicks were within one with 1:22 to go
  • The Spurs tied the game with 1:00 to go
  • The Cavs were within one with 1:18 to go

I know it’s the dog days of the season, but I do worry about the bad habits the Raptors are developing here. Good teams won’t squander the above opportunities if the Raptors provide them.

Missing Marc

Marc Gasol only averages 6.5 rebounds per game, so you wouldn’t think his presence would make that much of a difference on the glass, right? But you can’t ignore all the little things Marc does that help his teammates get boards (using his body to move opposing players away from the rim) and even his defensive efforts, forcing opposing players to take shots farther away from the rim than they’d like.

His absence was certainly a big factor in Cleveland’s gathering 15 offensive rebounds and scoring 19 second-chance points — which in turn were a big part of helping the Cavs keep this game close.

Starring Starter Serge

On the other hand, I don’t think we can deny that Serge Ibaka relishes his starting role; he had 26 on 10-of-14 shooting last night, although he only grabbed four rebounds.

Serge gets more minutes as a starter, so you’d think, well, of course it makes sense that his raw numbers go up (+5 points, +2 boards). But his usage actually declines as a starter, from 25% as a reserve to 23% as a starter! Meanwhile his shooting improves significantly (.551 TS% as a reserve, .620 as a starter).

Given those numbers, I actually wonder if it isn’t so much starting, it’s playing more minutes with Kyle Lowry, that boosts Ibaka’s numbers. Lowry knows how to get Ibaka the ball in the right spots better than anyone, and that would certainly account for the improved shooting and scoring in the reduced usage.

So: Should Serge be starting in place of Gasol? Or should the Raptors start the double-big unit regularly?

Closing Norm

It was great to see Norman Powell break out of his funk last night, with 16 points and five rebounds. I found it most interesting that he closed the game with the starters, in place of OG Anunoby.

Anunoby had one of his better games in a while; he was 4-for-9 from the field, which while not a great percentage, at least showcased more activity on his part, after several games of passivity.

But I wonder if Nick Nurse wasn’t a bit disappointed with OG’s effort on the defensive end. He looked to be out of position on a couple of rotations, that got Kevin Love open looks and allowed Collin Sexton and Darius Garland to penetrate. Those three were a combined 24-for-36, and while that’s certainly not all on Anunoby, I think the defensive effort is what the team needs the most from OG right now.

It’s also possible Nurse just wanted Norm’s shot-making out there, which the Raptors sure needed!

Welcome to All-Star Snub Season!

Our guy Kyle Lowry was selected to his well-deserved sixth straight All-Star game yesterday, so we, as fans and bloggers, don’t have to get all up-in-arms about it. But as with every year, several player with deserving cases got left off the rosters… which means we get to see the internet, and those players’ teams and teammates, blow up in their defense.

I get it. Of course you want to defend your guy, and if Kyle didn’t make it, this probably would have been a “Five Thoughts on How All-Star Selection is Broken” column or something. But, objectively… only 12 guys make it in each conference! And I think everyone who did make it is deserving, except for Russell Westbrook. It’s inevitable that some guys will be left off — it doesn’t mean they’re not deserving, or worthy, or great players. Not everyone can make it! Being the 13th or 14th best guy in the conference (by this metric, which is already flawed) is still incredibly good!

So I feel for Bradley Beal and Devin Booker and their fans, but guys? You’re still among the best basketball players in the world. You don’t need an All-Star selection to tell you that.

********

The Raptors are right back at it tonight, against another sub-.500 team. Will they let the Pistons hang around… or put them away early?

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Croatia coach sends Canada a stern message ahead of World Cup showdown

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Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic sent Canada a message Saturday at the World Cup. And he didn’t need the F-word to deliver it.

Dalic offered up a stern statement when asked about John Herdman’s emotional words after Canada’s 1-0 loss to Belgium on Wednesday.

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Asked in a pitchside interview what he had said to his team in a post-game huddle, the Canada coach replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff— Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets.”

While Herdman delivered the last line with a smile, Dalic clearly did not see the humour.

When a Canadian reporter at Saturday’s pre-game news conference asked Dalic for his team’s response to Herdman’s heat, the Croatia coach lectured his opposition ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Khlalifa International Stadium.

Dalic used the word “respect” 12 times in his answer.

“The Croatian team deserves respect from everyone … We respect everyone, equally so,” he said through an interpreter. “We expect our opposing teams to respect us. We are worthy of their respect. The Canadians must also have respect for us. This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect. We are the (2018 World Cup runners-up), not Brazil, Spain or other countries.”

“I shall not focus or comment on any other people’s comments,” he added. “We will be prepared (Sunday), we will be fit and we will demonstrate respect for Canada … and for everyone else. We expect respect just as we exercise this view”

Croatian forward Ivan Perisic then backed up his coach, saying simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

Sunday may prove otherwise but it seems, motivationally speaking, Canada has taken a knife to a gunfight.

Both the 41st-ranked Canadians and No. 12 Croatia need to get points out of the match. Belgium tops Group F with three points while Croatia and Morocco both have one point after their scoreless draw.

Canada needs to secure at least a point if it hopes to have any chance of reaching the knockout round. A loss Sunday and the Canadians can finish with no more than three points while Croatia ups its total to four. And no matter what happens in Sunday’s match between No. 2 Belgium and No. 22 Morocco, one of those teams will have at least four points.

With only two teams advancing out of the group, that would render Canada’s final group game next Thursday with Morocco meaningless in terms of tournament progression.

“At the end of the day, both teams really have to win this game,” said Herdman.

Croatian reporters didn’t bother engaging Zlatko on Herdman’s inflammatory words. They had already done so, with tabloids back home having a field day.

In contrast, three of the first four questions in Herdman’s availability were about his post-game hot take. Another came later.

The Canada coach, who had already addressed the issue on Thursday, tried to laugh off the reaction he had sparked in the Croatia camp.

He insisted he was on task “and loving the experience.” And he rejected the assertion that his words were just another motivational tool.

“We’ve been waiting 36 years to get here. I’ve used all my motivation tactics in the 20-odd games it took to get here,” he said in self-deprecating fashion.

But he maintained his words to his players in the post-game huddle after Belgium were simply “to remind them that there’s another task ahead.”

And he was quick to compliment Croatia, calling it a “top top top top football team.”

“(A) hell of a test. Hell of a test for this team,” he added. “But we’re excited.”

Herdman called Sunday’s match a “defining moment for Canada in this World Cup. It’s one of those do-or-die games now that we have to perform in to stay at a World Cup.”

Dalic, meanwhile, called Canada “a tough team full of self-confidence.”

The two sides have never met before.

The Croatian roster features the likes of Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Perisic (Tottenham), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Mario Pasalic (Atalanta). Only six of its 26-man roster play at home in Croatia, with four of those at Dinamo Zagreb.

Despite that talent, Croatia had its hands full with No. 22 Morocco in its tournament opener, playing to a scoreless draw in a game that saw each team put just two shots on target.

Croatia goes into Sunday’s match riding a seven-game unbeaten streak (5-0-2) dating back to a 3-0 loss to Austria in June in UEFA Nations League play. Croatia avenged that defeat with a 3-1 decision over the Austrians in September.

Croatia has outscored the opposition 9-3 over that run, which includes a win and tie against No. 4 France.

“With all due respect to Croatia, they have a very very good team. It’s going to be tough for us,” said Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio. “But it’s going to be tough for them as well.”

The Canadians, who blamed traffic for showing up 41 minutes late for their news conference before the Belgium game, arrived two minutes early Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.

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