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NBA Toronto Raptors Kawhi Leonard playoffs 2019

Raptors Win With Grit And Grind Defense Again

Somewhere former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is wondering why he isn’t still running this current roster loaded with grit and grind defensive players who truly don’t need a great scoring effort to win games.

New head coach Nick Nurse was brought in as part of the talent and culture change the Raptors thought they needed to advance past the second round of the playoffs and in keeping with the new offensive-oriented NBA, Toronto has been a high-flying, high-scoring, three-point shooting squad that often buried their opponent with offense during the regular season on route to 58 wins, but that isn’t how they’ve been winning games in the playoffs.

The Raptors held Orlando to just 89 points and 38.5 percent shooting from the field in four straight wins to eliminate the Magic in five games. Their wins over Philadelphia were equally impressive defensively holding their opponent to 92.5 points and 40.9 percent shooting. Losses to Philly gave up 107 points on average and 45.7 percent shooting.

After that tough seven game series against the 76ers in which Toronto fell behind 2-1 to lose home court advantage and now facing a tougher opponent in the Bucks who took the first two games in Milwaukee, bouncing-back has been key to the Raptors getting this far.

“Physicality, defense and great communication,” Nurse replied to how his team keeps bouncing-back the day after losing game two to the Bucks. “Our coverages get executed. There’s just no slippage. We’re just on point. We’re into bodies. We’re moving our feet. It’s a great team defense.”

It’s been the Raptors formula for success in the postseason and it was on full display during a game three grind-it-out double-overtime win over the Bucks in Toronto.

“I think just in general, we played with a much tougher mindset,” Nurse said after game three. “I thought we were kind of gritty and we didn’t really have much choice.

“We are pretty gritty on D… That gives you a chance no matter how well you shoot it (on offense).

After giving up an average 116.5 points on 43.2 percent shooting in Milwaukee, the Raptors held the Bucks to just 37.3 percent shooting and 96 points prior to overtime in game three. Toronto only shot 39.2 percent themselves, but this is a formula they can win with, especially with Kawhi Leonard leading on offense and defense.

“I think first of all, his (Kawhi Leonard) defense was probably the biggest key of the game,” Nurse said. “Not only did he just play good, but he made some huge plays with some steals and rip-aways and breakaways.

“Offense was hard to come by there for both teams.”

Just put all those coach’s comments about missing shots and creating more open looks in the trash where they belong. Keeping offense “hard to come by” was how Nurse turned the 76ers series around and it remains his team’s best chance at beating the Bucks.

 

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

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell

It’s Do Or Die For The Raptors In Game 3

Since quite literally no team in the NBA comes back from being down 3-0 in a playoff series, it’s do or die tonight in Toronto for the Raptors in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Describe things any way you want, the Raptors who were unable to solve the Bucks in Milwaukee must win at home if they hope to make this interesting. It can be argued that a playoff series hasn’t started until a team wins on the road, but in this case, the series will be all but over if the Bucks can win a game in Toronto and it’s up to Raptors head coach Nick Nurse to figure out a new game plan.

To state the obvious, things haven’t been working and changes are going to be match-up driven according to Nurse ahead of game three.

“(The Bucks) start a super big line-up,” Nurse explained.

“I think there will be some line-up changes.

“Some other guys have emerged in this series.”

Nurse wasn’t about to drop any hints as to what these changes may be, but when questioned by Pro Bball Report about the effectiveness of one Norman Powell off the bench, Nurse relented.

“(Powell) will get more minutes tonight,” Nurse admitted. “He’s been good at both ends.

“He’s fast, athletic, he’s played aggressive. You’ll see a little bit more of him.”

However, the possibility of change hasn’t got the Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s attention.

“(The Raptors) can make a couple of changes,” Budenholzer conceded, but. “Unless they are taking Kawhi Leonard out of the line-up, our guys will be prepared.”

Bud is probably right, but the biggest change Nurse wants to see is everyone on the court hitting shots and playing harder.

 

 

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

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kawhi Leonard preparing

The Bucks And Raptors Win With Defense

The top two teams in the East will face off in the Conference Final and in contrast to their western counterparts, the Bucks and Raptors win with defense. The playoff advanced stats rating offense and defense heading into these series lay things out oh so clearly:

Teams         Offensive Rating       Defensive Rating           Net Rating

8-1 Bucks                  113.4 (2)                     98.2 (1)                       15.2 (1)

8-4 Raptors                108.5 (9)                  100.3 (2)                        8.1 (2)

8-4 Warriors              117.4 (1)                  111.8 (12)                      5.6 (3)

8-4 Blazers                  110.8 (5)                 109.7 (8)                        1.1

(The numbers in brackets represent the ranking versus all 16 playoff teams)

Draw your own conclusions about the Western Conference Finals, but it doesn’t look like the Blazers have enough fire power to get by the Warriors even sans KD.

While the Raptors like to play in transition, they played at a middle of the pack pace during the regular season and the second slowest pace (95.6) of any team during the postseason. The Bucks on the other hand have played fast all year and have played at the second fastest pace (103.3) of the playoff teams and much faster than even the Warriors (99.6).

In no small part pace is why the Raptors have held playoff opponents to a postseason best 96 points per game on average and have only given up more than 100 points four times. The Bucks have only held opponents under 100 points three times, but are still a third best 101.6 points allowed.

“It takes a lot of energy and effort to be great defensively,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’re similar offensively — we want to play fast, we want to get out and run and move.”

“It’s a totally different style than we’ve just been through in our last two series,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “These were set-play teams, pretty methodical on offense.”

However, getting past the pace of the game, the opponent’s statistics against these two teams are remarkably similar.

by Opponents           Bucks               Raptors

Opp FG%                  39.9% (1)              41.3% (2)

Opp 3FG%                31.7% (4)             31.5% (3)

Pts off TO                 14.4 (4)                  14.2 (3)

2nd Chance              9.3 (1)                   10.3 (2)

Fast Break               12.9 (8)                 11.6 (3)

PIP                            37.6 (3)                 37.3 (2)

Both of these teams have shown they can defend at an elite level, but their success on offense has come differently.

The Raptors rely on the playoffs second leading scorer Kawhi Leonard and he has been a nearly unstoppable force averaging 31.8 points, 53.9 percent shooting and 40.8 percent from three. The second option may be the fastest guy down the court Pascal Siakam averaging 20.8 points, 48.3 percent shooting and 30.9 percent from three.

Milwaukee leans on MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo who averages 27.4 points on 52.6 percent shooting and a developing three-point shot at 32.4 percent. The Bucks second option is the red hot three-point threat Kris Middleton averaging 19.1 points 42.2 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from three, so the Raptors might want to draw on their recent experience defending J.J. Redick to hold him somewhat in check.

Both teams thrive in transition with Antetokounmpo leading the playoffs at 7.4 fast break points per game and Middleton contributing another 4.2 to the Bucks leading 20.6 fast break points. Leonard has been almost as deadly on the break at a third best 4.9 fast break points and Siakam contributing 4.3 to a Raptors third best 16.6 fast break points.

Somewhat surprisingly the Raptors hold the advantage 19.4 (2) to 14.9 (11) in points off turnovers with Leonard leading the playoffs at 5.9.

Not surprisingly, the Bucks get more of their points from the three-point line and the Raptors have thrived in the mid-range.

% of Points Scored         Bucks            Raptors

3-FG                                     34.5 (2)           30.9 (8)

Mid-range                           6.1 (14)          11.3 (7)

P.I.P.                                      42                    41.4

Fast Break                           17.6 (1)            16 (3)

off turnovers                       12.7 (12)        18.7 (2)

Toronto has been looking forward to playing at a quicker pace after dealing with the Magic and 76ers in a lot of half court sets, but their strength all season has been controlling the pace of the game and that’s going to be a tall task heading into game one in Milwaukee. Turnovers and three-point shooting are likely to decide this series.

 

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

 

 

Kawhi Leonard at the free throw line 2019 playoffs

Raptors Kawhi Leonard Makes History In Game 7 Win

By Frank McLean

It took 18-years for it to happen again, the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers to hook up one more time in a game seven of an Eastern Conference Semi-Final.

