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Denver Nuggets Nikola Jokic and Cleveland Cavaliers Jae Crowder and Washington Wizards Otto Porter

Early Favorites For The NBA Most Improved Player Race

Like every other award handed out to NBA players after the season is over, the Most Improved Player isn’t going to be a completely fair race. To even be an early favorite, several things pretty much have to be in the players favor right from the start.

First off an MIP has to be on a team that garners some attention. If you’re not in the playoffs or at least in contention for the postseason, it’s going to be pretty hard to win … anything.

Also, it would really help if the player could average over 20 points per game and that average is up from the prior season by over 5 points per game – the bigger the increase the better. Sure the other stats matter, but nothing captures attention in the NBA more than scoring.

Over the last five years, the MIP race ended like this:

Last year the next four top vote getters were Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Otto Potter and Isaiah Thomas and three of them should be early favorites this year.

It’s worth noting that Antetokounmpo was 3rd in voting in 2016 and top 10 the year before that, so he was a guy everyone should have (did) see coming.

In no particular order, our early favorites for the MIP in 2018 are:

Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic

When the Nuggets landed Paul Millsap in free agency they solidified their hold on a playoff spot and gave Jokic his chance to turn last year’s second place MIP votes into a spot at the top if he can continue to improve.

He’ll need to average well over 20 points per game, but don’t count him out.

Portland Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic

Nurkic exploded after the trade from Denver to Portland going from 8 points per game playing limited minutes behind Jokic to over 15 points as a starter. The Trail Blazers exploded with him in the lineup as well, winning 14 of the 20 games he appeared in.

On the season Nurkic only averaged 10.2 points per game, so if can improve even a little on his first 20 games with the Blazers and his team gets back to the postseason, he’s going to get a lot of votes.

Utah Jazz, Rudy Gobert

After losing Hayward to the Celtics, the Jazz need Gobert to be in contention again for the MIP award if they are to get back to the postseason. After a 4.9 point improvement in scoring last year, there will be opportunities for Gobert to up his offensive production yet again in Hayward’s absence.

Someone has to carry the scoring load on this defensive-minded club and it seems pretty clear Gobert is now their best player.

Washington Wizards, Otto Porter

Porter is developing into an elite two-way player with deadly outside range and the only thing that appears to be holding him back is greater utilization. Porter only got 10 shots per game last season and had his team’s (ugh!) 12th highest utilization rate.

Unless the Wizards coaching staff has been living under a rock this summer, they’ll be working on ways to get their most effective scorer more involved with the offense. Look for a big jump in scoring from Porter next season on a team that should win over 50 games for the first time in four decades.

Cleveland Cavaliers, Jae Crowder

The only knock on the Cavaliers in recent years has been the roster was old and wasn’t winning as many regular season games as expected. This was a team that needed what an energetic two-way 27-year-old forward with three-point range could bring to the table.

Twice before Crowder has gotten votes for MIP, but this could be his year.

Crowder fills a need on a Cavs team that wants LeBron James to play fewer minutes and take more time off during the regular season. He will get his opportunity to shine on a team that loves to hoist the three-ball and needs his younger legs to soak up minutes. Don’t be surprised if Crowder has a career year.

Toronto Raptors, Serge Ibaka

The Toronto Raptors have been looking for a third impact player to support Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and they believe they’ve found him in the three-time All-Defensive First Team big man Serge Ibaka.

However, the Raptors will be looking for a lot more than just defense from Ibaka in a lot bigger role than he has been limited to in the past. Ibaka has evolved into a 40 percent three-point stretch-four/five and he’ll get his chance to show off all of his offensive range this season.

If the Raptors can get back to the 56-win pace they ran at for a season and a half up until mid-January last year and Ibaka gets the offensive opportunities his new three-year $65 million contract suggests he will, then he could be a surprise contender in this year’s MIP race.

There are other interesting candidates like the Pacers Miles Turner and the Knicks Kristaps Porzingis, but neither of these teams are likely to generate the buzz necessary to grab the attention of the voters.

The last time a player from a non-playoff team won the award was when Kevin Love became an All-Star for the first time in 2011. So, it’s not impossible, it’s just a very high bar.

 

 

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 and Boston Celtics Kyrie Irving and Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry and Washington Wizards John Wall

The Best Big 3s In The NBA East

No one could say this summer in the NBA has been boring and it’s been big name players from the Eastern Conference making most of the noise. But the dust has settled, those big names have found new homes and the best Big 3s in the NBA East remain on the best teams from last season.

There was only four wins between the first place Celtics and the fourth place Wizards last year and in the 2017-18 regular season no one should be expecting it to have gotten any easier for the best in the East despite the player movement.

Your Big 3s for this season are:

Boston Celtics – last year 53 wins

Three current or former All-Stars: Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford.

Fourth? Marcus Morris averaged 14 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2 assists and shot 33.1 percent from three last season with a dysfunctional Pistons squad.

Last year the Celtics best 3 was Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Al Horford with Jae Crowder as a fourth, but as Horford is the only returning starter, chemistry could take quite a while to develop.

Cleveland Cavaliers – last year 51 wins

Three current All-Stars: Isaiah Thomas*, LeBron James and Kevin Love.

*If Thomas doesn’t start the season on time, one-time MVP Derrick Rose will fill in.

Fourth? Jae Crowder averaged 13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and shot 39.8 percent from three last year with the first place Celtics.

Toronto Raptors – last year 51 wins

Two current All-Stars: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka.

Note: Ibaka was acquired at the trade deadline last season. Toronto has four of last year’s five starters since the All-Star break.

Fourth? C.J. Miles averaged 10.7 points and 3 rebounds in 23.4 minutes with the Pacers last season and was acquired for his three-point shooting of 41.3 percent.

Washington Wizards – last year 49 wins

One current All-Star: John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.

Fourth? Markieff Morris averaged 14 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and shot 36.2 percent from three last season.

Note: The Wizards are the only team from last year’s top four in the East to return all five starters. They should look good right out of the gate.

The Best?

Based on the players individual stats from last season, the new Big 3s add up like this:

Best Scoring Big 3

1st: Cavs 74.3 points

2nd: Raptors 64.5 points

3rd: Celtics 61.1 points

4th: Wizards 59.6 points.

Note: If Rose replaces Thomas, the Cavs Big 3 averages 10.9 fewer points based on last year’s production which would still be good for second best.

