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With a supernova performance, VanVleet decides he won’t let Raptors lose

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That wasn’t supposed to happen.

The Toronto Raptors were supposed to have a laugher. They were supposed to be able to empty their bench. They were supposed to keep their winning streak alive and not have to get too stressed about it.

The Utah Jazz arrived in Toronto short-staffed due to health-and-safety protocols and, seemingly, decided to take the hint and hold out just about everyone else they could, with a variety of vague-sounding injuries.

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They ended up with eight players coming out for warm-ups, two of them hardship signees on 10-day contracts, one who joined the team Friday. Their pair of two-way players started.

But the Raptors chose to make things difficult for themselves, gifting the Jazz a 15-point lead in the first quarter, a 13-point lead at half and were trailing by 14 late in the third quarter when Fred VanVleet decided he’d had enough and started doing All-Star things.

The Raptors point guard got it going with a much-needed jumper as the Jazz were beginning to open up some room after Toronto had pulled within seven at one point. Then VanVleet hit a three. Then he bulled his way to the rim and got fouled.

And then he really started rolling.

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By the time the horn sounded on the quarter, VanVleet had scored 17-straight points and – after assisting on Chris Boucher lay-up – finished things up with a triple for 20 points in 4:17 and a 24-point third quarter on 8-of-8 shooting, including a trio of threes while going 5-of-5 from the floor.

The Raptors needed all of it in an otherwise shaky 122-108 win over the Jazz. OG Anunoby did add 22 points and Boucher was sharp of the bench with 13 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.

The victory stretched the Raptors’ winning streak to a season-high tying five games, with the struggling New Orleans Pelicans scheduled for Sunday.

Hopefully the Raptors won’t need VanVleet to go supernova to push their streak to six.

But then again, VanVleet has been pretty reliable in that regard. He continued what has been a remarkable push to make his first All-Star game by scoring a season-high 37 points, while adding 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his first career triple-double after some close calls of late.

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He joined Kawhi Leonard as the only players in Raptors history to score 30 pr more points in four consecutive games.

The win improved the Raptors’ record to 19-17 as the Jazz fell to 28-11. After struggling to keep a spot in the play-in tournament in view, Toronto is suddenly within hailing distance of home-court advantage and a top-four seed in the tightly-packed Eastern Conference.

Hopefully there will fans at Scotiabank Arena by then, but the Raptors were lucky the building was empty due to COVID restrictions Friday.

The crowd soundtrack that plays in the vacant arena doesn’t include booing. The paying customers may not have been so kind given the way Toronto started the game.

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The first quarter was miserable, an example of what can happen when a team comes to work and figures half their job is already half done.

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The Jazz were missing their top six scorers – though only two due to COVID protocols – and eight of their top nine. The Raptors were coasting in at full strength, save for Yuta Watanabe, and were boasting both a four-game winning streak and three games having their same preferred starters – the only three times that’s happened this year.

Toronto knows how this script is supposed to go. On Boxing Day in Cleveland, the Raptors – who had 10 players in COVID protocols, including nine of their top-10 scorers – showed up and dutifully lost by 45 points.

This was no longer the Raptors’ problem. Quite the opposite.

“Everyone’s healthy. We’re playing everybody,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse for one of the very few times this season. “I think that’s the best way to approach it. We’ve got to look at ourselves and try to keep improving and keep growing and keep seeing where we can take our own team, for sure.”

Nurse tried to sound a warning before the game about the dangers of taking it easy against an undermanned team:

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“I know they are missing a lot of their key guys, or most of them,” he said. “But there’s still a very good group of guys coming out to play, guys that hard to guard and hard to defend [with] size. Just off the top, [Jordan] Clarkson, [Rudy] Gay and [Hassan] Whiteside are problems. We have to figure out how to cover those guys. That’s three problems, one at each position, and guys that have scored a lot in this league who will get way more opportunities than they’re used to getting. But they’re not strangers to getting lots of opportunities.”

But Nurse’s words of warning probably lost a bit of weight when the Jazz held out Clarkson (back) and Gay (heel) at the last minute.

This was an easy win on a platter. Six of the Jazz regulars that didn’t dress played regular minutes in Utah’s win in Denver on Wednesday.

Could Utah have simply not wanted to risk travelling them across the border and going through an extra layer of COVID screening and risk getting stuck in Toronto for six days?

Even if the Jazz were being cautious, given they are scheduled to play on the second night of a back-to-back in Indiana on Saturday, it all seemed a bit strange.

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And that’s before the game started.

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The Jazz no-show was supposed to be the universe paying the Raptors back.

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Well, the first quarter was the universe laughing at them for thinking that’s how things work.