Every Raptors fan remembers the last one, May 20th, 2001 at then named First Union Centre where Vince Carter had the last shot of the game which if he made it would have put the Raptors in their first conference final against the Milwaukee Bucks.

As we all know Carter’s shot hit the rim and rolled out. The Sixers won. They went on to face the Bucks in the eastern final and then lost to the Lakers in the finals, but for Raptors fans they have felt that the bad karma this team has faced in the postseason would have been different if Carter had just made that shot.

Of course that’s just revisionist history but for the diehards of the red and white that’s what Sunday night at the Scotiabank Arena is all about.

Turns out the fans were right. Hollywood could not have written a better script.

Game tied 90-all with four-pint-two seconds left in regulation time Kawhi Leonard with no time left hits a jumper from the top left hand corner inside the three point line. The basket bounced four times on the rim before it went in the hoop and the Scotiabank Arena became bedlam.

Leonard became the basketball version of Joe Carter who broke Philadelphia sports fans hearts with his three run homer in the bottom of the ninth in game six of the 1993-World Series that gave the Blue Jays the World Championship over their beloved Phillies.

And let’s not forget Doug Gilmour who scored a game winning goal in the playoffs in 1993 in the third overtime against the St. Louis Blues.

Leonard’s winner ranks right up there in the sporting lore of the City Of Toronto.

Leonard took the Raptors and carried them on his back for the entire series. The winning shot game him 41-points for the game in which he scored 15-of his points in the fourth quarter. It was his second 40-plus point game in the series (45 in game one) and his average for the series was 34.8-points.

“I knew it was game seven,” Leonard said. “I didn’t want to leave no shots in my mind, I just wanted to go out and leave it on the floor. This could have been my last game of the season and I would have had to wait four or five months to make another shot. I was going to leave it on the floor tonight just trying to will us there to win.”

Leonard had never made a game winning shot at the buzzer before he said after the game, which is something rather hard to believe. “I have never made a game winning shot like that it’s a blessing and something I will look back on.”

After the game a rather horse Raptors coach Nick Nurse thought the Leonard shot was going in.

“It looked like it was going in, it looked like it was going in the whole time for me,” Nurse said. “I thought it was a nice lucky bounce. I thought we were very unlucky for most of that game.”

Nurse was right they were a little lucky. The Raptors gave up leads in the third and fourth quarter and had to fight a scrap all night just to get the game to a 90-all tie.

Speaking of fighting and scraping that was Kyle Lowry’s MO the whole night.

He sat out most of the first quarter after getting two quick fouls to start the game. Then in the second quarter his left thumb popped out after fighting for a rebound with the Sixers James Ennins III.

“It just popped out,” Lowry said after the game. “It was loose making it hard to pass the ball. But we won the game and I can rest it.”

And Lowry’s thumb issue makes the last play of the game for Leonard’s winning shot even more amazing.

Nick Nurse described the play this way.

“We ran Kyle off the first option and then Kawhi looped under there (the basket) and he get’s it (the ball) and the top and it’s his call what to do.”

So now is the bad karma broken? Well time will tell that one.

Just like 2001, if the Raptors had won that game seven, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks and a chance to play in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But for one night let’s enjoy what will be one of the three greatest endings of a post season game in Toronto sporting history.

Leonard’s game winning shot, Carter’s World Series winning homer and Gilmore’s winning goal.

I was lucky I was in the press box and got to cover all three of these gems.

 

 

DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has been covering the Raptors in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. 

photo credit Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown talks to the media after the game 5 loss to the Raptors in Toronto

Has Brett Brown Coached The 76ers Out Of The Series?

Prior to the start of the second round playoff series between Philadelphia and Toronto, 76ers head coach Brett Brown was emphatic he wasn’t going to coach scared. This would be a strength vs strength event with his team’s superior rebounding holding off one of the NBA’s best on the fast break. Even after getting run out of the gym in game one, Brown doubled-down on his strategy of crashing the glass and pushed his guys to make the Raptors work even harder on defense.

“We have to be better offensively,” J.J. Redick said after game one. “We were significantly better when we passed twice or more. So we have to realize this may not be a first option offense for us. We may need to be able to get to the second side, second third options to break down their defense.”

The strategy worked and the 76ers took the next two games dominating on the glass, impacting the Raptors scoring and head coach Nick Nurse was forced to change his rotations. Since acquiring Marc Gasol at the trade deadline, the big Spaniard had been sharing time Serge Ibaka at center, but in order to wrest control of the boards back from Philly, Nurse had no choice but to put them on the floor together.

“We were looking were looking at some options of how to combat the problems we were having and that obviously entertained that Serge (Ibaka) and Marc (Gasol) would be playing together,” Nurse said after game four.

“It seemed to help their rebounding,” Brown said prior to game five. “I think a lot of people don’t really understand, I believe, the history that Marc and Serge have together with the Spanish National Team.”

With the boards even and the Raptors taking away the 76ers advantage in second chance points, Toronto had eked out a road win in Philly setting up Brown for the game five coaching disaster that was about to befall him in Toronto.

“If I was the coach, I wouldn’t even show the film,” Jimmy Butler said after game five. “Just move on. We got our ass kicked.”

In game five the Raptors finally won the battle of the boards 42-37, were +10 in second chance points and a worrisome +25 in fast break break points. Everything went wrong for the 76ers foreshadowed by Brown going way off script in his pregame comments.

“I would like it to be faster,” Brown said. “I think that when you look at what we do, when you look at the regular season and the success we had running and Ben Simmons strengths and the group that we have that you would would like the pace to be greater.

“Ben is gifted in that area. We have shown we are capable of playing that style.”

The Raptors couldn’t be happier to see a 76ers team trying to run with them. Brown has no one to cover Pascal Siakam in a fast paced game and the result of trying is almost guaranteed to produce a result like game one when the Raptors forward easily scored 29 points on them.

Then in an about face of the stated strategy that got Brown wins in games two and three, the 76ers coach started promoting a take the first shot available mantra.

“One of the things I tell my team, if you have a good look probably that will be the best look we are going to get this possession,” Brown said. ” There is an element that all coaches come into that pass-is-king, good-to-great, you have a good shot, he has a great shot. (BUT) in the the playoffs, I have learned is, or believe in, at times the best look and it could be the first look is the one you should probably take.”

In sports it can help to have a short memory, but you might want to remember what worked last week?

The 76ers trying to run with the Raptors is a bad strategy no matter how Brown tries to slice it and the concept of making Toronto work on defense instead of “taking the first shot” was what turned things around in game two.

Maybe there is nothing left Brown can do if the pairing of Gasol and Ibaka has taken away his team’s advantage on the glass, but feeding the Raptors transition game by jacking up the first available shot and trying to run with them is a formula for getting embarrassed.

Hang the crushing game five defeat in Toronto right where it belongs. On a coach trying something he knew wasn’t going to work. But the series isn’t over. The Raptors advantage has not been overwhelming when Brown has stayed with his team’s strengths.

 

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

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Serge Ibaka

Did The Raptors Solve The 76ers In Game 4?

The second round playoff series between the Raptors and 76ers is a battle of contrasting strengths. Where Philadelphia has been a top rebounding team all season and is the undisputed leader on the glass in the playoffs, Toronto is known for their transition offense that runs on turnovers, misses and makes and neither team was going to back away from what has worked for them.

Thru the first three games Philly had owned the glass, collecting over 55 percent of the total rebounds, averaging four more offensive boards and dominating second chance points by a total of 25. Toronto had 20 more fastbreak points over those first three games, but they were down 2-1 in the series and head coach Nick Nurse wasn’t enjoying getting beaten up on the glass.

“The biggest thing was the rebounding,” Nurse admitted. “It just felt like we were getting pushed around a little bit in the last two games (games two and three) around the glass.

“We were looking were looking at some options of how to combat the problems we were having and that obviously entertained that Serge (Ibaka) and Marc (Gasol) would be playing together.”

