Tag Archives: Toronto Raptors

NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

As the dust settles from what was a fantastic All-Star weekend in the great city of Chicago. The NBA has been back for nearly a week now and the discussion of playoff seeding and “tanking seeding” are all the rave.

We’ll be discussing things you want to look out for a be wary of because the playoffs are a great predictor of things to come. Stars become superstars in the playoffs. And the only way to win titles is to have superstars. So let’s begin with the Eastern Conference:

Previewing the Eastern Conference Playoffs

 

The Milwaukee Bucks sit eight games above the Toronto Raptors and have a firm grip on home-court advantage throughout the playoffs (5.5 Games). Giannis Antetokounmpo is the front-runner for MVP for the second season in a row averaging 29.7 PPG and 13.7 RPG. The Bucks look like a clear favorite to win the Eastern Conference and reach the NBA Finals, but let’s slow our roll.

Kawhi Leonard may have left the East, but there are some stars to be born in the playoffs. Pascal Siakam is looking to ascend into superstardom by leading the Raptors back to the NBA Finals to defend their title. But the number one threat to the Bucks and their title chance is the Boston Celtics.

The Celtics are third in the East and are looking prime to make a deep run in these playoffs. The Celtics have three players averaging over 20 PPG in Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown. Gordon Hayward averages nearly 18 PPG as well. They are well-coached by Brad Stevens who made a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals with a less talented squad. Boston is third in points allowed per game (106.5) and has proven to be good on the road.

If you think about the top-five players in the series, There’s an argument that the Celtics have four of the top five. Yes, Khris Middleton was an All-Star. But he hasn’t proven that he can show up in the playoffs. Last year in the Eastern Conference Finals, Middleton scored no more than 14 points in any game. Giannis can’t depend on him. The Celtics have the talent and depth to take the Bucks on for supremacy of the East.

Teams 4-6 in the eastern race are the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and Indiana Pacers. These three teams are very solid and talented but do not pose a real threat to the East. The 76ers have the most talent but can’t seem to get it together. They’re an amazing home team (27-2) but abysmal on the road (9-21). This team can play with the Bucks and Celtics but will be minimized due to the major difference in coaching. Stevens and Mike Budenholzer are in a different league compared to Brent Brown.

Miami has Butler and a hard-working group of players, but they’ll be overwhelmed in the playoffs. They could still win a series if they get the right matchup though. The Pacers are a good, well-run team. And their superstar Victor Oladipo recently returned from a gruesome injury. This year in the playoffs the Pacers should look to steal a first-round series win, and gain confidence for the future.

The seventh and eighth-seeded teams are the Brooklyn Nets and the Orlando Magic. Well, let’s just say this. These teams are not winning a title this season. But the trajectory of these two teams is going to be different over the next few seasons.

The Nets are without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The loss of those two is obviously why they can’t compete for a title yet. But the expectations will rise in Brooklyn next year. Orlando must be in the playoffs by accident because who knows what they’re trying to do as a franchise. They need to start shipping some of these pieces off and try to accumulate talent.

Last but not least, the team on the outside looking in, the Washington Wizards (4.5 games behind the eighth seed). Bradley Beal has been unconscious recently dropping back-to-back 50-point games.

I will leave you with these final thoughts. Superstars win in the playoffs. This has been happening ever since the birth of the game. The Bucks have the best player in the world in some eyes (not mine). But I believe the Celtics will be representing the East in the NBA finals. What is today? Yeah, mark it down. If you want to jump in on the debate please follow me on twitter @illiniRyan7 and let’s talk some hoops.

Kawhi Should Heed KD’s Warning

Kevin Durant’s Warning to Kawhi Leonard

Kevin Durant’s injury proves Kawhi Leonard should stay in The North. Perhaps that is a bit too simple. Stated another way, their handling of Kawhi Leonard should lead him to re-sign with the Toronto Raptors. The Achilles tear suffered by the Warriors star is proof of the importance of managing injuries.

 

The Blame Game

Now, that is not to say that the Golden State Warriors brass handled Durant’s reported calf strain irresponsibly. And much has already been said about who is to blame for KD taking the floor in the first place. But the simple answer is everyone is culpable. From distraught Bob Myers to Steve Kerr to Durant himself.

Here’s where it gets interesting, though. There was no other course of action. Once Durant was cleared it was a no-brainer that he would suit up with the Dubs title hopes hanging precariously in the balance. And, if we are being honest, had he not played in Game 5 and Golden State lost, we are likely having the same conversation publicly that had reportedly been brewing in the locker room.

