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10 Things: Scottie Barnes is both the Raptors’ future and their present

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Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 97-94 win over the Indiana Pacers.

One — The Raptors found their identity and have won three in a row. They’re hardly the prettiest team on offence, but they can always fall back on their defensive tenacity and overall athleticism to make things difficult for the opponent.

This was an ugly game from start to finish, with both teams being dead tired playing on the second night of a back-to-back and in their third game in four nights. There was no flow to it at all, and the officials swallowed the whistle after the first quarter, which made for a tough watch. But where the Raptors pulled ahead was in the margins. They won the rebounding battle 12-8, and forced more turnovers 19-15, which translated to an additional 11 field-goal attempts, and this has been a common theme in all of their games this season.

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Two — Fred VanVleet continues to deliver in the clutch. VanVleet nailed a 30-foot three with the shot clock expiring to stretch Toronto’s lead to six points with under two minutes left, then found Scottie Barnes wide open at the basket to bump it to eight points. VanVleet has introduced a measure of calm to the Raptors offence that often descends into chaos when he isn’t at the dials.

Two areas of his game have noticeably matured. VanVleet’s playmaking continues to shine, especially in the most important moments. He recorded three assists in the final frame, with the other two coming on drive-and-kick sequences where he got into the lane, drew three defenders to him, before finding Svi Myhailiuk and OG Anunoby for open threes. The other improvement is on his mid-range game, which he is using to great effect to counter teams that drop back deep against him. VanVleet has gotten to the elbow areas with ease, and he often goes to that shot in moments where the Raptors stagnate to restore order to the offence. He is the adult in the room and the engine of this team.

Three — Barnes is emerging as a leader in his own right. In their win over Orlando, Barnes nailed seven jumpers for the bulk of his nine field goals, but it was the inverse approach in this win.

Despite facing two imposing centres in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, Barnes was relentless in his drives to the hoop, and he got all of his nine baskets all within the paint. There was a clever drive against Turner — who is contention to lead the league in blocks — where Barnes threw his shoulder into Turner’s chest to freeze the shot blocker before going up for his shot. Against Sabonis, Barnes backed him down despite being the smaller player, and showed advanced touch and poise in throwing up hook shots over the seven-footer.

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The fact that he played an entirely different game from one night to the next, yet still came away with the same results, just shows how special of a talent he is. Barnes is not just the future of this franchise, he is the present.

Four — Barnes also shows no fear. He was intentionally fouled with the Raptors clinging desperately to a one-point lead, and the Pacers’ crowd rose to their feet in an attempt to throw Barnes off at the line where he was 1-for-4 prior to that play. But upon hearing the boos, Barnes cracked a smile and calmly swished both shots to give the Raptors the insurance of a three-point lead.

Barnes said after the game that “it was nothing” to play under pressure, and his play confirms it. He scored 11 points in the fourth, which included a barrage of three-straight baskets where he punched a hole through the Pacers in the middle, and he was so effective in the matchup against Sabonis that the Pacers benched the All-Star just to switch up the coverage. His confidence is shared by Nick Nurse, who felt that 17 attempts weren’t enough for a rookie in his seventh game.

Five — The worry is that Barnes may have hurt his hand. He reached in while trying to take a foul on the last play of the game, which left him with what the team described as a jammed thumb. He received an X-ray, which came back negative, however it was clearly bothering him in his post-game interview to the point where he struggled to take off his headset. It goes without saying that it would be a massive blow if Barnes were to miss any time, and that there is no adequate replacement for him especially while Pascal Siakam remains out.

Six — Myhailiuk provided a crucial jolt of energy off the bench. He was arguably the Raptors’ most positive player in the first half, as Myhailiuk poured in 11 of Toronto’s 24 points in the second quarter. His scoring came in a variety of ways, but it all came down to how aggressive he was. He used a clever ball fake to create a lane for himself to drive before finishing with a scoop layup under the arm of seven-footer Goga Bitaze. Then he crept behind the defence to a put-back layup off a wild airball from Chris Boucher.