Just how desperate was Nurse to fix this rebounding problem? Well, in the four games thus far the pairing of Gasol and Pascal Siakam playing 96 minutes together was only netting the Raptors 47.2 percent of the boards and perhaps even more concerning, the pairing of Ibaka and Siakam was leading the Raptors to only 44.3 percent of the available boards. Say what you want about the issues of rebounding with “small line-ups” on the floor. Toronto was getting pushed around with two bigs on the court.

“Serge is not really a center,” Kawhi Leonard observed. “He’s a power forward.

“We did a good job at working on it at practice the last two days (after game three) and those guys (Gasol and Ibaka) spaced out the floor well, got to their spots.”

Nurse played Ibaka and Gasol together for 23 minutes in game four and the combination helped the Raptors garner 54.5 percent of the rebounds during their time together. It helped Toronto stay even with the 76ers on the glass for the game, wiped out the 76ers advantage in second chance points and the Raptors still were a +7 in fast break points.

“Tonight we just had more athleticism and size and it just looked that way and looked like the rebounds were affected by that,” Nurse said after game four.

“I think it was a size advantage for us believe it or not.”

This has been a series of coaches going with their team’s strengths, making adjustments and counter adjustments.  Now it’s up to 76ers head coach Brett Brown to find the next move.

Nurse found a way to counter his adversary’s biggest advantage in game four. If the 76ers can’t out-rebound the Raptors and continue to give up points on the fast break, it’s hard to see Philly stealing another game in this series. But Brown isn’t one to coach scared.

 

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

 photo credit Larry Millson

 

NBA Philadelphia 76ers Jimmy Butler

76ers Adjust First Vs The Raptors To Win Game Two

By Frank McLean

No doubt about it, the pressure was on the Philadelphia 76ers as they headed into game two of their second round playoff series with the Toronto Raptors Tuesday night.

The last thing they wanted to do was head back home down two games to none and having to still win a game in Toronto where Scotiabank Arena has been their personal hell.

Including their loss in game one the Sixers had lost 14-straight games in the 416-area code.

That came to an end with the Sixers on top 89-94, in a game that was a throwback to old time playoff basketball, rough and physical. A game, especially in the first half, looked like the main event on Monday Night Raw being played under South Philadelphia Street Rules.

The win is was what Sixers coach Brett Brown called “one we gutted out.”

The puzzle Sixers coach Brett Brown had all day Sunday to try and figure out was what to do with Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard in game one had one that was for the ages, even for him with 45-points and 11-assists. Pascal Siakam added 29-himself so combined with Leonard they duo combined for 74-of the Raptors 108-points scored in game one.

Game two Leonard scored-35 and Siakam added-21 for only a combined-56 points which gave the Sixers a better chance of keeping the score close before they were able to build up a 19-point lead at one point in the game.

Brown thought that the Sixers defence was as good as it could be but what he couldn’t believe was that with the amount turnovers his team committed that they led at halftime.

“The clear problem was our turnovers, if you looked at the first half and said we had 13-turnovers at the end of the second period, in Toronto, in the Eastern Conference semi-final game two, what do you think the score should be? If you limit our turnovers where they got 18-points off I think our spirit was just fine which led to good first half.”

What Brown did to change the look of the Sixers defense was to put Joel Embiid on Siakam and Ben Simmons on Leonard.

Brown after the game couldn’t say enough about Leonard who kept the Raptors in the game who had to deal with Ben Simmons on him the whole night.

When it came to Embiid, no one was sure until about ten minutes before the game if he could play. It wasn’t his knee bothering him this time but a bad stomach that had him spending most of his Monday in the bathroom.

Yep he actually gutted this game out so to speak.

But what really made the difference for the Sixers in game two compared to game one was the offensive brilliance of Jimmy Butler. He was a workhorse playing 43-minutes scoring-30 and grabbing 11-boards.

General Manager Elton Brand picked him up in November from the Timberwolves just for that purpose to be that game changing player come playoff time.

“He was JAMES Butler”, Brown gushed in his post- game comments.

“He was the adult in the gym. I get excited by the volume of three’s he puts up (4-for-10), he was a rock that willed us in certain situations.”

After the game the Raptors Kyle Lowry said that they now have to make adjustments as this series now shifts to Philadelphia for the next two games and that this is what happens in the playoffs.

So now the spotlight is on Nick Nurse and his staff to make adjustments.

Leonard scored-35 points and in game one-45 and is averaging-40 for the first two games of the series. The key is to find a way to free up Siakam so he can take a little of the load of the load off Leonard.

The Raptors could have and maybe should have won game two.

They missed a lot of shots like down three with a minute left in the fourth quarter when Danny Green missed a 25-footer which would have tied the game and who knows what way the game would have gone.

But in the end full marks to Brett Brown and his coaching staff. The pressure was on not go down two nothing in the series and they figured a way to win one and go home with a split.

It’s now the Raptors turn to make adjustments.

 

 

DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has been covering the Raptors in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. 

photo credit Larry Millson

 

 

NBA Philadelphia 76ers Ben Simmons

76ers To Focus On Offense To Improve Defense In Game Two

Things didn’t go as planned for 76ers head coach Brett Brown in game one of his team’s second round playoff series with the Raptors, but he was dead serious when he said he wasn’t coaching scared. He likes his team’s offense and based on the comments from practice on Sunday, the focus will be on doing offense better to improve his squad’s defense.

“Adjustments rule the day,” Brown said at practice. Not that he was about to give away any secrets, but not to worry, his players were very talkative.

“We didn’t move (the ball),” Ben Simmons explained. “It’s not on them. It’s on us. Passing the ball and moving, cutting, slashing. We just got to be more consistent in moving the ball and passing.”

In a way it makes sense. The Raptors thrive in transition off of turnovers, missed shots and even made shots, but if Brown can find a way to make his opponents work harder on defense, those fast breaks and just plain fast offensive sets could be just a little tougher to execute.

“In game one there were too many missed baskets by us that was leading to their transition and getting out in the open court,” Tobias Harris said. “The biggest thing for us on the offensive end is to make them work for everything they have out there.”

Now that’s an honest assessment by the 76ers. The Raptors turn defense into offense as well as anyone in the Association. Philadelphia can’t afford to let Toronto run them out of the gym by setting the Raptors up for fast breaks.

Not surprisingly, the 76ers purest shooter didn’t like what he saw offensively in game one either.

“We have to be better offensively,” JJ Redick said. “Their defense was fantastic last night. We were significantly better when we passed twice or more. So we have to realize this may not be a first option offense for us. We may need to be able to get to the second side, second third options to break down their defense.”

Therein lies the rub for this recently thrown together starting unit where every player can put up 20 or more points on any given night. Sacrifices will have to be made. Good shots passed up to give someone else a better shot and all those other postseason clichés that are sometimes true. Coach Brown will have his work cut out for him.

The biggest thing standing in Brown’s way may be….

“I played okay,” Simmons said and most of his teammates could’ve said the same thing…. except they lost.

 

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

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Danny Green

Does Defense Still Win In The Playoffs?

After a regular season in which every team in the NBA averaged over 100 points per game, every team in the postseason was over 110 and no team was even close to holding their opponents under 100 points on average, it would have been fair to question if defense could still win in the playoffs?

Pay attention and it looks like it’s still possible to play winning defense in the postseason of this new high scoring NBA.

Thru the Sunday night games of the second round, defense stands out. The best at opponent’s field goal percent, points allowed and defensive rating are making noise.

 …………………….opp FG%        Def. Rating     Points Allowed    (Record)

  1. Celtics              39.0                      94.6                   91.4                       (5-0)
  2. Raptors           38.9                      96.2                    92.5                       (5-1)
  3. Bucks               41.6                      99.8                 100.8                       (4-1)
  4. Rockets            41.6                    100.5                   98.8                       (4-2)

Boston has held their opponent’s under 100 points in four of their first five games and stunned the Bucks in game one of their second round series by keeping The Greek Freak and company to just 90 points. The Celtics have sent a message, this once mighty defensive team has their defensive intensity is back and the Bucks had better adjust quickly.

