• The Toronto Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

    Their series-ender had shades of Game 5, where the Bucks rode a hot start to a lead that was slowly eroded. Milwaukee’s lead in Game 6 was built on tenuous ground, with Bucks making contested threes and the Raptors bricking open looks. Once it became clear in the second quarter that they wouldn’t be getting unsustainable shooting all night long, it was only a matter of time.

    The Raptors fell behind thanks to an early 17-2 run by the Bucks, only to turn the tables with a 17-2 run of their own in the second half. The universe has its way of evening things out, but Toronto’s run kept extending. By the time it hit 26-3, it appeared all but certain that the Raptors would make history. They would never trail again, ripping the game from Milwaukee’s grasp with a 39-18 run over the final 14 minutes of action, turning a 15-point deficit into a Finals appearance.

    That it was headlined by their two best players, one old and one new, is fitting. The Raptors are one step from their ultimate goal, but this season cannot be viewed as anything other than a rousing success. For Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry to combine on its punctuation – at least to this point – is how the story should’ve been written all along.

    For the second straight game, Leonard established a new career-high that made a major impact on the outcome.

    Of his 17 rebounds, it was the last that formally ended the proceedings. There was some good fortune at play as Leonard was able to vacuum in one last offensive rebound to put the nail in Milwaukee’s coffin. He ended up with four of Toronto’s six offensive rebounds on the evening, with all six coming in the second half after the Bucks racked up a 7-0 advantage (and a 6-0 edge in second-chance points) in the first half.

     

    The offensive glass won’t play the same central role against Golden State that it did against Philadelphia and Milwaukee, but the Warriors do attack for offensive rebounds more than the Raptors do – 10.6 offensive rebounds per game in the postseason, good for eighth in the postseason and fourth among teams that won a round. They also rank fourth out of all playoff teams with an offensive rebound percentage of 30.1.

    The Raptors sit 15th in both categories at just 7.8 offensive rebounds per contest and a 22.1 offensive rebound rate. Those efforts will require more than Leonard, and even if it’s a smaller piece of the puzzle the Raptors will need to squeeze every point they can against the Warriors.

    Leonard also helped prevent Giannis Antetokounmpo from providing any sort of dominant performance once he became the primary cover. It was a team effort, and all the help to pinch off driving lanes was monumental, but Leonard did a lot of the heavy lifting. Slowing things down forced Antetokounmpo into uncomfortable territory, and despite his two 3-pointers in Game 6 it was exactly what the Raptors wanted.

    In 29 possessions with Leonard as his primary defender in Game 6, Antetokounmpo finished with four points on 1-of-3 shooting. He took seven shots in 17 possessions against Pascal Siakam, four in 13 against Marc Gasol and two in seven when matched up with Serge Ibaka. It was the capper to an outstanding defensive series, as whoever Leonard covered was forced out of shot attempts.

    Whereas other paint-focused opponents on this playoff run can at least shoot capably enough to force cursory attention, each jumper out of Antetokounpo felt like an admission of frustration, if not failure, given the discrepancy between Giannis in the paint and Giannis on the outside.

    With Kevin Durant sidelined for the start of the series, Leonard has no premier matchup to draw his attention. How Nick Nurse chooses to deploy his destroyer will be something worth watching early in the series.

    There will surely be possessions against Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, especially if either gets hot, but the Raptors will not want Leonard to be run ragged as the two sharpshooters run laps without the ball – especially with Durant’s return looming. Perhaps sticking Leonard on Draymond Green is the play as it may give Toronto a head start on cutting off Green’s playmaking, and ideally the Warriors’ movement.

    Additionally, that would allow Leonard to provide aggressive help defense and hunt driving and kick-out lanes for steals. The Warriors, for the beauty of their game when things are clicking, can be just as sloppy when it’s not. Their turnover rate of 14.1 puts them ninth in the playoffs and fifth among teams that advanced a round.

    The Warriors have conceded 16.8 points off turnovers and 13.1 fast break points per game this playoff run. The Raptors have scored 17.9 and 15.9 such points per game, respectively. Much like offensive rebounding, the Raptors will need to squeeze every extra possession they can, and the turnover battle is one of the few where they hold a clear, natural edge.