Pay Attention

This is not about Durant though. This is about why Kawhi needs to re-up with Toronto. At least the short-term deal he is rumored to be considering. They were willing to take the risk on him and his injured quad initially. But then they went the extra mile and sat him 22 games with the ever-popular ‘load management’ designation. That is a level of proactivity that he likely would not have gotten elsewhere.

Remember, the injury (and how it was handled) is what sent his entire relationship with the San Antonio Spurs organization downward. Not only did Leonard lose faith in the team medical staff, but he also had a very public (albeit one-sided) falling out with Head Coach Gregg Popovich. At one point, Tony Parker compared the injury to one he sustained, saying it was “100 times worse” than Leonard’s.

Ahead of the Curve

Toronto also managed a 17-5 record in games Leonard missed. The proven ability to not be burdened with carrying the entire load has to be appealing. If Kawhi is indeed concerned with his longevity, being overworked has to factor into that. This is another thing other teams cannot offer; rather they can promise it but Toronto has shown it. There is a big difference.

The other team rumored to be at or near the top of Kawhi’s destination list is the Los Angeles Clippers. He is, after all a California kid and had stated that L.A. was his preferred destination prior to being traded. They can offer much of what Toronto has provided Kawhi (load management, supporting cast, etc.) in theory with the obvious added bonus of location. Nothing Toronto can do about that.

West Coast or North Side

All things considered, the quote about the worth of a “bird in the hand…” might be the best way to describe this situation. Leonard can certainly go West and hope that the Clips can replicate what the Raptors have already set out to create. But then he would have to build up the type of trust that the Spurs lost and the Raptors have been trying to earn for a year.

One thing that might get brought up (by Raptors brass) is how Los Angeles handled their previous franchise star, Blake Griffin. They traded him after a lot of theatrics and a max deal. But I am old enough to remember when the Raptors traded their franchise star for a quiet, disgruntled player dealing with an injury. Funny how what side of those deals one is on can shape how they are viewed.

Durant’s Injury a Warning to Kawhi

You might have noticed that money is conspicuously omitted from the reasoning behind Kawhi needing to stay in Toronto. That is because we all know where he should be if securing the bag is his main objective. But he has shown that it is not necessarily money that drives him. That could lead him back home. It should have him making Toronto his new home.

In The End: An NBA Finals Story

NBA Finals a Matchup Years in the Making

Each year 2,460 regular season games are played. This year there have already been 76 playoff games played. But in just a few more hours the entire NBA universe will be laser-focused on Scotiabank Arena as the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors square off for game one for the NBA Finals. It is a matchup two years in the making. Kawhi Leonard was forced from action by a Zaza Pachulia closeout in 2017 and the Dubs swept the San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi missed most of 2018, including the playoffs, and the Warriors took out the Spurs in five games.

 

Rap City

We haven’t really gotten to see a fully healthy Kawhi against the NBA’s latest dynasty. He had 26/8/3 in ‘17 before exiting. In his lone appearance against them this season it was 37/8/3, 58.3 percent from the floor and, 50 percent from deep. He averages 16.5/6.5/2.2 against Golden State, but that includes games before all parties reached their current peak levels. Who knows if he can keep it up, but the Klaw has been asserting his dominance all postseason.

Leonard averaged 26.6/7.3/3.3 in the regular season, one of only five players with those numbers. He also slashed 49.6/37.1/84.5, marks matched by only five others, none of whom are in the same breath as Kawhi. But in the playoffs, Leonard has been unconscious. He is averaging 31.2 points, 8.8 boards, and 3.8 assists on a 50.7/38.8/87.5 shooting line. The quiet superstar started this postseason with crazy efficiency (55.6/53.8/89.3 in the first round), and while that has waned, he has put the team on his back. Just in case you forgot, he did this.

The Western Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks was different. Pascal Siakam was the Robin to Leonard’s Batman through the first two rounds averaging 20.8 points. Perhaps still bothered by an injured calf, he only averaged 14.5 versus the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell served as the cavalry. Lowry, in particular, has been big. His floor game has been steady, but he has also upped his scoring output from 11.4 in the first round to 13.1 in round two. He goes into the Finals scoring 19.2 points on 50.7/46.5/84.4 shooting versus Milwaukee.