In Toronto fans have been lulled into thinking that with the defensive-minded coach Casey in Detroit and his offensive assistant coach Nick Nurse now in charge that defense wasn’t a focus of this year’s team. Apparently not.

“(The Raptors) have two defensive players of the year,” 76ers head coach Brett Brown said in Toronto prior to game one. “Think about that in Kawhi (Leonard) and Marc (Gasol). And you have a first team all-league defender that I coached for I don’t know how many years in Danny Green. And we haven’t even talked about Kyle (Lowry) and (Pascal) Siakam that is taking off. So defensively this is elite.”

Brown isn’t wrong. Lowry leads the playoffs with 8 charges drawn, 12 loose balls recovered and is second with 21 defections.  Siakam has contested an NBA best 44 three-point attempts in the postseason. Coming off the bench in limited minutes, the almost-forgotten-at-times Serge Ibaka has the fourth most box outs.

After the 76ers 108-95 game one loss to Toronto that was only that close because of over four minutes of garbage time, Brown reflected further on the Raptors defense.

“You got to give credit to Marc Gasol,” Brown said. “He was the defensive player of the year for a reason. I thought Serge came in and did a good job athletically making it difficult for Joel (Embiid).

“The way Toronto guards, they really scramble well. They aren’t afraid of attacking penetration.”

The Raptors have held their opponent to under 100 points in five straight games.

In the Warriors-Rockets series, Houston had been playing better defense than their more highly-touted opponent and as a result had an easier route to the second round. But maybe Golden State got the wake-up call as they beat the Rockets 104-100 in game one with defense, holding Houston to 41.9 percent shooting from the field. Not that Houston wasn’t doing a good job defensively on everyone not called KD.

Defense is back in a big way and the easy scoring of the regular season is in the rear view mirror.

 

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

 

 

 

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse

Can A Nicked-Up 76ers Run With The Raptors?

The second round Eastern Conference playoff series between the 76ers and the Raptors kicks off Saturday night in Toronto with some rather obvious questions about a nicked-up squad from Philadelphia that will need to find a way to run with one of the NBA’s best fast break teams.

“(Fastbreaks are) one of the areas that we have great respect for the Toronto team in how they run after misses,” 76ers head coach Brett Brown said ahead of game one. “Just the commitment running after misses and they are unique in that they run after makes.”

Back up forward Mike Scott played the fifth most minutes (118) of anyone on the 76ers in their first round playoff series win over the Nets and while no one is mistaking the 30-year-old journeyman for an All-Star, he is the kind of player that can make a big difference off the bench and as a fill-in starter if necessary.

But Scott has plantar fasciitis in his right foot and that’s a pretty solid explanation for why this deadly three-point threat only hit on 26.1 percent from three in the first round of the playoffs. A bruised heel has him missing at least the first game of the second round, but it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to be running with Pascal Siakam or even to expect he’ll be 100 percent again until after the summer.  The 76ers will definitely miss a healthy Scott.

It’s no secret that budding superstar Joel Embiid is playing on a sore knee and has already sat out one game of the playoffs, but the 76ers need his imposing presence and he knows it.

“It’s still not there. It’s still trying to get better,” Embiid said at shootaround Saturday in advance of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the favored Raptors. “But that’s an issue that’s going to be there at least all playoffs until I actually get some real time to get some rest and work on myself. …

“But, we did a good job managing it. Obviously I only averaged about 24 minutes last series, so this one I’m definitely going to need way more than that.” from ESPN

“It’s hard because I’m known for playing through anything and pushing, pushing it,” Embiid said. “And in some situations like Game 3, I couldn’t go because it was too much. But like I said, I just got to keep managing it and see how I feel and then go from there.”

Toronto isn’t going to slow the game down because the Sixers are down a key reserve or Embiid might want to protect a sore knee. Head coach Nick Nurse has emphasized the fast break all season and isn’t about to change now.

“(The fastbreak) is part of who we are and it’s usually a lot harder to do in the playoffs,” Nurse responded to Pro Bball Report prior to game one. “The sprint back effort by everybody playing in the playoffs is better than it is in the regular season.

“We want to get it out and attack and even if you can’t complete those long passes to Pascal, you still want to get it out there and run. It stretches the defense and somebody has to go back with him.

“Maybe it takes somebody off the boards.

“Maybe it opens up driving lanes in transition.

“Maybe we don’t get the long pass, but we get to stretch them and open up the paint somehow.”

Now as coach Brown reminded everyone, the 76ers were the top offensive rebounding team during the first round of the playoffs and he isn’t going to play scared. So look for a contrast in styles that should make for an exciting series and a battle of coaching prowess.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NBA Orlando Magic Terrence Ross

Magic Look To The Future As Raptors Ready For Round Two

By Frank McLean

The Orlando Magic are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the future assuming they can keep what they got and continue to improve a roster with potential. Right now they look like the Raptors did four and five years ago as they were just starting to become a consistent playoff team.

The Magic finished the regular season on a 22-9 run to get the seventh seed in the NBA East, but superior teams like the Raptors are able to beat them in a seven game playoff series because they can shut down their offence pretty easily.

The Magic need to upgrade their offense in the off season. What the Raptors did was take out their number one threat, Nikola Vucevic, who averaged team highs of 21 points and 12 rebounds in the regular season, but in the playoffs was held to just 11 points and six boards. And Vucevic will be an unrestricted free agent in July.

They also have ex-Raptor Terrance Ross coming off the bench as an effective scorer, but Magic head coach Steve Clifford did talk about the problem he has with his limited power on offence because if he starts Ross he has no one to come off the bench and give the team some energy if his starters struggle.

The 28-year-old Ross will also be an unrestricted free agent in July and he’s coming of the best season of his NBA career, so if the Magic want to keep the two players who accounted for almost a third of Orlando’s points scored this past season, they won’t have any salary cap room to go after free agents this summer.

Somehow, however, the offence and the defense is something that will be addressed by the Magic this summer.

They did hit the jackpot last summer landing veteran coach Clifford who got the most out his roster. He will make this team a playoff contender for years to come if management can get him the talent.

Odds are, we haven’t seen the last of the Magic.

Just some odds and ends as the Toronto Raptors wrap up the first round of the playoffs and turn their attention to the Philadelphia 76ers and round two.

First let’s look how this Raptors team is different than in the past.

They have made the second round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but now this team has figured out that when you have your foot down on your opponents throat you put them out of their misery.

In game five they came out flying and before the first quarter was over the game was essentially over.

Kyle Lowry scored the first nine points of the game and helped kick start a 22-3 run and that had the Magic playing catch up the rest of the night.

And speaking of Kyle Lowry, this was the guy that everybody was freaking out on after game one when he scored no points and the Raptors only lost by three points. If he had made just two field goals they would have been winners.

However, over the first round series Lowry was a monster. His four game total of 48-points,18-rebounds and 34-assists was what star players are supposed to do in the playoffs.

And let’s not forget he was a PLUS-60 for the series.

Clifford was gushing about Lowry’s play.

“Well, I just think, what I see in him he has a lot of good basketball left, but what I see in him is I think he’s looked around and saying this is the best team he has played on, and this is the best chance that they have had. I think he understands that this is his best chance (at a title) and he is playing at a real high level.”

We have to mention Pascal Siakam who had some kind of coming out party in the first round, a party for those who have never seen him in the regular season.

In five games he averaged 22.8 points and 8.6 rebounds and double-double in games three and four.

Earlier in the season I had a chance to talk to Mike D’Antoni head coach of the Houston Rockets who told me how a bunch of his players played with Siakam over the summer and said, “you won’t believe how this guy has improved.”

“Well, we thought he was going to be much improved coming out of the season and the summer,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “But I’m not sure that anybody saw this coming, right? If anybody said the guy was going to do what he’s doing in the playoffs a year ago from now they were being optimistic.”

