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NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka

Raptors Should Be Judged By Luxury Taxes In 2018

Whether or not a team in the NBA East is serious about being an NBA Finalist will be judged by Luxury Taxes next season and the Toronto Raptors are not an exception. A willingness to pay the tax has been a long standing test of the resolve to win in Toronto and and elsewhere, and it’s a test that has left the fans wanting most of the time.

The Cavaliers are already committed to being a tax team next season with seven open roster spots still to fill in the summer. As much as the Cavaliers are winning now because of LeBron James, having the highest payroll in the NBA and a willingness to pay huge Luxury Tax bills has tipped the scales heavily in their favor. If an Eastern Conference team wants to compete with the Cavs, trying to do it on the cheap is laughable.

The new CBA gives teams a significant advantage with their own talent, but it makes many of the old tricks of the trade teams like the Lakers used to pull to add talent from other teams more difficult or even completely offside.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri traded for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker in February as much to acquire their “Bird” rights this summer as to add talent for the stretch drive and the playoffs. Now he’ll be tested by the tax if he wants to keep them.

NBA Toronto Raptors salaries 2017-18

There are many people in Toronto who will look at the numbers and think Kyle Lowry is gone. They won’t believe Ujiri really wants to keep his All-Star point guard when the team can likely remain a non-tax paying playoff team by re-signing Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker and letting Lowry walk.

However, no team is a serious conference finalist contender without at least an All-Star candidate point guard. Not in a point guard driven league.

Alternatively Ujiri could look to dump the salary of Jonas Valanciunas and/or DeMarre Carroll to significantly lower his Luxury Tax commitment, but to compete against the Cavs, he needs veterans in his rotation. Veterans like Valanciunas and Carroll, but not necessarily these specific players.

One advantage of bringing back one’s own free agents and keeping what he’s got is it gives Ujiri a bigger pool of players with which to use in the trade market. He might not keep a player for an entire season, but having a $15 million salary on the roster you could live without could be what’s needed for that big trade deadline deal.

That’s the old trick the Lakers used to great success in the past that can still work, hanging onto a big salary they didn’t need in order to use it as trade ballast in a big trade during the season.

With Ibaka back and Jakob Poeltl looking ready to take on a backup center role, Ujiri can shop Valanciunas and maybe acquire the three-point shooting wing or forward he needs.

If Ujiri is comfortable with a three guard lineup of Norman Powell, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, then he could look to swap Carroll for a less expensive backup. Although, if Carroll can get and stay healthy, he could be the answer as an expensive three-point shooting backup combo forward. It’s only money….

Concerns should only arise if Ujiri starts dumping salary just to get below the tax line.

Toronto was third in NBA attendance last season and the fans deserve to see their team willing to spend in order to put the best roster possible on the court. The Raptors have made a lot of money as a non-tax paying team over the past four years, they can afford to pay to keep talent for themselves or to use as trade bait.

Maybe $100 million in Luxury tax is over the top, but $40-50 million isn’t. This team should be judged by their willingness to make a big commitment to paying the tax in 2018. Otherwise, Ujiri is only pretending to want to compete for a championship. (The unlikely fleecing of another GM out of a star on a cheap contract notwithstanding.)

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell

Raptors Norman Powell Is Ready To Take On A Major Role

Raptors president Masai Ujiri is looking within for the change needed to take his team to another level and no one has looked more ready to take on a new major role next season than Norman Powell.

Going back to his rookie season Powell has shown the signs of huge potential despite his second round status and the persistent doubts about his jump shot. Ignore the career averages of 7.3 points per game and 35.1 percent shooting from three and focus on his 42 regular season starts where he averages 12.5 points and 43 percent three-point shooting. It seems like every time he has been called upon, he has performed.

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell career stats

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Powell has played better when given a consistent spot in the rotation with consistent minutes. Almost every young player performs better under those circumstances.

Unfortunately for Powell, he has been stuck in a spot where it has taken injuries to get regular consistent minutes at either the two or the three and when everyone is healthy, he’s been battling an uphill fight against the Raptors big free agent addition DeMarre Carroll and until last year’s trade, Terrence Ross.

Now Ross is gone and it’s time to admit the Raptors have played better with Powell starting instead of Carroll even if that means an undersized three-guard lineup. Just ask Milwaukee about the difference Powell made to the Raptors in the playoffs.

“In the Milwaukee series being the ball handler, taking the pressure off of DeMar and Kyle in that series,” Powell explained. “Being able to make plays off the bounce is always a focus. I draw so much attention driving to the rim, getting to the bucket and when I attack, find the open player, being able to create off the bounce.”

Milwaukee had no answer for Powell and going back to last year’s playoff experience against Paul George and the Pacers, the postseason has had a big impact on Powell’s development.

“It’s really helpful,” Powell responded to Pro Bball Report after Game Four against the Cavaliers. “Letting me see myself in these moments, reading the game, slowing down, seeing what I can work on, seeing how to play, calming myself down and keeping myself even keeled.

“It’s going to be really big for my development down the road and makes me even more motivated and fired up to keep working to get better. To see myself being in these moments and playing with DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry).

“Every game I go in trying to figure out how to get better and ways I can take my game to the next level and get to where I want to be. Being in a (playoff) series like this and situations like this really helps with that.”

The Raptors  believed in Powell’s potential as a secondary ball handler from the start and took advantage of the Raptors 905 D-league team to get him minutes as a point guard early in his rookie season.  However, Powell first earned minutes on the big club with his defense on the wing, but in the current high scoring NBA, the Raptors now need him for his offense and Powell is ready to step into the starting rotation and make a big impact.

“I am always ready,” Powell said. “That’s where I see myself, playing a bigger role. That’s what I work for.

“I want to be(come) a focal point. Watching DeMar, watching Kyle, I am learning from them. How to be the guy. How to take that responsibility and it’s fun being able to talk to some of the best players in the league and pick from them what I can and what they see.

“(Lowry’s) bulldog play, playmaking mentality. He’s a great guy who can create in tight spaces. How he is able to thrive in those situations and then I am able to watch DeMar and how he is able to thrive in iso situations using his body, his footwork to create separation and get guys off balance. So I get the best of both, scoring from DeMar and playmaking from Kyle.”

And the lessons don’t end with the season. The summer is where players build on what they learned during the season and work on new aspects of their game.

“I am going into the off season with that, learning from DeMar and hopefully going to work out with some of the other best players in this league and really develop my game, to focus and learn from them.

“It’s definitely going to be a good summer for me.”

Powell has looked good when given an opportunity in his first two seasons with the Raptors, however, his third year with the club should be expected to open some eyes. The ability to drive, dish, finish and hit threes is all there. He’s ready to take on a major role next season.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri

Raptors Nab Future Second Round Draft Pick From Magic

Well the other shoe has finally dropped. The Toronto Raptors didn’t come away empty handed by allowing the Orlando Magic to steal away general manager Jeff Weltman. They managed to nab the worse of the Magic’s or the Lakers future second round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft as compensation.

 

 

NBA Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James

Can The Cavs Afford To Keep Buying Championships?

LeBron James came home to Cleveland as much because the Miami Heat wouldn’t spend to win as much as Dan Gilbert and the Cavs promised they would. However, buying a championship caliber roster doesn’t come cheap and at some point, the question of affordability has to be asked. That was the whole point of the dramatically higher luxury tax rates the NBA instituted in the previous CBA.

