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10 Things: VanVleet stepping up as the leader Raptors can always turn to

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Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 109-100 win over the Washington Wizards.

One — The Raptors have won their first four road games to start the season for the first time in franchise history. It wasn’t the sharpest performance, as the Wizards lived at the line with 30 free-throw attempts, and a few missed threes in key moments allowed the Raptors to get away with some mistakes, but this was a true professional effort by Toronto. They took care of the ball, won the possession battle yet again, managed the game with maturity, got huge contributions from their leaders, and played with all-out effort. It’s been the same story in every game of their five-game win streak.

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Two — Fred VanVleet is stepping up as the leader that the Raptors can always turn to. His steady confidence has propelled the Raptors over this run, and he’s always the player the team turns to during important moments.

When the Wizards tried to make their push in the third quarter, it was VanVleet who poured in 14 points to maintain control. When the Wizards cut it to single digits in the fourth, it was VanVleet who responded with a rainbow jumper to restore their confidence. When the Wizards had the Raptors stuck on a dwindling shot clock, it was VanVleet who banked in a fadeaway right at the buzzer which made his defender Deni Advija throw his arms up in disgust. And when the Raptors needed a bucket after a two-minute drought in crunch time, it was VanVleet who ripped down the rebound and beat three Wizards up the floor for a transition layup to secure their lead. He is the heart and soul of this team, just as Kyle Lowry was for the Raptors over the past decade, and the Raptors are extremely blessed to have such continuity at the point.

Three — The key improvement in VanVleet’s game is the midrange jumper. It was a necessary addition for VanVleet in a season where he would have to initiate more of the offence, and while it’s not the most efficient shot on paper, it’s forcing teams to adjust to him which is creating other openings.

Many teams employ the drop defensive coverage, which calls for bigs to retreat into the paint to prevent shots at the rim, and the Raptors don’t have a floor-spacing center to counter this move, so it’s up to VanVleet to unlock the paint. He’s making it a point to attack from the midrange early on, and he’s having so much success that defences are having to adjust.

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VanVleet nailed seven midrange jumpers tonight, which brings his total to 20-for-33 on the season, and similar to their wins over the Pacers, the Wizards changed their defence. Instead of sitting back in the paint, Washington flipped their coverage to trap VanVleet at the three-point line to deny any chances of him getting free for the jumper, and this is where the Raptors were able to counter in the fourth quarter.

Four — Nick Nurse made a brilliant call to bring Khem Birch back into the game early in the fourth quarter. VanVleet was starting to see double teams, and that presented an opportunity to attack with the Raptors holding a 4-3 advantage behind the play.

Birch happens to be a specialist in these types of scenarios, as he’s so clever with his movement to make a short cut after setting the screen, to give VanVleet an outlet to counter the trap, while also affording Birch the space to attack into. He scored two short floaters immediately after checking in when his man went to help on VanVleet, and on the third trip down, Birch saw an extra defender of his own which gave him the chance to find OG Anunoby open for three on the kick-out pass.

Washington was forced to change up their coverage for a third time, but the damage was already done. The two-man game between VanVleet and Birch provided the bulk of Toronto’s scoring in fourth.

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Five — OG Anunoby made a sensational play on defence which set the example for the entire team. Anunoby went all-out to block Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the corner off a smart kick-out pass from Bradley Beal, landed in the crowd, while still keeping the ball alive. Svi Mykhailiuk caught the rebound and fired it ahead to Gary Trent Jr. who streaked the length of the floor for an and-one layup with 0.3 seconds left.

Anunoby is the Raptors’ go-to scorer, being asked to play 40 minutes regularly, often while guarding All-Star scorers, and yet he’s playing that hard on defence at a low-leverage moment right before halftime. If Anunoby is giving that level of effort, it sets the tone for the rest of his teammates, and that’s a form of leadership. Trent Jr. said a few weeks back that he doesn’t want to be the weak link out there, and that’s coming from a guy who leads the league in steals. That, in a nutshell, is Raptors culture.

Six — Anunoby’s passing was very strong in this game, even though he was only credited for one assist. As a sign of respect to his career-high 36-point effort against the Knicks, Anunoby was met with consistent double teams from the Wizards in the first half. Anunoby has struggled at times with being aggressive in the paint which has sometimes left him trapped and prone to turnovers, but his approach tonight was perfect.

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He created six free-throw attempts for his teammates by getting downhill, drawing the crowd, then quickly flipping it to a cutter. First, he found Precious Achiuwa on a wraparound pass, then hit Mykhailuk twice on the cut, but none were recorded as assists. Finally, on his fourth feed, he was able to feed Mykhailiuk for a two-handed jam.

The next step in Anunoby’s development is being able to get downhill and being able to make a quick and efficient decision down low. He’s a smart and willing passer, but he’s also an efficient and powerful finisher. And within just the first month of the season, Anunoby is already showing tangible improvement in this area.

Seven — Achiuwa had a better game than his showing against the Knicks, even if his mistakes remain glaring. Nurse showed faith in Achiuwa by keeping in the starting five to start, although he replaced him with Birch to start the second half for a second-straight game. Achiuwa wasn’t all that impressive outside of a poster dunk in his 2-for-9 effort on the night, but he paid more attention to the little things.

Achiuwa was creating more contact with his screens, which helped to get VanVleet free and flowing early on. He was also active on the glass as always with 10 rebounds to lead the Raptors. Achiuwa also made the right read out of pick-and-rolls, spraying accurate passes out of the paint to find open shooters with his four assists. What Achiuwa should strive for is to be more like Birch, because if he can nail the fundamentals with the same efficiency as Birch, that’s when Achiuwa’s natural talent will truly shine.

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Eight — Nurse is also running a platoon with Dalano Banton and Malachi Flynn at point guard. Banton provides a change of pace and some added length, while Flynn is more of a perimeter threat and a natural option to counter the smaller and speedier guards. Neither player logged that much time, but both of them brought something positive to the table. Flynn found Mykhailiuk with a smart pass in transition, while Banton had back-to-back possessions where he got downhill and scored at the rim. Ideally, the Raptors can get 15 solid minutes from the two of them so that VanVleet doesn’t need to play north of 40 minutes per night.

Nine — Scoring remains a glaring weakness for the second unit. Chris Boucher’s struggles on both ends have really limited Nurse’s options in the second unit, and they’re subsisting entirely off force-feeding either one of Anunoby or VanVleet, who must be on the floor to supervise the group. This is where Pascal Siakam’s return will be a huge help, because splitting that load between three players is a lot more sustainable in the long run. VanVleet is already leading the league in minutes per game, and nobody is coming in to spare him.

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Ten — I really don’t understand what the Wizards were doing in the final two minutes. Montrezl Harrell intentionally grabbed Birch with under a minute left away in an apparent effort to send him to the line to extend the game, except Birch was nowhere near the ball which resulted in a technical free throw while the Raptors kept possession. VanVleet hit the freebie to extend their lead to eight points. After the Wizards came up empty, they once again rushed to grab Birch who did have the ball this time, but even that was a head-scratching tactic since Birch is a career 70 percent foul shooter. Birch went on to hit 3-of-4 from the foul line in the final minute to ice the win.





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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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