TORONTO – The time for sugar-coating, or even using the old “it’s still early” caveat, to justify the Toronto Raptors’ abysmal start to the season has passed.
Even if they haven’t reached the point of full-on panic, the level of concern is very real, and it’s rising fast. A 1-5 record, capped off by the team’s most worrisome loss to date, will do that.
“This is probably unchartered territory for most of us,” said Fred VanVleet – the lone bright spot in Monday’s embarrassing 126-114 defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics team that knocked Toronto out of the playoffs four months ago. “Just speaking for myself, I’ve never been a part of something like this.”
The final score was flattering considering how most of the evening played out. For the sixth time in six games, the Raptors went up by double digits in the first half, and for the fifth time to open the young season, they squandered that lead and went on to lose. This one cut the deepest.
It’s hard to overstate just how important this game was to them. It was a chance to alleviate some of the tension that’s been building and pick up a much-needed signature win against a rival team, ahead of a tough stretch of the schedule. Instead, it served as a reminder – there’s no quick or easy fix.
“It’s a fine line between being good and bad,” said Kyle Lowry, who was asked what he’s learned about this team over the past couple weeks. “There are things that have to be adjusted in the way we play and how we think. It’s about playing basketball harder and wanting to win.”
The loss highlighted many of the Raptors’ deficiencies.
Their unimaginative and streaky offence continues to result in lengthy scoring droughts, like the one that sparked Boston’s 38-14 second-quarter run, which turned the game. Their defence continues to show flashes but isn’t anywhere close to where they want and need it to be – the Celtics shot 52 per cent from three-point range and got 40 points from all-star forward Jayson Tatum.
Without Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, they’re still searching for answers in the front court (starting centre Aron Baynes was benched in the second half) and on the boards (they were out-rebounded 56-37). They’ve had to rely on the two point guards, Lowry and VanVleet (who combined to score 53 points) to carry the load, while Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby remain quiet, and Norman Powell and the bench (who were out-scored 60-29) continue to struggle.
Then there was their lack of fight – another alarming early-season trend.
Boston came in on the second night of a back-to-back, having barely escaped Detroit with a win 24 hours earlier. They’ve looked vulnerable so far, though not to the extent Toronto has, and they were without their three veteran point guards – Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart and Jeff Teague, who missed the game with various ailments.
The Raptors started the game on fire, hitting seven of their first nine three-point attempts to give them an early 13-point cushion. They got, and wasted, one of the best games of VanVleet’s career – he scored 35 points on 13-of-20 shooting and 6-of-9 from long distance. But it wasn’t enough.
Once the Celtics took control midway through the second quarter they never relinquished it, leading by as many as 26 points in the fourth.
That’s been the through line in each of the Raptors’ losses to begin the campaign – once they get punched, they’ve rarely punched back. It’s a complete 180 from a year ago, when they prided themselves on their unrelenting effort and ability to find ways to win.
They led by 10 or more points in 52 games last season, and only lost four of them. They’re already 1-5 when leading by double digits in 2020-21.
“I think 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,” said Lowry. “And right now we have no swagger to us. We have nothing. There’s nothing to us. We’re just that team. Teams are looking at us like ‘all right, let’s go eat’, and that’s not a good feeling. I think we have to use that to fuel our own fire, somehow someway.”
One way or another, this always seemed like the type of game we would look back on, either as a turning point for this Raptors team, or as a breaking point. Unless something drastic changes, as they embark on a tough four-game West Coast road trip, beginning in Phoenix on Wednesday, it’s looking far more likely that Monday’s loss to Boston will be the latter.
“Nobody’s coming to save us, we’ve gotta do this ourselves,” VanVleet said. “We’ve gotta do a little soul searching and look ourselves in the mirror.
“We’ve just gotta find ways to get the job done. There’s no secret recipe, there’s a boatload of problems and we gotta find ways to solve them.”