Best Rebounding Big 3

1st: Cavs 22.4 rebounds

2nd: Raptors 16.8 rebounds

3rd: Celtics 15.4 rebounds

4th: Wizards 13.7 rebounds

Note: The Cavaliers, Raptors and Wizards all have above average rebounders outside of their top four players. The Celtics had the second worst rebounding differential in the East last season and have done nothing to improve the situation this summer.

Most Big 3 Assists

1st: Cavs 16.5 assists

2nd: Wizards 15.7 assists

3rd: Celtics 14.3 assists

4th: Raptors 11.8 assists

Best Big 3 Field Goal Percentage

1st: Cavs 48.2 percentage

2nd: Wizards 47.8 percent

3rd: Celtics 47.4 percent

4th Raptors 46.9 percent

Note: If Rose replaces Thomas, the Cavs Big 3 field goal percentage would be better based on last season.

Best Big 3 Three-point Shooting

1st: Cavs 7.3 makes at 37.2 percent

2nd: Wizards 5.9 makes at 39.3 percent

3rd: Celtics 5.8 makes at 39.2 percent

4th: Raptors 5.2 makes at 38.5 percent

Note: If Rose replaces Thomas, the Cavs Big 3 makes 3 fewer threes a game.

Wild Card

The Milwaukee Bucks have their own potential Big 3 in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Kris Middleton, except for the fact the 22-year-old Parker tore his ACL and may not be back until after January.

Conclusion

If Thomas doesn’t miss too many games, the Cavaliers Big 3 looks to maintain their level of dominance over the rest of the Eastern Conference, but even if he doesn’t return to his prior form, Cleveland still has a Big 3 that will compete with the rest of the best.

The East has four teams with Big 3s that should lead their respective clubs to over 50 wins next season. But has anything really changed?

 

  

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Cavaliers and Celtics trade Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving

Cavs Cold Feet Could Be Good News For Raptors And Wizards

So the Cleveland Cavaliers are either getting a case of cold feet or just looking for an opportunity to extort another asset from the rival Celtics, but either way, this could be good news for the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.

The Cavs rookie general manager Koby Altman had already fleeced the Celtics by nabbing both the 23rd pick of the 2016 NBA draft, rookie center Ante Zizic plus the the rights to the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first round pick in the Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving trade.

Altman only got that much because Thomas wasn’t ready to play when the trade was made. He had seen the medical reports before Friday’s physical. He knew Thomas and the Celtics had agreed on rest and rehabilitation instead of surgery. If he’s seen as having second thoughts now or even just asks for more assets, he may as well just call an already upset and potentially fragile Thomas a liar or a fool to his face.

Worse, backing out now, as is Altman’s right, means he’ll have to deal with an even bigger problem when he faces a very unhappy Irving whose trade value just crashed, doesn’t want to be there and likely believes, with cause, Altman just screwed with him.  This wouldn’t end well.

Joe Vardon on Cleveland.com reports,

The Cavaliers are indeed pausing to consider a “concern that we have” regarding Isaiah Thomas’ right hip

the team is conducting a “very deep and thorough review process” on Thomas

The Cavs’ options, ostensibly, would be to void the trade, which in Cleveland’s case would mean taking Irving back after a tumultuous breakup and sending away a potential lottery pick.

If the rookie GM was on the ball, he’d be out there squashing this speculation and assuring Thomas they want him in Cleveland – even if it wasn’t true.

Sometimes good business is making sure your assets aren’t going to be mad at you after you’re done.

Don’t believe for a minute NBA players aren’t influenced by the articles they read, ESPN talk show speculation and social media. Altman needs to get out ahead of this.

The biggest beneficiaries of Altman’s apparent indecision will be/ may already be/ the Raptors and Wizards who are both bringing back the cores from last season’s teams and if the Cavs and Celtics are in disarray, could find nothing to stop them from going on big early season runs in a weakened Eastern Conference that their rivals will not be able to overtake.

The only saving grace in all of this for Altman is if his medical team believes Thomas won’t be ready to play this season and the Celtics were trying to pawn off damaged goods on them. But if that’s the case, he should have just rescinded the trade on Friday.

Anyone missing David Griffin right about now?

 

  

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 president Masai Ujiri

Check Out Pro Bball Report On The Potent Lifestyle Magazine

Check out Pro Bball Report editor Stephen Brotherston’s article about the Toronto Raptors on The Potent Lifestyle Magazine.

Raptors Hit The Wall?

Eventually it happens with every successful professional sports team. Whatever got them on their current run starts to run out of steam. The fans continue to show up for a while reliving the memories, but the passion isn’t the same. In Toronto, the fans seem to know the Raptors have hit the wall.

Also check out Studio to Street Wear, the Artist’s Showcase, Music, and lots more in this inaugural relaunch issue.

2017 NBA free agents Raptors Patrick Patterson and Timberwolves Shabazz Mohammad and Warriors Ian Clark and Pacers Jeff Teague collage

Some NBA Free Agents Your Team Can Actually Get

There is no more exciting time for most teams and most fans than NBA free agency, but it can quickly become the most disappointing couple of weeks in the off season when you strike out.

If a team is going to put all their focus into hitting a home run, they had better have a really good idea about why that player is going to choose them over all of those other opportunities because as you wait, the next best options are coming off the board.

Here’s our list of getable free agents that if you act fast, you just might just lock up before the competition realizes what happened.

Point Guard

Jeff Teague, Pacers UFA, 29-years-old

2016-17, 15.3 pts, 4.0* rbs, 7.8* asts, 1.2 stls, 35.7% 3FG

* career best

A former one-time All-Star, reliable starting point guard who has only played one year with the Pacers. While other teams are wasting their efforts pursuing Kyle Lowry and George Hill, impress Teague and solve your point guard issues.

Micheal Carter-Williams, Bulls UFA, 25-years-old

2016-17, 6.6 pts, 3.4 rbs, 2.5 asts, 0.8 stls, 23.4% 3FG

The 2014 NBA ROY saw his minutes slashed in Chicago and made an unrestricted free agent this summer, but if your team is out of cap space and not planning on a postseason run, giving this big point guard another second chance might not be such a bad idea. He was an 11/5/5 player with 1.5 steals for the Bucks two seasons ago.