If Toronto is going to pull off the upset, they are going to need more from their complementary parts. Siakam and Lowry have taken turns as top wingman. But the Raptors need the Spicy P from rounds one and two and for Lowry to stay hot. One has to imagine they will also need more from Marc Gasol and Danny Green. Gasol has done yeoman’s work in the playoffs, clogging the paint and generally making smart decisions with the ball. But he faces the real risk of being unplayable in this series should Golden State decide to go small. Green joins Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka as contributors who will need to have a big game here and there to finish the job.

 

Dub Nation

When Kevin Durant went down, many in the NBA world questioned if there would be a significant dropoff. At a minimum, the expectation was they would need their best player eventually, right? Well all Steph Curry has done in the five games since is average 35.8 points on 46.6 percent shooting (41.7 percent 3PT) with 7.6 rebounds and 6.6 assists. Much has been made of the Warriors success sans Durant but with Curry in the lineup. Still, those are stellar numbers. Should Durant remain out and/or Steph stays en fuego, he is a good bet to earn his first FInals MVP.

Klay Thompson has found his stroke as well. He has put up 22.6 points per game since Durant’s injury. In fact, Thompson’s scoring output has gone up each round; from 17.3 in the opening round to 19.2 in the Conference Semis to 21.5 in the sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. He will also be tasked with defending Leonard. It is a tall order indeed. But if there is anyone up to the task, it’s Thompson, perhaps the best two-way guard in the NBA. It will be two very similar players facing off. That is when Kawhi is not chasing Steph around a multitude of screens.

The elephant in the room, Durant has already been ruled out for game one. Most recently, the idea was broached that a Warriors title without him is the Easy Money Sniper’s worst nightmare. He would certainly bristle at the notion, but it should not be dismissed by the rest of us so easily. This could be used as an opportunity to diminish Durant’s standing in the league hierarchy. That will not happen here. It has already been noted that KD is so great is that the Warriors diverge from what made them great prior to his arrival.

Draymond Green is healthy and locked in this postseason. His job gets interesting this series as he will have to deal with Siakam. Green is the defensive anchor in the Bay. He roams the middle of the floor, setting the defense and playing center field. He will have to stay with Siakam, who despite seeing his numbers fall of late, is always active on both ends of the floor. He (Siakam) generates most of his offense in the paint but will likely play a bit more of a perimeter-based game to draw Green away from the basket. That is where Kevon Looney will have to keep giving solid minutes. That is, of course, unless Boogie Cousins makes his return to action.

In The End

There will have to be significant contributions by the benches, that should go without saying. But this series will undoubtedly feature a lot of 40-plus’s in the box scores for the starters of both teams. As things stand, the Warriors are still themselves, with or without KD and Boogie. But what do they do if they keep winning when those two are ready to return? Do they rush them back if they fall into an early deficit? Would either player try to force their way back into the rotation/lineup?

The Raptors are not immune to the nagging questions. This team is by and large the same group that wilted in the presence of LeBron James three straight years, including last year’s sweep. How will Lowry and Siakam perform this round? Especially if the Warriors defense shuts Leonard down. Will Gasol and Green provide stats that show up in the boxscore? Maybe more important than any of that, has Toronto done enough to secure the (sorry in advance) Klawtograph? Will they have to win it all to do so (and will that even be enough)? We are about to find out. 

NBA Stars Shining

Stars Rising (And Falling) During Playoffs

Playoffs baby, playoffs! With all four series through four games, the NBA Playoffs second round has only built on the excitement of the first. Three of the four series are all knotted up at 2-2, while the fourth is 3-1. In the East, we are watching the emergence of the Greek Freak to the pantheon of the NBA’s best. Kawhi Leonard is reminding us of why his name was being bandied about in that same conversation not too long ago. The West has pitted two assassins against each other in Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray. And the Houston-Golden State series is everything we had hoped it would be.

 

Buck Your Luck

The lone series not at 2-2, Bucks-Celtics has brought to light two budding truths. First, Giannis Antetokounmpo is good. Like really, really good. Averaging 28.4/11.8/4 in this postseason, he has upped it to 30.5/11.5/4.5. The boards are (ever so slightly) down, but are offset by the scoring surge and slight boost in assists. He is shooting better from deep and on free throws, going from 34.4 percent from deep and 66 percent at the charity stripe to 46.7 and 68.3 percent, respectively. His free throw numbers are especially astounding as he is averaging 15 for this series and 12.9 for the playoffs.