 

 

DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has been covering the Raptors in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. 

photo credit Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell and Kawhi Leonard

The Magic Are Who We Thought They Were

By Frank McLean

After watching the way the Toronto Raptors handled the Orlando Magic Tuesday night in game two of their first round Eastern Conference playoff you would never have thought that the Magic were one of the best teams the last two months of the NBA regular season.

The Magic, 20-31 on January-31st, went on a 22-9 tear to finish the regular season and grab the seventh spot overall in the conference standings.

They also won their last four games and 11 last 13 overall and made the Amway Arena a tough place for visitors, winning their last nine home games.

But after stealing game one on Saturday in Toronto with a three point win, the Raptors led wire to wire to walk away with a 111-82 win in game two. It was a beat down where the Raptors made the Magic look like the New York Knicks. Leading by as much as 34-points, it was a pure blowout.

Magic head coach Steve Clifford was at a bit of a loss about the way their offense struggled. He credited it to bad decision making and that his team wasn`t moving the ball, and that it was sticking due to the Raptors good defense, but what upset him the most was his ball club looked like it did back in October and November.

The Raptors defense has taken Magic center Nikola Vucevic right out of this series with their constant double teaming of him, but Clifford called him a smart guy and that he knows he will figure it out.

A big difference for the Raptors was All-Star Kyle Lowry finally scored a point. In fact Lowry had 22 points with four rebounds and seven assists compared to the zero points he put up in game one.

“I made some shots,” Lowry said after game two. “I was being more aggressive when I was going downhill. I watched film and it showed, I needed to be more aggressive.”

“That’s him at his finest,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said about Lowry.

“Tonight he was charging up the floor and pushing the ball past, shooting, driving, kicking, making steals, hands on everything, rebounding, he was doing it all. That’s a big performance for him, I’m really happy for him.”

Another big difference was Nurse taking the limits off superstar Kawhi Leonard.

People were questioning why he was given so few minutes in game one after taking 22 games off in the regular season mostly for “load management”.

Nurse said after the game that there are no more limits as to how many minutes Leonard gets in a game.

“I took him out after a 12-minute stretch at the end of the third, and I told him he had a two minute rest and he is going back in, and he said he was ready now. So I think he is ready to play as many minutes as he can handle, and he can handle as many minutes as the game calls for.”

Nurse had to make one of those decisions on Leonard early in game two which is why coaches are paid the big bucks in the NBA. Just 2:30 into the first quarter Leonard picked up his second of two of the quickest personal fouls I have seen him get all season.

If this was a typical regular season game he would be sitting till at least midway through the second quarter, but Nurse kept him in there.

“I guess I had a decision to make there,” Nurse said. “I think at that point we were off to a good start and we were imposing our will in he game, and I figured I would roll the dice so our will could continue to be imposed.”

Nurse was rewarded with a dominating 37 point effort from Leonard.

So after two games of this best-of-seven series we have seen the good and bad of the Magic and the good and bad of the Raptors. 

Game three Friday night in Orlando should be quite the show.

   

DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has been covering the Raptors in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. 

photo credit Larry Millson

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry

Predictable Raptors Game One Loss Proves Nothing

By Frank McLean

They say in life the only two things that are certain are death and taxes. If you are a fan of the Toronto Raptors you can add that the basketball team you cheer for will lose the first game of a playoff series.

On Saturday the Orlando Magic came to Toronto and knocked off the Raptors in game one of their Eastern Conference first round series 104-101. The Raptors now sport an all time record of 2-14 in the opening game of a playoff series in franchise history.

Now if you are a Raptors fan you can ask a couple questions.

First, what the heck happened to Kyle Lowry?

Lowry had another playoff game where he couldn’t hit Lake Ontario if he was taking jump shots from Lakeshore Boulevard.

He had zero points in 34-minutes of playing time. Zero for seven from the field, six of those attempts came from behind the three point line. He was also zero for two from the foul line.

He did add seven rebounds and eight assists, but if he made just two field goals, two stinking field goals, they probably win the game.

Lowry won’t put up a shooting stinker like that again in this series.

Second, some average player on the opposing team looks like a superstar.

Guard, and former Raptor D.J. Augustin, who averaged 11.7 points in the regular season, had a monster game one with 25 points.

Augustin will come back down to earth.

If you were paying attention over the last two months, you would have seen that the Magic where going to be a pest to whomever they would play if they got into the playoffs, and if you’ve been watching the Raptors in the postseason since their inception, you’d know they’d find a way to screw up game one.

But losing game one in the opening round of the postseason has meant nothing since the Raptors first 50-win season three years ago.

 

DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has been covering the Raptors in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Masai Ujiri

Should Raptors Go All-in On Anthony Davis?

If one pays attention to Raptors president Masai Ujiri he’ll tell you he’s doesn’t just look at what’s best today, he has to look five years down the road as well, but the Anthony Davis sweepstakes represent an all-in opportunity that could elevate one team from pretender to NBA Championship contender in one swoop.

There will be competition for Davis, but both of the obvious favorites, the Celtics and the Lakers, have previously kept their hands in their pockets, unwilling to give up their hard-earned accumulated assets even for moves that could radically improve their franchises. They’ve just watched as other teams have traded for Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler and maybe they’ll just watch as other teams pursue Davis too?

As Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer says,

New Orleans has options right now. The Lakers, Knicks, Bucks, and Raptors are expected to make trade offers for Davis ahead of the deadline, according to multiple front-office sources.

but the Pelicans will be taking the best offer regardless of their star player’s wishes, like the Pacers and Spurs did before them.

Take the Raptors, for example. If Raptors president Masai Ujiri were to theoretically acquire Davis for an offer including Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and other assets, they’d immediately become the favorites in the Eastern Conference. Maybe they even win it all and both Kawhi Leonard and Davis commit long term to form a potential dynasty in Toronto. Even if Davis’s agency prefers him to play in Los Angeles

Davis, above all else, wants to win. “Anthony wants to be traded to a team that allows him a chance to win consistently and compete for a championship,” Paul told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. It’s hard to foresee him leaving a team that makes a title run.

No one should be surprised if the Rockets, Nuggets, 76ers and Pacers make a play for Davis as well.

Years of going nowhere, 13 total playoff games in six seasons, and no prospects for a meaningful postseason again this year would harden any perennial All-Star’s desire to play for a winner and the Raptors have been to the playoffs for five straight years with a conference finals appearance and finished the regular season second overall in the NBA last year.

Adding Davis to a deep Raptors roster would move them from conference finals contender to heavy favorite, so Ujiri can argue adding Davis to Kawhi Leonard improves his chances of keeping both players.

However, it’ll cost Ujiri a big part of of those assets he’s accumulated for the future and some of his assets that his team has been winning with right now.

NBA Raptors Pelicans

Perhaps the even riskier piece the Pels are likely to demand and get would be a future first round draft pick that would most likely be conveyed after the contracts of both Leonard and Davis have expired.

Ujiri showed us he was willing to gamble when he sent the very loyal DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for Leonard who could leave after this season. So, maybe he’d gamble again? It does seem out of character for the Raptors president, but with big risks can come big returns… then there’s the lessons learned from the Brooklyn Nets experience and no one wants to go thru that.

 

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 C. J. Miles

Five Big Moves For The Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors residing at or near the top of the NBA all season have been gaining respect in the numerous weekly power rankings as the Association’s best team, and in the ESPN midseason forecast, they have become the heavy favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals. So what big moves are worthy of President Masai Ujiri’s consideration to a roster that is already deep and about to get veteran center Jonas Valanciunas back from a thumb injury around the end of the month?

Having swept the season series from a Golden State team that is still forecast to three-peat as NBA Champions, Ujiri could believe standing pat is good enough, but those wins came against a “struggling” Warriors squad that had yet to play a game with DeMarcus Cousins, so just maybe they haven’t seen the best from Curry and company. There’s also a real risk one or more of the Bucks, Pacers, 76ers, or Celtics find a way to further boost their roster by the trade deadline.