As Kurt Badenhausen wrote in Forbes:

The reality is that owner Dan Gilbert has spent money at almost an unprecedented level. Last season’s $115 million payroll triggered a $54 million luxury tax bill. Add in benefits, (etc) and Gilbert spent roughly $185 million last season on his roster.

Gilbert’s massive commitment to spend whatever’s necessary to win a title led to a loss of $40 million last season

Gilbert spent the second most in NBA history (to the Nets) to put together his NBA Champion Cavs last season and he upped the amount committed to players’ salaries this year and next.

Thanks to another rise in the NBA’s Luxury Tax line, last year’s $169 million in player’s salaries plus tax is expected to drop by about $5 million this year even with the dreaded repeater tax of an extra dollar per dollar over the tax line added in. But if Gilbert lost $40 million last season, he could easily lose that much or more again this year.

Not much is going change in 2017-18. The Cavs are already committed to $126 million in players salaries for next year and that’s estimated to be $5 million into the tax with up to seven open roster spots to fill.

James isn’t about to let Gilbert cheap out either. He has a player option for 2018-19 and can keep the pressure on Gilbert to re-sign the team’s free agents and use the team’s exceptions to keep/add the talent James believes is necessary to get back to the NBA Finals again.

Keeping James happy is expensive and that, by the way, was the whole point of changing the luxury tax rules. It’s supposed to be hard to keep “super teams” together.

It isn’t hard to imagine Gilbert’s loses exceeding $100 million over a three year period with no end in sight and even a billionaire notices when that much cash disappears.

To all those finding the inevitability of a Cavaliers/Warriors NBA Final unfulfilling, how long this billionaire can afford to keep buying championship contending rosters is a important issue.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka

What The Raptors Rotation Could Look Like Next Season

There are plenty of clues coming out about what the Toronto Raptors rotation could look like next season. President Masai Ujiri isn’t exactly trying to hide what he believes in and the direction he will be taking his team.

When doing the rounds with his corporate masters recently. (The Raptors are owned by Rogers and Bell who control Sportsnet and TSN respectively.) He did his best to clarify his comments about “culture change” and any perceptions regarding head coach Dwane Casey and his All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.

“Our culture is pretty good,” Ujiri told Tim and Sid on the Fan 590 just to set the tone for the entire interview.

“I am the problem solver here,” Ujiri said in regards to re-signing Lowry (and just about anything else.)

“I am confident (coach Casey) can pull those things off.”

As he has said since the beginning of his tenure as president (and general manager), Ujiri believes in developing his own talent and it is something he is doubling down on under the new CBA.

“The new CBA means a lot of players are going to stay where they are at,” Ujiri explained. “That’s just how it works. The way (the CBA) is constructed a lot of teams are going to have the ability to keep their own players. So we have to figure out ways with our own players.

“Drafting and developing our players is a high priority for us. We have to develop from within.”

There aren’t any false hopes about Paul George or Jimmy Butler arriving in Toronto anytime soon.

Ujiri is confident Lowry will re-sign with Toronto and not without a lot of justification. The Raptors and coach Casey made Lowry a three-time All-Star, his best friend is DeMar DeRozan, and they will pay him $30 million plus a season to stay.

He is equally confident about Serge Ibaka and more than few media reports suggested Ibaka wanted to be traded to Toronto. Ujiri has the checkbook to re-sign Ibaka to a $100 million plus contract as well. P.J. Tucker almost came out and said if Lowry comes back, he’s coming back.

It shouldn’t take a leap of faith to figure out what type of ‘culture change’ Ujiri wants. He has always wanted a ‘tougher’ team and absolutely no one can ignore the need to have an excess of three-point shooting today.

Fortunately, the Raptors got a glimpse of what their future could look like in their first round series with Milwaukee.

On opening night, the Raptors starting line-up should look like this:

PG Kyle Lowry 22.4 ppg, 7.8 3FGA, 41.2% 3FG
SG DeMar DeRozan 27.3 ppg, 1.7 3FGA, 26.6% 3FG
SF Norman Powell* 15.6 ppg, 4.1 3FGA, 39.7% 3FG
PF P.J. Tucker** 5.8 ppg, 2.5 3FGA, 40% 3FG
C Serge Ibaka** 14.2 ppg, 4.5 3FGA, 39.8% 3FG

* Powell as a starter in 18 games last season
** Tucker and Ibaka as a Raptor after the All-Star break

A three-guard lineup of Lowry, DeRozan and Powell tore thru the Bucks in the postseason and represents the direction the NBA is headed but with a toughness that fits with coach Casey’s preferred style of play.

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry

Powell will guard bigger players and was effective as a rookie guarding Paul George last year which is no small feat. It’s time to put Ujiri’s player development to the test and insert Powell into the starting rotation from day one.

NBA Toronto Raptors PJ Tucker

Tucker is just plain nasty. A combo forward who can guard either spot against anyone, just putting him into the starting rotation could be considered a culture change for the Raptors.

“The most dirty, rugged, nasty (person) you’ll ever see,” Tucker describes himself.

It looked like Ibaka had lost a step during the playoffs, but that’s only if you forget he was playing on a sore left ankle. Prior to that Ibaka was switching out onto guards and stuffing them at the three-point line. He represents a huge improvement in mobility and versatility over a traditional center like Jonas Valanciunas.

This is a starting lineup that stretches the floor and can panic defenses trying to simultaneously guard the three-point line and the paint. Even DeRozan should be expected to improve on last season’s three-point shooting over the summer. No one should be surprised if he’s hitting 33 percent or more of his open threes next year.

Who backs up these starters isn’t even close to being decided, except for some obvious things Ujiri must be considering. Cory Joseph and a group to be determined including possibly one or more not even on the roster yet.

NBA Toronto Raptors Cory Joseph

There will be battles for minutes off the bench and Ujiri could/should be looking to make moves to create opportunities for some of his young guys to develop or just to get a little closer to the luxury tax line. Bringing back Lowry, Ibaka and Tucker will put the Raptors $15-25 million into the tax unless Ujiri can shed some salary.

As much as Ujiri wants to develop his own guys, this may the time to sell high on Jonas Valanciunas and the unproven but very real possibility of him developing a three-point shot. With a salary of just $15.5 million and two years left on his deal, Valanciunas will have value on the trade market.

The temptation to keep DeMarre Carroll around will be high as his trade value is suspect. Although injuries have prevented him from showing what he can do in Toronto thus far, he remains a decent three-point shooting forward in a league where three-point shooting forwards are in demand. However, if Ujiri could move his $14.8 million in salary, it would really help lower the luxury tax bill. (Even if next year is finally the season he starts without being hindered by injury.)

Moving Valanciunas and potentially Carroll opens up minutes for last year’s rookie center Jakob Poeltl and forward?/center Lucas Nogueira.

Poeltl impressed as a rookie and seems poised to take a big step next season assuming Ujiri opens up a spot in the rotation for him. He doesn’t have any range on his shot, but he rebounds, has soft hands and good mobility for a big man. In keeping with Ujiri’s mantra of developing his own players, this is one guy that needs to play.

It probably hasn’t gone unnoticed by Ujiri or Casey, but Nogueira had a team fifth best plus/minus of +3.1 points last season. Sure he lost the few minutes that were available at center to Poeltl after the All-Star break trades, but Casey made a concerted effort to try him out at power forward and those efforts weren’t completely in vain. NBA Toronto Raptors Lucas Nogueira

Look for Nogueira to be battling it out for minutes at the four (and maybe the five). Pascal Siakam, who started 38 games at power forward for Toronto last year but has a questionable jump shot, possibly a player to be traded for, or even the Raptors draft pick (if it’s someone like UCLA’s T.J. Leaf) could be in the mix at the backup four spot.