Boston is bizarro-Milwaukee at the moment. As the Bucks star has emerged, the Celtics have seen their guy go borderline-M.I.A. as they have fallen into a 3-1 hole without the benefit of home court. Playoff-Kyrie’s scoring is down about a point from the regular season and his rebounding has dipped a smidge. His assists are also up, but he is shooting (39.9/33.3/89.5 playoffs, 37.3/24/90.5) has been extremely suspect, especially from deep. The jokes about need a certain former teammate have inevitably arisen, but the biggest takeaway might be that Irving just doesn’t fit well in Brad Stevens’ team-first scheme.

 

Oakland, We Have a Problem

Last year the Houston-Golden State series went seven games. This year looks like we might get our first encore from last season. James Harden, who got dogged for running out of gas against the Dubs last year, is putting up 35.8/7.3/5 with 41.7/34/89.7 shooting numbers. Last year, he had 28.7/5.6/6 on 41.5/24.4/88.5 shooting percentages. A slight bump in drives (20.6 to 21) only partly explains his jump in free throw attempts from 7.4 in 2017-18 to 9.8 this postseason. He reportedly came into the season in the best shape of his career (surprise) and this series with the Warriors is testing that notion.

https://twitter.com/HoustonRockets/status/1125769758912143360?s=19

Golden State heads back to Oracle Arena for what they hope is not the last time this postseason. A thought that was a non-starter when the year began is now a distinct possibility. Kevin Durant has arguably been the MVP of this postseason but he is the only Hampton 5 member consistently producing. Steph Curry (21/4/5) and especially Klay Thompson (15/6/2) have been…bad. They have somewhat gotten passes because Curry is always one shot away and Thompson draws the toughest defensive assignment, but this more than any stress of the upcoming offseason, is hindering them.

 

North of the Process

No sooner had the proverbial ink dried on this piece about Durant’s ascension to NBA’s best did Kawhi put everyone on alert. He missed last year, including the playoffs, so it isn’t really surprising that people forgot how good he is. Well, averaging 38/9/4 (32.3/7.7/3.4 in the playoffs) will certainly get folks’ antennae up. Not only is he doubling the scoring output of his next closest teammate this series, but he is doing so on incredible efficiency. Leonard is slashing an inhuman 61.8/46.4/82.9 and taking seven threes a game. He will need more from his teammates but he is firmly placing himself in the ‘best player’ discussion.

Coming into the postseason, one might have wagered on the 76ers starting five against any other in the Eastern Conference. Warts that showed in the first round are still apparent. Ben Simmons has gone from 17.2/6.6/7.6 to 10/7/4.8 as his lack of a perimeter shot has opened him up to a slew of criticism. Joel Embiid has gone from 24.8/13.5/3.5 to 18/8/4.3 as he’s dealt with knee and an illness (more knee issues). The only one of the Philly Big 3 to step up their game has been Jimmy Butler, who has gone from putting up 15.8/4.8/4.6 in the opening round to 22.8/8.3/5.8 in the second.

 

Blazing Trails in Mile High

Damian Lillard has cooled from his scorching the Thunder to the tune of 33/4.4/6 down to 27.3/4/6.3 as this series is nowhere near as emotional. Lucky for him, and the team, C.J. McCollum is dropping 26.5/5.8/3.5 after putting up 24.4/5.4/4 in the last series. They have expectedly done the heavy lifting, but contributions from Enes Kanter and Al-Farouq Aminu have been huge. Even Rodney Hood has come up huge for Portland against Denver. If Maurice Harkless returns to the form he had against OKC and/or Seth Curry gets hot, look out.

Nikola Jokic might be the best center in the league. He has been the best in these playoffs. He is averaging 24.5/12.5/9.3 for the playoffs and 26.8/13.3/9.5 against the Blazers. The list of players to average that during the regular season in empty. He is not alone either. Jamal Murray is quickly becoming one of the league’s more feared scorers. He had 18.2/4.2/4.8 in the regular season up to 21.7/3.6/4.3 so far this postseason. Against the Blazers he has 26.5/5.3/4.5 while shooting 44.7 percent from the floor, 36.4 percent from three, and is perfect at the free throw line. This series should probably come down to the last shot.

 

Stars Rising (and Falling) to the Occasion

A round and a half into the playoffs and it is highly unlikely that anyone is complaining about the action on the floor. Even those who say the eventual champion is in any way a foregone conclusion have to be at least pausing for a moment. Of course, the boys in the Bay are still the favorites, but we see there is no shortage of players and teams looking to assert themselves as the NBA’s best. Who ultimately earns that distinction is anyone’s guess. But the juice, as they say, has been worth the squeeze during the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

 

All stats and information courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

Bulls*** and the NBA Trade Deadline

Trade Deadline Reaction

The NBA trade deadline came and went yesterday with a flurry of activity. There were a few distinct winners and losers as well. Deals that were (and were not) made will have a significant impact on the playoffs. At least until the Finals, that is.

Bulls Treat Trade Deadline Like Free Agency

The Chicago Bulls traded forwards Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis along with a future second-round pick for forward Otto Porter from the Washington Wizards just a day before the NBA trade deadline. The move is an admission by the Bulls front office that they were never going match any serious offers to Portis, an impending restricted free-agent. Moreover, the organization acknowledged it has a diminished image in the eyes of free agents. It is a poor state of affairs for a franchise with their history.

One thing that has plagued them is the reluctance to fully commit to a rebuild since trading Derrick Rose. Moving Parker and Portis could (and should) have set up a chance for Chicago to embrace the tank. Instead, the trade for Porter makes them better. It is already a four-way battle for number one with the Bulls fourth on that list. The odds are similar to a top-three pick, but the floor is also lower. Chicago does have the second-toughest remaining schedule of the bottom four teams; behind the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In an interview on AM 670 WSCR in Chicago, Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson became defensive when faced with questions about the job security of he and GM Gar Forman. It was a standard line of questioning; to which Paxson was obstinate. Both Paxson and Forman have been around long enough to know, eventually, you run out of other people to fire.

Deadline Winners and Losers

Winners:

Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Milwaukee Bucks went out and flipped big man Thon Maker to the Detroit Pistons for wing Stanley Johnson. His cup of coffee ended when the Bucks shipped him out with Jason Smith to the New Orleans Pelicans for forward Nikola Mirotic. The Greek Freak is a legitimate MVP candidate and adding a sniper like Mirotic (shooting .368 from three this season) to lineups with Brook Lopez (.387) and Khris Middleton (.384) should create wide-open lanes.

Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge got his wish, at least for now. The Pelicans held on to Anthony Davis after their very public courtship with the Los Angeles Lakers. Boston was unable to be a bidder at this juncture, but Davis remaining in New Orleans means the Celtics will be allowed to participate in the A.D.-sweepstakes this summer. Whether or not they can retain him is another story entirely. Ainge is not worrying about that or Kyrie Irving‘s potential exodus, apparently.

Markelle Fultz: This is more of a humanitarian nod than anything. His career has been derailed without ever leaving the station by thoracic outlet syndrome. The Orlando Magic acquiring Fultz gives him a chance to recuperate out of the spotlight and with no pressure. No one knows how the draft or free agency will unfold. But if Fultz can recover – a big if at this point – the Magic may have found their point guard of the future. All of that comes after what figures to still be a lengthy recovery.

Losers

Bobby Portis: This should probably be the Bulls. As mentioned Portis went to Washington with Parker for Porter. That was a surprise to fans as well as teammates. Bulls guard Zach Lavine spoke highly of Portis, who is set for restricted free agency. Chicago was not going to match the kind of offers Portis is expected to receive. A claim that Portis did not seem to buy himself. The Bulls will miss his outside shooting (.375 from three) and his toughness.

Philadelphia 76ers: Alright, this one is kind of nitpicky. Philly made one if the best moves before the deadline in acquiring walking-bucket Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. He immediately steps in to give the Sixers, perhaps’ the most talented starting five in the East. The rub is that Milwaukee and the Toronto Raptors also made moves to improve and remain deeper; as do the Celtics. Philly is not going to be channeling their inner Thibs, playing guys 48 minutes. Their sudden lack of depth is concerning for the playoffs.

Feelings: A couple of the biggest rumored deals on the actual day of the deadline did not get done. The Davis trade and trades that would have sent guard Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz or to Toronto (with former teammate Marc Gasol). All were very public (especially the Lakers-Pelicans talks) and now the healing begins. Players whose names were bandied about now have to use it as fuel. The Conley talks revolved around veteran point guards that have all been traded aside from Conley himself. But the Lakers are younger and still growing as players. The win last night over Boston helps even though it came down to a Rajon Rondo buzzer-beating layup.