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10 things: Raptors’ defence continues to crater during recent slide

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Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 118-113 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

One — It’s hard to be too upset over that loss. The Raptors played a strong game overall, save for a few short lapses, and the Blazers were sharp enough to burn them for it. It wasn’t a bad performance by any means, and one where all of the Raptors’ main players performed adequately, so you really have to tip you cap to how the Blazers executed. Head coach Chauncey Billups made some smart adjustments, Damian Lillard was unselfish in giving up the ball, the Blazers moved it well and shot it even better, and in the end the Raptors fell a few plays short.

These aren’t the ones that you regret later in the year, it’s the no-show efforts against Detroit and Boston that have really burned during this 1-5 stretch for the Raptors.

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Two — That being said, you really can’t win without executing in crunch time. Fred VanVleet willed the Raptors back into the game with three straight absurd shots to make it a one-possession game, but the Raptors made three vital errors.

First, Scottie Barnes mishandled a routine pass from Pascal Siakam in a three-point game which cost the Raptors a chance to tie. Second, the Raptors were able to coax Lillard into a miss, but Lillard somehow beat three Raptors defenders to the loose ball and kicked it out to C.J. McCollum, who lifted Gary Trent Jr. off his feet with a cheeky fake before leaning in for the jumper to make it a two-possession game. Finally, the Raptors turned to Barnes for one of their classic end-of-game plays, where the center catches the ball off the inbound and fakes a dribble hand-off as if he is setting up for three, except he then keeps it for himself and turns downhill towards the basket. However, Barnes didn’t sell the fake hard enough, and so when he drove his defender was all over him and he ended up pinned under the rim for an airball that he caught for a turnover. That’s what it means to be in a development season — you trust young players to be able to deliver and this time Barnes burned them.

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Three — Still, it was a strong game for Barnes on the whole. Barnes was sieged on two fronts; by 300-pound Jusuf Nurkic wrestling for position, and by an all-time scorer in Lillard attacking downhill. Barnes somehow managed to be quite effective in that coverage, not just by keeping Nurkic off the offensive glass while also fronting him in the post to make catches difficult, but he also made timely rotations to contest Lillard’s shot at the basket, frustrating the All-NBA guard so much that he picked up a technical.

Offensively, Barnes was very smart in his role, playing in the gaps to make himself available when Portland’s defence converged on his teammates. He showed good patience around the basket, finishing strong with an assortment of post-up moves and hook shots. Long story short, Barnes played the role of center very well for someone who played point guard in his one year of college, and it speaks to his advanced instincts that he was able to adapt on the fly.

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Four — Where the Raptors lost this game was in two short stretches. First, the Raptors allowed a 9-0 run to end the first half which mostly came down to their offence stalling while they were a bit too slow in cutting off driving lanes. The second was at the start of the fourth quarter, where the Blazers went on an 8-0 run against the Raptors’ bench which forced Nick Nurse into burning a timeout to bring his starters back in early. The Raptors’ issue over this 1-5 slide has been their inconsistent defence which ranks 30th in that time, and the team has dropped to 19th overall this season. If they have any chance of competing, the Raptors need to get back to being a top-10 on defence, and there’s no reason they should be so low when their entire roster was assembled with defence in mind.

Five — One of the weaknesses on defence has been Siakam. It was most obvious Monday, where he gave up three line drives and failed to close out on an open corner three against Nassir Little. With all due respect to Little, but a player of his calibre should be easy for Siakam to contain. There was a poor stretch in the fourth quarter where Siakam was involved in a string of mistakes against Little, while also failing to close out on McCollum nor contain Lillard up top. Those are more excusable, but it’s quite clear that Siakam is still getting back up to speed defensively since returning from shoulder surgery.

He lacks the extra effort and the burst of quickness that he usually relies on to cover ground, and the result is either blow-bys or needless fouls where Siakam reaches in. This is perfectly natural for someone coming off a prolonged absence and jumping straight into action against opponents who are already in the rhythm of the season. Siakam will eventually come around and return to the responsible defender he has proven to be in the last few seasons, and that alone should improve the defence as a whole.

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Six — Conversely, Siakam has been sharp offensively. His first step is still there where he is able to get around players on drives, and his playmaking in the middle of the floor has improved the offence as a whole. Siakam can either face up and attack downhill, which typically draws a second defender, or he can flip the ball back out to the perimeter and flow into a pick-and-roll action where he can catch it moving downhill.