If Carroll is traded, the Raptors could be thin at small forward. Tucker can play both forward spots, but this could quickly become a big hole. It wouldn’t be a shock if Ujiri traded for a small forward prospect as no one will be planning on Bruno Caboclo being ready to play in the NBA next season – hoping maybe, planning, not a chance.

Backup guard is potentially the most interesting spot. NBA Toronto Raptors Fred VanVleet and Cory Joseph

Cory Joseph will continue backing up Lowry and as his three-point shooting was dramatically better up until the All-Star break last season, look for Joseph to solidify his hold on the role by coming into training camp after another summer of improving his shooting.

Delon Wright looked good after coming back from injury late last season, but he has competition from a potentially better three-point shooter in Fred VanVleet. Wright has more versatility than the undersized VanVleet and showed potential guarding the wing, but Casey hasn’t shown any reluctance to playing Joseph and VanVleet together. This could be the best and most predictable battle for minutes on the roster.

The Raptors starting lineup will be good, better than last season and another 50+ win campaign will be expected, but as Ujiri has said, that isn’t the goal.

“If we are just going to be stuck in second, third, fourth every year and some years we are disappointed in the playoffs and some years we are happy – that’s not the goal,” Ujiri stated. “The goal is to win a championship.

“The way we have played hasn’t worked the past three, four years to take us to the highest level and it’s one of those things we have to figure out a way.

“I hate losing to those guys (the Cavaliers). It drives me crazy.”

To get past the Cavs, it will take more than a better starting lineup and developing young players while the Cavs boast the highest payroll in the NBA doesn’t make it any easier.

Ujiri has to find a way via trade or a big step in the play of one/some of his young guys, but it has to be consistent with what he believes in. A copycat move isn’t going to work against LeBron James in the East or the Warriors in the West.

“We are not saying we are going to change completely to the way another team plays or copy another team.”

Ujiri has to find his own blend of grit, toughness and three-point shooting. Someone(s) out of Powell, Poeltl, Nogueira, Wright, VanVleet, Caboclo, a rookie, or an undervalued trade prospect had better take a huge step forward or next year will be another year Ujiri doesn’t get past the Cavs.

Although Ujiri really didn’t say anything new during his recent media tour, (if anything the Raptors president has been consistent since day one), in case you missed it, you can listen to Ujiri on Tim and Sid here.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

2017 Toronto Raptors NBA predraft workout prospect T.J. Leaf

T.J. Leaf Could Be The Raptors Next Stretch Four Prospect

A likely NBA first round draft pick in the twenties, UCLA freshman T.J. Leaf was in Toronto for a predraft workout and he showed why he could be the Raptors next stretch four prospect.

The 6’10 forward shot 46.6 percent from three-point range in college and had some big time numbers in a successful program averaging 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Not surprisingly the Raptors wanted to see if he could do more than just score.

“Playmaking, being able to rebound the ball and just attack the rim,” were the things he was being asked to do said Leaf. “Not just score, but be able to make my teammate better.

“I am not the best defender right now so if they want to put me in defensive drills to help me get better, it’s great.”

The Raptors are likely in the market for a stretch four coming off the bench next season with forward Patrick Patterson about to become an unrestricted free agent and president Masai Ujiri expected to blow the budget re-signing Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.

Last year’s rookie big men aren’t known for their shooting and someone like Leaf could earn a spot in the Raptors rotation early on next season.

“He plays the right way,” Director, player personnel Dan Tolzman said. “Decision-making and team-oriented basketball, he’s elite at that. Always seems to make the right passes. Finds himself in the right spot whether it’s opportunity rebounds or that sort of thing.

“He doesn’t need to be dominating the ball to have an impact on the game.”

Assuming the ULCA forward is still on the board when the Raptors draft at 23rd, he seems like a logical pick for a team like Toronto that is need of more three-point shooting.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors P.J. Tucker

P.J. Tucker Is The Culture Change The Raptors Need

The big money in Toronto this summer will be be going to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but if the Raptors really want to win more games, the culture change they need is embodied by P.J. Tucker.

“I’ve been playing against LeBron (James) since we were nine years old,” Tucker said after the Game Four loss to the Cavaliers. “We came out of the same class, so he’s just another guy, another player, someone who plays in this league, plays every night. There is no difference. Just put on your hard hat and go to work.”

While Raptors head coach Dwane Casey suggested the Raptors were a little “wide-eyed” at what James did to them in their second round series, the same couldn’t be said of Tucker and that is the only hope any team in the East has of getting by the King in his extended prime.

“I prefer being physical to being finesse,” Tucker said. “I don’t think I have any finesse in my game at all. The most dirty, rugged, nasty (person) you’ll ever see.”

Tucker was nasty as he put up a double-double 13 points and 11 rebounds in the Raptors Game One loss to the Cavs and a 14 point 12 rebound double-double in Game Four while guarding James about as good as is possible when the King is effortlessly draining the three-ball. Casey had no one else that could even seem to bother James.

As tough as the Cavs are playing with a traditional lineup, when they go ‘small,’ the matchups become nearly impossible. The typical power forward has no chance matching the combination of speed, ball handing, court vision, shooting and size that James brings to the four spot.

“The game was different (when I was drafted,)” Tucker explained. “Everybody played with big Fours. Now everybody goes small ball and in the fourth quarter everybody goes small ball. Nobody keeps two bigs in the fourth quarter any more. Those undersized guys back then, now are – Draymond Green – everybody has those guys now.

“The game has changed to fit me more.”

Tucker was drafted as a 6’5 power forward by Toronto in 2006, but he didn’t make it to the end of his rookie season in the NBA. After five years in Europe the Suns picked up the more mature and skilled combo forward and since then the NBA game has evolved to match what the now 32-year-old is able to provide.

Toronto has what Tucker is looking for as well. At this stage of his career, Tucker knows what he needs to be successful. He is a role player who plays off of stars like Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka.

“I think fit is everything,” Tucker said. “Once you’re a veteran, an older guy, it’s all about fit. The situation, the team, the coaches, you want the total fit, (for) everything to work out.

“Coach Casey is a defensive coach. He likes hard-nosed guys. So those things alone makes us fit. Fit with a coach is everything, especially for a veteran. That’s one of the things that is a priority going into free agency.”

As a veteran free agent, Tucker understands that he isn’t going to be the first guy contacted in July and he doesn’t want to be. Tucker wants to know the situation he is headed into. Who will be on the team and who will be coaching them.

“There are really good guys in this locker room,” Tucker said. “Guys that have fought together, been together. They have added a few pieces like Serge (Ibaka) and I think it’s on the way up. They have the core it takes to be at this level.

“I love playing with both (DeRozan and Lowry). Once you realize how to make it in this league is playing a role, being able to figure out what your role is. How you can effect the game in other ways other than scoring. Then you figure out playing roles is the way to go.

“I look to be a piece going toward something. It’s not just the money. It’s seeing where I fit and feel like I can give this team something to put them over the top. You got to let it play out.”

Tucker had a big impact on the Raptors after he was acquired at the trade deadline and his play in the postseason has cemented that impression. He can be the missing ‘3-and-D’ forward in a Raptors small ball lineup and the big small forward in more traditional five-man units.

President Masai Ujiri was calling for “culture change” after his team was swept out of the postseason by the Cavs, but really he needs to double-down on his original goal of upping the toughness quotient. Tucker’s willingness to shoot the three-ball being the other half of making toughness work in today’s NBA.