Source: – TSN
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The Canadian Press
CLEVELAND — On their wild ride of an unforgettable, almost unimaginable 2020 season when Zoom calls, masks and contact tracing were daily fixtures, the Browns discovered two things that point to a bright future for an awakened franchise. They’ve got the right coach and the right quarterback. After years of being beaten and beaten down, the Browns have climbed back. While Sunday’s 22-17 loss in the divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs — and Rashard Higgins’ costly fumble on a controversial play at the goal line — felt like so many other painful playoff moments and losses for the Browns and their fans, this one is different. Not an ending but a beginning. “We’ll be back,” quarterback Baker Mayfield claimed after the Browns, who won 11 games in the regular season and their first playoff game in 26 years, pushed the defending Super Bowl champions to the limit. “We aren’t done yet, and that is the best part.” Mayfield’s maturity in his third NFL season, and first working with rookie coach Kevin Stefanski, gives the Browns reason to believe they have entered a period when they should contend for years. Mayfield improved as much as any player in the league, ending any discussion about whether the Browns should commit to him long term. “He’s continued to grow as a player and as a person and as a leader,” Browns centre JC Tretter said Monday. “That’s what you need, and Baker’s growth is not yet done. He’s not a finished product and he’d be the first one to tell you that.” The Browns are expected to exercise Mayfield’s fifth-year contract option this off-season, and the team will explore an extension over the next few months with the 25-year-old quarterback who finished with 30 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and 4,030 yards in 18 games. Stefanski’s role in Mayfield’s development while guiding the Browns (12-6) through a season shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, can’t be overstated. One of his first objectives after coming to Cleveland was to connect with Mayfield, knowing the QB/coach dynamic is essential to success. Stefanski bonded with Mayfield right away and they grew tighter as the year progressed. Stefanski brought out the best in his young QB, who threw 20 TD passes and only three picks in his last 12 games. “Once he started getting comfortable with what we were doing and once I was using more concepts that he was comfortable with, he really started playing at a high level,” said Stefanski, among the leading candidates for Coach of the Year honours. “I am proud of the progress he made.” Stefanski, perhaps knowing negotiations will be upcoming, stopped short of calling Mayfield a franchise QB. “He did the things we asked him to do,” he said. “He definitely led this football team from Day 1. We have a bunch of ball games to look at with him and find out ways that he can get better, but in terms of the ‘franchise quarterback’ thing, I do not even know necessarily what that means.” It means everything for a team that went through 29 starting QBs before Mayfield arrived. Before landing Stefanski, the Browns cycled through six coaches in the past decade. But the unflappable 38-year-old Stefanski seems perfectly suited for a team with young core stars — Mayfield; defensive end Myles Garrett; running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt; left tackle Jedrick Wills; and cornerback Denzel Ward are all 25 or younger — who appear primed to make a long run together. In Cleveland, there’s hope, not hopelessness. DEFENSIVE HOLES The Browns’ defence needs an overhaul. Co-ordinator Joe Woods spent the season plugging holes after injuries to rookie safety Grant Delpit (torn Achilles tendon) and cornerback Greedy Williams (shoulder) in training camp, and run stuffer Andrew Billings’ decision to opt out due to COVID-19, costing Cleveland three projected starters. The linebacking corps needs an upgrade and end Olivier Vernon probably won’t be re-signed as a free agent. Cleveland, which normally picks at the top of the draft, has the No. 26 selection to find help. BECKHAM’S FUTURE The Browns’ emergence and playoff run happened without star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 25 in Cincinnati. While Beckham’s talent isn’t debatable, there’s no denying Mayfield played his best when Beckham wasn’t around. His $12.8 million salary for next season becomes guaranteed in March, so it may be tough for Cleveland to trade Beckham while he’s rehabbing. For now, Stefanski made it sound like he wants OBJ in his offence in 2021. “I’m excited to get him back here,” Stefanski said. “I know it was not easy for him being away from his teammates, especially as these games got bigger and into the playoffs. I know he definitely wanted to be a part of it.” OTHER BUSINESS Browns general manager Andrew Berry has some other decisions to make with several free agents, including defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, linebacker B,J. Goodson and Higgins. The 30-year-old Vernon tore an Achilles tendon in the Browns’ regular-season finale and probably won’t return. Ogunjobi’s been solid, but the Browns have depth in the middle with Billings, Sheldon Richardson and rookie Jordan Elliott. Goodson emerged as a leader in his first season with Cleveland. Then there’s Higgins, a fan favourite and go-to target for Mayfield. He had five catches for 88 yards on Sunday, but his fumble while reaching for the goal line before halftime was a major turning point in a game the Browns could have won. ___ More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL Tom Withers, The Associated Press
Maple Leafs avoid disaster scenario with Jason Spezza clearing waivers – Yahoo Sports
Welcome to our weekly tour of the NHL’s North Division. Fingers crossed that this column will live beyond this season. Do it, NHL. It’s best for everyone.
When Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as coach of the Toronto Maple leafs less than two months into the 2019-20 NHL season, many of the things he’d say after practice and games seemed to serve as a good ol’ fashioned subtweet towards the man who held the seat before him.