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The promising part is that Siakam seems to have rediscovered the confidence in his three-point shot, and so he’s drawing a bit more attention on the arc and flipping that into open shots for others as defenders close out to him. If the Raptors can sustain this offensive improvement with Siakam in the lineup, while getting the defence sorted, they can bounce back from this recent blip.

Seven — The other major issue over this recent slide is the bench. The second unit has been nothing short of abysmal, and it’s no coincidence that the only win the Raptors have collected was the one breakout game where Chris Boucher scored 17 points. There is just zero scoring with the second unit, and they haven’t been all that sharp defensively. Khem Birch took responsibility for the group, and rightfully so since it was a rare game where he wasn’t giving the second unit steady minutes with a few missed floaters and some defensive gaffs, but perhaps that is due to the knee swelling that sidelined him last week.

Otherwise, the Raptors mostly have to rely on Svi Mykhailiuk to be strong in his minutes rather than being the human embodiment of the “kick me” sign on defence, which hasn’t worked out of late. Nurse only played one bench player more than eight minutes Monday, which obviously isn’t sustainable. If Yuta Watanabe ever manages to recover from this slew of minor injuries, he should be thrown right into the fire.

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Eight — OG Anunoby tailed off after a scoring hot start. Anunoby burned former teammate Norman Powell repeatedly, and it was enjoyable to see Anunoby demonstrate the ways in which he had improved as Powell played off him as if it were the Anunoby of the past, except he was drilling every jumper in sight. The only disappointment from Anunoby’s 29-point night was how forced his shots were in the second half. After playing within the flow of the offence in the first half, Anunoby was fixated on posting up Powell and launching turnaround jumpers which went nowhere, and it wasn’t particularly smart to begin with. Anunoby needs to either get to the rim or kick it out and wait for it to swing back to him.

Nine — Nurse doesn’t trust any of his reserve point guards. Dalano Banton got the first crack at it, but he did very little in his eight minutes and the Blazers went on a run while Banton failed to get the Raptors into their offence, so Nurse turned to Malachi Flynn in the second half. Flynn was promising at first, countering the Blazers’ aggressive traps to get himself to the foul line, then collected two offensive rebounds on the same play before driving it in for a layup, but the bench got shelled as a whole at the start of the fourth and Nurse brought in his starters. Meanwhile, after Goran Dragic gave the Raptors some solid minutes in the Pistons game, he returned to being a DNP-CD. The second unit badly needs someone to play consistently at the point, because VanVleet can’t humanly play more than he already is.

Ten — It’s a shame that VanVleet’s courageous effort was in vain. VanVleet took a pull-up three in transition that jumpstarted the Raptors right when it seemed like Portland was going to cruise to an easy finish, and it was very reminiscent of the way Kyle Lowry would seize the reins. VanVleet followed that up with a dogged effort on a drive where he seemingly had nothing against a much bigger player, but managed to burrow himself just deep enough to get the scoop shot high off the glass to fall. It’s incredible how similar VanVleet is to Lowry at times, and it’s been the most positive development this season outside of Barnes being an immediate hit.



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Aaron Rodgers to the Jets? Giants' free agency options & Mike McCarthy's future with Cowboys | Ask Jay Glazer

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Jay Glazer discussed whether Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers will head to the New York Jets, the New York Giants’ free agency options, and breaks down Mike McCarthy’s future with the Dallas Cowboys.



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Super Bowl LVII: Chiefs and Eagles will meet for title in Arizona

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Patrick Mahomes finally got the best of Joe Burrow. 

All he needed was a little shove.

Harrison Butker made a 45-yard field goal with 3 seconds left — after Cincinnati’s Joseph Ossai was flagged for a 15-yard penalty for shoving Mahomes after he was out of bounds — and the Chiefs beat the Bengals 23-20 in the AFC championship game to make it back to the Super Bowl.

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Kansas City will face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Feb. 12 in Glendale, Arizona. 

The Eagles opened as a 1 1/2-point favourite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

There are no shortage of storylines: Kansas City coach Andy Reid goes against his old team — which he led to Super Bowl 39 — in a game that’s also the first matchup of Black starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl with Mahomes and Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts. 

On top of that, there’s a brother-against-brother showdown between Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Philadelphia center Jason Kelce.

“Officially done being a Chiefs fan this season!! ” Jason Kelce tweeted immediately after the Chiefs won.