“Anytime you get someone who wants to compete, you got to respect that,” James said about Tucker after Game Four. “P.J. has been like that since we was kids. From AAU ball thru high school to Texas and being a part of this league, he has always been a guy that at the end of the day he is going to leave it all out there. As a competitor, I can always respect that.”

Culture change will come by bringing P.J. Tucker to training camp.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry Credits Coach Casey For His Development

Kyle Lowry owes a lot to head coach Dwane Casey and the Toronto Raptors for his current run of success and elevated status in the NBA. As a pending free agent, this three-time All-Star was not headed down the path of becoming a max player before being traded to “We The North” and it almost didn’t work out.

Memphis gave up on him after two and a half seasons and got a late first round draft pick back. Houston traded him to Toronto for a future first round draft pick and the Raptors tried to send him to the Knicks when president Masai Ujiri was in the failed process of blowing up his roster during Lowry’s second season in Toronto.

Luckily for Lowry and the Raptors, the Knicks meddling owner James Dolan stepped in to squash the trade after everyone thought it was a done deal. It’s hard to imagine how things could have gone well for the young brash Lowry in the dysfunction junction that is New York.

Instead of experiencing the revolving management and coaching door Dolan has created, Lowry listened to Ujiri and Casey, put the giant chip on his shoulder down and had a career year with the Raptors, leading his team to their first playoff berth in five seasons.

“Me and coach (Casey) we’ve had our ups and downs, but it’s been great,” Lowry said after the current season ended. “Coach Casey has allowed me to become a three-time All-Star. He’s helped me. He’s allowed me to be the player I’ve become. He’s allowed me to have a voice. He’s allowed me to grow. He has allowed me a lot of things and in that sense he’s been great to me.

“Of course we are going to butt heads. I think most coaches and point guards butt heads because they want to be better. They want to push each other to be better, but he has helped me tremendously.

“He has let me be me. He has let me grow to become a leader, a better leader, a better man, a better basketball player. Coach has always been in my corner, he has always had my back. So, at the end of the day, I think our relationship has grown from here to here.”

Before his arrival in Toronto, no one, absolutely no one, envisioned Lowry ever becoming an NBA All-Star. There was a lot of anger and frustration clouding Lowry’s view of the NBA. He didn’t think coaches believed in him or supported him and from his perspective, he wasn’t wrong, but once he believed the Raptors believed in him, he changed – on the court and in the off season. He earned those All-Star nods with hard work and a new attitude. An attitude that comes from your coach believing in you.

“(Casey) allows us to make mistakes,” Lowry explained. “He allows us to have a say in anything we are doing and he doesn’t hold us back. He wants us to go out and get better. He is pushing us to come back next year better and if you prove you can do something, he’s not going to stop you doing it.

“I remember the first year I was here, I’d shoot pull-up threes and he’s like, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ But, I proved I could do it, so he’s like, ‘shoot-em every time.’

“He’s a guy that you prove you can do it, he’s going to allow you to do it. He wants you to do it.”

While after eight seasons DeMar DeRozan is the face of the franchise, this now Lowry’s team. Lowry is the leader, the go-to-guy when things get tough and in a three-point shooting happy NBA, Lowry has evolved into one of the best long range threats in the Association. He appreciates everything the team and the community has done for him over the past five years.

“The city has been amazing to me,” Lowry said. “They have supported everything I’ve done. They have always had my back. When I try to give back to the community I don’t do it for anything but to give back to the community because they supported me. I want to support the communities that supported me. This place has been nothing but supportive thru the past five years.”

His teammates are hoping the support of the management, coaches, fans and themselves has been enough to keep their All-Star point guard in Toronto next season.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan Serge Ibaka Kyle Lowry 2017 collage

Basketball Insiders Think Raptors Will Stay The Course

Options for Raptors president Masai Ujiri next season are limited and his best scenario will be to stay the course says Basketball Insiders editor Steve Kyler in his look at the future in Toronto.

1.  Attacking the free agent market to get better next next season isn’t an option as Ujiri has no real cap space to work with again this summer.

even if the Raptors said no thank you to all of their free agents, they would enter the off-season with $24.188 million in cap space. Said differently, that’s not even room for one max free agent.

2. Kyle Lowry will re-sign with the Raptors. For lots of reasons other than just the money. Lowry loves his life in Toronto and considers DeMar DeRozan “family.” Besides, there just aren’t many landing spots out there for a 31-year-old All-Star point guard that wants to win and get paid.

As much as people want to speculate about the future landing spot for Lowry, the likely outcome of the situation is he re-signs in Toronto on a whopper of a contract.

3. Serge Ibaka wanted to be traded to Toronto and the Raptors have done everything they could to make Ibaka love the move. Over and over again Ibaka has said he wants to play more at center and coach Casey accommodated him and not just to make Ibaka happy. Ujiri wants changes and Ibaka is the kind of change (a stretch-five that blocks shots) this team is looking for. Expect Ibaka to be back on a new $100 million plus contract.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri had been after Ibaka in trade for some time. Most in NBA circles believe that Ibaka made it clear to the Magic the only team he wanted to land with was Toronto

4. Patrick Patterson is likely the odd man out in free agency. He’s a “3-and-D” power forward that seems to get hurt every season and then loses his stroke. The Raptors would like to keep him as a backup power forward if the price is right, but the risk in free agency is he gets priced out of his value to Toronto.

As good as Patrick Patterson has been for the Raptors, he may be priced too high if they can reach deals with Lowry and Ibaka.

5. P.J. Tucker is a guy Ujiri acquired to fill a gaping hole at combo-forward and he impressed big time during the postseason. The Raptors want him back, but Tucker made it really clear after the season he wants to come back only if the Raptors are keeping their big name free agents – especially Lowry.

P.J Tucker has said he’d like to be back with the Raptors and his price tag might be reasonable enough to work even if the Raptors pay out big money to Lowry and Ibaka.

6. Ujiri will be active in the trade market, if not right away in July, later in the summer as teams are trying to fill holes in their rosters or ahead of the trade deadline. Moving one of his big contracts like DeMarre Carroll would make paying the luxury tax bill from re-signing his own free agents much less painful.

the situation becomes easier if the Raptors can off-load a bigger contract that no longer fits the plan going forward

Even Jonas Valanciunas could be on the block if the goal is to start Ibaka at center and let the cheaper Lucas Nogueira and  Jakob Poeltl compete for the backup center role.

As much as Jonas Valanciunas has meant to the Raptors, moving his $15.46 million salary would solve more problems for the future than he does as a player.

The Raptors are a 50 win team that been to the postseason four straight years and to stay on the radar in hockey-mad Toronto, that’s pretty much the floor and Ujiri knows it. The Raptors will “try to change the culture,” but they aren’t going to tank to do it. At least not voluntarily.

Look for head coach Dwane Casey and his two All-Stars, Lowry and DeRozan, to be back in Toronto again next season putting together another 50 win season and hoping they’ve found the magic (Ibaka) that can take them up another level. As Kyler explains, they don’t have much choice.

Be sure to check out all of Kyler’s analysis here.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James

Why Cavs LeBron James Has Been Unstoppable This Postseason

The Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James has been unstoppable in thru the first two rounds of the postseason and what he has been doing different has make it impossible for opposing defenses to adjust.

Why the Cavs perennial MVP candidate has stepped up yet again in the playoffs isn’t a mystery to head coach Tyronn Lue, we just weren’t paying attention during the second half of the season.

