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Atlanta Hawks Too Much for Raptors at ACC



TORONTO – Like a winning boxer anticipating a far tougher rematch, the Raptors knew the Atlanta Hawks would come out throwing overhand rights on Friday night.

The team knew what was coming after drilling the Hawks by 44 points at the ACC recently, yet still couldn’t dodge the flurry. Or maybe it was too many Raptors players ducking out of the way, period, as the Hawks scored at will and hauled in every rebound in sight?

“That’s going to be a totally different team then we played a week ago,” DeMarre Carroll had told Postmedia in Philadelphia a couple of nights prior. “After losing at home (to Orlando on Tuesday and giving up 131 points), I know Coach (Mike Budenholzer) got on them. Me knowing him, they’re going to come out of the gates and play real hard.”

And sure enough, the Hawks took it right at the Raptors in a 125-121 victory that didn’t seem as close as the score indicated.

Kyle Lowry was brilliant (6-for-8 from three for 27 points), DeMar DeRozan added 34, but it wasn’t nearly enough, as the Hawks simply competed at a different level than a home side that had won 10-of-11 games heading in.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where our problem is,” Casey said, before mentioning Atlanta’s 44-28 rebounding advantage (including a telling 15-8 edge on the offensive boards). The Hawks also scored 16 more points in the paint and tallied 36 second-chance points to 14 by Toronto.

Whether the Raptors went big or small, there was no answer for Dwight Howard (27 points, 15 rebounds) or Paul Millsap 14, five and four assists, who had been injured for the prior meeting.

“Oh, he’s an all-star, he’ll change that whole team up,” Carroll, the ex-Hawk starter had predicted of Millsap, his close friend.

Millsap did just that, making life easier for an engaged Howard and for everybody else.

“I just thought our energy was better tonight,” Howard said. “All about heart and will, who wanted it the most,” he said of rebounding.

The Hawks lived on the offensive glass and consistently came away with the ball when they needed to, notably, when Kent Bazemore grabbed one that led to a layup and an eight-point Atlanta lead, instead of Toronto going the other way with a chance to make it a one-possession game inside of the final three minutes.

Atlanta built up a lead as large as 19 points and was able to hold on when Toronto finally showed up for the bout.

The Raptors hit 10 more three-pointers (on 48% shooting) and came in leading the NBA or ranking in the top three of many offensive categories. The team has already scored at least 120 points in eight games, the second-most in a season in franchise history.

The visiting Hawks helped usher in this era of enhanced offence a couple of seasons ago, with head coach Budenholzer bringing over some of the tricks of the trade he learned in San Antonio.

The Spurs had blitzed the Miami Heat on the way to an NBA title using a “pace-and-space” attack which spread the floor with shooters. The 2014-15 Hawks then raced out to 60 wins, leading the NBA in passes and nailing 818 threes, which heading into that season had only been topped by five other teams in history.

Budenholzer said pre-game that this is a copycat league, with teams going with what has worked in the past. Dwane Casey agreed.

“I think it’s a prettier game. It’s easier to look at it more so than the old bump and grind, two players in the parking lot,” Casey said.

“Somewhere the analytical gods are smiling,” he added, in a nod to the statistical mavens who favour three-point shooting and shots at the rim above all other attempts. “The game has changed … 10 years ago you would’ve said is a bad shot today is a good shot, getting as many threes up — good threes, quality threes up as you can. So the league is going that way. There’s more players shooting threes now, different types of players, not only (swingmen) but (power forwards and centres) are now shooting threes.”

Casey said that no matter how offences evolve, his focus remains elsewhere.

“I’ll always believe in it because I know that you’ve got to play some semblance of defence to win big in this league,” he had said, before repeating afterward: “To play for something important, you’ve got to have a defensive focus.

“There’s going to be nights where those shots are not going to fall and in playoff basketball the game slows down and you don’t have as many possessions and as many shots … Usually in the playoffs the possessions go down, the foul calls go down and the scores go down.”

But we aren’t even a third of the way through the regular season yet, so, for the next while, it will continue to be bombs away for the Raptors and just about everybody else.

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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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