The Raptors, as good as they are, reside in the bottom half of NBA teams when it comes to three-point percentage and they shoot a lot of threes. Last year’s gunner C.J. Miles is apparently injured, mired in a terrible season and has lost his job to Norman Powell leaving a huge gap at forward for a floor spacer that would be very nice to fill.

As reluctant as Ujiri has been to part with any of his young developing talent, his team’s chances in the postseason would be greatly enhanced with another rotation worthy veteran or two, especially proven defenders that can hit the three. Raptors that should be available include: Malachi Richardson ($1.5m expiring UFA), Greg Monroe ($1.5m expiring UFA), and Miles ($8.3m, plus a player option). All these could be moved with virtually no impact. Plus there’s Norman Powell ($9.4m, in the first year of a four year deal) who would be nice to move, if anyone was willing to gamble on his development. Delon Wright ($2.5m expiring RFA) or OG Anunoby ($2m, with a year left on his rookie deal) should be available if Ujiri gets a player back to fill their spot in the rotation. The reality is, other than Valanciunas, the Raptors bench hasn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders with any consistency this year.

Ujiri also has a couple of trade exceptions ($2.45m and $2.95m), but any players added without sending salary out adds $3.25 per $1 in luxury tax (ouch). He also has the full taxpayer MLE.

The safer (and cheaper) moves are to tinker around the edges of head coach Nick Nurse’s rotation as other teams face the reality that playoffs aren’t in their future and then, maybe, to watch for more interesting options to begin to open up. However, in terms of sweeteners to get a deal done with a rebuilding team, Ujiri is rather limited having traded a top 20 protected first round draft pick to the Spurs in the Kawhi Leonard deal. He can dangle late second rounders… for what they’re worth? So, if the Raptors want a significant upgrade in talent, one of Ujiri’s young players may have to go.

Some “Safe” Options

Knicks Noah Vonleh

Knicks Vonleh ($1.5m expiring UFA) for Raptors Richardson plus a 2nd round pick

The Knicks undoubtedly will hope to get more for a young power forward reclamation project (and they might) who seems to have finally found a three-point shot (41.1%) and is gaining some respect as a defender, but as an unrestricted free agent that will likely command more than they’re willing to invest, getting something for the future via trade now should look enticing for a team trying to win the draft lottery.

Vonleh would be a good fit as Pascal Siakam’s backup and be considered a “big move” in hindsight if he can earn his minutes on a team actually playing for something. At the very least, Vonleh can provide Nurse an option if OG Anunoby struggles with his three-point shot or defense against bigger forwards. The Raptors are thin at the four.

Bulls Bobby Portis

Bulls Portis ($2.9m, expiring RFA) for Raptors Richardson, Monroe and two 2nd round picks

Portis has missed most of this season do to an assortment of injuries, but he should be ready to play and the 6’11 power forward brings an aggressive attitude, a high motor, has some three-point shooting and is a solid rebounder. He can also be a handful to coach/manage. He sent teammate Nikola Mirotic to the hospital after punching him in the face at the beginning of last season.

It’s hard to judge what the Bulls can command for a player like Portis, and they’ll probably hold out for a first round pick until they can’t do better than seconds, but at his best, Portis can be impactful, at his worst, Nurse might pull out what’s left of his hair. Portis is worth the risk… might even be worth considering Wright as the trade bait?

Wizards Jeff Green

Wizards Green ($1.5m expiring UFA) for Raptors Richardson plus a 2nd round pick

The Wizards season is over, except for Bradley Beal piling up stats, so they may as well start off-loading some of those veterans that won’t be back next season.

Now in his 12th season, the combo forward Green defines veteran presence and is even shooting the three-ball at a half decent clip (36.8%). He would be a useful player to have on the bench of just about any playoff team, so the Wiz certainly won’t miss him.

Some Going-For-It Options

Wizards Otto Porter, Tomas Satoransky, and Jeff Green

Wizards Porter ($26m plus a year plus a player option), Satoransky ($3m expiring RFA), and Green ($1.5m expiring UFA) for Raptors Powell, Fred Van Vleet, Miles, and Anunoby.

Instantly upgrading the Raptors three-point shooting with the “3-and-D” forward Porter (39.2%), guard Satoransky (39.2%) and forward Green (36.8%), Toronto gets the bench they need for the postseason and the Wizards off load Porter’s huge contract for some much more manageable options as they hope to engage in a quick rebuild with John Wall’s $170m deal about to kick in next season.

Porter’s contract is a risk as he’ll likely be backing up Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, at both forward spots, but if there was ever a highly skilled player being underutilized by his team, Porter is probably it. He can be a difference-maker for the Raptors this postseason and future salary cap consequences be damned.

It won’t be easy to give up VanVleet, but the Raptors don’t really have a better option to make up the needed salaries to land a big contract like Porter.

Timberwolves Robert Covington and Anthony Tolliver

Timberwolves Covington ($10.5m plus three more years) and Tolliver ($5.7m expiring UFA) for Raptors Powell (or Miles), Richardson, Monroe and Anunuoby.

The T-wolves never planned on trading All-Star Jimmy Butler for the All-NBA Defense First Team Covington and a young Dario Saric (who has another year on his rookie deal), but with an imploding season, their hand was forced. Unfortunately, their fortunes haven’t changed, their veterans on expiring deals aren’t likely to return and the “3-and-D” 28-year-old Covington fits better on a team ready to win now. The possibility of acquiring a high-potential prospect like Anunoby should get the T-wolves attention.

Covington has been shooting the three at 37.2 percent and the 33-year-old Tolliver has be hitting on 39.5 percent, so they are just what the Raptors need off the bench.

The only “fly-in-the-ointment” is Covington’s ankle bone bruise which could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to heal. If there isn’t a reasonable timetable for his return by the trade deadline, there’s no prospect of a deal.

It would be really nice from a Raptors standpoint to add the former 76er to their roster for the playoffs assuming he’s good-to-go. Covington’s as close to the “missing piece” as Ujiri is likely to find.

 

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

Have The Toronto Raptors Adopted A Canadian Identity?

Like a typical Canadian, the Toronto Raptors appear to be deflecting and apologizing in advance of what should be the most successful season in franchise history. This team has never had this much talent or so many good young players fighting for recognition while playing behind proven veterans.

It’s a situation that seems to have Brian Windhorst of ESPN somewhat confused, but Americans have always had a little trouble understanding the Canadian identity.

The Raptors are a big, bad, beast of a team

When it was pointed out to various Raptors that their wing-loaded roster, the presence of a signature star and experienced gritty, defensive-minded All-Star point guard, plus their devotion to shooting 3-pointers, made them a bit of a Houston Rockets-East, they ran from the comparison.

Lowry outright laughed. As did new coach Nick Nurse

It’s one thing to not want to put anything on an opponent’s bulletin board. It’s another to try to demur as a defensive mechanism for later danger.

Windhorst sees the Raptors as shrinking away from the obvious greatness of this new roster because of the past failures in the postseason and the future risks associated with free agency, but no Canadian team would publicly want the comparison to the 65-win first place overall franchise of last year or the previous champion. It’s not how things roll north of the border.

“Oh no, I wouldn’t say that,” Nurse said about the Rockets’ comparison. “We just really like our versatility.”

“We have a long road before we ever think about matching up with the champions like Golden State,” Kawhi Leonard said.

Toronto had the second best overall record in the NBA last season with 59-wins and the additions of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and (even) Greg Monroe have significantly improved every aspect of their roster and preferred style of play. A prolific three-point shooting team with a top six defense just added two superior three-point threats and All-Defensive team selections to their starting lineup in Leonard and Green while moving out the worst three-point shooter and defender in last year’s starting lineup. (Sorry DeMar, Toronto still loves you)

it doesn’t take much imagination to see the Raptors as a nasty defensive team that flings 3-pointers by the bushel

All sports news and comparisons live in the moment and if the Raptors were to get swept by Boston and Washington in their first back-to-back of the season, ESPN would just as quickly be throwing doubt on new head coach Nick Nurse and be speculating how long it will take for Kawhi to be pushing for a trade. Conversely, if Toronto beats the Celtics and the Wizards in games two and three of the season, Windhorst’s vision of the “big, bad beast of of team” will be the hot topic.