“Since the second half of the season (James) really went to another level,” Lue said. “Starting the second half of the regular season and carried over to the playoffs and we’re just riding him right now. The way he has been playing is phenomenal. He is carrying this team.”

Coach Lue wasn’t blowing smoke about his best player’s improving performance.

In the first half of the season the Cavs went 30-11, but King James was a pedestrian (for him) 25.5 points on 51.5 percent shooting, 7.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists. However as his team struggled in the second half, James stepped up his game significantly.

The Cavs slumped to 21-20 over the final 41 contests, but James upped his game to 27.3 points on 58.2 percent shooting, 9.6 rebounds and 9.2 assists. If you weren’t facing him night-to-night, his impact may have gone unnoticed, but once the postseason kicked in, he took things up another notch. Saying James is carrying his team isn’t an overstatement.

The way to guard James has always been to turn him into a shooter, preferably from beyond the three-point line where he shot a more manageable 35.4 percent over the Cavs final 41 regular season games.

Unfortunately, that strategy hasn’t worked in the postseason.

“When LeBron is shooting the three-ball the way he is, at the rate he is shooting it, the average he’s shooting it, (the Cavs) are difficult,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “They are very difficult to beat when he’s shooting the ball like (that).”

James ripped into the seventh-place Pacers averaging 32.8 points on 54.3 percent shooting, 9.8 rebounds and 9 assists in the four game sweep. He upped his three-point attempts from 4.6 in the regular season to 5.0 and he shot like a three-point specialist by hitting 45 percent of them.  He also abused the Pacers with 3 steals and 2 blocks per game, more than double his regular season averages of 1.2 and 0.6 respectively.

Against the Raptors defensive pressure, James launched an unexpected 6.8 three-point attempts per game and he filled the net at a 48.1 percent clip. There is no defense for that. While his stats for rebounds (8.3) and assists (5.3) where below his regular season averages and his steals (1.3) and blocks (1.0) came back down to earth, he upped his scoring to 36 points per game in another four game sweep.

Even Kyle Korver has been impressed, “LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin have been playing so good, especially LeBron knocking down shots.”

“No matter who I’ve faced over the last few years, myself, my teammates and the coaching staff have always just tried to raise our ability, raise our (intensity), raise our game plan, raise our attention span to go out and compete every single night no matter who the competition was,” James said.

If James can fire three-balls at the rate and efficiency that he has so far in this postseason, he just has to many options for any defense to contain. Right now, he is unstoppable.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

It Took A Lot For Casey To Wake Up Jonas Valanciunas

Through the ups and down of the Toronto Raptors three previous playoff runs under head coach Dwane Casey one thing remained constant, Jonas Valanciunas (“JV”) stepped up and played big, but not now. It took a lot for Casey to get JV to wake up and play up to his potential this year.

In Valanciunas’ first 23 playoff games prior to this year he averaged a double-double 12.4 points and 10.2 rebounds on 57 percent shooting. He was a force and a go-to-guy when DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry were struggling.

This year was a different story. JV was sent to the bench shooting 37.5 percent from the field after his team went 1-2 in their first three games against Milwaukee. Casey could use the excuse that the matchup with Bucks backup center Greg Monroe was better, but Milwaukee’s starting center was a rookie, so it would have been reasonable to expect more.

In hindsight it was unfortunate Valanciunas bought the excuse and willingly went to the bench. It would have been better if he’d bristled at the demotion.

After getting past the Bucks with a 3-0 run and JV coming off the bench, Casey put Valanciunas back in the starting lineup in Game One against the Cavs and to put it bluntly, JV stunk.

It wasn’t easy to tell Valanciunas he’d be coming off the bench for Game Two with the undersized Tristan Thompson starting for the Cavs, but Casey had to do something to shake Valanciunas out of his malaise.

“I think the hair is up on the back of his neck a little bit,” Casey said prior to Game Three. “A little teed off that he is coming off (the bench). My hat goes off to him cause he has been starting the entire year and because of matchup situations and trying to win the series he has had to come off the bench.

“He is still one of the top centers in the league and it takes a lot for him to come off the bench. He is trying to show everyone I’m not a backup center in this league. Which he’s not. He’s just doing it for the fact that we needed that matchup in the last series and also we tried to take advantage of that in this series.”

Finally the demotion to backup center in Game Two woke JV up and he led Toronto in scoring with 23 points in just 20.2 minutes.

“He’s a good player on the low post,” Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said prior to Game Three. “Uses his shot fakes well, gets to the basket, can make a jump shot, but they play thru Kyle and DeMar a lot, so that being said, he’s a third option on his team. What he did in the last game is a little different than what he did in the past. He did make some shots last game.”

He make some shots in his next game as well. Back in the starting unit because he earned it, Valanciunas was second in scoring on the Raptors with 19 badly needed points on 8-10 shooting.

In his first seven games this postseason, Valanciunas averaged 8.9 points on a disappointing 46.8 shooting, but since being woken up by Casey that’s jumped to 21 points on 78.3 percent.

The improved play from Valanciunas hasn’t been enough for the Raptors to steal a win from the favored Cavs, but at least the team has looked better than in Game One and that could matter in what is likely the final home game of the year for Toronto on Sunday.

“We are going to show what we are made of,” Valanciunas said about Game Four. “We are going to come in and give up or we are going to come in and fight. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, we need to come here and fight and leave everything on the court.”

Welcome to the fight JV. Game Four is all about pride and we’ve seen how well JV and the Raptors can play when their backs are against the wall.

 

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell and DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson

Basketball Insiders Predict A Raptors Game Two Win

There aren’t a lot of basketball analysts willing to predict the Raptors can steal a game in Cleveland from a Cavaliers team that has had their number at The Q, but Basketball Insiders David Yapkowitz thinks it’s about to happen.

Going out on a limb here and saying the Raptors steal Game 2. The role players hit their shots, Lowry and DeRozan have big nights, and this series is 1-1 heading to Toronto.

Yapkowitz nails the key to victory for the Raptors on the road. While role players are expected to perform better at home and should be expected to be the difference makers back in Toronto, players like Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, Norman Powell and/or last year’s impact postseason player Jonas Valanciunas will need to be big  Game Two contributors in Cleveland if the Raptors are going to even this series up at one apiece.

It’s not a crazy idea to believe the Raptors secondary scorers can have an impact. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka have attracted most of the defensive effort in the postseason, so those secondary scorers are getting a lot of open looks.

If they can start hitting those shots, the Cavs defense will start to look like it has all season – porous. If they are firing bricks, poor shooting makes suspect defense look pretty good.

As Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said recently, “We’ve got to score points. … We’ve got the players to do it, to put points on the board tit-for-tat.”

Those role players have to start scoring tit-for-tat for the Raptors to steal a game in Cleveland.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell and Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Must Ignore Matchups And Start Norman Powell

The Raptors went with a big starting lineup in Game One of their second round series against the Cavaliers, but in the ever changing landscape of today’s NBA, head coach Dwane Casey must ignore the traditional matchups and start second year guard Norman Powell over center Jonas Valanciunas if he wants to win.

This isn’t an easy call for Casey. Valanciunas (“JV”) has been his starting center for five successful seasons and the big man has been nothing less than awesome in the postseason, at least he used to be awesome until this year. Telling a 24-year-old that he’s lost his starting job at this point in the season isn’t easy and could have future implications, but if the Raptors want to have a chance at getting by the heavily favored Cavs, that’s a bitter pill Casey is going to have to hand to JV.

