• Raptors lose 109-99 to Memphis to leave them on the brink of elimination
    The Canadian Press

    Raptors lose 109-99 to Memphis to leave them on the brink of elimination

    TAMPA, Fla. — The Toronto Raptors' loss to Memphis that left them on the brink of elimination had a little bit of everything. Their 34th starting lineup of the season — a franchise record. Injuries to Pascal Siakam and Rodney Hood. Most of their key players out for the night. And Fred VanVleet moonlighting as a coach. Siakam and Gary Trent Jr. scored 18 points apiece and the Raptors lost 109-99 to the Grizzlies on Saturday — a game that was reflective of a wacky season rocked by COVID-19. And now it could be about to end. An Indiana victory over Cleveland on Monday would officially end the Raptors' post-season hopes. Coach Nick Nurse has already had an eye on next season, however, and so Saturday was partly about evaluation and development. "From a schematic standpoint, we executed pretty well," Nurse said, summing up his young players. "I just didn't think we played that well offensively." Rookie Jalen Harris had 16 points off the bench, Malachi Flynn added 15, Yuta Watanabe chipped in with 11 points, while Khem Birch had 10 for the Raptors (27-41). "With the year that we've had, the COVID year and whatnot, I think everything has been about making adjustments, and playing on the fly," Harris said. "I think we've been able to try to do that especially with all the injuries and different situations we've had all year and I just think it's something that we're getting used to." Siakam didn't play the fourth quarter after suffering a shoulder strain, while Hood fractured his hand in the fourth. Former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas had 18 points and 21 rebounds for Memphis, while Jaren Jackson Jr., had 20 points to top the Grizzlies (31-30). In a tough season that saw the displaced Raptors nose-dive down the standings with one win in March amid a COVID-19 outbreak, Toronto came into Saturday's game still alive for a spot in the play-in tournament by a sliver — a place Nurse called the "last-chance saloon." The Raptors are four-and-a-half games behind Indiana for the 10th and final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference with four games to go. The Raptors sat Kyle Lowry, VanVleet and OG Anunoby on Saturday either for rest or injury maintenance, VanVleet dressed in coaching attire with a black Raptors golf shirt. "He's interested, that's the big thing. He even came in with our halftime coaches meeting and sat in with that which I thought was pretty interesting for him," Nurse said of VanVleet. "It's good that he's engaged . . . when he's not available, he's still very near the court helping guys and he was coaching very hard with Malachi tonight so that was good." Trailing by 12 points late in the third quarter, the Raptors opened the fourth with a 10-0 run capped by Trent Jr.'s three-pointer that pulled them to within a point. When Valanciunas, who played nearly seven seasons for Toronto, muscled his way to the hoop, his basket capped a 13-3 Grizzlies run that had Memphis back up by 10 with five minutes to play. The Raptors sliced the difference to five on a basket by Flynn with 1:25 to play, but that was as close as they would come. The Raptors had won the previous seven meetings between the two teams. Valanciunas played a big part in ending that streak. Inspired against his old team, after the Raptors shipped him to Memphis in the Marc Gasol deal at the 2019 trade deadline, Valanciunas has recorded double-doubles in consecutive contests against his former team. Asked if he had a favourite memory of Valanciunas, Nurse talked about working with the big man in Lithuania in the off-seasons. "You probably know Jonas loves to hunt and fish. And he took me fishing one time and I have never seen a guy so happy when he was reeling in a fish. Like so intense, so excited. And I told him, 'Next year when we're out on the floor I'm gonna tell you to rebound like it's a fish,'" Nurse said with a loud laugh. "I want you to be as excited about going to the glass as you are about reeling in that fish.'" The Grizzlies raced out to a 10-point first quarter lead, but the Raptors closed the frame with a 15-5 run to send the game into the second tied at 26-26. Trent Jr.'s bank shot early in the second capped a 9-2 Raptors run that had them up by five, but they couldn't maintain the momentum. Dillon Brooks fed Ja Morant for an alley-oop dunk with just under a minute to play to put Memphis up by four, and the Grizzlies took a 47-46 lead into the halftime break. The Grizzlies stretched the difference to 12 points on a Jackson three-pointer late in the quarter. Morant stole the ball off Siakam for a dunk with 0.9 seconds to play and Memphis led 81-72 with one quarter to play. Nurse, also the coach of the Canadian national men's team, expects Brooks to play in Canada's last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament June 29 to July 4 in Victoria. "He's in. He's been in every time I've talked to him," Nurse said of the native of Mississauga, Ont. "He's hungry to play and represent his country so that's great. "And as far as his game I think him among a lot of other guys have really improved this year, and I can only say that his compete level is way up there, his toughness is up there, his willingness to get down and play defence is way up there and he's obviously not bashful when it comes to the offensive end." The Raptors host Kawhi Leonard and the L.A. Clippers on Tuesday, then could play spoiler against the visiting Chicago Bulls on Thursday. They travel to Dallas on Friday then host Indiana in the regular-season finale on Sunday. This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2021. The Canadian Press