After that it was a breakaway dunk after Turner tapped it a bit too hard off a jump ball. Myhailiuk also pulled up for three when the Pacers went under against him, and capped off his sensational second quarter burst with a slick behind-the-back move to set up a left-handed poster dunk over Justin Holiday. It’s encouraging that a shooter like Myhailiuk was able to contribute even without relying on his jumper, because it was mostly his smarts and motor that got him and the Raptors going.

Seven — One stat to track is OG Anunoby’s assist totals. It’s just as important for Anunoby to set up others as it is for him to score on his matchup in his new role as a featured player. Anunoby made two passes Saturday that were hugely encouraging.

In the first quarter, Anunoby quickly burst downhill off a handoff from VanVleet, forced a second defender to meet him at the paint, before throwing a wrap-around pass to Boucher for three. Then in the third quarter, Anunoby handled it up top with all five Pacers defenders forming a box to stop him from getting to the rim, and he wisely made a sharp move to get to the elbow, before throwing a quick outlet to Boucher for another triple.

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Given his usage and how often he touches the ball, it should be a regular sight to see Anunoby finish games with five assists as he did against the Pacers.

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Eight — Precious Achiuwa had another poor showing, which forced Nurse to limit his minutes. The skillset needs more polishing, with Achiuwa being unable to consistently capitalize on open jumpers or even short hook shots around the basket, and that’s limiting what the Raptors can do in the halfcourt.

But what’s really hard to watch is Achiuwa driving blindly with his head down and stubbornly trying to out-muscle three defenders in the paint in an attempt to get himself going. If he keeps playing like this, Nurse will have an easy choice as to who comes out of the starting five for Siakam. Achiuwa needs to find the right balance between confidence and pride.

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Nine — Nurse resisted the urge to extend his rotation even with the Raptors being tired. Malachi Flynn escaped the doghouse for only three minutes, coming in at the end of the second quarter where he did nothing but play off the ball, before riding the bench for the entire second half. Goran Dragic didn’t even get a second in this one even as the Raptors badly struggled for offence.

It’s a long season, and circumstances are bound to change, but doubts must creep in if you’re Flynn or Dragic. One might be headed for a buyout, and the other could see time in the minors, because as of right now the Raptors don’t have a spot for either of them even when they are stretched.

Ten — Props to Matt Devlin for carrying through that broadcast. It was clear from the start of the game that Devlin wasn’t feeling great, and it just continued to deteriorate throughout the game until he was reduced to a gravelly whisper during the fourth quarter. Three games in four nights isn’t easy on anyone, even for broadcasters.





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On Gonçalo Ramos' big night, focus remained on Ronaldo

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Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t the star of Portugal’s 6-1 win over Switzerland, but he was still the center of attention.



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Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw 'at peace' prioritizing team over contract

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Clayton Kershaw is still an All-Star capable of commanding top dollar in free agency. But the only decision he was concerned with? Dodgers or Rangers, Rowan Kavner writes.



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Vladar’s reliability a luxury for Flames as Markstrom works on game

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CALGARY — Dan Vladar doesn’t suck at hockey.

Good thing, as it opened the door for the Calgary Flames’ coach to alter his approach to his goalie rotation.

Well known for his penchant for leaning on his No. 1 netminder come hell or high water, Darryl Sutter most certainly heard Jacob Markstrom’s crisis in confidence last week.

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The rough outing that led Markstrom to declare he “sucks at hockey right now,” was enough to make the coach pivot.

He confirmed the decision to give Vladar rare, back-to-back starts was made with an eye on giving Markstrom more time to recalibrate, find his game and build confidence.

“I talked to them guys about it,” said Sutter of Markstrom’s over-the-top self-assessment following his gaffe against Montreal just 13 seconds in.

“It’s the best position we have on our team, that’s for sure.

“That’s just because Marky came out and said that, right?

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“If you look at it the last two weeks, our goals against has gone from 30th to 13th. Keep making progress.”