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The Chiefs have been making deep postseason runs on a regular basis ever since Mahomes came to town as the franchise quarterback. 

This was their fifth straight trip to the AFC title game and will be their third Super Bowl appearance in that span. They beat the 49ers for the NFL title in the 2019 season, but lost to the Bucs the following season.

The Eagles clobbered the Niners 31-7 in the NFC title game earlier Sunday. They’ve looked dominant in the playoffs so far, also beating the New York Giants 38-7 in the divisional round.

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Philadelphia is back in the Super Bowl five years after beating the New England Patriots 41-33 on Feb. 4, 2018. 

Now a mostly new generation of Eagles — led by coach Nick Sirianni and Hurts — will come to Arizona to try and win another title.

The Chiefs-Bengals game looked as if it was going to overtime before Ossai’s ill-advised play. Mahomes — who was playing on a badly sprained ankle — was running to get a first down in the final seconds as Ossai desperately tried to track him down. 

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Mahomes was out of bounds when Ossai gave him a shove, sending both players tumbling to the turf. The ensuing 15-yard penalty was enough to push Butker into field-goal range and the kick split the uprights.

A distraught Ossai sat on the bench with his head in his hands, well after the game was over.

The Bengals and Chiefs were playing for the fourth time in less than 400 days and Cincinnati had won the previous three meetings — all by three points. This one was decided by a field goal, too, and all Burrow could do was watch.

The Bengals lost to the Rams in last year’s Super Bowl and they just missed another chance at returning to the title game.

NO DRAMA IN NFC

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Oddsmakers thought fans were in for some close conference championship games. 

They’ll have to settle for a 50% success rate.

The NFC title game was a blowout. Niners rookie quarterback Brock Purdy was injured in the first quarter when Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick drilled his right arm on a play that was ruled a fumble. The Eagles recovered that fumble and the injury proved to be a game-changer.

With Purdy hurt, San Francisco turned to 36-year-old journeyman Josh Johnson, who couldn’t do much before eventually leaving with a concussion. Purdy came back into the game, but could barely throw, and the Eagles cruised to the win.

The 49ers dealt with quarterback injuries all season, losing Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo before turning to Purdy, a seventh-round draft pick out of Iowa State. Purdy stepped into a starter’s role in December and won his first seven games before Sunday’s injury. 

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Here’s a few things to know about the upcoming Super Bowl:

WHAT’S THE UPCOMING SCHEDULE?

FEB. 5

Pro Bowl flag-football game, 3 p.m. EST, ABC/ESPN

FEB. 12

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Super Bowl LVII, Philadelphia Eagles vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 6:30 p.m. EST, Fox

RIHANNA AT HALFTIME

Rihanna will take center stage as the headline act for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show.

With sales of more than 250 million records worldwide, Rihanna ranks as one of the best-selling female artists ever. Her most recent album was 2016′s “Anti.” Rihanna last performed publicly at the Grammy Awards in 2018.

The singer said she turned down a similar opportunity for the 2019 Super Bowl that was ultimately headlined by Maroon 5. At the time, many artists voiced support for Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who protested police brutality against Black people and minorities by kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

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Country music star Chris Stapleton will sing the national anthem, while R&B legend Babyface will perform “America the Beautiful.” 

PRO BOWL MAKEOVER

The Pro Bowl is getting a major makeover this year after the NFL eliminated its full-contact all-star game and replaced it with weeklong skills competitions and a flag football game.

The flag football contest is Feb. 5 in Las Vegas at Allegiant Stadium, one week before the Super Bowl.

The Pro Bowl debuted in January 1951 in Los Angeles and stayed there for 21 seasons before the game moved to different cities from 1972-80. Hawaii hosted from 1980-2009, and the game has had several homes in the years since, including Miami, Phoenix, Orlando and Las Vegas.

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“The game was kind of silly, I guess,” Saints two-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk said back in September when the news was announced. “Guys weren’t out there playing true football. Hopefully, there’ll be a lot of interactions with the fans and guys will get their opportunity to go out there and show some skills. I could see that being a good change.”

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Ohio State hires James Laurinaitis & Tennessee extends Huepel's contract | Joel Klatt Show

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Joel Klatt discussed Ohio State Buckeyes hiring former linebacker James Laurinaitis as a defensive GA. Joel believes that Laurinaitis can help transform the defense into a powerhouse like the offense is for wide receivers. He then discussed the Tennessee Volunteers giving Josh Huepel a contract extension after their 11-win season.



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