    Doing so will only give more breathing room to an offense that has increasingly found its stride as role players acclimate to the temperature of the postseason.

    In Game 5 it was Leonard’s playmaking that led to a new personal best, and his work against traps and doubles continues to improve as the postseason wears on. Slowly but surely, Leonard has meshed with the rest of Toronto’s attack after spending most of the season as his own entity. It’s the sort of development that requires all parties to stay on the same page, and it opens up pockets of space around the rim and open shots on the outside.

    Perhaps ironically, it’s the dichotomy of the team’s offense that will serve them well in the Finals. No team has been battle-tested at this level as much as the Warriors. It will take more than one offensive methodology to beat them. Like Toronto’s earlier opponents, they figure to try and make the other Raptors beat them but it’s easier said than done, especially with Leonard gaining reps as a facilitator and his teammates becoming more adept at moving around him.

    Leonard’s ability to rain down isolation buckets from the mid-range changes the calculus. Those are the shots that opponents try to force, but they’re also Kawhi’s bread and butter. If the Raptors can shift back and forth between letting Leonard cook on his own and involving him in larger, movement-based concepts, they’ll have a puncher’s chance. It’s a tightrope that the Raptors haven’t been able to walk consistently this postseason, but the fact that they have shown the capability against both Philadelphia and Milwaukee bodes well.

    This is the first time that the Raptors will be tested against and opponent that relies on elite smarts and togetherness rather than sheer size or length, and how that impacts Toronto’s offense will be fascinating to track.

    It’s also worth noting that Leonard has had eight games of four or more turnovers this postseason. He’s committing 3.1 turnovers per game in the playoffs, up from 2.0 in the regular season. For as strong as Toronto’s transition game is, the Warriors have proven even more lethal offensively when they get out on the run. That the rest of the Raptors take care of the ball is exceedingly helpful, but Leonard can produce another small swing by cutting down on his own miscues.

    Leonard’s secondary efforts do not cover up the fact that he is a walking bucket. He finished Game 6 with 27 points on 9-of-22 from the field and 8-of-11 from the line. Toronto’s scoring output will start with Leonard and flow from there. It has no reason not to.

    Kawhi is Toronto’s floor, and it’s as high as it gets outside of Oakland.

    Leonard did the big things, as he has all postseason. Lowry, as he’s done for the last seven years, has mastered all the little ones.

    The “Lowry” chants that rained down after Game 6 were deeply deserved, and his visible relief in the closing seconds was a nice touch in the story of a player who has come to define so much for the organization. Lowry has long been Toronto’s best and most impactful player, even if he has never been treated as the team’s flag bearer.

    He has taken a beating both on and off the court, from his willingness to dive around like a madman and seek out charges to the public’s fixation with Playoff Lowry, which ignores that Lowry has been the Raptors’ best player over the last few postseason runs before Leonard arrived. Some bad shooting nights have left Lowry with the reputation of an underperformer when the team only advanced as far as it did because of Lowry’s ability to lift teammates that were simply too ineffective or too one-dimensional to hang with the league’s best.

    Lowry doesn’t make all the shots you’d like him to, but he almost always makes the shots that the Raptors need. Look at the time and score on some of Lowry’s buckets from Game 6.

    A nervous building full of people who are conditioned to expect bad things is being drained of life as Milwaukee threatens to put up a huge early run. Lowry is there.

     

    Here’s Lowry driving right into the teeth of a defense for an acrobatic layup, after having drawn a charge when the game was 80-78.

     

    Down 65-52 in the third, Lowry hits threes on back-to-back possessions to keep the Raptors within shouting distance. Without those makes, Milwaukee’s largest second-half lead swells to 21 instead of 15 in a game that they ended up losing by six.

    Lowry makes enough other plays that it’s easy to overlook his box score contributions when you’re focused on watching the game. In Game 6 he delivered 17 points, five rebounds, eight assists, one steal and three 3-pointers while committing just one turnover. He can be impactful without a full statline, but it certainly helps when all the stars align. It also cannot be forgotten that Lowry picked up his fifth foul with 6:37 remaining and stayed on the court for the rest of the game.