JV had already been pushed into taking a back seat to Powell in round one out of necessity. For whatever reason, the high energy dominant center of the past three postseason runs hasn’t shown up yet and in his four starts (including Game One versus the Cavs), JV is a +/- of -11.5 points per game and in this case that +/- stat accurately reflects his impact on the games he’s started.

Powell, on the other hand, was a +14.3 points in his three starts so far this postseason (all against the Bucks) and there is no way to sugarcoat it, the Raptors would have lost that first round series if Casey hadn’t made the change.

The object of using a big starting lineup was to matchup DeMarre Carroll with LeBron James, Serge Ibaka with Kevin Love, and JV with Tristan Thompson. However, JV didn’t dominate Thompson and the lack of three-point shooting and poor perimeter defense quickly put the Raptors into an early hole they didn’t get out of. JV was a -9 points in the first quarter of Game One in Cleveland.

Like the red hot three-point barrage the Bucks buried the Raptors with early in that series, the starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan Carroll, Ibaka and JV (-5.8 points per game this postseason), didn’t score and couldn’t stop the Cavs (30 points and 4-7 from three in the first quarter) from scoring either.

The Raptors starting unit was +5.3 points in the three games Powell got the nod over JV.

As bad as a small forward matchup between the 6’4 Powell and the 6’8 reigning King of the NBA James looks and undoubtedly is, this postseason Powell has given the Raptors starting unit the elements they are going to need to survive the offensive onslaught in the opening minutes against the defending champion Cavaliers.

“The league is changing,” admitted Casey after practice on Tuesday. “The league is changing and believe me, you’ve got to change or you get stuck in the mud. It’s more of a scoring league now.

“We’ve got to score points. We’ve got to manufacture points and not get down cause the other team scores.

“We’ve got the players to do it, to put points on the board tit-for-tat.”

As it quickly became obvious against the Bucks, Powell gave the Raptors starters a third ball handler that frustrated Milwaukee’s efforts to  disrupt Toronto’s offense by putting pressure on Lowry and DeRozan. Powell also provided a badly needed three-point shooting relief valve as he went 9-9 on threes as a starter in addition to creating a faster paced offense and another player that could drive and finish in the paint.

What the Raptors give up in size defensively with Powell they should gain in better perimeter defense and a harder to defend offense. They may or may not be able to stop the Cavs from scoring, but at least their own offense should be more effective.

There have also been calls for P.J. Tucker to get the start over Carroll, but the numbers don’t back up that move. The best two man unit for Toronto this postseason has been Carroll and Powell at +9.3 points. Powell and Tucker have been +3.4 points. Conversely, the worst two man unit has been Ibaka and Valanciunas at -6.0 points, so it isn’t that hard to see which two-man unit is the one that needs to be broken up.

Breaking up Ibaka and JV seems to be the Raptors answer to improve defense and offense. Five-man lineups with Lowry, DeRozan, Powell, Valanciunas and either of Carroll or Tucker have been +4 points in the postseason. For the most part, JV has looked good coming off the bench and gives the Raptors a superior backup center.

Three years ago it was all about player development for the Toronto Raptors  when they finally got back to the postseason after a five year absence, but this year is different. Coming off consecutive 50+ win seasons and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, winning in the postseason matters. It might ruffle some feathers, but coach Casey has to do what is necessary and the numbers say start Powell and bring in JV off the bench.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA ESPN Chad Ford and Marc Stein

ESPN Layoffs Of Chad Ford And Marc Stein A Sign Of The Times

The latest round of ESPN layoffs included basketball icons Chad Ford and Marc Stein and while the names might come as a surprise, it’s just a sign of the times. The depth and breadth of layoffs in sports media and media in general has been on-going for years in the US and Canada.

This round of layoffs is just the second (we’ll be nice) shoe to drop as Disney tries to maintain the profitability of their sports franchise and the rational is basically the same with TSN/Bell Media and Rogers Sportsnet in Canada.

In 2015, Michael McCarthy in Sporting News reported the shocking (at the time) ESPN layoffs.

One week ago, ESPN unceremoniously laid off 300 employees, many of them well-regarded producers, programmers and editors at the peak of their talents and careers.

Their career prospects may be bleak in a sports media industry riven by cutbacks, ageism and shrinking cable TV audiences.

McCarthy wasn’t wrong. Disney had their sights set on further cuts in the near future. The continued loss of big names in sports media like Ford and Stein was as predictable as it was unbelievable.

Disney ordered ESPN to trim $100 million from its 2016 budget and another $250 million in 2017.

Joe Drape and Brooks Barnes bring the picture up to date in The New York Times. As cable subscribers turn away in droves, ESPN has been paying record amounts for access to programming.

The network has lost more than 10 million subscribers over the past several years. At the same time, the cost of broadcasting major sports has continued to rise. ESPN committed to an eight-year, $15.2 billion deal extension with the N.F.L. in 2011; a nine-year, $12 billion deal with the N.B.A.; and a $7.3 billion deal for the college football playoffs, among many others.

Those looking for careers in sports media should probably take note. This trend of continuing cost reductions (layoffs) because pressure on revenues doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

A January 2016 article in the The Star by The Canadian Press highlighted just some of the decimation in Canada.

It was another bleak day for Canadian news outlets on Monday as Rogers Media moved to trim its workforce by 4 per cent — or 200 jobs.

Bell Media cut 380 jobs from its operations, production and editorial staff in November.

Like ESPN, Rogers got caught up in paying record amounts for access to sports programming in a cable TV market that has continued to see downward pressure in subscribers.

The 12-year agreement, announced jointly by the NHL and Rogers in a Tuesday morning press conference, is for $5.232 billion (Canadian). It’s the largest media rights deal in NHL history and one of the largest media rights deals in Canadian history. It is also Canada’s largest sports-media rights agreement. – NHL.com

The trend includes traditional print media as well as TV and radio. It’s been well documented that newspapers have struggled adjusting to the on-line environment and they’ve coped, as best they could, by continual cost cutting and that means fewer jobs for journalists.

For NBA fans, Ford and Stein are just a recognizable tip of a series of very large icebergs.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka

Serge Ibaka Is Giving Raptors A Playoff Big Three

With all the focus on the amazing boost second year guard Norman Powell has given the Raptors in their first round playoff series against the Bucks, it is easy to look past what Serge Ibaka has not so quietly been doing as part of the veteran Big Three in Toronto.

Playing on an ankle injured in Game One of the series that was still sore in Game Five, Ibaka hasn’t missed a shift and is third in minutes played (29.4) and points scored (14) behind the Raptors All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. He also leads the Raptors in blocked shots (2.4) by a wide margin and has been strong on the defensive glass grabbing a quarter of the available boards.

It was a surprise he came back in Game One after getting hurt and playing in Game Two was never a sure thing.

“I woke up this morning and I didn’t know,” Ibaka said after Game Two. “It was a bit tight and it wasn’t 100 percent if I was going to (play). After a couple of hours, I just said I am going to try to go and if I can’t move, I’ll just ask coach to take me out.

“I knew how important this game was to our team, so I just kept working to give everything.”

After seeing limited action and shooting 1-7 in the first half, Ibaka’s ankle loosened up in the second half as he played over 22 minutes and carried the Raptors to the victory scoring 13 points on 5-8 shooting, grabbing 4 boards, dishing 6 dimes and blocking 2 shots.

Unfortunately a strong second half in Game Two didn’t mean Ibaka was back to 100 percent and he struggled in Games Three and Four, but back in Toronto for Game Five, things were about to change.

