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With no fans to enjoy it, Raptors end strange 2021 on winning note

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Happy Two Years!

Apologies. Bad pun, but the point stands: It’s not quite 24 months since everything got weird and that much weirder for the Toronto Raptors.

But it’s close enough.

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With the Omicron variant sweeping North America and locally, the Raptors rung in 2022 as the only NBA team to hold games without fans after a policy decision made by the Ontario government on Thursday to limit attendance at indoor events to 1,000 people of 50 per cent capacity, whichever is less.

Debate whether that makes sense or not – even when Scotiabank Arena was limited to half capacity or 50 per cent, they were drawing fewer than 7,000 vaccinated and masked fans; social distancing wasn’t a problem.

But at the very least, Friday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers was deeply weird.

Will Lou and Alex Wong talk all things Raptors live on Sportsnet 590 The FAN weekdays from 2 p.m. – 3 p.m. ET.

It that sense, it was a fitting end of a year that was all that and more for the Raptors — who were just starting their lost season in Tampa this time 12 months ago and were hopeful that 2021-22 would be their return to ‘normal’.

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Unfortunately, COVID-19 called ‘cap’ and ‘normal’ got pushed back for a few weeks or months or who knows.

On the floor, there was some hope the Raptors would provide some relief against all that.

After two games when they had as many 10 regulars in health-and-safety protocols they welcomed as full a lineup as they have had all season. Khem Birch, Fred VanVleet, Precious Achiuwa, OG Anunoby and Justin Champagnie all returned from extended COVID-related absences, leaving only Isaac Bonga and hardship signee DJ Wilson in health-and-safety protocols.

And guess, what? Having almost all your key players back makes a difference. In a game that was played with a razor-thin margin for most of the fourth quarter, the difference makers were VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who combined for a quick 7-0 run in the final 94 seconds that proved the difference as the Raptors brought in the new year with a much-needed 116-108 win that improved their record to 15-17.

The Clippers fell to 18-18.

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It wasn’t the homecoming that Serge Ibaka was hoping for — the former Raptors centre finished with seven points on six shots in 18 minutes as he continued to try to work his way back to form after back surgery.

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But his old teammates – youngsters to his veteran presence when he was a Raptor – took care of business. Siakam finished with 25 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists in 39 minutes, looking none-the-worse-for-wear as he followed up his 42-minute outing his first game back from protocols with 40 minutes Friday night. VanVleet didn’t get a chance to ease his way back in either as he put up 31 points and nine assists in his 39 minutes and held the fort down the stretch. And Anunoby did his part too, with 26 points in his 36 minutes.

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That the Raptors shot just 11-of-35 from deep to the Clippers’ 15-of-34 made things a little more difficult, but their 18-3 edge in offensive rebounding was the equalizer.

Win or lose, it was a very odd night.

Stream 250+ marquee NBA matchups from around the league, including over 40 Raptors games. Plus, get news, highlights, analysis, select NBA Playoff matchups and the NBA Draft.

There were any number of examples of how strange it is to play — or watch — an NBA game in an arena that is normally charged by the electricity of 19,800 but instead is limited to 1,000 people total – staff, players, families, media – with no tickets sold at all.

How about having the national anthems, as tradition dictates, performed on the video board by Scotiabank Arena’s in-house anthem singer Doug Tranquada in a silent building?

Or having Mark ‘Strizzy’ Strong roar out his pre-game introductions while spotlighted at centre court, only to have vague crowd noise piped in after to greet VanVleet or Anunoby, who were making their first starts since being sidelined by COVID protocols on Dec. 22?

Or The Raptor sprinting around the building in full costume with no one to high-five?

And all of this going one while the hallways at Scotiabank Arena – which are usually teeming with fans hustling to get a beer or a jersey before the ball goes up – remained dim, quiet and empty.

But the most COVID moment for my money came after the first timeout in the opening quarter when the Raptors unveiled a wonderful video tribute for Ibaka, who was playing his first game in Toronto since Feb. 25, 2020, the last of 228 he played in Toronto as a Raptor.