Shooting Guard

Dion Waiters, Heat UFA, 25-years-old

2016-17, 15.8 pts, 3.3 rbs, 4.3 asts, 0.9 stls, 39.5% 3FG

It was a breakout season for Waiters and teams will have their eye on the possibility of stealing him from the Heat as his current team doesn’t hold his Bird Rights. Strike fast with a big offer while Miami is focused on Gordon Hayward and you might just steal him.

Ian Clark, Warriors UFA, 26-years-old

2016-17, 6.8 pts, 1.6 rbs, 1.2 asts, 0.5 stls, 37.4% 3FG

The Warriors only hold Clark’s early bird rights, so this is one player you can outbid a luxury tax sensitive team for. He put up those numbers in less than 15 minutes a game. It’s time he got his chance to show everyone what he’s made of.

Small Forward

Shabazz Muhammad, Timberwolves RFA, 24-years-old

2016-17, 9.9 pts, 2.8 rbs, 0.4 asts, 33.8% 3FG

While the Timberwolves are busy gloating over the acquisition of Jimmy Butler and looking for the next piece of the playoff puzzle, Shabazz is kind of sitting on the outside looking in, but this a solid young defensive wing who could become a real steal if, as the expression goes, “the lights come on” with a change of scenery.

Luc Mbah a Moute, Clippers UFA, 30-years-old

2016-17, 6.1 pts, 2.1 rbs, 0.5 asts, 1.0 stls, 39.1% 3FG

The Clippers are in trouble and only hold Mbah a Monte’s early bird rights, so pile on and pick apart the carcass. This guy went from a defensive forward to a  much more valuable ‘3-and-D’ forward last season and there is a lot of teams that could use him coming off the bench.

Power Forward

James Johnson, Heat UFA, 30-years-old

2016-17, 12.8 pts, 4.9 rbs, 3.6 asts, 1.0 stls, 1.1 blks, 34% 3FG

A non-bird free agent means the Heat have to use salary cap space to re-sign him, thus making James Johnson a great target for other teams. A breakout season that James should be crediting to the tough love he got in Toronto – the place where he finally figured out how and when to shoot the three-ball without it being embarrassing.

Patrick Patterson, Raptors UFA, 28-years-old

2016-17, 6.8 pts, 4.5 rbs, 1.2 asts, 37.2% 3FG

While the Raptors are distracted by Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Patterson should be an easy target and a reasonable contract.

The ‘3-and-D” Patterson is one of those glue-guys who makes other people around him better even if he isn’t filling the stats sheet while doing it.

Center

Dewayne Dedmon, Spurs UFA, 27-years-old

2016-17, 5.1 pts, 6.5 rbs, 0.6 asts, 0.8 blks

Dedmon played 17.5 minutes a game for Pop last season and that alone should put this guy on your radar.  The Spurs don’t hold his bird rights either, so he is very getable.

Zaza Pachulia, Warriors UFA, 33-years-old

2016-17, 6.1, 5.9 rbs, 1.9 asts, 0.8 steals

If your team needs an infusion of toughness, grit, nastiness, Pachulia can still bring it. Culture change in a 6’11 don’t give a crap how it gets done center. The Warriors don’t hold his bird rights.

 

If your team is on the cusp and has a load of salary cap space to burn, sure take a run at Hayward, Blake Griffin, or Paul Millsap. Not sure any of those big name free agents are using your team as anything more than a free lunch and a means to extract a better contract from someone else? Then move down a tier and get a player that can actually help move you closer to your goals before someone else gets them.

 

 

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 and DeMarre Carroll

Should The Timberwolves Now Go After Carroll And Valanciunas?

Thirteen years as a Lottery Team would weigh on anybody and the Minnesota Timberwolves new president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t sign up to run this team last year with the intention of extending that streak. He proved that in spades at the 2017 NBA Draft by trading potential future stars Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the number 7 pick Lauri Markkanen for Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler and the number 16 pick Justin Patton.

The Timberwolves instantly got better, but if Thibs is serious about making an impact in the postseason next April, he still needs some playoff proven veterans help to get his remaining highly talented crop of young players to the next level and Toronto Raptors starters DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas could become available because of Luxury Tax concerns.

Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman reported on the desperation for change by owner Glen Taylor at the end of the season,

“(Thibodeau) needs some players that will come off the bench and keep us going and not give up the lead,” he said. “I think he would say if he can get some guys with experience that would be helpful, so he can mix them in with our young guys during those substitution times. I think that will be a priority.

“We could also always use another big guy. If we back up a year and we were hoping that Pek [Nikola Pekovic] would be part of that and be a big, strong guy that would come in and take minutes off, so Karl [-Anthony Towns] didn’t get beat up so much and play so many minutes.”

Pek is officially done and last year’s attempt at veteran stability with players like Cole Aldrich (8.6 mpg), Jordan Hill (6.7 mpg), Omri Casspi (17.1 mpg) and Lance Stephenson (on two 10 days, 11.2 mpg) didn’t work.

However, even after the draft night trade, Thibodeau still has a ton of cap flexibility to sooth that burning desire to win now.

The Wolves will have Pekovic’s contract numbers off the books for next season, and because he did not play this season, his contract is covered by insurance, so that means their current salary cap should be in the $66 million range (prior to the Butler trade).

It wasn’t going to be easy attracting quality free agents to a team with a losing record let alone a mind-blowing 13-year losing streak and there is no pretending Minnesota is anything like New York, L.A. or Miami. So, just like the deal with the Bulls, the best way for Thibs to get what he needs is most likely to be accomplished by way of another trade.

Enter the Toronto scenario. Raptors president Masai Ujiri says he wants to re-sign free agents Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, but to do so would put his team deep into Luxury Tax territory with no guarantee they’d be able to escape the Eastern Conference currently owned by LeBron James. A tax bill of $45 million plus is a steep price to pay if you’re fighting for second best in your conference.

However, Ujiri could almost wipe out that tax bill if he could get one of Valanciunas or Carroll off of his books and a trade involving both players with the right asset back could give him the “culture change” he’s looking for next season as well.

While there is no chance the Timberwolves are going to part with another one of their young stars, Minnesota does have a player the African-born Ujiri would almost certainly be interested in, Senegal’s 27-year-old Gorgui Dieng.

Deng’ offensive production has stalled at about 10 points per game over the past three seasons as has his rebounding at about eight boards, but the power forward/center is known for his defense and has started to show he just might have an effective corner three-ball. It’s not hard to see him fitting into the “culture” Toronto is trying to build.

It shouldn’t be too hard to convince Thibs to trade the guy Dunking  With The Wolves George Rinaldi sees as a sixth man instead of a T-wolves starter in the future.