  • The Canadian Press

    Leafs getting first doses of vaccine, as new NHL virus protocols emerge

    The Toronto Maple Leafs are getting their first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine on Sunday, but the team won't have relaxed virus protocols like some of their American counterparts. The NHL announced Saturday it is changing some of its protocols for fully vaccinated teams. The changes take effect once 85 per cent or more of the travelling party has been fully vaccinated, the league announced Saturday. For a team with 56 members in its travelling party, 48 would need to be fully vaccinated. The changes will likely only affect American teams in the immediate future, with the vaccination rollout further behind in Canada. A Leafs spokesperson confirmed team members will receive their first doses on Sunday in an email to The Canadian Press. "I think our team has done a great job following all the protocols that were set in place," Leafs winger Wayne Simmonds said after his team clinched first place in the North Division with a 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. "We've waited our turn, and now vaccines are becoming more readily available. I think it's great that we get the opportunity now to get in line and get our vaccines. Hopefully everyone else joins in ... as long as they're comfortable with it, obviously. But I think it's a big thing for our team." Leafs defenceman Justin Holl said the season has been a challenge. "This has been a weird year in the sense that a lot of people in general, and our team specificially, are kind of walking on egg shells trying to make sure we don't get anybody sick," he said. "This will just be another added benefit in our COVID world." South of the border, teams will have even more freedom. “It could be really big, I think, just for the mindset of the players, more than anything, just to get back to some sort of normalcy,” Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said Saturday. “The playoffs are a grind, just like this season has been, so any type of getting your mind away from it by being around the guys I think will help.” The changes include loosened restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining, testing frequency and mask-wearing and quarantine requirements. The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning are among the teams that have already reached the 85% threshold. Under the new regulations, fully vaccinated individuals can dine outdoors or inside (in a private section or room with masked servers), visit each other's hotel rooms, go golfing and have other social gatherings without masking or distancing requirements. They also won't have to quarantine for potential exposure or be subject to testing on off days, and in some cases rapid tests prior to games. “I think it’ll be an ease for players: ‘Hey, this has been worth it. We’ve been grinding, grinding. OK, now we’re seeing things change a little bit,'” New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “I think it’ll give a boost of energy to all involved.” The league had maintained strict COVID-19 rules since the start of the season and added more protections in February when cases were increasing. Team staff and family were instructed Feb. 11 to avoid public settings and even get groceries delivered, restrictions that have been in place since. "We’ve been in total isolation," Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner said last month. “We can’t get out of our house. We can’t go out of our hotel. We can’t do anything. And it’s been over a year now, and no one ever talks about the mental health impact about that stuff.” The NHL is the last of the major four North American pro sports leagues to announce plans to relax virus protocols for teams based on vaccination levels. As of Friday, five of Major League Baseball's 30 teams had reached the 85% vaccinated level to relax protocols. This move is likely to affect the 12 U.S. playoff teams first because vaccinations have lagged for those in Canada. As of Friday, roughly a third of those in the U.S. are fully vaccinated compared with just more than 3% in Canada. “It all comes down to the government guidelines, and it’s out of our control,” U.S.-born Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck said earlier this season. “You definitely see the States getting out the vaccinations well and it’s very good, very nice, and it’d be nice to see that in Canada, but I don’t know the logistics of it all.” Along with players, coaches and other staff, fully vaccinated officiating crews also can also take advantage of the relaxed protocols if both teams of the playoff series they are working are also considered fully vaccinated. “It’ll be nice for us to be able to go out for lunch or dinner and sit out on a patio," Hurricanes defenceman Brady Skjei said. "We haven’t been able to do that for a while. Just to get that team bonding, that part of it. We’ve obviously been together the whole year and been in the hotel rooms together. But, yeah, it’ll be awesome to get outside and get some fresh air.” - With files from Joshua Clipperton in Toronto and The Associated Press. The Canadian Press