Consider how the last 30 seconds of the opening quarter went for the home side, who were 13-point favourites before the Jazz scratched Clarkson and Gay shortly before tip:

The Raptors gave up a lob to Whiteside – the lone Jazz rotation regular – committed two turnovers and then watched idly as Malik Fitts cruised into a wide-open three from just over half with 0.5 left on the clock. Of course, it went down, and the Raptors were somehow trailing 40-25, while allowing Utah to shoot 53.8 per cent from the floor and 7-of-13 from three, while Toronto could only manage 36 per cent and 2-of-11.

Things normalized somewhat in the second quarter. The Raptors began guarding with a little bit more vigour, but they still couldn’t shoot. The ball moved, the shots were reasonable but the vibe was not conducive to made baskets, or something.

The Jazz sat down in a zone, let Whiteside clog the paint and challenged Toronto to make one from deep. In the end, they made three in 15 tries.

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The Raptors made up for it by tightening up on the Jazz – Eric Paschall, who scored 17 points in the opening quarter, was held off the board in the second, though he did lead the Jazz with 29 by game’s end.

The Raptors forced Utah into four turnovers and grabbed eight offensive rebounds. They still trailed 62-49 at half, but at least it felt like the game was still within reach.

The third quarter wasn’t all that much more promising early on, but VanVleet decided he wasn’t having it, simple as that.

It’s what great players do, and VanVleet is proving he just might be that.





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Sandy Alcantara Is On Pace To Shatter Marlins History

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(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

 

The Miami Marlins don’t have much of a chance to accomplish anything this year, but their staff ace Sandy Alcantara does.

The National League Cy Young favorite continued his run of dominance last night, tossing seven scoreless innings against the San Diego Padres and earning his 11th win of the season.

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Alcantara also struck out seven batters and allowed just four hits while only walking two batters and lowering his ERA on the season to 1.92.

In fact, last night marked the eighth time Alcantara has tossed at least seven scoreless innings in a game this year, which ties him with the late Jose Fernandez.

Only Dontrelle Willis has pitched more games where he went seven innings and allowed no runs in Marlins history.

He had nine of those back in 2005.

 

Alcantara’s Dominance

Alcantara is quickly becoming one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

He might already be there.

With each start, he dominates his opponents and proves why the St. Louis Cardinals made a terrible mistake when they traded him away back in 2017.

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Only Justin Verlander has a better ERA than Alcantara, who is the clear-cut favorite to take home the National League Cy Young Award.

He has dominated in almost every start, and he did it at an important time last night, as he shut down the juggernaut offense of the Padres, who just recently acquired Juan Soto and Josh Bell.

While the Marlins aren’t going to go anywhere, Alcantara has a very good chance to achieve something special.

He matched a Marlins great and is now one dominant start away from matching yet another one.

We’ll see if he can keep up this run of success.

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The post Sandy Alcantara Is On Pace To Shatter Marlins History appeared first on The Cold Wire.





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WNBA Power Rankings: Aces, Sky title favorites as playoffs begin; Mystics lurking as darkhorse

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After a thrilling close to the regular season, it’s time to turn our attention to the 2022 WNBA playoffs, which will tip-off Wednesday night with two first-round Game 1s. In the first game of the night, the Chicago Sky will host the New York Liberty, and in the finale the Las Vegas Aces will take on the Phoenix Mercury. 

The Aces (+165) and Sky (+200) are the top two seeds and the top two title favorites entering the postseason, per Caesars Sportsbook.

The league has once again revamped the playoff format, eliminating the first-and-second-round byes in favor of a standard bracket. Play will begin with a best-of-three first round series, followed by best-of-five series in the semifinals and Finals. One interesting twist, though, is that in the first round, Games 1 and 2 will be hosted by the higher seed, while the lower seed will get to host a deciding Game 3, if necessary. The semis and Finals will be a standard 2-2-1 arrangement. 

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As we wait for the action to begin, here’s a look at how each team fares in our pre-playoffs power rankings. 

1. Las Vegas Aces — No. 1 overall seed

Sunday’s comeback win over the Storm to secure the No. 1 seed capped off a tremendous close to the season for the Aces. They won four straight, including a win over the Sky and two over the Storm. Their reward was a first-round matchup against a depleted Mercury team that should be little challenge, and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. During their mid-season slump there was concern that the Aces had peaked too early, but they’re back on track and the title favorite. 

2. Chicago Sky — No. 2 overall seed

A mini skid during the final week cost the Sky the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage for the entire playoffs. They won the title as a No. 6 seed last season, though, so they won’t be too concerned about their position. What is worrying, is they haven’t been playing their best basketball down the stretch. They went 3-3 in August after losing just four games in June and July combined, and have not been great defensively. Still, we know this team can flip the switch and they have championship experience, cohesion and the ability to be elite on both sides of the ball. 