Dieng is producing decent basketball when needs be, but in all honesty, would perfectly suit a bench player.

What Dieng offers is a solid defensive player, able to knock down mid-range shots on a regular basis, and give a significant number of rebounds per game.

Just the chance to add a couple of starters like Valanciunas and Carroll from a team coming off four consecutive trips to the postseason and back-to-back 50-plus win regular seasons should be enough to get Thibs rushing to try and do a deal. The Twolves would go from being too young to win last season to a team with veteran depth.

The 25-year-old Valanciunas is a legit 7′ traditional center who can start, but actually played his best basketball coming off the bench in this year’s playoff run. He has consistently been in the top 10 for rebounding percentage in the NBA and produced a consistent 12 points and 9-plus rebounds in 26 minutes over the last three years. His contract is similar to Dieng’s four-year deal and has two more seasons plus a player option left.

The Raptors acquired the now 30-year-old Carroll from the 60-win Atlanta Hawks two summers ago and although the “3-and-D” combo forward missed most of his first season in Toronto due to knee problems and he’s taken a lot of flak from the fan base for not living up to early high expectations, he can still space the floor, hit threes and play defense the right way. He played 72 games last season and he would be the poster-boy for the type of veteran that could help stabilize a young team like the T-wolves. He has two years and $30.2 million left on his contract.

While simply moving Carroll’s contract into Minnesota’s cap space would largely solve’s Ujiri’s tax problems this year and give Thibodeau his veteran on a short two year leash, the larger deal could do more for both teams. One team trying to get to where Toronto is now and the other team trying to find a way to take the next step without setting new franchise records for luxury taxes.

There will be a lot of opportunities for these two teams to look at after free agency opens up in July, but signing free agents is tough and it often isn’t easy finding a motivated trade partner you aren’t competing with.

 

 

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 Kyle Lowry DeMar DeRozan Pacers Paul George Raptors PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka

Pacers Star Paul George Puts Himself In Play

Pacers star Paul George has been rumored to be wanting out of Indiana for some time now, but with no action forthcoming from general manager Kevin Pritchard, he decided to put himself in play. He made sure “The Reliable Source” for NBA rumors Adrian Wojnarowski knew he wanted out of town and couldn’t be talked into re-signing next summer.

Make no mistake, the “rumor” and timing was deliberate. By making it seem likely he’ll only be a rental until next season when he can bolt to L.A. as a free agent, teams won’t give away the farm to get him and rebuilding teams won’t even look at the possibility. Plus, less than a week ahead of the NBA draft, good teams with a chance to contend for the conference finals might be willing to part with a prospect and a late first round draft pick and under the circumstances, that’s more than generous.

Pritchard might be hoping the Lakers would ante up some of that young talent, but thanks to Wojnarowski, they’d look like idiots for giving away anything of value for a player they can sign for nothing in a year.

If anyone thinks Boston is going to give up the talent they fleeced the Nets for to take a risk on a rental, they should think again.

The Clippers should be interested in taking a run at acquiring George as it would help them re-sign their own free agents Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and remain relevant in the West. Not having a first or second round draft pick this year doesn’t help their chances though.

The Cavaliers may be temporarily in panic mode (that should pass), but the reality is, unless the Pacers are in love with Kevin Love, they’ll have trouble coming up with a package that Indiana would be interested in.

The Raptors should be the most motivated to take the risk and they do have some young prospects and a first round draft pick. President Masai Ujiri hates giving away any of his young talent, but for a chance at George, it should be possible to convince him to relinquish something Pritchard believes has value in a rebuild.

If Ujiri can re-sign his own free agents (and he believes he can), the Raptors could have a starting lineup of:

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, P.J. Tucker, and Serge Ibaka.

That just might be good enough to win Toronto first place in the East during the regular season and let the chips fall where they may in the playoffs.

At the very least George has significantly upped the potential for excitement at this year’s draft.

 

 

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 Houston Rockets James Harden and OKC Thunder Russell Westbrook and Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James

Three Is The Key As Small Ball Rules The NBA

The traditional center in the NBA might not be dead, but unless he can hit a three, small ball rules and he’ll be sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter.

“That’s what the game is going to,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “The days of boom, boom, boom, pound it, pound it, pound it (are over) – you can do it two or three times, but as the game goes on they are going to send bodies, send traps off cutters, traps baseline and it’s clogged up and you’re not going to get anything done.”

The 51-win Raptors were in the bottom third of the league averaging 8.8 made threes on 24.3 attempts and improving on those marks will be a top off season priority.

This year the NBA averaged 9.7 made threes on 27 attempts with Houston leading the charge at 40.3 three-point attempts and Cleveland (33.9), Boston (33.4), Brooklyn (31.6) and Golden State (31.2) rounding out the top five.

It wasn’t all that long ago the leading scorer in the NBA wasn’t expected to ever hoist a three-ball, but today every single player in the top 25 averages more than one three-point attempt a game as do 94 percent of the top 50. More players are firing threes every year and more of them are firing with at least acceptable efficiency.

The reason for change probably comes down to simple math for most teams. A player that can hit on 33.3 percent of their threes, in theory, scores just as effectively as someone putting down half of their two-point attempts. Trading twos for threes is a good bet.

No where was the power of small ball lineups firing up three-pointers more obvious than in this year’s postseason.

The only conference finals team that wasn’t one of  the top five regular season three-point shooting teams was San Antonio and they led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage (39.1).

The Rockets led the postseason with 38.5 three-point attempts, but it was the Cavaliers leading in three-point makes (14.2). Houston (12.8 makes) barely edging out the better shooting Celtics (12.7) and Warriors (12.7).

In the NBA Finals, the Cavs shot 13.2-34.6 (38.2%) from three and the Dubs were 14.2-37.2 (38.2%) and the defense was actually pretty good. No team in the NBA should be under any delusions that an NBA Finals appearance is going to be realistic if your team can’t keep up from beyond the arc.

The trend towards small ball and an ever increasing number of three-point attempts isn’t going anywhere. If anything, next season NBA teams will average over 10 made threes a game on over 30 three-point attempts. The days of controlling the game by pounding the ball in the paint are over, at least for now.

 

 

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.

 

 

Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Is Working On A 3-Point Shot

Even Raptors traditional center Jonas Valanciunas has been hunting down 15 foot jump shots in games and practicing his three-pointers in warm-ups.

