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Toronto Raptors have entered the realm of the NBA’s elite, and they’re set up to stay there



TORONTO — Basketball fans who had not been to the Air Canada Centre since the last regular season ended might have noticed something different as the new season began on Wednesday.

There is a banner celebrating the team’s 2015-16 Atlantic Division title, adorned with the latest iteration of the Raptors logo. The team slipped it up there last April and didn’t bother mentioning it to anyone.

This is how weird this version of the Raptors, the one led by Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, is — they have made success kind of ho-hum.

It’s hard to understate how unusual that is for this franchise. Through their first 18 seasons in the National Basketball Association, the Raptors won more games than they lost four times. They made the playoffs five times in their history up to that point, won one division title and one playoff series — and that a wee best-of-five, before the NBA went to the best-of-seven format in all rounds. They had players who refused to accept a trade to the Toronto hinterlands, players who complained about the cold, about the taxes, about the lack of good cable channels in Canada. Mostly they had players who left as soon as they could secure a rich contract elsewhere. It was tough to blame them, really. The Grizzlies had long ago fled Vancouver for Memphis and as recently as six seasons ago, a full dozen years into the NBA in Canada experiment, the Raptors were an utter train wreck: 22 wins in 82 games, the 10th time in 16 seasons that the franchise hadn’t managed at least 40 wins.

And now this. Barring a catastrophic turn of events, the Raptors are expected to compete for a fourth straight division title — amid stronger competition from a much-improved Boston Celtics team — and are being pencilled in for somewhere around 50 wins in the regular season and TBD in the playoffs. This for a team that had never won more than 47 games in a year before 2013. They then improved on that mark for three straight seasons, up to last year’s total of 56, which still seems strange to write. The Toronto Raptors, a 56-win team? The Toronto Raptors, Eastern Conference finalists? Did we slip into an alternate universe and no one told me about it?

Coach Dwane Casey said before Wednesday’s season opener against the Detroit Pistons that he took a measure of pride now that the Raptors and their players and fans have started to earn a reputation around the league for not being completely irrelevant. Kevin Durant, merely the NBA’s biggest star not named LeBron or Steph, texted one of Casey’s assistants recently to say that, having played alongside DeRozan and Lowry at the Rio Olympics, he thought the team could not be in better hands.

Casey said that kind of feedback made him feel like “a proud papa,” not just because those are his guys, but because of what it says about the growth of the team. The all-star reputations of the backcourt, the playoff run last season, and the big, loud support at home last spring, which took even LeBron James, who has seen some loud crowds, by surprise.

“They weren’t talking about that six years ago,” Casey said.

No, they were not. When DeRozan hit unrestricted free agency in the summer and then resigned with Toronto for US$139-million without even talking to another team, it underlined the sea change that has taken place with the franchise. A superstar wanted to stay here. It was almost as significant a development as the playoff wins.

But if that was new, what unfolded as the season began on Wednesday night was not. The Pistons jumped out to a quick 11-4 lead, which on many nights in many years for this franchise would have been enough to start a slow circling around the drain. Instead, the Raptors showed the kind of poise and steadiness that good teams are supposed to demonstrate in big games on their home court.

They blew the doors off the Pistons is what they did, coasting to a 109-91 win. Jonas Valanciunas, continuing the terrifying Giant from Beyond the Wall impersonation he debuted in the playoffs, scored 32 points, with 12 of them coming at the free throw line. The 7-foot centre dared the Pistons to guard him, which they mostly could not, and he punctuated the point with a huge first-half dunk over Detroit’s 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic, which is like dunking on The Thing. DeMarre Carroll looked spry and healthy, Terrence Ross made some plays (and didn’t make any dumb ones) and rookie Pascal Siakam, starting at power forward, collected nine rebounds and hustled a lot, which is all Casey wants him to do in that role.

The night, though, belonged to DeRozan, who had an up-and-down post-season with precious few ups. All he did was score 40 points, breaking the franchise record of 39 for an opener set by Vince Carter, on a tidy 17-for-27 shooting night. That’s right: DeMar DeRozan, efficient scorer.

So not everything about this team was familiar, even if the result was.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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