“(My ankle) is still a little sore,” Ibaka told Pro Bball Report in an exclusive after Game Five. “But it is getting better, getting stronger. I feel it is getting a lot better than the last couple of games. A lot better tonight.”

Ibaka played a strong Game Five, second in scoring with 19 points on 8-10 shooting, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and 3 blocked shots in just 24.7 minutes as he split time at center with Jonas Valanciunas.

There was joy in Ibaka’s game again as his ankle didn’t betray him as he lifted off for a block or a jump shot.

“The (bad) ankle is on my left and the left ankle is where I jump off of the most,” Ibaka explained. “So now it is feeling better, more loose and I feel more comfortable and confidence.’

That is bad news for the Bucks who have enjoyed some measure of success at stopping DeRozan and Lowry, but as it showed in Game Five, run out of defensive options if Powell and Ibaka are going to contribute significantly on offense as well.

However, Ibaka sees himself as a defensive leader and he takes more pride in stopping his opponent than scoring on him. When Ibaka is on his defensive game and playing on a good wheel, the Raptors defense has been very good.

“We got some quiet guys, so we need some people that speak up and defense is my job,” Ibaka said. “At the five, I see everything, so I have to make sure we are on the same page. Sometimes it is tough. Sometimes in the heat of the moment you can lose the strategy on defense and it is my job to remind my teammates how we are to play every time.

“When the team is winning, everybody looks good,” Ibaka explained. “My job is help my teammates, to do whatever it takes for us to get a “w” and then everybody looks good.”

Even playing on a bad ankle, Ibaka has been able to be the third star player teams search for when trying to make a deep postseason run. If that ankle has improved further from Game Five, the Raptors ability to put the Bucks behind them should be assured.

 

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA D-League Mississauga Raptors 905 Pascal Siakam

Pascal Siakam Leads Raptors 905 To Game Two Victory In Finals

Toronto Raptors rookie forward Pascal Siakam recorded an impressive 32 point, 10 rebound double-double at the Hershey Centre on Tuesday night in a 95-85 Mississauga Raptors 905 win that tied the NBA D-League Finals at one game apiece with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

“(Siakam), he played big time,” 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “At the end of the game Pascal especially, he just showed that he can pretty much put us on his back and willed the game for us.”

The game quickly became a battle between Siakam and the Houston Rockets rookie from Gonzaga 6’10 forward Kyle Wiltjer who led the Vipers in defeat posting his own double-double of 25 points and 12 boards.

A closely contested first quarter set the tone for the evening, Raptors 905 holding a slight 23-22 advantage after the opening 12 minutes.

Siakam established himself early, scoring 9 points while adding 2 rebounds and 3 steals in the first. Chris Johnson and Darius Morris both posted 7 points for the Vipers.

Assignee Rockets rookie point guard Isaiah Taylor was injured just 3:13 into the first quarter and did not return.

Raptors 905 created some separation in the second frame, outscoring the Vipers 31-22 in the quarter. Siakam once again paced the 905 with 11 points for a 20 point, 6 rebound first half, while Brady Heslip contributed eight points in the period. Wiltjer increased his first half totals to 13 points and 6 boards by scoring 8 points in the quarter.

Raptors 905 led 54-44 at the half.

Wiltjer almost single-handedly kept the Vipers in the game, scoring 10 points for Rio Grande in the third quarter and narrowing the 905 lead to six heading into the fourth.

The Vipers continued to battle back and tied the game 81-81 at the 4:28 mark of the fourth quarter, but the Raptors 905 responded with a 7-0 run to regain control of the contest and close the game strong.

Toronto Raptors assignee Bruno Caboclo, who was almost invisible on offense for most of the contest, grabbed a man’s rebound under the hoop and then spun around for the impressive slam on the other side of the basket to push the lead to 86-81 with 3:30 left and he helped maintain the advantage with less than two minutes to go with an unexpected drive to the hoop and smooth floater.

Caboclo finished with 6 points, 5 rebounds, a steal and 4 blocked shots. Just the way coach Stackhouse drew it up.

“(Caboclo) has to make his mark for us on the defensive end,” Stackhouse said pregame. “That’s where I think he has a chance to be special.”

Raptors assignee Fred VanVleet had a big impact throughout this game defensively and running the offense, scoring 16 points on 7-18 shooting, grabbing 7 rebounds and dishing 9 dimes.

“All of our guys played well,” Stackhouse said. “Bruno (Caboclo) gave us some big buckets down at the end, big rebounds, big dunks.

“Everybody made timely plays. Fred (VanVleet) made some timely plays. Brady (Heslip – 11 points) made some timely shots for us. EJ (Singler – 15 points) made a big shot for us.”

Vipers guard Darius Morris had a big night with 19 points, 4 rebounds and 7 assists. A 2011 second round pick of the Lakers, Morris has played in the NBA for the 76ers, Clippers, Grizzlies and Nets. Forward Chris Walker shot 6-6 from the field for 13 points in 12.5 minutes of action. Rockets rookie center Chinanu Onuako had 3 points, 10 rebounds, a steal and 2 blocks.

Coach Stackhouse may face one of classic challenges of coaching NBA D-League games in his next contest. The Toronto Raptors will be playing Game Six of their opening round playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks at the same time as his 905 will be facing off against the Vipers.

If Raptors head coach Dwane Casey wants to dress the 13 players permitted in the NBA, Stackhouse will be missing one of his assignees (Caboclo, Siakam or VanVleet) from the big club in his big game.

“I believe in our group,” 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse said prior to the game. “I know they are competitors and they are going to respond. When we went on the road (in Game One), (the Vipers) took care of business, they did what they are supposed to do to give themselves a chance. Now what we worked hard all season, we have home court advantage. We have two games at home (in a best of three series) to ultimately get to the glory these guys deserve.”

The D-League Championship will be decided Thursday evening back at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga at 7pm.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

NBA Milwaukee Bucks Jason Kidd

Bucks Lack Of Experience Is Catching Up To Them

The Raptors adjusted to the Bucks style of play after a Game Three beatdown in Milwaukee and came back to win ugly in Game Four 87-76 and with devastating offense in front of the home crowd in Toronto 118-93 in Game Five.

As Bucks head coach Jason Kidd pointed out, the Raptors have been here before and his young Bucks haven’t.

“I think one, we’re lacking the experience of what’s coming,” Kidd responded postgame. “We can talk about it, but we have to go through the process. We have to walk through that door.

“For a lot of these guys they’ve never seen this. You’re talking about a team that’s been to the Eastern Conference Finals. They’ve been there and their coach has seen this before.”

The Raptors didn’t let the Bucks build up an early lead like they’ve been prone to do during the season and earlier in this series. From an 11-11 tie, Toronto went on an 20-9 run to close out the quarter and it’s a lead they would protect from Milwaukee’s best shots the rest of the way.

“We knew that they were going to come after us,” Kidd said. “We had to expect that and we just couldn’t respond. Then we started to get a little rhythm on the offensive end and our defense picked up and we just couldn’t get it under 10. It kept going to nine and it went back up. They would hit a three, We just couldn’t get it back under control.”

“I think they just did a great job setting the tone, hitting first,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I think it’s a learning process for us.”

The Raptors spread the scoring out, led by second year guard Norman Powell with a postseason career best 25 points. Antetokounmpo led all scorers with 30 points, but it must have felt like he was the only one sinking baskets for his squad.

Game Six is back in Milwaukee on Thursday night and it’s a win or go on vacation for the Bucks.

“Win or you’re done,” Malcom Brogdon said. ” It’s as simple as that.