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan

ESPN Wasting No Time To Forget Toronto Exists

It took no time at all for ESPN to forget Toronto even exists as they forecast the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet in the NBA Finals again next year.

Sure the Cavs and the Dubs are heavy favorites no matter what any other team does this summer, but what the ESPN Forecast panel is predicting can only be called bizarre and insulting.

The third place 51-win Raptors don’t even get a sniff ahead of the Bucks team (4.4%) they eliminated from the playoffs, a 49-win Wizards team (2.2%) who they took two of three games from during the regular season or the dysfunctional Pistons (2.2%) who didn’t even make the playoffs.

This panel are either making a ton of assumptions about the inability of Raptors president Masai Ujiri to keep the key pieces of his roster together or, more likely, they just forgot Toronto has an NBA franchise.

The assumptions required to believe the Celtics will win the East next season are not any easier to make happen than those required for the Raptors to be back in the top three of the Eastern Conference.

The Wizards largely face the same challenges this summer that they faced last summer to take another step.

The Bucks are an up and coming team, but do they break thru next year?

The Pistons? Stan Van Gundy wouldn’t predict his team wins the East next year.

It might not be easy for the US based ESPN to remember “We The North” exists, but they could at least look at last year’s standings for some background info before forecasting next year.

There is no one in Toronto that shouldn’t take the Pistons being given a better chance than the Raptors to win the East as anything but a huge insult. Even the Hawks, Bulls, Pacers and Heat should be questioning how the Pistons are getting more respect from ESPN than they are.

 

 

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 Detroit Pistons Jon Leuer and Toronto Raptors DeMarre Carroll

Should The Raptors And Pistons Make A Trade?

Pistons chief cook and bottle washer Stan Van Gundy wasn’t happy after his team took a step back into Draft Lottery territory with a 37-45 record this past season and he’s looking to make a deal. Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s team won 51 games, but he’s got his own moves to make as keeping his key guys together means a trip into Luxury Tax territory. Just maybe these two decision-makers should be talking trade?

The Detroit News’ Rod Beard says Van Gundy is pressing to make changes.

“Would we like to make changes this summer? Absolutely. Is it a priority to be out trying to make changes? Absolutely. We need to make improvements,” Van Gundy said.

“We’re not under the cap, so our way to make changes and get better is through trades.”

Van Gundy insists wholesale changes aren’t needed, but his team needs help in a number of areas, especially three-point shooting and unfortunately last year’s big stretch four free agent acquisition Jon Leuer was only stretching his credibility at the three-point line.

Leuer had shot 38.2 percent from three in Phoenix the previous season earning him a four year, $41 million contract from the Pistons that summer. Unfortunately in a bigger role with Detroit he couldn’t find the range and shot just 29.3 percent from three on a team that was desperate for someone, anyone to help spread the floor.

Detroit Free Press’ Vince Ellis didn’t hold back in his opening statement about the Pistons’ players after the season and only gives Leuer a 50 percent chance of being back with the Pistons next year.

Trade center Andre Drummond!

Get rid of that bum point guard Reggie Jackson!

Jon Leuer is a bust!

Stanley Johnson was a mistake!

The word: (Leuer) Went from a great signing to an awful signing in the same season. Probably played over his head the first 50 games but probably is better than he showed the last 30. An obvious replacement (Ellenson) is on the roster.

The Drummond and Jackson comments were undoubtedly for effect, but if things don’t change, the effect could become reality at the trade deadline. Teams don’t usually give up on Lottery Picks on modest contracts like Johnson easily, but Leuer’s contract isn’t scary, even if his history and recent run with Detroit says he’s best suited to coming off the bench.

If the Pistons want to move Leuer, the Raptors might be the team who’ll take a chance on him…. if Van Gundy wants what the Raptors will be selling.

It’s expected Toronto will lose backup stretch four Patrick Patterson to free agency. If Ujiri gets his way and Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker all re-sign, the Luxury Tax bill to keep Patterson could set new NBA records if something doesn’t give.

Ujiri will be motivated to move a veteran piece from his 50-win roster and one available piece is almost certainly starter DeMarre Carroll.

Carroll is a 31-year-old veteran who’s been to the Conference Finals twice in the last three years on teams averaging over 55 wins. He’s shot 39 percent or better from three in two of the past three years and last season’s “slump” to 34.1 percent would have tied him with Marcus Morris at 1.5 made threes per game as second best on the Pistons.

The issue with Carroll has been injuries. Specifically an undiagnosed knee problem that required surgery early in the 2015-16 season and only became fully rehabbed midway thru last year. In theory at least, Carroll is back to 100 percent healthy now.

His $30.2 million remaining over the next two seasons on his contract is almost identical to what the Pistons owe Leuer over the next three years and can probably be made to work in a straight up trade.

If in the unlikely event Van Gundy is truly disheartened by Johnson, Ujiri would almost certainly give up his first round draft pick to get him.

The Raptors would have some immediate interest in a deal of Carroll for Leuer based on the Luxury Tax savings alone, but the clincher likely would come down to Tucker’s assessment of his former Suns teammate.

Leuer had the best season of his career the year he played with Tucker. If he could recreate something similar to 2015-16 for the Raptors off the bench, Ujiri would be pretty happy with the move.

At the least Carroll is a proven veteran from a winning program who is good with young players. At his best, he’s a very effective “3-and D” combo forward who can guard multiple positions on the perimeter and can play in a variety of lineups. He could be the guy who helps get Detroit back into the playoff picture.

Neither the Pistons nor the Raptors can expect to hit a homerun with the players they are likely willing to part with this summer, but this is the type of trade that could help both teams (or neither team) and is worth the risk.

 

 

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 head coach Dwane Casey

Raptors Playing For Pride On Sunday

By Frank McLean

Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said all the right things after Game Three, Sunday’s game against the Cavs is for pride. You don’t want to end your season at home.

So if I’m Casey I put on my Dr. Phil hat and my speech is… okay guys we have won four games in a row before right so it’s not so hard right.

Sam Mitchell used to drive me nuts during his time coaching with the Raptors. During his media scrums because was always using the saying, “it is what it is guys”, to describe whatever predicament the team was going through at a particular time.

Heading into Sunday’s fourth game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in this Eastern Conference Semifinal, which the Cavaliers have made the Raptors look like the victims of a drive by shooting, “it is what it is for the Raptors.”