    Perhaps no play better encapsulates what Lowry means to the Raptors than this one, where he lays out twice to create a transition opportunity. (That the NBA appears to credit Leonard with the steal is criminal.) He has made a career out of doing the dirty work that other star guards might eschew, and it’s the reason that he wins more than others who might provide more sizzle. Lowry leads the playoffs in loose balls recovered at 40, which is 10 more than second place. This play set the tone, in that even when the Raptors were down you knew they would not wilt.

     

    His defensive game is built on tenacity and making the proper reads, and he’s in for the greatest test one can face on the perimeter in Curry. The Warriors are built from the outside, and for the first time this postseason the Raptors’ main focus will not be on creating a wall to block off the rim. Of course, the Warriors were the best in the league in terms of shooting percentage at the rim, even though getting there is not a priority. Nothing will come easy.

    Leonard’s inevitability is the reason that the Raptors have made history. It’s the macro work of Lowry that put the Raptors in position to acquire Leonard in the first place, and it’s his work in the micro that creates winning plays.

    As for the capital-M Moment from Game 6, it was Lowry at his best with Leonard coming in to finish the job.

    Lowry makes the right read (note Fred VanVleet’s defense on Khris Middleton, too) and comes away with the ball. He baits Antetokounmpo in, hits him with a change of pace and then walls him off as Leonard puts an exclamation point on the comeback. If Leonard’s even-keel demeanor has spread to the rest of the Raptors, so too have Lowry’s bursts of frenetic energy and sense of timing. The other Raptors know when to hit the jets.

    Watch where Leonard begins his sprint – he’s closer to the baseline than Middleton and even with George Hill. The first time either of those two Bucks re-enters the frame is after Leonard has scored. Amidst the backdrop of Leonard’s left leg injury, it’s inexcusable. Those are the small things that put a team over the hump, and a manifestation of one team “wanting it more” than another.

    It’s rare that that cliché ever points to anything tangible. This time it did. Sometimes two points isn’t just two points.

     

    The Raptors were lifted to new heights by their two best players against Milwaukee. In for a new challenge against the best team of the era and potentially of all time, they’ll need more of the same. In a year full of firsts, the biggest might be that Toronto finally has a roster that’s led by multiple players who can rise to the occasion.

    Other Observations

    1 – One key mini-run in the Raptors’ big push was Toronto ripping off a 7-3 spurt with Leonard on the bench. The game-changing, 26-3 run featured a long stint with Leonard on the bench – 3:30 of its 7:32 overall – which gave Lowry an opportunity to lead his own group. Lowry-and-the-bench has been a rotation fixture since he became an All-Star, and it is only right that a version of that unit was part of the pull-away.  That two of those 3:30 in the fourth came against Giannis Antetokounmpo is massive. Lowry, Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell won one of the most vital stretches of the game. The Raptors landed a huge punch in a Giannis-less stretch they needed to have and then managed to hold off the Bucks until Leonard was ready to return. The bench showing up completely swung the series.

    2 –VanVleet’s shooting was a difference-maker to say the least. Fred Jr. might be the MVP of the series. Beyond his offensive exploits, VanVleet fits the Lowry mold of working extremely hard to fight through screens and deny his man the ball however he can. VanVleet spent the first two rounds chasing Terrence Ross and J.J. Redick before settling into a more traditional matchup against the Bucks, but he’ll need to ramp it back up with Curry and Thompson waiting. There were also some instances of VanVleet putting a body on Brook Lopez to keep him off the offensive glass, which deserve a mention.

    3 – The Bucks were left scrambling for answers over the final four games of the series after they had gone completely untested over the first two rounds. They only made three major adjustments over the course of the series: Starting Malcolm Brogdon over Nikola Mirotic (which came far too late), benching Mirotic entirely in Game 6 and having Brook Lopez guard Pascal Siakam over the last two games. After Game 5, where the Raptors looked to really grasp what the Bucks were cooking, Mike Budenholzer really didn’t have anywhere else to turn unless he wanted to get off-the-board crazy. He installed the “make all your shots” offense in the first quarter, but that’s about it. The one thing that he didn’t do was play Antetokounmpo more, which looks like a grave error in retrospect.