“If we want to continue to play, if we want to push it to a Game Seven, we have to win at home. I think we have the upper hand bein at home, but they have the upper hand with the momentum and the confidence.”

After winning Game Four in Milwaukee, the Raptors should believe they can wrap this series up on Thursday.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Jurassic Park Toronto Raptors

Raptors Fans Need To Step It Up In Game Five

Maybe it isn’t safe to even passively call out your own fans, but head coach Dwane Casey has asked the Raptors fans to step it up in Game Five.

“Yesterday’s environment (Saturday in Milwaukee), it was a hostile environment,” Casey said. “I hope our fans are the same way against them, the way they were against us. They were on us. I mean it was loud (at) the game.

“Our hard play helped us in the second game there, but the first game, it was very loud, it was one of the loudest. I think Portland a few years ago, when I was in Dallas a few years ago was loud, San Antonio was loud, even in Seattle and Utah, but Milwaukee was really really loud in game one at their place.

“We have a great crowd too, but that crowd was hot. Hopefully our crowd will come out (Monday) night and be the same way, which I know they will.”

If Casey wanted to make a bolder message, he would have compared this year’s Raptors playoff crowd to those of the past three years when the Air Canada Centre was full and deafening long before tip off and throughout each game.

Jurassic Park too used to be full and heavily featured inside the ACC because of the overflow crowds, but not this year.

“Have you been here before?” DeMar DeRozan said last year when asked about the ACC crowd. “We got our home crowd energy to feed off.”

The Toronto Raptors previously enjoyed a significant home court advantage inside the Air Canada Centre and outside Gate Five in Jurassic Park. It was loud inside and loud outside, so loud in fact that even the Raptors used to struggle with the noise level in every playoff at home in the Dwane Casey era. Visiting teams couldn’t help but notice the crowd impact.

By comparison crowds inside the building for the first two games this year showed up late and sat on their hands until the in-game announcers told them to cheer and Jurassic Park crowds looked suspiciously light, especially if you compared them to the crowds for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

For the first time in living memory, Leafs fans have been louder than Raptors fans and that shouldn’t sit well with the faithful. The Raptors fans used to be the biggest part of their home court advantage in the postseason.

Casey’s right, it is time for Toronto Raptors fans to get back in the game. Getting out-cheered by Milwaukee should be embarrassing.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell

Raptors Coach Casey Has All The The Right Buttons Pressed

In his Game Five preview, Basketball Insiders David Yapkowitz has the Toronto Raptors taking a 3-2 series lead over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night as head coach Dwane Casey has all the right buttons pressed against this less experienced foe.

The playoffs are all about adjustments, and Dwane Casey definitely made some big ones that got the Raptors right back in this series.

Benching Jonas Valanciunas was a move that paid off.

Serge Ibaka excelled at center.

Powell hit all three of his (three-point) attempts and kept the Bucks defense on their heels by staying aggressive.

A smaller but effective move that also paid off was Casey’s decision to play Delon Wright more than Cory Joseph.

The Bucks, on the other hand, have their work cut out for them if they want to steal another game on the Raptors’ home court.

Be sure to check out the full preview.

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Overlooked has been Ibaka playing on a sore ankle, something that has definitely been affecting his jump shot and perimeter defense, but should be getting significantly better with each passing day.

Playing big with both Valanciunas and a hobbled Ibaka on the floor at the same time didn’t work against the longer more athletic Bucks, but Casey’s Game Four rotation neutralized much of what Milwaukee had been using to take advantage of their more experienced and higher seeded opponent.

 

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

NBA Milwaukee Bucks

Raptors Looked Lost And Confused In Milwaukee

This was supposed to be a first round series featuring the playoff tested and experienced Toronto Raptors taking on a young Bucks team with two rookies in their starting lineup, but it was the Raptors veterans who looked lost and confused in Milwaukee.

“We just look like we don’t know what the hell we are are doing,” Jonas Valanciunas explained postgame. “We just gave up from the start of the game.”

Toronto shot 4-18 in the first quarter of Game Three to get behind 32-12 and things didn’t improve from there as the Raptors dropped a 104-77 contest they were never in.

“It starts with us, myself self as a coach as far as having them ready to play in a hostile environment” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said trying to deflect blame away from his players. “They ambushed us. There is no aspect of our game that we executed whatsoever.”

However, there is no excuse for not being ready to play in a hostile environment for the Raptors veterans. Except for P.J. Tucker, they’ve all been here before multiple times. They knew or should have known what to expect.

This hasn’t been a good series for the Raptors starting center. Valanciunas (10 points/ 8.7 rebounds) has been unexpectedly taken advantage of by the Bucks rookie “stretch” center Thon Maker (50% 3FG) and the usually favorable matchup with Greg Monroe (16 points/ 8.7 rebounds) hasn’t gone so well either.

An efficient and effective beast in the postseason in his past three trips, this year Valanciunas has been getting rushed into bad shots on offense, shooting 37.5 percent from the field in the series, and schooled at the other end, boasting a plus/minus of -8.3 points in 22 minutes per game. Unfortunately for the Raptors, he hasn’t been alone.

Among the Raptors veterans, only Serge Ibaka (45.9% shooting) and DeMarre Carroll (54.5% shooting) are hitting shots at better than 37.5 percent. Ibaka is making an impact, but Carroll doesn’t play enough or shoot enough mostly because the guy he is guarding, Kris Middleton (16.7 points), is second in Bucks playoff scoring.

It’s looked like a Raptors brickfest out there except from the young guys Delon Wright (50%), Norman Powell (50%), and rookie center Jakob Poeltl (42.9%).  The guys who weren’t supposed to play much are the only players with a plus in the plus/minus stat and it could be argued Wright has noticeably outplayed Cory Joseph, Poeltl has been more effective than Valanciunas, and Powell has been more aggressive offensively than Carroll.

“We’ll make changes,” Casey said. “We made changes going into the second half, but whoever goes in has to go in and make a difference.”

It isn’t easy making changes to a starting lineup when these are the guys who got you here, but the Raptors can’t afford to get run out of the building by the Bucks aggression in Game Four on Saturday. If this lineup, this rotation can’t adjust, Casey has to try something new.

“They just came out really aggressively and took (away) our easy points, took our normal rhythm shots, they took our rhythm away from us,” Valanciunas said. “They were into the ball, into people, not letting (us) screen easy.”

News flash, the playoffs aren’t supposed to be easy. The cliche ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ is true and the Raptors know it.

“Whoever plays the hardest is going to win the series,” P.J. Tucker said. “Nobody (should) got to hype you to go out and play hard. This is what we do. If you don’t have the moral (fortitude) to go out and fight in the NBA playoffs, then this ain’t the job for you.”

Ignore DeRozan going 0-8 in Game Three and ignore coach Casey’s promise of, “as a staff we have to do a better job of finding ways of opening and space for us to score.” The Raptors didn’t lose Games One and Three because the Bucks out-schemed them. The Bucks are winning because they are playing harder, pure and simple.

“We got to forget the plays, forget everything and come out with energy,” Valanciunas said. “Come out willing to play basketball, not Xs and Os, hard school basketball.”

“I still believe we can win the series,” Kyle Lowry said. “It ain’t over. It just sucks right now. It’s terrible right now. It’s a terrible feeling the way we just got our asses beat. So we better pick it up or it’s going to be a terrible feeling again.”

If the Raptors players Casey puts on the court don’t play harder and tougher from the start, no amount of game planning is going to prevent another terrible feeling after Game Four.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

     Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson