May 23, 2019, 3:02 am
Kawhi Leonard has been the MVP of the postseason, and it’s not much of a debate. Aside from one illness-related, 16-point outing against the Magic, Leonard has been front and center for the Raptors, carrying the load to an uncomfortable yet astounding degree.
It was more of the same in Game 3 against Milwaukee, even as Leonard played 50 of his career-high 52 minutes while dealing with an obvious left leg injury. Leonard played the entire fourth quarter and all 10 minutes of overtime, scoring 36 points and putting another punctuation mark on his playoff run.
Despite the heroics, the degree to which Leonard was laboring loomed over Game 3 and the rest of the Raptors’ playoff hopes.
For one night, at least, the rest of his teammates played to their true capabilities. Rather than rely on Leonard, they relied on one another in equal measure. For the first time this postseason, Game 4 showed us what it can look like when they help carry Kawhi.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Toronto’s fleeting secondary contributions is the fact that the team features players who are used to prominent roles. There’s no better example of that than Marc Gasol, who was a true featured player literally a few months ago.
After a milquetoast showing in Game 1 and a rough shooting night in Game 2, Gasol has been outstanding over the last two games. A second-round matchup with the Sixers required Gasol to do most of the dirty work and gave him a singular purpose. At times he looked unsure of his place against a Milwaukee team that invites more creative freedom while also removing a monumental defensive workload from Gasol’s plate.
If he’s found his footing and it’s anything like what he put forth in Games 3 and 4, the Raptors will be thrilled. Gasol is a bit more perimeter-based than he was in the old days, but the go-to instincts are still in there somewhere.
In what’s been a running theme throughout the playoffs, his early aggression paid serious dividends in Game 4.
He took half of Toronto’s first six shots and assisted on their first three baskets, and even on his misses the Bucks were forced to contest more intensely than they did in either of the first two games. When his presence beyond the arc encourages legitimate defensive attention, the world opens up.
Gasol can thread the needle with the best of them, and although it can occasionally lead to blunders the Raptors are more than happy to live with a mistake or two in order to reap the benefits. Gasol opened the second half with his eyes on the struggling Kawhi Leonard, getting him an easy dunk with this bullet of a pass and then taking it back to the schoolyard with a simple head-nod to direct the action.
While going 7-of-14 from deep over the last two games is driving a lot of Milwaukee’s willingness to close out with a little more verve, it’s an early attacking mindset that often indicates a good night ahead from Gasol.
The same can be said for Lowry, who grabbed the bull by the horns amidst a strong offensive start for the Bucks. Forgotten in a relatively easy win is that the Raptors trailed this game 5-12 thanks to some makes in the paint by Antetokounmpo. Lowry came out of the first timeout with two triples, a pair of free throws, an assist, a layup and a jumper for good measure.
Toronto’s point guard accounted for 17 of the team’s first 19 points through his buckets and dimes, ending the night with 25 points and only 11 field goals attempted. Lowry rounded out another excellent performance with five rebounds, six assists, a steal and three triples.
He remains the league’s leader in charges drawn and loose-balls recovered in the postseason and has continued to post electric numbers in most advanced metrics.
That the Raptors wasted one of Lowry’s best postseason performances in Game 1 was a shame. That they survived without him in Game 3 was a stroke of good fortune. That Lowry has played well since Game 1 against Orlando, through a sprained thumb, should not surprise anyone that pays even moderate attention. He’s giving enough offense to keep things afloat and has started to mix timely shot-making in with his standout defense and hustle plays.
Amidst Lowry’s foul issues in Game 3, Fred VanVleet emerged as a major character, logging 31 minutes and actually holding down a spot in the Raptors’ most-used lineup alongside the typical four starters.
It was another chapter in his horrid offensive postseason, as VanVleet shot 1-for-11 from the field. The inconsistency, and the Raptors’ reliance on it, has pervaded this entire playoff run.
It looked as though a turnaround was in order after he nailed a pivotal 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter, but VanVleet would find unkind iron on his remaining attempts – often off-balance or rushed given the stagnancy of Toronto’s offense.
The sad part of the story is that VanVleet has been a quality contributor outside of his nasty shooting slump. Against teams with few obvious matchups, VanVleet has played some quality defense in terms of ball denial and fighting over screens.
In the first round, VanVleet was responsible for Terrence Ross, holding him to 20 points 6-of-19 shooting on 104 possessions as his primary defender, with Ross taking around 20 percent fewer shots than usual.
In the second round, VanVleet harassed J.J. Redick into 18 points on 6-of-19 shooting in 132 possessions, with Redick shooting about 30 percent less frequently than normal and the Sixers scoring almost 11 points per 100 possessions worse when that matchup was on.
So far against the Bucks VanVleet has done most of his work against George Hill (67 possessions) and Eric Bledsoe (44 possessions), with the former going 3-of-8 and the latter hitting just 1-of-8. The Bucks are scoring 3.8 points more per 100 possessions with VanVleet on Bledsoe but they’re working with a minus-32.3 mark when VanVleet is covering Hill.
While the NBA’s matchup data may be more symptom than cause, the overall body of work suggests that VanVleet has excelled at deterring his matchup even as he struggles for his own offense.
This is the third straight series in which he’s been forced to face elite length (this is also the first time Michael Carter-Williams will qualify as elite in anything NBA-related), and if the Raptors are lucky Game 4 will signify a turning point in VanVleet’s play.
When he drilled his first attempt on Tuesday, the weight of the postseason seemed to be lifted from his shoulders. By the time VanVleet got this shot to rattle its way down it felt a bit over-indulgent, as if every bad bounce from the first 15 playoff games combined to throw him a bone on one shot.
While all eyes are on the bouncing ball, Giannis Antetokounmpo commits a bad loose-ball foul that turns an improbable 3-pointer into a 4-point play. It was not Serge Ibaka’s most memorable moment of Game 4, but it’s a great indicator of all that he was able to accomplish.
Ibaka was instrumental in the Raptors’ efforts on the offensive glass with a team-high four offensive rebounds. Game 4 marked the first time that Toronto won that category, and Ibaka was directly responsible for four of the team’s 10 second-chance points thanks to his work on the boards – not to mention a few instances where Ibaka’s battling resulted in some extra possessions that weren’t quite credited as offensive rebounds.
Beyond the points that were added to the scoreboard, Ibaka’s presence helped keep the Bucks from igniting the transition game that’s carried them through this series. Every extra leap forced the Bucks to delay their run-outs, allowing the Raptors to organize themselves and grind Milwaukee’s offense into a halt after an early spurt from Antetokounmpo.
Ibaka’s wins will come on the margins in this series, but each additional one gives him confidence to attack his next opportunity with vigor.
Ibaka has a little bit of that old Bismack Biyombo vibe – like the reverse-Grinch where his heart swells with each positive play. Ibaka is at his best when he’s screaming and gesticulating, as the feeling feeds into his next sequence in a way it does for no other Raptor. As an emotional bellwether on a team with mostly cool customers, odds are that things are going well when Ibaka is feeling it.
He’s been dipping in and out of unplayable territory through most of the playoffs with strong stints followed by no-shows from half-to-half, but when he does show up for the full 48 his games are massively impactful. In Game 4 he ended up with 17 points and 13 rebounds in 24 minutes of work.
When Ibaka is playing well, it’s enough to swing the bench battle to almost even ground despite Milwaukee’s edge in the backcourt. When Norman Powell is on, it’s enough to swing the bench battle entirely.
Nick Nurse was hesitant to pull the chute on lineups that featured his top three reserves in the second round, even as VanVleet’s shooting slump continued and Powell failed to gain any traction against the Sixers. He believed in their larger body of work and that faith is now being rewarded as Powell roars back to life.
The Raptors got incredible output from their reserves in Game 4, and Powell led the way with 18 points, five rebounds, three assists, a steal and four 3-pointers. His speed makes him a natural fit in this series, and the fact that he’s eager to shoot sets him apart on a team that defaults to playmaking.
Powell’s assertiveness, even if his shot was astray, helped a few bench groups compile big runs against Antetokounmpo. They ripped off a 13-0 burst in the first half and a 10-3 run in the second. The combination of Powell, VanVleet and Ibaka was plus-20 in its time on the court while Powell himself was a game-high plus-29.
The box score is a dream for Nick Nurse, with Leonard playing only 36 minutes and six players in double figures – five of them scoring 17 or more. The Raptors’ non-superstars each have a role to play, and when it all clicks things are far more balanced than previous games would have you believe.
None of this is to say that Leonard was bad – just not superhuman. Considering he’s almost playing on one leg, that’s fair to expect.
With Leonard hobbled, the Raptors strayed from their typical M.O. in Game 4. He barely touched the ball before being subbed out after six minutes, and most of his first-half work was meant to establish for others as he loosened up over time.
Even at less than full strength, Leonard attracts enough attention from the Bucks to open up opportunities for his teammates, and there were multiple instances of him finding players stationed in the corner or making quick reads out of extra pressure.
That same logic applied defensively, where Leonard was less responsible for Antetokounmpo despite Nick Nurse making an effort to mirror their minutes. After checking the Greek Freak for 41 possessions in Game 3, Leonard took on the role “only” 34 times in Game 4. It resulted in seven points, one assist, two turnovers and 3-for-7 shooting.
Allowing Kawhi to ease into the game rather than hit the ground running at his explosive best paid dividends. It empowered the rest of the Raptors while Leonard was able to be selective about his spots. Toronto will surely need more brilliance from Leonard over the next couple of games, but Game 4 validates the notion that he doesn’t have to be all-world every single night. “The Others,” as they’re called on TNT, can win games in their own right.
1 – Khris Middleton is officially on the board in this series after posting 30 points, six rebounds, seven assists and four 3-pointers on 11-of-15 from the field. Moving Leonard into the Antetokounmpo matchup figured to free Middleton up, even after he had a rough go of it in Game 3. The last two games left Milwaukee looking like the one-man team, and Middleton will need to keep his foot on the gas with the Raptors finding some answers on their home floor. If he can force another defensive adjustment it might be tough for Toronto to head back to the well for a new solution.
2 – The Raptors sacrificed some rigidity in their matchups to just tag bodies in transition. The Bucks’ fast-break edge has been killer all series, and simply running guys off the line is far more important than making sure Player X is on Player Y. They lost Game 1 because of their own poor offense (and fatigue) and got run over in transition and on the glass in Game 2. Toronto should feel confident about their defensive play whenever the game slows down, and they should be willing to sacrifice more granular principles to make that happen. Milwaukee is getting just 0.84 points per possession out of their half-court offense this series.
3 – Brook Lopez is understandably hesitant to get out of the paint, and it’s leaving tons of open space for the ball-handler whenever his man sets a screen.
Lopez is a massive piece of Milwaukee’s offense, and if the Raptors can play him off the floor it would be a major development. There have been a few tactical decisions that looked like low-hanging fruit that went unpicked in previous series, so we’ll have to keep an eye on how much the Raptors are forcing Lopez to get out into space. The Bucks need hot shooting in order to make Mirotic-at-the-five lineups work because he’s not the same drop-back presence and will provide limited rim protection.
4 – Absent in all the fun was Pascal Siakam, who finished the night with seven points, four rebounds and six assists in 23 minutes. That limited workload may pay dividends down the line considering Siakam’s leg issues and his 50 minutes in Game 3. It wasn’t the most eye-catching performance but he did a nice job making plays when the Bucks sent a second defender his way. Siakam’s back-downs have been a bit more deliberate than usual of late, but if he can make quick reads then it won’t stick out as a huge negative.
5 – Also absent from any sort of fun was Eric Bledsoe, who is now 7-for-16 on shots that are within five feet from the basket and an abhorrent 4-for-29 on everything else. The Raptors are helping off him completely as they continue to throw doubles at the more dangerous Bucks, and whenever Bledsoe is on the court his man is just fishing for a help opportunity in the paint. It’s a serious problem for the Bucks, and on Tuesday neither George Hill (five points on two shots, minus-17 in 27 minutes) nor Malcolm Brogdon (2-of-11 for four points, minus-10 in 28 minutes) could bail him out.
6 – In addition to winning the rebounding battle for the first time, the Raptors also won the second-chance points battle for the first time and nearly broke even in fast-break points at 12-13. Those have been the pressure points for Milwaukee all series long and they figure to maintain the edge going forward, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Raptors make a concerted effort to stay on the offensive glass. It’ll require lightning-quick decisions, but even strong failed offensive rebound attempts can stall the transition game.
7 – Nikola Mirotic, what’s going on here? Powell took a career-high 13 3-pointers in Game 4, so it’s not like this was an unexpected outcome. Atrocious effort.
8 – Nick Nurse changed his substitution pattern to match Kawhi and Giannis minutes, pulling Leonard about halfway through the first and second quarters. How much of that was driven by the matchup pursuit vs. Leonard’s injury is something that only Nurse knows, but it’s an interesting tidbit considering how readily Leonard switched on screens in the first half. It’s also possible that it was more for conservation purposes, as Nurse rode Kawhi for about 10:30 in the third quarter to keep the Bucks from mounting a serious run to close the frame.
9 – Danny Green couldn’t quite follow in the Fred VanVleet footsteps of following up a dud with a great performance, though he did get off to a decent start. The Nikola Mirotic matchup is one that he should be able to exploit and his on-off numbers remain strong despite his poor shooting. Green doesn’t need to be scoring a bunch to make things work, as his play off the ball can get the Bucks scrambling around. Watch what Green does to the defense here:
It’s not quite like last series where some additional work as a screener would lead to obvious mismatches, but Green’s got to keep his activity level up. Stay the course and keep on shooting. His role is safe even if the leash is short, and the Raptors should trust that his shooting will turn around eventually.
10 – Milwaukee has been able to cruise up to this point, and how they respond to their first true adversity is going to be huge for the team not only this season but in the long run as well. A first-round matchup against a one-legged Blake Griffin was basically a continuation of the regular season, and after an early blip the Celtics went back to actively disliking one another. The Raptors are clearly on another level than Milwaukee’s previous opponents, with a single player that’s capable of outdueling the Bucks’ best while fighting through length and a supporting cast with guys that can take on a number of different roles from night to night without getting bruised egos. The two sides of the debate here were that the Bucks’ easy road would lead to beneficial rest while the Raptors’ run against teams that didn’t just roll over would steel them for tough situations at the expense of days off. So far, no answers. Game 5 is going to be great.
June 26, 2019, 7:55 amKevin Durant - SF - Golden State Warriors
Appearing on ESPN last night, Adrian Wojnarowski said that the Nets plan to offer Kevin Durant, a four-year max contract.
Brooklyn is in a great position to offer Kyrie Irving a max contract and then use that to pursue KD or perhaps another free agent. Zach Lowe added that the idea of Kyrie as a solo doesn’t appear to be the plan but the Nets would ultimately take on Irving as a solo act, although there would probably be a divide within the organization. KD is expected to miss the majority of the next season but it looks like teams won’t have any second thoughts offering him the max.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski
June 25, 2019, 8:11 pmBobby Portis - PF - Washington Wizards
Tony Jones and Fred Katz of The Athletic are reporting Bobby Portis is looking for as much as $16 million in free agency and has interest from multiple teams.
According to Jones and Katz, the Wizards aren't expected to match a huge offer sheet on Portis. As a restricted free agent, the Wiz declining to match would allow him to go elsewhere. The Utah Jazz have been a team at the top of the list on the rumor mill. Portis averaged 14.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in 28 games for the Wiz last season.
Source: Tony Jones on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 6:55 pmNikola Vucevic - C - Orlando Magic
Per Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News, the Mavs like how Nikola Vucevic fits alongside Kristaps Porzingis, but his expected salary would cost too much for the Mavs to sign.
The Mavs will enter free agency with a ton of cap space, but after the expected max contract that they'll extend to Porzingis, they may be more inclined to spread the wealth around or target Kemba Walker than committing a max contract to Vucevic. Vucevic had a career year as an All-Star for the Magic this past season, but his next destination remains a crapshoot.
Source: Dallas News
June 25, 2019, 6:38 pmJimmy Butler - SG - Philadelphia Sixers
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Rockets' ideal plan in free agency is to get Jimmy Butler by a sign-and-trade deal with the Sixers.
Butler is going to be a sought after commodity once free agency opens as the Sixers, Lakers, and others are also going to be looking to ink him to a long-term deal. Butler regained his level back to max contract level after his play during the playoffs this season. The Rockets don't have any cap space to sign Butler outright, so they'll have to get a commitment from him to take a pay cut, while also getting the Sixers to agree to help facilitate a deal. This is going to be interesting.
June 25, 2019, 5:08 pmKhem Birch - C - Orlando Magic
The Magic have extended qualifying offers to C Khem Birch and F Amile Jefferson, rendering both restricted free agents ahead of free agency which is set to begin on June 30th.
Birch, who averaged 4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in just 12.9 minutes per game this past season, is seemingly a priority for the Magic to bring back, and now they'll get the opportunity to match any contracts he may fetch from other teams. Jefferson was in the G-League for the majority of the season, where he was very productive. Both may take on larger roles, should they stay with the Magic, as star C Nikola Vucevic is an unrestricted free agent.
Source: Magic PR on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 4:58 pmJR Smith - SG - Cleveland Cavaliers
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, the Lakers could eventually take a look at signing J.R. Smith should he be released by the Cavs, or traded and bought out by another team.
Smith is likely to become a free agent one way or the other by the end of the month, and the Lakers will be looking at cheap floor-spacers to fill out their roster. Smith and LeBron James are familiar with one another after winning a championship together with the Cavs, and it looks like Smith to the Lakers is a real possibility.
Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 4:00 pmKristaps Porzingis - PF - Dallas Mavericks
Shams Charania of The Athletic is reporting that the Mavs will meet with restricted free agent Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL) once free agency opens on June 30th, and the team will offer him the full five-year, $158 million max contract.
This was expected ever since the Mavs traded for Porzingis mid-season while he recovered from his knee injury. Porzingis is fully expected to sign with the Mavs and become reigning ROY Luka Doncic's running mate for the foreseeable future.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 3:54 pmJordan Clarkson - PG - Cleveland Cavaliers
Cavs combo guard Jordan Clarkson changed agents and signed with Klutch Sports and Rich Paul.
Clarkson is likely to be a trade target for competitive teams ahead of next year's trade deadline, as a quality player on an expiring contract. Clarkson will enter free agency next offseason looking for the best deal possible.
Source: Joe Vardon on Twitter
June 25, 2019, 3:46 pmJulius Randle - PF - New Orleans Pelicans
Per Marc Spears of The Undefeated, Pelicans forward Julius Randle and the Knicks have mutual interest as free agency approaches.
The Pelicans drafted their PF of the future in Zion Williamson last week, and will seemingly let Randle walk in free agency as they are unlikely to pay him what he deserves. After a productive finish with the Lakers in 2017-18, Randle had to settle for a one-year deal from the Pelicans last summer. After another productive season on an expiring contract, it looks like at least one franchise is ready to invest in Randle as their PF of the future. Randle averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 0.9 threes to boot this past season and makes for a good mid-round selection in drafts next season if he finds himself in a similar role.
Source: The Undefeated
June 25, 2019, 3:32 pmAndre Iguodala - SF - Golden State Warriors
Speaking about Kevin Durant's injury situation during this year's playoffs, Andre Iguodala said that he fractured his left leg against the Rockets in the 2018-19 playoffs and the Warriors listed him out with a "left lateral leg contusion.”
There has been a lot of smoke in regards to how the Warriors dealt with Durant's injury, as it did not appear to be as minor as the team led the public to believe when he injured himself backpedaling after a made basket. A non-contact injury is always a major red flag, but the Warriors called Durant's initial injury a "first-grade calf strain," which is the lowest graded injury designation. Weeks later, when Durant rushed back to help his team out of a 3-1 Finals deficit, he fully ruptured his Achilles in only 12 minutes of action. This is all just speculation, but this revelation from the 2015 NBA Finals MVP is an alarming development for a franchise who could seemingly do no wrong the past half-decade. The league may take a deep-dive into these claims soon enough.
Source: NBC Sports