Of course neither result really means all that much at this time of the year.

Sorry.

 

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 Spurs DeMar DeRozan vs Raptors Kawhi Leonard

Is The Better Scorer DeMar DeRozan or Kawhi Leonard?

The current title of greatest ambassador and scorer in Raptors history belongs to DeMar DeRozan. His name will be etched into the franchise record books beside games played, minutes played, field goals, free throws and points scored into the foreseeable future. No Raptors player has committed more towards his adopted city and franchise both on and off the court.

However, president Masai Ujiri traded in the face-of-his-franchise for, perhaps, the best two-way player in the game. A two-time defensive player of the year, four-time All-Defensive team selection and an NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard has earned the tag of best defensive player and best perimeter defender in the Association in this year’s annual GM poll  again, but no one who follows the NBA isn’t aware of his offense that elevated his status to back-to-back All-NBA First team in 2016 and 2017.

As great an offensive powerhouse as DeRozan has been in Toronto, there should be some question about how even he stacks up against Leonard’s offense and there is good reason to believe that under head coach Nick Nurse, Leonard is going to be given the freedom to take his scoring to another level.

“I am still trying to keep it a little free,” Nurse responded to Pro Ball Report about Leonard’s offense. “I want him to feel like he can go inside and post if he feels like it, if he feels the matchups there. If he wants to play screen and roll if he feels it. If he wants to bring it up the floor, all those things. He can really do all that stuff so we want to let him do all that stuff.

“We want him to be aggressive. He is a team player. He has to knock off some rust. In that first (preseason) game he was a little not aggressive enough and we talked to him a few days in there let’s be a little more aggressive in your offense and turn him loose a little bit.”

If the Raptors want to entice Leonard into staying in Toronto, in addition to a deep postseason run, there may be no better way to stroke his ego than helping him win an NBA scoring title and a shot an an MVP.

Since Leonard missed most of last season and DeRozan’s best offensive output was two years ago, a head-to-head comparison from 2016-17 may shed some light on which player is the better scorer.

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan vs Kawhi Leonard

 

While DeRozan got opportunities early in his career to dominate the Raptors offense when the team he was on politely sucked, Leonard was developed in a Spurs organization that had higher expectations and he didn’t average double-digit shot attempts until his fourth season. Maybe that’s why he shot so much better than DeRozan from both two and three point range initially, but it’s a trend that continued even after the Raptors evolved into a 50-win team and Leonard had to shoulder a much bigger piece of the Spurs offense.

DeRozan, the two-point assassin, has never shot from midrange as effectively as Leonard and as much as the Raptors tried to develop deep range on DeRozan’s jump shot (that has nothing obviously wrong with it), he’s still an unreliable sub-30 percent three-point threat. Leonard, on the other hand, can’t be left unguarded beyond the arc and is especially deadly from the corner.

None of this is to say DeRozan isn’t an elite scorer. It’s just the numbers suggest Leonard is better and the real test of any scorer comes in the postseason where some players take their game to another level and some can’t.

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan vs Kawhi Leonard playoffs

Contrary to popular opinion, DeRozan hasn’t played badly in the postseason, he just didn’t step up his game. He has averaged over 20 points per game in each of his five postseason runs, but what happened in 2016-17 and his career playoff shooting percentages are a pretty good measure of how he’s done versus the regular season and his fans can only cringe a little.

Leonard on the other hand has been a playoff beast. He has flat out upped his offensive production under pressure and that’s been a key missing ingredient in Toronto over the past five years.

And the early indications in preseason are Leonard is about to take his game to another level.

“He’s definitely more vocal than he’s ever been on and off the court,” Danny Green said after practice. “It looks like he feels comfortable. It looks like he feels at home. He’s talking to guys, he’s leading by example. In the huddles, he’s chiming in, saying what he feels, saying his opinion.

“He’s leading vocally more than ever before.”

An engaged Leonard assuming a leadership role is going to have a huge year.

Who’s the better scorer between All-Stars playing on different teams in different conferences under different coaching styles isn’t an easy thing to measure, but the numbers suggest the Raptors didn’t just get a massive upgrade on defense by trading DeRozan for Leonard, they have picked up the better scorer as well. And if Nurse can set Leonard free on offense and get him to lead, there’s no telling just how far the Raptors newest star can take it.

 

 

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 DeMar DeRozan

A Cold Wind Of Change Blows Thru Toronto

A new air mass arrived in Toronto on Tuesday and with the more pleasant temperatures came a cold wind of change for the Raptors. The always ruthless Masai Ujiri has shipped the face of his franchise to San Antonio.

Thanks to ESPN’s WOJ, we now know All-Star DeMar DeRozan, promising young center Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected draft pick has been traded for two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard and “3-and-D” veteran wing Danny Green.

Maybe everyone in Toronto should have seen this coming. The face of the franchise had been BENCHED numerous times this past season in the fourth quarter because the soon-to-be Coach of the Year Dwane Casey had much better defensive options in his young second unit and offense was only rarely an issue for this team in their run to first place in the Eastern Conference. It was sold as rest, but that wasn’t always easy to accept.

DeRozan has earned his popularity with the fan base since being drafted ninth overall in 2009 and being thrust into the spotlight with the departure of Chris Bosh the next summer.

 

NBA Spurs DeMar DeRozan

 

DeRozan holds franchise records for regular season games played (675), minutes (22,986), field goals (4716), free throws made (3539), and points (13,296). In the playoffs, where DeRozan often gets flak, the All-Star never averaged less than 20 points and in his 51 career playoff appearances, he averaged 21.9 points.

Loyal to a fault and an excellent franchise ambassador, a frustrated DeRozan wrote on his Instagram page Wednesday morning,

“Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing… Soon you’ll understand… Don’t disturb…”

But as previously noted, Ujiri is ruthless.

On a pure talent basis, Ujiri won this trade by a landslide. A healthy Leonard is arguably the second best player in the NBA with an all-around game that even LeBron James couldn’t claim this early in his career.

Leonard can do it all. From guarding the best player on the other team in today’s game 1-thru-5, to shooting the three (career 38.6 percent), hitting over 53 percent of his two-point shots and hitting a much higher percentage from the mid-range than even the mid-range assassin DeRozan. Leonard can control a game like only the historically elite in the NBA have done.

Of course there’s a downside or the Spurs would never have considered trading Leonard and it’s really hard to “win” a trade with San Antonio, buyer beware.

Aside from the FACT Leonard can opt out of his contract after this season and would rather be in L.A., this petulant 27-year-old sat out most of last season with pain that his team thought he could/should play thru.

Quad (thigh), calf, ankle, shoulder, both hands, right eye, jumper’s knee, a disturbing number of games due to illness and rest have all impacted on Leonard’s availability over his seven seasons in the NBA as he’s missed over 150 games

But the risk is manageable. Green is a very serviceable veteran wing on an expiring contract and if Leonard leaves after a year, Ujiri will have cleared over $30 million off his payroll and escaped the Luxury Tax after just one season. Lowry and Ibaka will then be on expiring deals and the rebuild can begin in earnest. If Leonard is healthy and happy, Ujiri could end up the real NBA Executive of the Year no matter who gets the award. From a GM perspective, it’s a no lose situation.

It was a cold, calculated and ruthless move to trade a popular face-of-the-franchise who wanted to be a Raptor-for-life, but that’s who Ujiri is. If you’re an owner, he’s the executive you want. If you’re a fan of DeRozan, Ujiri just stabbed him in the back and his fans in the heart.

 

 

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 Wizards Otto Porter and Timberwolves Andrew Wiggins

Two Big Moves The Raptors Should Be Pursuing This Summer

If the Raptors actually want to take another step (questionable), they need to be making a big move this summer that give this franchise a chance to move beyond being just a good regular season team.

It shouldn’t take a lot to elevate a 59 win roster to the next level. A starting caliber forward/wing to pair with promising rookie combo forward OG Anunoby might be it and there are a couple of teams with a case of buyer’s remorse that have players who could fit the bill if president Masai Ujiri and his incredibly cheap corporate owners can be convinced to take on their bloated salaries.

After a run of five seasons averaging 52.6 wins and taking first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history last year, the constantly “building” Raptors have yet to even get a sniff at an NBA Finals appearance. It’s likely this had a big influence on Ujiri’s decision to fire long time head coach Dwane Casey, but after promoting from within to fill the void, it’s just as likely the organization was too cheap to give their organization’s most successful head coach the extension and raise his regular season record indicated he’d earned.

It’s the Raptors current (Bell and Rogers) and previous (Teachers Pension Plan) ownership’s propensity to maximize profits over winning that has handcuffed this franchise from spending at the level necessary to be competitive at an elite level. Unfortunately, regular season sellouts and a handful of playoff games probably does make the most money.

To compete with rosters like Cleveland and Golden State, a team has to spend deep into the Luxury Tax and, hopefully, this time, ownership will actually let Ujiri take on the additional salary necessary to give new head coach Nick Nurse a chance to get out of his own Conference.

It won’t be easy. As things sit, the Raptors will be a Tax team even before re-signing restricted free agent Fred VanVleet and last summer Ujiri gave away all of the team’s 2018 draft picks just to be able to dump enough salary to get below the Tax Threshold. The fear in Toronto is he’ll do it again, dumping Norman Powell in Brooklyn with another first round draft pick as compensation and then do nothing to significantly improve the roster.

But in order to to take the big step necessary to compete in an improving Eastern Conference Ujiri will need to spend more. If this team starts dumping salary again, they’ll be taking a step backwards.

Forget free agents. All the Raptors will have is the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. Ujiri needs to work his magic in the trade market and he’ll need to take risks to get better.

Fortunately there are a couple of team’s suffering from buyer’s remorse.

The Washington Wizards owe Otto Porter $81.7 million over the next three seasons, are at risk of being a Tax team and their run of on court success took a big step backwards last year.

The Minnesota Timberwolves signed Andrew Wiggins to a max five year million extension that’s about to kick in and can see the Luxury Taxes in their future.

These two teams are motivated to make a deal.

Otto Porter, $26 million in 2018-19

Porter is a 25-year-old 6’8 small forward whose three-point shooting has made significant progress over his five NBA seasons averaging an impressive 44.1 percent last year. He’s considered a good defender and was third in scoring on the Wizards at 14.7 points per game during the regular season.

However, as the highest paid player on his team, he’s taking up way more cap space than a franchise that is no better than first round playoff fodder can afford to tie up and that’s before considering his disappearing act in the playoffs when the minimum salary veteran Mike Scott put up more points in 10 less minutes per game during the team’s first round playoff series loss to Toronto.

The Wizards John Wall’s massive three-year $122 million extension starts in 2019-20 and the combined salaries of Wall, Porter and Bradley Beal will top $92 million that year. Something has to give before then.

Andrew Wiggins, $25.3 million in 2018-19

When the Timberwolves signed the 6’8 small forward Wiggins to a max five year $146 million extension last summer, did everyone just forget head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t exactly known for being a young players coach? The team loaded up with veterans, broke a 13 year playoff drought, and Wiggins minutes, shots and production pretty much reverted to his rookie season numbers as a 19-year-old.

It seems pretty obvious, Thibs would be happier with a veteran than trying to get this former Rookie of the Year to live up to his potential under his tough love leadership style and they really need to dump his salary before  Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are eligible for their own massive new contracts a year from now.

Wiggins still averaged 17.7 points last season and 15.8 points in his five playoff games, but his three-point shooting hasn’t improved as expected and no one seems all that happy with his effort on defense. However, this still just 23-year-old Canadian has off the charts athleticism and potential and maybe he just needs a change of scenery to become the player he’s been envisioned as.

Like Porter, Wiggins will be the top paid player on his team in October, but considered no better than a third option. Wiggins contract is really just in the way.

Why Toronto?

Toronto has their own disappointing highly paid third option in Serge Ibaka, but he’s owed a lot less money than Porter or Wiggins.

Ibaka can play as a Stretch Four or Five and he’s a mobile defender for a big man, but at 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and shooting 36 percent from three, the $45 million he’s owed over the next two years is a lot of money. However, it’s only slightly more than half of what’s owed to Porter and it’s a $100 million less than what’s owed to Wiggins.

Both Minnesota and Washington can argue they need a three-point shooting big man that can block shots, but any deal here would really be all about the money. It’s money the Raptors have if Ujiri can pry it out of the clenched fists in corporate. Ujiri could find a young player to toss into a deal if it was necessary, Delon Wright being an obvious choice, but the salary savings alone should be enough.

Pairing up Porter with Anunoby would give the Raptors a young mobile forward pairing who could shoot the three-ball effectively and switch defensively onto just about any opponent. Last year Anunoby showed he has the size and speed to play power forward in today’s somewhat positionless game.

Wiggins is coming off a down year, but his potential is so high he’s worth the risk. Even as he develops his three-point shot, he’d be a strong third option offensively and hopefully a different coaching approach can get him to apply his skills on the defensive end consistently.

The Raptors would only be able to do one of these deals and the hit to payroll could make the Raptors Luxury Tax bill start to resemble Cleveland’s, but unless LeBron James is coming, one of these two players is probably the biggest impact move the Raptors can make this summer and its well past the time the Raptors started spending some of their huge profits.

 

 

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 Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and Cavaliers LeBron James

Raptors Look Confused After Game Two Loss To The Cavs

Take last night’s box score from the Cavs at Raptors game and only look at the Toronto half. The Raptors must have won? It’s all good, good enough for a victory and the Raptors looked plenty confused after a Game Two loss that wasn’t even close.

Toronto scored 110 points, shot an impressive 54.3 percent from the field, put up 30 three-balls and hit 40 percent of them. They out-rebounded the Cavs by one, got one more assist and only turned the ball over a very respectable 11 times. Their two All-Starts combined for 45 points on 18-33 shooting and sixth-man Fred VanVleet found his offensive touch with 14 points while hitting on 4-7 three-point attempts. Even rookie OG Anunoby was playing some solid defense on LeBron James, not that you’d know it from the King’s stat line.

“We were searching, just trying to find somebody, something to get faster, get more points on the board,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “We were searching for offense, searching for spacing, searching for a lot of things.”

“It’s not over, we just got to take it one game at a time, (and) go from there” DeMar DeRozan forced out after the game.

“We need more effort, way more effort,” Kyle Lowry said searching for answers. “We got to play harder, somehow, someway.”

Toronto went into the break up two points 63-61, but it all fell apart in the second half when they couldn’t stop James who scored 27 of his 43 points over the final two quarters. The Cavs put up 67 second half points on 67.5 percent shooting from the field to go up 18 points on Raptors by the end.

Second year forward Pascal Siakam and Anunoby were in James’ face on nearly every shot he attempted, but he still made 13-19 after the half, mostly of the improbable variety.

“Tonight all the shots over his right shoulder, the step-backs, the fade-a-ways, the one where he hit the moon-ball over his right shoulder and came back with the next possession and hit one over his left shoulder from the free throw line, that was special,” Kevin Love said about James’ performance. “That was something that you get accustomed to, you kind of get used to, but tonight was in that fashion. I don’t know if, it’s my fourth year here, I’d seen that out of him, so it’s special.

“When he went over his right shoulder and then went over his left shoulder, he said when he got the mismatch he would do that. He actually called his shots this morning. That’s just one of the examples I could use about how locked in he was during the entire shoot-a-round knowing what was at stake for us.”

Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue was almost prophetic during the pre-game media availability when hoped for a big scoring night from his team.

“Each team tries to take away what each team does best, so the team who scores 130 this series, they got hot and played really well,” Lue responded to Pro Bball Report’s query. “I don’t see the 130 point games, but if so, I hope it’s us.”

The Cavs were hot in Game Two with the 128-110 victory and the confused Raptors were at a complete loss as to how to stop the barrage.

 

 

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.