The Raptors have to win four straight games to go to the Eastern Conference Final for a second straight year which after watching how the Cavaliers carved up the Raptors in the first 1:52 of the fourth quarter in Game Three with a quick 8-2 run that tuned into 20-3, well it just showed that the Raptors are not in their class.

So if you are Dwane Casey what is your motivational speech to his teams?

During the regular season the Raptors had four-four game win streaks along with two three game streaks and a pair of six game win streaks, but in those win streaks they didn’t have to play four consecutive games against the Cavaliers.

Casey also needs to let his team know exactly what he said about them to the media in his post-game thoughts after Game Three.

“I’m still proud of our guys, I think we have a lot of fighters in that locker room. We came up short, but I do like how they responded. I loved the way DeMar DeRozan responded after they killed him saying that he couldn’t score.”

Casey has got to make sure that he has not given up on them because you know human nature after you have been beat like the Raptors have been beat you might give up on yourself.

Meanwhile over in the Cavaliers locker room they don’t seem to be taking for granted that they have this Game Four locked up and a sweep in their pockets.

LeBron James said after game three that the most important thing is to come out on Sunday and play their game.

“Our coaching staff once again will give us a game plan and it is up to us to go out and execute. It is a quick turnaround game on Sunday, we do not to be thinking about sleep or getting rest. We need to be thinking about what we need to do to execute defensively and offensively coming into Sunday.”

Now you can hope, and if you are one to grasp at straws, you can hope that the 3:30 start and maybe Toronto’s outstanding nightlife might make the Cavaliers a little hung over and a soft spot to beat-em. But I doubt it.

It is playoff time and party time comes when Adam Silver hands the Cavaliers the championship trophy in June.

But upsets do happen in sports. Saturday’s Kentucky Derby was not run on paper. 20-horses went to the gate and ran a race.

Maybe the Raptors can win one maybe two, but they have to win four straight. It is what it is. Game Four is all about playing for pride.

 

 

   DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan

Even A Career Game By DeMar DeRozan Wasn’t Enough

By Frank McLean

After having the worst playoff game of his career Wednesday night, five points in 31-minutes of play, DeMar DeRozan redeemed himself Friday night, but it wasn’t enough as the Cleveland Cavaliers took a commanding three games to nothing lead in this Eastern Conference Semifinal with 115-94 win.

DeRozan played the playoff game of his life. He logged 41-minutes of court time and scored a career playoff high 37-points. It wasn’t enough as if I may paraphrase the Beatles, “he didn’t get by with a little help from his friends.”

For the first three quarter the Raptors were in this game, they actually had a punchers chance to pull this off despite the fact they were putting up numbers that in the modern day NBA does not lead to wins.

They were leading at halftime 52-49. It was the first time in this series the Raptors led at halftime. Heck it was the first time the Raptors have led at the end of any quarter in this series. But they still couldn’t make a shot behind the three point arch as they were OH-FOR-NINE.

They didn’t make a three pointer until their 13th attempt with 6:15 left in the third when Norman Powell broke the ice.

DeRozan had 21-points in the first half and had not even tried a three point attempt.

The Raptors were winning playing a pre-1980’s style basketball that was used in the NBA before they implementation of the three point line and they were still in this game down just a duce, 79-77, after three quarters.

But it all fell apart in the first 1:52 of the fourth quarter.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey gave DeRozan and Corey Joseph a brief rest to catch their breath. DeRozan had put in 33-minutes and scored 36-points while Joseph had put in 29-minutes filling in for the injured Kyle Lowry. They needed to catch their breath and get a little Gatorade in their body.

But in that 1:52 the Cavaliers went on a 8-2 run before DeRozan and Joseph could get back in the game. Unfortunately their return meant nothing as the Cavaliers added to the run making it a 20-3 blitz that pretty much ended the game right there.

DeRozan tried to carry this team on his back and win this game. Would a semi healthy Kyle Lowry have helped? Absolutely, but he wasn’t there and that was their lot in life and they didn’t win.

Before the game Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that in the first two games they weren’t taking their opportunities to make three point attempts.

The Raptors inability to make three point shots will be on their obituary when this series ends. They were a combined 15-of-43 in the first two games and on Friday, after missing their first 12-attempts, they were two-for-18 which makes them 17-for-61.

The Cavaliers are for the series are 45-for-90 behind the three point line, that’s a total of 135-points of the 356-points they have scored in this series. They have made exactly 50-percent of their shots which is how you win in the modern day NBA.

As we said earlier it was amazing that Raptors were leading at the half and actually were in a position to win this game.

In his postgame comments Casey said, “Sunday’s game is all about pride. You don’t want to get swept in your home building. Our guys will come out and we certainly need to do a better job than being two-for-18” (shooting 3’s).

Coming back down three games to nothing in a playoff series in North American sports is rare. You have a better chance winning the Powerball or Lotto 6/49.

The most it has been done is in the NHL where in 1942 the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. The New York Islanders in 1975, the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 and the LA Kings in 2014 won playoff series down three-nothing. It has only been done in baseball once when the Boston Red Sox came back to beat the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship.

It has never been done in the NBA.

But that’s the lot in the life the Toronto Raptors have been handed. It’s asking a lot for this team to pull off something that has never been done in the NBA win four straight after dropping three in a row to start a playoff series.

They don’t have anyone but DeRozan who can make shots right now. And even if the others in the lineup can hit some shots with any consistency, it’s probably too little too late and the Raptors season will probably be over before people sit down to their Sunday dinners.

 

 

   DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry

Can The Raptors Win A Game Without Kyle Lowry?

By Frank McLean

As we head to Game Three of this Eastern Conference semifinal between the Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers with a banged up Kyle Lowry questionable to play, why does it seem that the next two games of this series are going to be the last two games this season for the Raptors? Maybe the answer is obvious.

First LeBron James has stepped up his game. He has been an obsessed individual.

74-points and 16-rebounds is what James has combined for in the first two games. He has made this series look like a handicap match where the Raptors have five players on the floor and the Cavaliers have just one guy… James.

He is the best player in basketball hands down. He can take a team in money games, and the playoffs are money games, put them on his back and just win.

In last year`s fifth and six games of the conference finals, after the Cavaliers let a two game lead slip away by losing Games Three and Four in Toronto, he took control of things and made sure that there would be no Game Seven.

He carried that over to the first two games of this year`s series.