It was a great video, with Ibaka’s on-court highlights mixed in deftly with the off-court persona – the ‘how hungry are you’ Serge and the ‘I do art’ fashion icon Serge — that emerged over his four impactful seasons with the club.

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But there was no one to see it and no ovation following it.

The game went on and both teams had to deal with it, however. Arguably, the Raptors have had more experience dealing with basketball played outside the norm.

“We’ve had to get ready to play in a lot of different venues and I think that the bottom line and the main thing to kinda keep in mind or in the forefront is that we’re getting to go out there and play,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “It’s a chance to compete, a chance to get better and a chance to win a ball game. That’s it, no matter — the old thing you used to say, ‘Oh, we don’t care if it’s a Tuesday night at 7 or a Sunday at noon,’ it’s really along those lines, that kinda coach speak or whatever … you gotta zero in.”

The only regular missing was rookie Scottie Barnes, who somehow developed tendinitis in his right knee while he was out for 10 days in COVID protocols. “I’m as surprised as you guys are,” said Nurse. “It seems kind of strange that we played a lot, and he only went out because of protocols and had a lot of time off. We’ll just have to work him back in I guess.”

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In the meantime, Nurse used 12 players in a range of combinations as he tried to find some kind of spark and in particular some kind of contribution from the bench. The newly regrouped starters came out strong — each of Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., VanVleet, Anunoby and Birch had one field goal in the opening minutes before anyone else got their second. The energy was good, the defence was sharp and the Clippers — playing without head coach Ty Lue, who entered protocols Friday morning – looked a bit lost playing in such an unusual environment.

The Raptors jumped out to a 21-6 lead midway through the first quarter. But the Raptors struggled whenever they went to their bench, a theme for 2021 if there ever was one. The Clippers clawed their way back into it thanks to their bench as Amir Coffey closed the quarter with a quick eight-point flurry and Los Angeles was down only three. The Raptors were swimming upstream after that as they trailed 62-56 at half.

They trailed 87-82 to start the fourth, but when the starters came in they were able to right the ship. It was a fun game, all things considered, the end of a bizarre year in basketball and elsewhere.

And stranger still, no one was here to see it.





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Three Stars from Day 3 of WJC: Canada’s McTavish joins elite company – Sportsnet.ca

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Canada and the U.S. dominated in their second game of the tournament while Czechia and Finland went toe-to-toe and needed a shootout to determine a winner on Day 3 of the World Junior Hockey Championship.

The Canadian team rebounded from a sluggish performance with an 11-1 win over Slovakia, a game in which captain Mason McTavish added his name to the country’s record books.

Against Switzerland, the United States took their game to another gear that their opponent could not match as they cruised to a 7-1 victory to improve to 2-0 at the tournament.

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Finland dropped a crucial point as they had to overcome a 2-0 deficit but were able to pick up the shootout win over their rival Czechia.

Here is a look at the top performances from Day 3 of the world juniors.

3rd Star: Luke Hughes, USA

Coming from a great hockey family, Luke Hughes is making most of his opportunity as one of the top defencemen for the U.S. 

The younger brother of Quinn and Jack displayed his mobility and vision against Switzerland with a three-point effort. He now has five points in his first two games of the tournament — more than either of his brothers ever achieved at this event in fewer games.

Hughes leads all defenceman in scoring so far in the tournament and is tied for fourth overall.

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The 18-year-old played 21:18 against the Swiss to lead the U.S. in ice time playing on the top pairing with Brock Faber. His play from this point will be a crucial part of his team’s success given the creativity he displayed, especially on Matt Coronato’s goal in the second period.

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He made another top-notch set up on Thomas Bordeleau’s power-play goal in the third period as he delayed enough to get the defenders to pull towards his side of the ice.

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2nd Star: Carter Mazur, USA

Coming into the tournament, Carter Mazur is looking to build off an impressive season at the University of Denver. 

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While he was in a scoring slump in his first NCAA season, the Detroit Red Wings prospect made a call to his NHL team’s assistant director of player development, Daniel Cleary. After that, he would go on to finish with 14 goals and 38 points in 41 games.