Expressing care and compassion for his players and going out of his way to put them in positions to create special moments they can look back on fondly when their careers are finished, Keefe’s words often belied the actions we saw from the former Maple Leafs coach, who in many ways had a distaste for sentimentality.
No subject laid these facts bare more accurately than Jason Spezza, who Babcock chose to scratch on opening night last year, denying the veteran the opportunity to experience something special versus his former team — the visiting Ottawa Senators.
In what almost seemed like an effort to make up for the loss of that moment, Keefe started Spezza on a matinee game two days before Christmas last season, on a hunch that his four daughters would be in attendance that afternoon.
Keefe said he started Spezza because he had a feeling his girls would be in the building. Thought it could be a special moment.
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) December 23, 2019
As it went, Spezza scored on that opening shift. The special moment once lost, Spezza now had for his family.
Not to paint Keefe as cold in any way, but now one year later it seems we’ve learned a little bit about why the Leafs coach made a concerted effort to make members of the organization feel a certain way — and it was not to criticize or challenge a previous regime.
He’s suggested in his media appearances this season that he believes the team he inherited was, if not broken, seriously fractured. Because of this, he believed his only option in his first weeks and months on the job was to try and improve the feeling and atmosphere around the group. If not the music blaring through the speakers while the team practiced, that at least explained Keefe’s focus on accentuating the players’ strengths, not always attacking their weaknesses.
Fast-forward to now, treading lightly has not been one of Keefe’s mandates in his first full(-ish) season at the helm.
He’s not stroking egos, instead challenging his star players to show more than what they have; he’s revealed that he’s stickler for habits and details, perhaps to the extent that Babcock was; and he’s demanding more from the team’s workouts, changing the foundation in which the club’s on-ice sessions are built around. What’s also true is that as a leading voice in the conversations around roster construction and salary cap manipulation, Keefe, and by extension the Maple Leafs, appear willing to make unpopular decisions, to get blood on their hands.
On Sunday, Spezza, the same player who Keefe and the Maple Leafs management team seemed to believe was owed something for the mistreatment he received previously, was placed on waivers three games into the season, offered up for free to any team that might have interest.
Now, Toronto’s intentions weren’t to show malice, or even to cut ties. Instead, it was a move required to maximize the flexibility on a roster being restricted by the rules governing the salary cap. But regardless of why the decision was made, the reality was that the Leafs made the decision to surrender control of what remains of Spezza’s fabulous career.
Powerless to the decisions of 30 other teams, Spezza’s only defence in preserving the life he and his family chose — which was, accepting less money to settle in his hometown — was his agent desperately working the phones, asserting that his client would simply retired if claimed by another team.
Thankfully, not a single team was convinced the agent was bluffing. Spezza went unclaimed on the open market (though it’s possible that would have happened anyway), preventing an 18-year career from ending on a waiver-wire transaction. Now he’ll be in the Leafs lineup Monday night versus the Winnipeg Jets.
Leafs fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief, and so too should the team’s braintrust.
Because the opportunity that Babcock stole from Spezza would not compare to making the decision that would prevent one the game’s most respected veterans, and a former superstar in the league, from not only exiting the game the way he should, but being blindsided by the end of his playing days.
And elsewhere up north:
Montreal: Would you include Nick Suzuki or Alexander Romanov in a trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois? As much as I believe that PLD would elevate the Canadiens, reaching that next tier may be an opportunity that only exists with Suzuki and Romanov remaining in the fold. The partnership Suzuki has created with Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson is so exciting, while Romanov looks like a 10-year veteran on the blue line, having exceeded 22 minutes in his debut. These two players hold the key to meeting the preseason hype. That’s worth seeing through for Marc Bergevin.
But Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the other hand….
Ottawa: How can you not be encouraged by this start? Ottawa split its first two games in 10 months — against the Maple Leafs, no less — and actually came away with a plus goal differential.
And more importantly: Tim Stutzle, y’all.
That’s an unbelievable debut goal.
Toronto: Best sign through three games for the Leafs? John Tavares is flying out there.
Winnipeg: If Patrik Laine decides that his means to earn a trade out of Winnipeg is to score the lights out, we’re in for some serious entertainment. That was special, singular stuff from the Finnish sniper — on and off the ice. It’s too bad he’s already dealing with an injury, though.
Calgary: If this were a ranking of the seven Canadian teams, I would have touched on the Flames first. Just one win through two games, but massive potential shown already with Jacob Markstrom holding things down in net.