And let`s not forget he led that comeback in the NBA Finals where they were down 3-1 to Golden State and they won the next three to give the city of Cleveland their first sports championship since the 1964 NFL Browns.

Just ask DeMar DeRozan about James in the first two games if this series.

“He is a lot more aggressive, you just see a different fire, hunger in him this time around, as it should be,” DeRozan said comparing this year`s version of James over last year`s.

The other reason why it looks like this is going to be a short series is the possible absence of Kyle Lowry who injured his ankle pretty bad Wednesday night.

Lowry is listed as questionable which pretty well means if this was January he would not be playing at all.

“Kyle is our driving force, our point guard, our leader,” DeRozan was saying at Thursday`s practice. “So for us not to have him anything close to 100%, it would be difficult on us. But next guy, everybody else gotta do something a little bit more to fill whatever void it is he can’t fully do out there on the court.”

Next man up has always been the Raptors mantra during Dwane Casey`s time as the Raptors head coach and he emphasized that on Thursday.

If Lowry can`t answer the bell for Game Three, Pickering, Ontario`s favorite son Cory Joseph would get the start and at least he is playoff tested from his days as a San Antonio Spur where he did get a championship ring.

Casey is hoping for that.

“I thought Cory Joseph was a bright spot Wednesday night, the confidence he played with, the force he played with, the way he shot the three ball,” Casey said. “It’s huge. Because we need every one of ’em. But with (Lowry) questionable, that’s why you have 15 on the roster. All year long, we’ve always had the next man up mentality. So I have all the trust and confidence in the world. Cory, of all the people on our team, has won a championship. So he’s been there, he knows how hard it is.”

Regardless if Lowry plays or not, the 64-thousand dollar question is can the Raptors pull off a pair of wins at home like they did last year against the Cavaliers where they were in the exact same two-games to nothing hole.

First DeMar DeRozan can`t have another five point game like he did in Game Three. Last year in Game Three and Four in Toronto he had a pair of 32-point games to lead the Raptors to wins.

But other Raptors on Wednesday missed good looks as well and Casey talked about that matter.

“The blitzing on DeMar, there are opportunities there where we have to score, and we got to make sure we take advantage of them, be shot-ready and be prepared when it hits your hands to be ready to shoot it and take it. It’s pretty simple. It’s nothing different than we have done all year.”

On playing better defense Casey said, “We got to take away something. Right now they are doing what they want to do to our defense and that is unacceptable and we can do better. There is a level of defensive focus and intensity and physicality that we got to get to and can get to and will get to.”

All the right things were being said on Thursday and you expect that of a professional basketball team. Can the Raptors rally together and win a game against the Cavaliers is something we won`t find out until sometime after 7pm on Friday.

 

 

   DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

 

 

 

NBA Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James

Who’s Having Second Thoughts About The Cavs Being Vulnerable?

By Frank McLean

Boy I was wrong. I thought that maybe the Cleveland Cavaliers were vulnerable and maybe, just maybe there was a slight chance they could be beat.

Boy I was wrong.

That was not the Cleveland Cavaliers team that went 21-20 in the second half of the season. The team that slipped defensively over last year. This team sure looked a lot like that Cavaliers team of the last two seasons in Game One versus the Raptors.

The score was 116-105 Cleveland, just in case you turned the television over to the Blue Jays game Monday night were they actually were winning their third game in a row over the Yankees.

Game One for the Raptors was typical of their playoff history since they entered the NBA, they lost. They are now 1-12 in the opening game of a playoff series.

Now let’s find the positive, they actually competed, but they just were not good enough to steal a victory. They would fight back go on a few runs to cut into the Cavalier’s lead and at one point in the second quarter went on a 18-3 run to only trail by a single point. But they couldn’t get over the hump.

It’s a fact in the NBA that your star players have to be your star players, and LeBron James was just that, dropping 35-points and grabbing 10-boards. That’s what your star player does. He makes a statement in Game One of a series, making sure your team does not lose home court advantage.

James has made comments about respecting the Raptors and it’s not a line that he shoots to the media, he does. He has also made comments about how rabid the Raptors home fans are. He knows the Raptors, if they play perfect basketball, might be the only team in the East that can upset the Cavaliers and the additions of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker give them the best line-up in the history of the franchise. Based on the fact the Raptors won Games Three and Four in their playoff series at home last year, he knows that it’s not the Indiana Pacers they are playing who they beat four straight in round one.

Now if you’re the Raptors what do you do?

Tuesday at practice head coach Dwane Casey sounded more like a sports psychologist than coach.

“Hey, they put their pants on one leg at a time, too,” Casey said. “I haven’t seen them jump in and pull them both up at the same time.”

So what’s the plan? Maybe it’s time to go back and play a little tough physical basketball like I don’t know, like they did in the 1980’s.

The other second round series between the Celtics and Wizards has turned into not only a modern day scoring bonanza but some old time physical basketball too.

Heck Isaiah Thomas lost a tooth in Game One.

“All that’s in play,” Casey was coy Tuesday at practice. “We gotta get a little closer (to them). I don’t know if they felt us last night (Monday) whatsoever. We were half a step off, respecting their speed a little too much, we gotta make them feel us a little bit better.”

The Raptors do not have much room to make mistakes in any game against Cleveland. The margin of error is so small you can’t see it with the naked eye.

Conn Smythe, when he owned the Toronto Maple Leafs, had a saying about being successful in hockey. “If you can’t beat em in the alley you can’t beat em on the ice.”

Maybe the Raptors have learnt, “If you can’t beat em in the alley you can’t beat em on the court.”

We’ll see if that’s the plan in Game Two. It might be their only chance.

 

 

   DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

Featured image courtesy of Paul Saini
Instagram:  @fylmm.lifestyle and  @paul_saini

 

 

 

 

 

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 Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker

Raptors Go From Greek Freak To King James

By Frank McLean

After taking care of the Greek Freak in Milwaukee, the Toronto Raptors go to round two of the NBA Playoffs and this time their opponent is King James and the the Cleveland Cavaliers, a round earlier than last year.

At the beginning of the year it was expected that these two teams would face each other in the Eastern Conference Final for a second time in a row, but the season just didn’t go as planned.

It’s not just the Raptors, but fact of life for all the other teams in the East if they have any aspirations of making it to the NBA Finals the road there goes through Interstate-90 into downtown Cleveland and Quicken Loans Arena where the defending champions live.