Those tips have now turned Mazur into a scoring machine as he accounted for two of the team’s seven goals and was also named the player of the game as the top line of Mazur, Landon Slaggert, and Thomas Bordeleau had an impressive performance against Switzerland

After a scoreless first period, Mazur wasn’t going to make any mistake on a point-blank chance in front of the net with Mackie Samoskevich making a great pass from behind the net.

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With the Americans looking to add to their lead, Mazur was once again the beneficiary of a great pass from Slaggert as he made no mistake from the front of the net.

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He added another assist on Slaggert’s goal later in the period for his third point of the game. Through his first two games at the world juniors, Mazur has four points and is tied for sixth in scoring.

1st Star: Mason McTavish, Canada

On a night where Canada dominated from start to finish, Mason McTavish joined some elite company with a night he’ll certainly remember for a long time.

The 19-year-old joined Mario Lemieux, Simon Gagné, Brayden Schenn, Taylor Raddysh, Maxime Comtois and teammate Connor Bedard as the only players to score four goals in a single world junior game for Canada. The tournament record for goals in a single game is held by Sweden’s Ola Rosander who had six back in 1987.

With his performance against Slovakia in a dominant win for Canada, McTavish now sits atop the scoring lead with eight points in two games after registering six points in this game.

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McTavish scored his first goal of the game on a breakaway — with Canada already leading 5-0 midway through the second — making no mistake to beat Tomas Bolo, who came into the game after starter Simon Latkoczy was pulled going into the second period.

His second goal came off a great play by Joshua Roy who flipped the puck in the air to Brennan Othmann who then set up McTavish as he finished with a backhander to put Canada up 7-1. McTavish would complete the second-period hat trick, a day after Alexander Blank did the same for Germany, after a selfless pass from Roy on a 2-on-0 break.

Canada would capitalize on a turnover on McTavish’s fourth goal as Othmann set him up alone in front of the net and he made no mistake.

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There was some doubt about whether McTavish would suit up for Canada after playing a fair amount of hockey last season. Making his NHL debut with the Anaheim Ducks, the third overall pick from the 2021 NHL Draft played in a total of 72 games between the NHL, AHL, OHL, Memorial Cup and the Olympics.

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Instead, McTavish decided to join the team in Edmonton and take on the role as captain where he has excelled centring Canada’s top line with Bedard and and a rotation of Roy and Othmann.

Canada will now look forward to a matchup against Czechia with a chance to improve to 3-0.

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Field of Dreams Game 2022: A celebration of baseball memories in an Iowa cornfield

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The Field of Dreams is an opportunity for fans and players alike to reflect on the people and places that taught them to love baseball, Jake Mintz writes.



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Ravens extend NFL record for consecutive postseason wins following Thursday’s victory over the Titans

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USA Today

The No. 21 is now synonymous with the longest winning streaks in NFL regular and preseason history. the 2003-04 Patriots won 21 consecutive games, an NFL record. On Thursday night, the Ravens won their 21st consecutive preseason game after securing a 23-10 decision against the Tennessee Titans

Baltimore has not lost a preseason game since 2016. Joe Flacco was their starting quarterback when the streak began, while Steve Smith Jr., who this past year was eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time, was heading into his final NFL season. Baltimore’s roster also included Terrell Suggs, who was entering his second-to-last season with the franchise. 

Along with not losing preseason games, another constant in Baltimore over the past six years has been kicker Justin Tucker, who is entering his 11th season with the Ravens. Tucker’s field goals of 47, 25 and 47 yards on Thursday night helped Baltimore pull out the win after falling behind midway through the second quarter. 

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The Ravens won Thursday’s game by winning the turnover margin while holding the Titans to 1 of 3 red zone efficiency. One of those turnovers was scooped up by Kyle Hamilton, the Ravens’ first-round pick in this past year’s draft. 

Baltimore won despite the efforts of Malik Willis, the Titans’ rookie quarterback who overcame a slow start to score his first NFL touchdown, a 7-yard run early in the second quarter. Speaking of quarterbacks, the Ravens received a strong night from Tyler Huntley, who completed all but two of his 18 pass attempts that included his game-winning touchdown pass to Shemar Bridges



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