Edmonton: It’s crazy how upgrades in net just seem to escape this team. The Oilers went big-game hunting for a goalie over the summer and ended up bringing back Mike Smith. And in their desperate attempts to bring in a third goaltender with Smith on the shelf, they have dudes flying in from Austria and California over the weekend — and are therefore subject to quarantine rules — while Aaron Dell (already in Canada) is claimed by the New Jersey Devils one day later. It’s just not breaking right for the Oil in net, an area that could be the difference in making or not making the playoffs.
Vancouver: I’d be concerned, frankly. The Canucks have seemed second-best in terms of talent in both of their matchups so far this season, having faced the Oilers and Flames to this point. J.T. Miller will help in this regard, obviously, but this team has the look of one that could be overmatched on most nights.
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Maple Leafs avoid disaster scenario with Jason Spezza clearing waivers – Yahoo Canada Sports
The Canadian Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Tom Brady’s quest for a seventh Super Bowl ring continues, thanks to a young defence that’s regained its swagger when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed it most. The Bucs (13-5) advanced to the NFC championship game for the first time in 18 years, with Brady outplaying Drew Brees with plenty of assistance from a rejuvenated defence that forced four turnovers in a 30-20 divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints. Brady threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third, finishing scoring drives of 3, 40 and 20 yards set up by takeaways by a unit many felt would be a liability in the third meeting of the season between the NFC South rivals. “They played incredible,” said Brady, who is headed to his 14th conference title game — first in the NFC. “This team has been doing that all year at different times,” the 43-year-old quarterback added. “The defence has picked us up, some weeks the offence has been a little bit better. Special teams has been so consistent. The way the defence played (Sunday), they were spectacular.” New Orleans had won five straight over Tampa Bay, including a pair of lopsided wins this season. While the Bucs led the NFL in run defence for the second straight year, a young secondary featuring three starters in their first or second seasons seemed to regress during a stretch in which Tampa Bay dropped three of four games in November. Despite going 4-0 over the final month of the regular season and beating Washington in the NFC wild-card round, questions persisted about the pass defence heading to New Orleans, where Devin White, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mike Edwards had interceptions and rookie Antoine Winfield Jr., forced a fumble that White scooped up to position Brady to throw a tying TD pass in the third quarter. “We’ve been fighting adversity all year … battling the naysayers and those that say we can’t do things,” Murphy-Bunting said. “I know one thing,” White, a second-year linebacker who was the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft, added. “We might be young, but we can get after it when we’ve got our minds set to it.” Brees was limited to 134 yards and one TD passing, while Saints star receiver Michael Thomas was held without a catch. NFL touchdown leader Alvin Kamara had 105 yards from scrimmage, but failed to get into the end zone. New Orleans scored early in the third quarter to take a 20-13 lead. Four possessions the rest of the way ended fumble, punt, interception and interception. Now, it’s on to Green Bay for a matchup against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Bucs will need another strong defensive performance. “It’s hard to get to this point,” Brady said. “There’s nothing guaranteed from this point forward, but we’ve got to go out there and we’re going to have to play our very best to beat one of the best teams in the league.” WHAT’S WORKING A huge part of advancing to the NFC championship game for the fourth time in franchise history was Brees turned the ball over and Brady didn’t after throwing five of his 12 interceptions against the Saints during the regular season. The Bucs have won six straight since their bye week in early December, and they’ve only turned the ball over twice during that stretch. WHAT NEEDS HELP Although Brady lauded the overall consistency of the special teams this season, New Orleans’ Deonte Harris returned a punt 54 yards to set up an early field goal. Minutes later, Harris had a 67-yarder for an apparent touchdown nullified by penalty. STOCK UP When it looked as if New Orleans might have an opportunity to take control of the game, Winfield — son of former NFL cornerback Antoine Winfield, Jr. — forced the third-quarter fumble that shifted momentum to Tampa Bay’s favour for good. “I can’t say enough about him,” coach Bruce Arians said. “To me, he’s the defensive rookie of the year.” STOCK DOWN A rare week when mistakes didn’t mar an otherwise impressive performance. INJURED Receiver Antonio Brown suffered a knee injury against the Saints. He had a MRI on Monday. KEY NUMBER One, as in one more road victory needed to become the first team to appear in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. This year’s NFL title game will be played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 7. NEXT STEPS A chilly date with the Packers in Green Bay, where the weather forecast is for temperatures in the mid-20s and snow. “You’ve just got to have some mental toughness, wear some warm clothes and be ready to go,” Brady said. “We’ll be prepared. The team that plays the best is going to win.” ___ More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL Fred Goodall, The Associated Press
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