  • Mitchell goes bogey-free at Quail and leads McIlroy by 2
    The Canadian Press

    Mitchell goes bogey-free at Quail and leads McIlroy by 2

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Keith Mitchell straightened out his putter and delivered big tee shots Saturday that carried him to a 6-under 66 and a two-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and Gary Woodland in the Wells Fargo Championship. The putter issue is not a figure of speech. After closing with an 82 in the Valspar Championship last week, Mitchell discovered his putter was out of alignment. He had it bent back to the right specifications, avoided mistakes that slowed so many others, and now has a chance at a second PGA Tour victory. “I just feel like everything’s really working,” said Mitchell, who was at 9-under 204. "My driver feels great, and around this place you’ve really got to drive it well. Really just trying to keep the ball in front of me right now and see what we can do tomorrow." McIlroy will be right there along for the ride. A two-time winner at Quail Hollow, McIlroy raced out to the lead, steadied himself after a double bogey on the 12th hole when his drive hit a cart path, and shot 68. Winless the last 18 months, McIlroy will be in the final group for the first time since Riviera more than a year ago. Woodland had troubles on his own, particularly a drive right of the water hazard on the par-5 seventh that turned birdie into bogey, and a lapse of poor putting down the stretch on the back nine. He still managed a 70 with a chance to win for the first time since his U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach in 2019. With more swirling wind and some pin positions on ridges, Saturday was a day for a little separation. It began with 23 players separated by four shots. Now there are six. Luke List (68) was three shots behind, while Scott Stallings (70) and Satoshi Kodaira (68) were at 5-under 208. Roger Sloan of Merritt, B.C., is the top Canadian, sitting eight shots off the lead at 1 under. Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., is 1 over, Nick Taylor of Abbotsford, B.C., is 2 over and Michael Gligic of Burlington, Ont., is 4 over. It also was about avoiding mistakes, and Mitchell did that as well as anyone. He picked up a birdie on No. 9, the second-toughest hole of the day, and took care of most of the scoring chance. Mostly, though, he avoided the blunders that slowed McIlroy and Woodland, and eliminated so many others. “Some golf courses on the PGA Tour you can hit bad shots, get away with it and still try to make birdie,” Mitchell said. “You can’t do that here. I think that’s a true test of golf. I don’t think golf would be fun if every course was like this. I just feel more comfortable around a tougher course.” McIlroy was dialed in with the speed of his putts, critical on a day with a hard wind. But on No. 12, his drive to the left hit hard off the path and well onto a hill. Trying to pitch under trees, he couldn't get back to the fairway, and was blocked by another tree that forced him to punch one up to the front right of the green. The pin was back left, and he three-putted from 85 feet for double bogey. McIlroy saved par with an 8-foot putt on the next hole, as meaningful a putt as he made all day. Woodland recovered from his bogey on the par-5 seventh with a great drive to set up a simple up-and-down for birdie at No. 8, and he was right back in the lead with a birdie on the 10th. But he dropped shots on the 13th and 14th, three-putting the latter. He took three shots to get down from 45 feet off the 15th green and had to settle for par. A birdie on the 17th got him within range. Missing from the action is Phil Mickelson, whose 64 in the opening round now feels like more than two days ago. He took double bogey from the trees on No. 9 and came up short in the water on the 136-yard 17th hole for another double bogey and a 76. He is 9 over the last two rounds and tied for 55th. Still playing is Bryson DeChambeau, but not after an 1,800-mile round trip home to Dallas and back when he thought he missed the cut. He made it back to Quail Hollow with an hour to spare and shot 68, with a double bogey on the last hole, and was eight shots behind. The trick was avoiding mistakes. Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press