    4 – Marc Gasol didn’t catch much attention in Game 6, though his game was largely effective. He didn’t take his first shot until the third quarter but it can’t really be said that Gasol was passing up open shots. The fact that the Bucks had Antetokounmpo covering Gasol and his slow release probably helped make some decisions for him, but it was a performance that was subdued without teetering too far into passive. The big man still played great defense and hit some big corner threes when he was left open, so it’s going in the books as another successful game.

    5 – Pretty poor execution by the Bucks on this pivotal possession. First off, it’s a predictable action. Secondly, Brook Lopez does a terrible job at keeping Pascal Siakam away from the lob, though maybe it looks worse because Siakam knows what’s coming. Thirdly, the lob itself isn’t going to accomplish anything where it’s thrown. The best-case scenario is that Antetokounmpo lands with Siakam in his grill and VanVleet poking at the ball from behind should he bring it down.

     

    6 – A lot of the attention went to VanVleet’s shooting resurgence, but the Raptors do not win the series without Norman Powell. He was never shy about taking his shots and was one of the team’s most fearless players in terms of attacking the rim despite Milwaukee’s length. That sort of energy is contagious, and it’s the sort of thing that can both calm a team down and reaffirm their process. Game 6 didn’t feature a big scoring explosion but Powell did throw down a dunk to stop a run when it looked as though the Bucks might build an insurmountable lead.

    7 – The Bucks are one of the teams out there that really try not to switch on screens unless they have to. Some of the developments over Games 3, 4 and 5 forced them into it, and their communication was problematic at times. Here’s a total breakdown where George Hill commits to the switch while Antetokounmpo tries to get back to his original cover. Lowry knocks in a wide-open triple.

     

    Here’s another play where Ersan Ilyasova and Hill either get crossed up or half-commit to a double-team. Either way, Serge Ibaka is wide open, and Pascal Siakam is off like a rocket toward the rim if Ibaka can snake in a pass or toss up a lob. He just hit an easy hook instead.

     

    8 – Danny Green got some great looks in the opening minutes of the game, and the fact that the Raptors called his number in order to try and get him going early speaks to his importance. Nick Nurse dialed back on Green’s minutes but everyone knows that the Raptors will need him to bounce back. He looks like the guy that will be chasing Klay Thompson around for the most part, and you can bet he’ll have a few possessions on the other top dogs. In the regular season we saw Green back Curry down in the post a couple times, and using him as a screener will help get Curry working on the other end. It’s the same logic that applied against J.J. Redick and Philadelphia, only on steroids. Nobody needs the break between series more than Green.

    9 – At the risk of sounding rude, Eric Bledsoe was terrible this series. He couldn’t get anything going offensively and outside of a 15-minute stretch where his jumper was on, he was entirely invisible. Defensively, he was too busy trying to poke balls away as a second or even third help defender and lost track of his own cover. We picked out a Fred VanVleet relocation three to discuss following Game 5, and the same thing happened again in Game 6. There is no good explanation for this. It’s a back-breaking play just before halftime after the Bucks have already frittered away a big lead.

     

    10 – How the Raptors approach Draymond Green will be fascinating. There have been a number of opponents this postseason that the Raptors were happy to leave open on the perimeter: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe among them. The same principle applies with Green, but unlike the other players listed he’s not in the scoring business. The players that Toronto has ignored (Simmons excepted) looked hesitant on the outside, as if they were doing the mental accounting on jacking up an open look that they might hit. Green doesn’t hesitate and is perfectly happy to keep things humming. It’s going to be interesting to see how their coverage on him changes if he tears it up as a playmaker.

Fantasy News

  • Moritz Wagner
    PF, Washington Wizards

    Moritz Wagner has but cut from Germany's FIBA World Cup team.

    The move seems somewhat surprising given Wagner's youth and notoriety, but Germany still have four NBA players on their roster despite cutting Wagner. The Wizards have plenty of depth in the frontcourt and Wagner is probably lower on the totem poll when it comes to receiving minutes.

    Source: Dario Skerletic of Sportnado

  • Jonah Bolden
    PF, Philadelphia Sixers

    Jonah Bolden has opted to withdraw from Team Australia in the FIBA World Cup.

    Bolden becomes the fifth NBA player to skip out on playing for Australia in the World Cup, a trend that seems to be prevalent for several country's national teams. Bodlen could be looking at an increased role as a backup center for Philly's thin bench this upcoming season. He is not expected to be a relevant fantasy option though.

    Source: Fox Sports Australia

  • Jeremy Lin
    PG, Toronto Raptors

    Jeremy Lin is in advanced discussions with the Bejing Ducks according to a report from Chinese journalist Sonx Xiang.

    Lin previosuly turned down a deal to play for CSKA Moscow, and has also discussed his openness to playing in China. The nine year guard still hopes to resmue his NBA career at some point, but a move to China may be the best career option for him at this juncture.

    Source: Sportando

  • Dwight Howard
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    The Lakers will soon ask Memphis permission to speak with Dwight Howard according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

    Shams goes on to mention that there is mutual interest here and that Joakim Noah could be another veteran of interest for LA. The realistic options for free agents at the five really don't go much further than these two for the Lakers. Stay tuned for more updates on this developing story.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Dwight Howard
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    In the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins injury, one name the Lakers are considering is Dwight Howard, according to Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated.

    Howard is still a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, but it is widely assumed that he will be waived before the season starts. A reunion in LA would certainly be pretty surprising for the Lakers after Howard famously did not resign with them after a miserable season playing with Kobe Bryant. Still, the Lakers need depth at the five and there really aren't any options on the market who compare to Howard's level of productivty, even at this stage of his career. Other center options the Lakers could pursue include Joakim Noah, Kenneth Faried and Zaza Pachulia.

    Source: Rohan Nadkarni on Twitter

  • Malachi Richardson
    SG, International

    Malachi Richardson has signed with Hapoel Holon in Israel.

    Richardson played 22 games for the Raptors last season and averaged 1.4 points. At 23 years old, he still has time to develop and possibly return to the NBA in the future.

    Source: Sportando

  • Rudy Gobert
    C, Utah Jazz

    Rudy Gobert scored 14 points along with nine rebounds, two assists and a block in France's 86-72 win vs. Brazil in the World Cup exhibition games.

    Gobert led the team in scoring across 22 minutes of playing time. With the new additions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic on the Jazz, Gobert may take a slight hit in scoring however you can still expect excellent field goal percentage, rebounds and blocks. Evan Fournier chipped in 13 points with five rebounds, three assists and a steal for France. Brazil's Bruno Cabloclo scored nine points, seven rebounds and a steal.

    Source: FIBA

  • Dennis Schroder
    PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Dennis Schroder scored 19 points to lead Germany to a 83-62 win vs. Hungary as the teams prepare for the Wold Cup.

    Schroder filled the box score tonight by adding three rebounds, seven assists, one steal, one block and four treys. He will come off the bench again next season behind Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Anyone who drafts the often-injured Chris Paul may want to handcuff him with Schroder. Fellow countryman Daniel Theis scored 11 points with six rebounds, two assists and one steal.

    Source: FIBA

  • Tyler Dorsey
    SG, International

    Tyler Dorsey has signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv B.C. of Israel.

    Dorsey played 21 games for the Grizzlies last year after being acquired midseason from the Hawks via trade. He played well over that span with 9.8 points in 21.3 minutes but will take his talents overseas where, "He'll have a chance to showcase what great things he can do," according to his new head coach. Maccabi has signed several former NBA players this offseason as Dorsey will be joining Omri Casspi, Nate Wolters, Quincy Acy and Tarik Black.

    Source: Macabi Tel Aviv on Twitter

  • Rayjon Tucker
    PG, Milwaukee Bucks

    Rayjon Tucker will be signing with the Bucks on a partially guaranteed deal.

    Tucker is a little older than most rookies and will be 22 before the start of the season but he played well enough at Little Rock last year to deserve a look, scoring 20.3 points per game and knocking down 2.4 triples per game at a 41.1 percent clip. He rounds out the Bucks 20-man training camp roster but since they already have 15 guaranteed contracts and both two-way spots occupied, he is very unlikely to make the team and could very well end up in the G-League.

    Source: Darren Wolfson on Twitter