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If Raptors can’t rediscover defensive identity, playoff hopes will fade fast

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What happens when a team designed to win games defensively suddenly stops defending?

Well, they lose a lot of games.

The Toronto Raptors are that team right now. Losers of five out of six and two straight, the collection of long-armed, multi-positional defenders who are on a mission to disrupt and smother and cause chaos are nowhere to be found.

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On Monday night they kicked off their six-game road trip by allowing the Portland Trail Blazers to shoot 56 per cent from the floor on the second night of a back-to-back. On Saturday they were present – more as spectators than anything – when the Detroit Pistons shot 54 per cent from the floor and scored 127 points. The Pistons came to Toronto as the league’s lowest-rated offence. In their next game, the lowly Sacramento Kings held Detroit to 40 per cent shooting and forced them into 17 turnovers.

Against the Raptors? The Pistons looked like the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors.

Meanwhile, the Raptors’ identity is shapeshifting before our very eyes.

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After nine games the Raptors could boast a five-game winning streak and the NBA’s sixth-rated defence, as they allowed 102.4 points per 100 possessions. They held Boston to 83 points in their first win of the season. It was their anemic half-court offence that seemed to be the problem, but now that that their offence has found some footing – they rank seventh in offence over their 1-5 stretch – it’s the defence that’s the issue.

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Over the past six games, the Raptors have been the worst defensive team in the NBA, allowing 118.6 points a game.

It’s a greatest hits of sub-par defending as Toronto ranks:

• 27th in defensive rebounding
• 29th in second chance points given up
• 30th in opponents’ effective field goal percentage
• 24th in opponents points in the paint.

The Raptors remain effective in generating turnovers over the past stretch – Toronto is fifth in steals, for example – but otherwise they’ve been a team that surrenders too many good shots too easily.

The first step in fixing a problem is diagnosing it, and after the Raptors wrapped up practice at the University of Portland on Tuesday in advance of their game against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City on Thursday, head coach Nick Nurse said that in itself was part of the challenge.

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Scheme? Personnel? Maybe both:

“I don’t know. I know we’re missing people. It doesn’t seem like we operate that great missing two or three guys,” said Nurse, referring to the Raptors having been without Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa for two games each in the past six; Fred VanVleet for one and Pascal Siakam being available for just four of them. “It seems like it’s switching [game to game].

“The continuity and chemistry, this team hasn’t handled it as well as we probably need to. That’s a fact of life in this league,” Nurse continued. “Guys are gonna be in and guys are gonna be out, and you’ve got to keep some consistency. It feels to me that’s where it gets a little sticky: on offence and special situations. There just isn’t the comfort of knowing exactly where the pieces are supposed to be. That’s all I can say there.”

What happened to the Raptors’ defence?
Embarking on what could be a season-defining road trip, the Raptors needed their defence to be at its best. So far, it hasn’t been. What’s gone wrong?

It’s a fair assessment, but there are some other possibilities, too. One might simply be that the way Nurse wants the Raptors to defend is very difficult. Typically, pursuing one kind of advantage defensively means giving up something somewhere else. Teams that pack the paint to help defend the rim at all costs are sometimes vulnerable to giving up too many comfortable looks from three. Teams that want to pressure the ball all over the floor are vulnerable in the paint and at the rim or can get caught in rotations and leave shooters wide open when a team moves the ball well.

Nurse’s answer to these conundrums has generally been: “do both.”

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He wants his teams to be able to react quickly to help on dribble penetration or otherwise collapse to the ball but also make the second and third efforts needed to challenge high-value three-point shots.

But it’s hard. Exhausting even. And harder still on nights like Monday when Nurse played his starters between 39 and 41 minutes, played Khem Birch 21 minutes off the bench and then played everyone else 20 minutes combined.

“I’d like to say I’m OK. What’d I play, 40 minutes last night?” said Siakam, who appeared in just his fourth game after missing the start of the season while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. “There are some plays where it’s like, ‘Oh damn.’ But at the end of the day that’s what it’s gonna be. I’m the type of person, I like to get to the point where I’m exhausted. I think I’m better that way. If I’m not tired, that means I’m just going through the motions.”

So was he exhausted last night?

“I was exhausted,” said Siakam, who has averaged 22.5 points, 6.5 assists and nine rebounds on 55 per cent shooting over his last two outings. “I was tired. I think that’s good for me, especially trying to get my wind back. It’s tough, but you’ve got to do it.”

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But players aren’t robots. Something has to give. It could be that on a team where VanVleet leads the NBA in minutes per game, OG Anunoby is second and rookie Scottie Barnes is 12th and on pace to surpass his minutes totals for his entire college career before his first NBA season has reached the 20-game mark, the demands of playing one of the NBA’s most aggressive, frenetic defences is already taking a toll.

“Especially with the way we’re playing and how hard [we] guard, we can’t make mistakes,” said Siakam. “We have to be focused on the game plan and execute to the highest level.

“[But] when you play good teams — [Portland has] Dame out there, you have CJ [McCollum], you have Norm [Powell], you have shooters around — it’s tough to consistently trap or have pressure,” he continued. “There are gonna be drives and there is gonna be help.

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“If other people are making shots, then all of a sudden it looks like we’re playing bad defence. But the way we play dictates it. If we ball pressure, a good player in the league is gonna drive you, we’re gonna help and somebody’s gonna be open for a shot.

“We’ve got to contest it harder probably. That’s what it is.”

It could well be as simple as that. But doing it is the tricky part and doing it for the next 65 games is harder still if Nurse sticks to playing such a tight rotation.

There were plenty of examples of the Raptors struggling to contain the ball at the point of attack, the foundation of any sound defence, and plenty when the help was slow or too passive and the next rotation similarly sluggish.

Siakam was as guilty as anyone, be it allowing Lillard an easy route to the point to generate a kick-out three for McCollum:

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Or earlier, making a poor close out on Robert Covington that allowed the Blazers forward to drive and find Josef Nurkic after drawing the next level of help:

Nurse had no interest in singling out Siakam or anyone else. “He’s doing okay [defensively],” he said. “I think it looks to me like he’s getting more in tune and better shapes and more in rhythm and all those kinds of things I thought he had maybe an average night against Detroit. I thought he got out of prison a little bit but I thought he was much better last night and and that just comes with getting in shape.”

But in the broad sense, there is plenty of blame to go around and there is no question of one thing: if the Raptors are going to defend this season the way they have the past six games, any hopes of making the playoffs or even the play-in tournament will have to be readjusted quickly.



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Flames Takeaways: PTO hopefuls lacklustre in attempts to secure top-nine vacancy

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Two tryouts for the Calgary Flames all but officially ended Wednesday night, as another one began.

With the Flames looking to shore up their lines and pairings in preparation for next week’s season opener, it was telling that the starting lineup in Wednesday’s 5-0 loss in Winnipeg did not include PTO hopefuls Sonny Milano or Cody Eakin.

Neither appears destined to stick with the team much longer.    

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Instead, the Flames got their first look at the 6-foot-6, 220-pound winger they plucked off waivers Monday from Pittsburgh, Radim Zohorna.

As hard as it is to miss a man of that size, the 26-year-old did little to impress on the third line with Adam Ruzicka and Blake Coleman.

In ten minutes of ice time he had one shot on a goal — a solid rebound chance in tight — and two hits.

To be fair, he joined the team at their morning skate Wednesday and will benefit from a practice Thursday before getting another look in Friday’s pre-season finale, at home against the Jets.

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“I know I can be an NHL player full time,” said the man who played 25 NHL games over the last two seasons with the Penguins.

“I try to play hard, and physical, and use my speed. I will have an opportunity to make the team here and play with these guys.”

Based on the advice of Flames scout Steve Pleau, Zohorna was brought in with hopes he can help shore up a top-nine vacancy the Flames have tried in vain to fill through camp.

By virtue of a solid camp and winning another fitness testing title, Dillon Dube has earned the chance to fill the second line role alongside Nazem Kadri and Andrew Mangiapane.

He had another strong outing with them Wednesday, firing five shots on goal and providing energy on a line that should be a crowd pleaser for Dome dwellers.

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Depending on how many players the Flames want to keep on their roster ahead of Thursday’s opener, Zohorna or Brett Ritchie could be a candidate to be placed on waivers with an eye on going to the AHL Wranglers.

But the Oilers had interest in Ritchie, so he might not clear.

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The Flames will also have an interesting decision to make on the back end, as they have nine defencemen in camp, which includes Michael Stone on a PTO.

Stone has been great in camp and will earn a deal in some fashion from the team, although it may have to wait past the opener.

That leaves the possibility of having to try pushing Connor Mackey, Juuso Valimaki or Nicolas Meloche through waivers.  

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NOTES
+ The game’s first star was former Flames backup David Rittich, who made 37 saves for the shutout as part of his preparation to play for his fourth NHL team. 

+ Despite the score, it was another good showing from starter Dan Vladar, who allowed two power play goals on 15 shots before he made his scheduled departure. All told, the Flames backup has compiled an impressive .942 save percentage this fall. Dustin Wolf was hung out to dry by a series of Flames mistakes, allowing three goals on 11 shots.

+ With the lineup just two or three bodies short of its opening day look, the Flames top power play unit included Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, Elias Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli and Rasmus Andersson. Lindholm rang one off the iron in the second period, but the unit went 0-for-6 on a night the team struggled with special teams.

The second unit included Dube, Ruzicka, Andrew Mangiapane, Noah Hanifin and Stone/MacKenzie Weegar.

+ One thing that has looked razor sharp for the Flames through the first six games was its penalty killing unit, which stymied the opposition on 25 of the first 26 man-advantages over six games. On Wednesday they allowed three goals on five chances, which had plenty to do with Flames mistakes and the fact two chief penalty killers, Mikael Backlund and Trevor Lewis, did not dress.  

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+ The Flames (4-3 in the pre-season) open their regular season Thursday against the defending champs from Colorado. 

“Funny how that worked out,” said former Avs star Nazem Kadri.

“I’m hoping maybe I’ll get my ring then.”

THE LINES

Huberdeau-Lindholm-Toffoli

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Dube-Kadri-Mangiapane

Zohorna-Ruzicka-Coleman

Lucic-Rooney-Ritchie

Weegar-Tanev 

Hanifin-Stone 

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Zadorov-Andersson 

Vladar

Wolf

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C.J. Stroud, Caleb Williams highlight Joel Klatt's Heisman Tiers

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Joel Klatt released his Heisman Trophy tiers on the latest episode of “The Joel Klatt Show.” See who made the cut.



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NBA pre-season roundup: Raptors maintain perfect record with win over Celtics

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BOSTON (AP) — Pascal Siakam and Precious Achiuwa scored 13 points apiece and Toronto used an early burst in overtime to beat Boston 125-119 on Wednesday.

Josh Jackson also had 13 points for the Raptors. Siakam recorded six rebounds and Achiuwa seven boards as the Raptors improved to 2-0 in the preseason.

Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 23 points and Sam Hauser had 22, connecting on 8 of 12 shots, including 5 of 8 from outside the arc. Jayson Tatum finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds for Boston, now 1-1 in the preseason.

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Payton Pritchard scored 17 points and had five assists

The teams were tied at 110 at the end of regulation after Jeff Dowtin (10 points) converted a 9-footer for the Raptors. Pritchard’s 18-footer was off the mark as time in regulation ran out, sending the game to the extra period.

The Raptors outscored the Celtics 11-4 to open overtime and never relinquished the lead.

76ERS 113, CAVALIERS 112

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Joel Embiid and James Harden were done with their preseason debuts long before Montrezl Harrell scored the go-ahead basket with 26 seconds left to lift Philadelphia over Cleveland.

Embiid had 12 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes before taking a seat after halftime. Harden played 19 minutes and scored nine points, going 3 of 9 from the field but adding five assists.

Tyrese Maxey, who had 20 points in Monday’s win over the Nets, continued his good start to the preseason, leading Philadelphia with 21 points in the first half. He went 9 of 11, making all three of his 3-pointers. Harrell, who signed a two-year contract with Philadelphia during the offseason, scored 13 points.

Mitchell scored 16 points in his first game since being traded from Utah, while Darius Garland and Raul Neto each had 12. Dean Wade and Sharife Cooper finished with 11 points apiece.

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Cleveland played without second-year big man Evan Mobley, who is expected to be out a couple of weeks with a right ankle sprain suffered this week.

The Cavaliers got an optimistic glimpse of the backcourt tandem of Mitchell with Garland in the first half. Mitchell was 6 of 9 for the game, including 3 of 4 from outside the arc to go with five assists. Garland, meanwhile, made 4 of 7 shots and handed out four assists.

Shake Milton had 12 points for Philadelphia, while De’Anthony Melton, picked up from Memphis in a draft night trade, had 11 points, four rebounds and three assists.

PACERS 122; HORNETS 97

Aaron Nesmith scored 16 points, rookie Benedict Mathurin, the No. 6 pick in the draft from Arizona, added 15 and Indiana beat Charlotte.

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Isaiah Jackson finished with 13 points for the Hornets, while Myles Turner and Chris Duarte contributed 12 points apiece. Mathurin was 5 of 10 from the field, despite missing all four of his 3-pointers over 19 minutes.

Terry Rozier led the Hornets with 18 points and P.J. Washington finished with 13. Kelly Oubre Jr. had 11 points and nine rebounds, while LeMelo Ball scored 12 points and handed out seven assists.

MAVERICKS 98; THUNDER 96

Jaden Hardy scored 21 points, Christian Wood finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, and Dallas used a fourth-quarter rally to beat Oklahoma City.

Dwight Powell finished with 13 points and five rebounds for the Mavericks in their opening game of the preseason.

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Josh Giddey led the Thunder with 13 points, shooting 6 for 10. Rookie Jalen Williams, the 12th overall pick out of Santa Clara, finished with 10 points.



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