Is he worried about Markstrom’s comments?

“Not a chance,” said the coach.

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Nor should anyone else be, said Markstrom in a decidedly more upbeat chat with the media Tuesday.

“Short memory — as a goalie in this league you need to have that,” said Markstrom, who said he feels good after spending plenty of time with goalie coach Jason Labarbera the last few days.

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“I think you need to have it or else you’re in the wrong occupation.

“I didn’t do really well in school, but I was really good on the ice.”

Laughs all around — the best medicine at a time when Markstrom’s strong words were concerning to those worried about his mindset.

He says over the years he’s always had the same approach to tough nights.

“The only thing different is how you address it with the media,” said Marksrom, who can always be counted on to satisfy media requests.

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“Over the years sometimes you’re still upset and still angry and frustrated, and that carries over in an interview 15 minutes after the game.

“If you wait an hour and ask me the same question you would get a completely different answer.

“That’s my competitiveness, and that’s what made me who I am today. That’s always going to be there.”

Sounds like a guy who feels ready to get back into some game action.

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How much time Sutter will give Markstrom to settle is anyone’s guess, as no one would be surprised if the veteran returned to the net Wednesday against Minnesota.

However, Vladar’s solid play of late gives Sutter the luxury of waiting until Friday to start Markstrom in Columbus, which would make plenty of sense, given his familiarity with Johnny Gaudreau and the fact the Blue Jackets are one of the league’s worst teams.

That way Vladar can get the tougher assignment against Toronto Saturday.

Vladar won his third start in a row Monday, with an 18-save performance against Arizona that featured a kick-save with 74 seconds left to preserve a one-goal lead.

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His emergence as a reliable backup last season and early this year buys plenty of time for Markstrom to iron out his deficiencies without the pressure of costing his team two points with mistakes he’s working hard to remedy.

Quite a luxury, as these Flames can go only as far as their $6 Million Man can take them.

“His save percentage has gone up almost 10 per cent (and his GAA has gone down almost 10 per cent) over the last two-and-a-half weeks,” said Sutter, of Markstrom’s stop-rate, which sits at .889 – far off his .922 standard last season.

“We need both of them to do that. We’ve got to keep moving.

“If we don’t get on the first page in goals against and save percentage, we won’t make the playoffs.

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“We’re moving that way. That’s the big picture.”

Vladar sits at .914, with a 2.54 GAA, which is almost half a goal better than Markstrom’s 2.97 GAA.

What’s so perfect about the tandem is that the two are good chums, doing well to help one another through this stretch.

The 25-year-old Vladar is doing Markstrom and the team a solid by stepping up at a crucial juncture in the season, as the 12-10-3 Flames struggle to distance themselves from the .500 mark.

In turn, Markstrom has been shown repeatedly on broadcasts helping Vladar from the bench during timeouts with various tips and reminders to breathe while doing his best to share laughs to keep the youngster calm.

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“We push each other every day and he’s been playing unreal,” said Markstrom.

“It’s the same in practice as it is in games, as he is with me when I’m playing. We’re a team and I love Vladdy and the progress he made the last two years is unbelievable. I think he’s going to be a really good goalie in this league for a really long time.

“It’s great for our team, he’s standing on his head right now and I couldn’t be happier every time he makes a save or every time we score a goal.”

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That relationship and attitude have made it easy for Sutter and the coaching staff to take pressure and starts off of Markstrom’s plate, as fans and observers have been clamouring for since last season when Markstrom ultimately faltered against Edmonton following a 63-start campaign, followed by 12 post-season appearances.

“You try to set a schedule, sort of, at the start of the year to make sure Vladdy was getting more minutes this year, based on performance,” said Sutter when asked if he’s changed his tack of late.

“But it’s still very hard to do because of the schedule.

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“It changes every week.

“It changes for me depending on performance, schedule, talking with the coaches, and trying to map something out.

“It’s hard to do.”

Much easier when you have the options he does.

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