3. Connecticut Sun — No. 3 overall seed

On the one hand, Sun had an easy schedule post-All-Star break, and cleaned up by going 11-3 down the stretch to secure the No. 3 seed and best net-rating in the league at plus-9.5 points per 100 possessions. On the other, they were 10-0 against bottom-seven opponents and 1-3 against top-four opponents, picking up just a solitary win over the Storm. The Sun are a definite contender, but their 1-6 record against the Aces and Sky is of real concern, especially considering they would likely have to get through both teams to win the title. 

4. Seattle Storm — No. 4 overall seed

Even in defeat to the Aces on Sunday in the regular season finale, we saw how dangerous the Storm can be when everything is clicking. Moving Tina Charles into the starting lineup has indeed juiced their offense, and that new unit has a plus-20.9 net rating in 16 games together. In the last two playoff runs where the trio of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird have been healthy, the Storm are 12-2 in the postseason and won the title both times. Can they do it again? Perhaps, but they have not been one of the elite teams over the balance of the season, and do not have the same level of supporting cast as they did in 2018 and 2020. 

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5. Washington Mystics — No. 5 overall seed

Despite being the No. 5 seed, the Mystics could be a darkhorse contender. They coasted through the regular season to some extent in order to keep Elena Delle Donne healthy for the playoffs, and it’s clear they could have been a higher seed if she played a full schedule. In her 25 games they went 18-7 – a .720 winning percentage that would be right in line with the Aces and Sky over a full season – and had a plus-12.3 net rating with her on the court. In the 11 games she sat out, they were 4-7. This team could cause problems if Delle Donne can withstand the demands of a playoff schedule, but they would almost certainly have to beat three of the top-four teams in succession in order to win the title, which may be too much to ask. 

6. Dallas Wings — No. 6 overall seed

The Wings caught fire toward the end of the season and won five straight games from July 30–Aug. 8 to clinch a second consecutive playoff berth. That stretch included victories over the Aces and Sky, and they seemed to have unlocked something by giving more playing time to Teaira McCowan. They will be without All-Star guard Arike Ogunbowale for at least the first round, however, due to a hip injury, and while they’ve had some good games in her absence, her shot creation will be missed in the playoffs. During the regular season they were 2-1 against the Sun, and should be competitive, but actually winning the first-round series will be difficult. 

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7. New York Liberty — No. 7 overall seed

The Liberty enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league. They closed the season on a 6-2 run, and had the third-best net rating (plus-6.8) in the league in August. When healthy and at their best, they have the ability to play with and beat any team in the league thanks in large part to their prolific 3-point attack. However, they have not been able to reach that level on a consistent basis this season, and will be sizable underdogs against the defending champion Sky. 

8. Phoenix Mercury — No. 8 overall seed

After losing in the Finals last season, the Mercury went all in for another run at the title. Their plans fell apart over the course of the last six months, however, as Brittney Griner was detained in Russia, Tina Charles abruptly left the team mid-season and both Diana Taurasi (quad) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (personal reasons) are now sidelined. They deserve a lot of credit for even making the playoffs, but they lost five of seven games to close the season and it’s hard to imagine them being competitive against the Aces. 



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Stat Trolls Tua Tagovailoa As He Tries To Make A Change

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Much is left to be desired from Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

In two NFL seasons, the former Alabama standout has amassed 4,467 yards and 27 touchdowns.

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However, he has thrown 15 interceptions, which put him in a bad light.

But there have been changes that can turn the tide for him in 2022.

First, he will have an offensive-minded head coach in Mike McDaniel.

Second, they gave him more targets downfield like Cedrick Wilson, Chase Edmonds, and Tyreek Hill.

Third, the Dolphins also improved the protection around him with offensive linemen Terron Armstead and Connor Williams.

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Those additions should help him rise above this eye-popping comparison.

The NFL on CBS tweeted that Odell Beckham Jr. has more 30-yard passes (2) for touchdowns than Tagovailoa (1).

While the claim may sound dubious, it should motivate Tagovailoa to throw more deep balls and to trust his teammates.

He has no excuse to falter, especially after getting everything he needs on offense.

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Likewise, he should build more confidence to throw the deep ball with ease.

Doing so will help him overtake Beckham on that statistic.

 

No Excuse For Failure

Coming into his third NFL season, Tagovailoa will be compared to his NFL Draft classmates Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert.

The former has already led the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl stint while Herbert has become Offensive Rookie of the Year.

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Those are the lofty standards that Tagovailoa should live up to if he wants the Dolphins to take the next step.

Gone are the days of finding an alibi because he already has several weapons around him.

Therefore, Tagovailoa should make a significant jump in performance to make the front office consider him as a long-term option.

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