After winning their first 10-playoff games last year the Cavaliers up two games to nothing came to Toronto looking for the sweep, but then all of a sudden they found a Raptors team that didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to lay down and die. The Raptors won the next two games to tie the series, but would end up losing in game six to the appreciative cheers of their fans.

Which begs to question, are the Raptors the only team in the East that could put a monkey wrench in the bid for the Cavaliers to make it back to the finals for a third straight year?

Back in February you could see some cracks in the Cavaliers that made you think maybe their window as champions was closing. Injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving plus the loss of Matthew Dellavedova to the Milwaukee Bucks showed that when Lebron James doesn’t have his supporting cast around him the Cavaliers are beatable.

As a result the Cavaliers were 21-20 in the second half of the season and because of that they lost their grip on the top seed in the east to Boston and finishing second set up this second round match-up with the Raptors.

Cleveland’s defense was just not as a good as last year finishing 22nd after being 10th last season.

When you look at the defensive stats of the 16-teams that made the playoffs this year they were 13th in defensive ratings.

There was one point in the season where James was complaining in the press that they needed a playmaker to get him the ball. They had that in Dellavedova, but the Cavaliers let him walk to Milwaukee in the summer.

So when you look at that evidence you think like Lloyd Christmas in the comedy classic Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re telling me there is a chance.”

The Raptors do have a chance and you can thank two moves made by president Masai Ujiri at the trade deadline getting Serge Ibaka from Orlando and bringing P.J. Tucker back to the 416 from Phoenix.

He saw the window opening a crack and these two deals were made to make the Raptors better by making them a tougher team to handle in the paint with the sole object being able to stop LeBron James.

Ibaka gets to play the role Bismack Biyombo did last year and that’s to block the paint and scoop up rebounds while P.J. Tucker will get the assignment to shadow James and guard him close enough that he will know what brand of deodorant he puts on in the morning.

So the spotlight is on Tucker and he knows he has the dirty job of guarding the “King” and trying to limit his success?

“I don’t think his game changes,” Tucker was saying Sunday before the team left for Cleveland. “I think for the most part, when he’s aggressive and he’s trying to score the ball and he’s going, I don’t think it matters. I think when he gets a few to the rim, easy, he gets a few dunks, he hits a pullup, he hits a turnaround, and his three starts falling, he’s a feel-good player. If he’s hitting some regular shots, the tough stuff starts to fall. He’s probably the best player in the world. It’s still a feel game (for him).”

The addition of Tucker and Ibaka makes this team better on paper than last year.

The Raptors need to win one game in Cleveland to win this series since they do not have home court advantage in this round. And if there is game they can steal it would be game one since the Cavaliers will have gone eight days without playing since they finished their first round sweep of Indiana.

We will find out starting Monday night if the Raptors can finally slay the dragon of Ohio.

 

 

   DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

 

 

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 Toronto Raptors Norman Powell

Norman Powell Shines As Raptors Win Game Five

By Frank McLean

Game Five of this Milwaukee Bucks-Toronto Raptors series went according to form when you looked at the past performances of each franchise in Game Five of a seven game series.

The Bucks record was 1-5 in Game Five of a best-of-seven series on the road when the series is tied at two games apiece and the Raptors were a perfect 4-0 in Game Five of a best of seven series that was being played at home.

The Raptors won 118-93, so as Chuck Swirsky used to say when he worked in Toronto “you can book it”.

But of course there was more to this Raptor win then just having everything in the universe fall into line like it was supposed to. It was Norman Powell’s time to shine.

For the second straight game Powell started at small forward, which allowed Serge Ibaka to slide into the center spot, and Jonas Valanciunas to come off the bench and battle Greg Monroe when he came off the Bucks bench.

Powell was the Raptors leading scorer on the night with 25 points, adding four rebounds and four assists to go with three steals and a block.

All five of the Raptors starters were in double figures scoring along with the 10-points Cory Joseph chipped in off the bench.

It was a full team effort with everybody chipping in offensively and defensively. The team set playoff records with 118 points on a franchise postseason best 57.7 percent shooting. They dished 28 assists, 10 of them from Kyle Lowry who played 36 minutes with a bum back.

The Raptors dominance continued on the glass where they held the Bucks to an opponent’s postseason low 22 rebounds and just two offensive boards.

The ironic thing about this is that the Bucks on draft night in 2015 picked Powell in the second round and then traded his rights to Toronto along with a protected future first round pick for Greivis Vasquez.

At the time though Vasquez was someone the Bucks needed. They desperately needed a shooter, but little did they know he would get hurt and pretty much be done as a serviceable NBA player. But that’s the way pro sports go. You make a trade and you take your chances.

Powell was someone the Raptors really wanted on that draft night back in 2015.

“It was great job by our scouts and Masai (Ujiri) and Jeff (Weltman),” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said about how the team was able to get Powell. “I remember he had a great workout when he was here. He is a very physical player and a tough kid which is needed in a playoff game.”

Casey is very fond of the fact that Powell is rarity in that he spent four years in college at UCLA where he was more prepared to be ready to play at an NBA level compared to the one-and-done in college and off to the NBA which is the type of player that the NBA draft is full of.

Powell’s shooting has gotten a lot better since he was drafted and the work he has put in to get better is one of the reasons Casey was not afraid to insert him in the starting line-up in Game Four.

“Just constant reps,” Powell responded to Pro Bball Report’s query about his improved shooting. “Getting extra work in the morning, coming back late at night, watching film of Kyle Korver, Larry Bird, good three-point shooters and trying to make adjustments.

“It’ just the constant reps day-in and day-out trying to get better, tweaking it here and there and finding what’s comfortable with me and shooting with confidence. I put up so many shots before the game and days off that it’s just shooting with confidence and trusting in the work.”

Powell has sunk his last seven three-point attempts going 3-3 in Game Four and 4-4 in Game Five.

“They move the ball better with (Powell) in the game,” Malcolm Brogdon said. “They can spread the floor better, everybody can attack, everybody can make plays.”

As we head into Game Six on Thursday back in the state of milk and cheese in Wisconsin, the Raptors hope to change the form they have shown in past Game Sixes.

Lately, it’s been win Game Five at home, check. Then go on the road play Game Six and lay a giant egg before coming home to play Game Seven and win.

If they can get another full team performance like they did Monday, then, hopefully, they can change the way things went in the playoffs last year.

Winning the series in six games and getting a few days off before facing the resting Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs second round would help a lot.

 

 

   DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

 

 

 

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.