ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Toronto Raptors

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Last season: The Raptors had one of the most satisfying regular seasons in the league. Their 48-34 record was a franchise best, and fans really embraced the team after it traded Rudy Gay. The deal with the Kings cleared the way for the Raptors to elevate young and likable players, assembling a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.

DeRozan became an All-Star. Lowry was even better. Valanciunas grew into a larger role, and Ross is following right behind him. Johnson was the glue that held everything together.

It really worked.

But Toronto ran into the experienced Nets in the first round of the playoffs, and Brooklyn upset the third-seeded Raptors in seven games.

Signature highlight from last season: The Raptors established an identity after the Gay trade – feisty and confident. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri showcased that when he addressed fans before Game 1 against the Nets, shouting “F— Brooklyn:”

If you want something on the court, Lowry made an awesome buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the Raptors’ Game 5 win over the Nets. That series really was something.

Key player changes:

Keys to the Raptors season:

Kyle Lowry (and everyone) staying hungry: Lowry got into better shape last season. He stopped frequently fighting with coaches, and he became a better teammate. That led to the best season of his career.

Oh, by the way, he was in a contract year.

Has Lowry really turned a corner, or did the prospect of a big paycheck just temporarily convince Lowry to change his act?

The answer to that question will determine the Raptors’ fate, not only this season but in coming years. They gave Lowry a four-year, $48 million contract this offseason.

Based on last year’s team success, they also generously re-signed Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez for north of $6 million per season each.

Will everyone remain as motivated as they were last year? Lowry will set the tone.

The value of continuity: On the flip side of the motivational question, the Raptors return their six most-used players from a season ago – DeRozan, Lowry, Valanciunas, Johnson, Ross and Vasquez. They can really settle into Dwane Casey’s system.

Really, the Raptors were two different teams last season – the one before the Gay trade and the one after. That second team had a limited amount of time to grow together, making up for it with a noticeable excitement for playing together. A little more seasoning could really pay dividends, especially in the postseason.

An improved bench: Lou Williams adds scoring punch, and James Johnson brings quality defense with some all-around offensive skills. Plus, Patterson returns to stretch the floor, and Vasquez is back to play behind and with Lowry.

Toronto’s bench is deeper and more complete, giving Casey potential to find some intriguing lineups and rest his starters.

Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross continuing to develop: Valanciunas looked like a future All-Star, and Ross had a 51-point game. Toronto couldn’t have asked for much more from those players in their second years.

But as Valanciunas and Ross step into their third seasons, expectations get higher. Both players must show the skills they flashed last season in more consistent doses.

Lowry and DeRozan are closer to their peaks, so the for the Raptors to reach the next level, the onus is on Valanciunas and Ross.

Why you should watch: If the Raptors merely copy what they do last season, they’re a lot of fun. They play physically and energetically, really forcing opponents to play their best. This is a team on the rise.

Prediction: 48-34, No. 3 seed in the East and a playoff-series victory. Matching their record and seed from last season might seem like a failure for the Raptors, but the East is deeper. A repeat would be a success – as long as the playoff outcome changes. Toronto is more experienced and more talented this season, and I think that gets them over the hump. The Raptors might not be in the same class as the Cavaliers and Bulls, but they’re my pick – over the Wizards, Bobcats, Heat, Nets, Hawks and whomever else – to rise to the top of that crowded next tier.

Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum on Ujiri: ‘Masai is here to stay’

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Masai Ujiri-to-the-Knicks rumors are heating up.

Raptors owner Larry Tanenbaum is throwing cold water on the notion of his team president departing.

Tanenbaum, via Michael Traikos of the Toronto Sun:

“We haven’t talked (about an extension) at this point in time, but if you ask him, his intentions are pretty clear.”

“Masai has a contract that goes for another two years — this season and next season — so there’s really no need at this point (to re-sign him),” he said.

“He is the best,” said Tanenbaum. “But no team can come to talk to him. That’s tampering. And every owner knows that. Masai is here to stay.”

Apparently, Tanenbaum isn’t among those in Toronto afraid of Ujiri leaving for New York.

Tanenbaum’s comments come on the heels of mixed reports of whether the Raptors offered an extension that Ujiri rejected. Though I don’t blindly trust Tanenbaum – who’d be incentivized to deny getting rejected – I appreciate him putting his name behind this information. That’s more credible than the previous reports that cited unnamed sources.

The Knicks are reportedly “obsessed” with Ujiri. They can offer a more prestigious historical franchise, a bigger market, more connections for Ujiri’s foundation and maybe more money. They also have owner James Dolan, who is notoriously difficult to work for.

Tanenbaum sure sounds as if he knows New York won’t tempt Ujiri. The Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman is speaking in no uncertain terms. If Masai isn’t there to stay, Tanenbaum will have a lot of egg on his face.

If Masai is there to stay, Tanenbaum will have one of the NBA’s best executives.

Three Things to Know: Miami’s young core can rival anyone’s, has fueled Heat’s hot start

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Miami’s young core can rival anyone’s, has fueled Heat’s hot start. Sometimes the headline can miss the real story.

That happened Tuesday night in the NBA, where the headline out of the Hawks/Heat game was Trae Young calling game, waving his arms and saying it was over after his assist to Alex Len for a dunk put the Hawks up 6 with less than a minute to go in the game.

It was not over, Miami had been coming back all night long and did so again, capped by a Jimmy Butler three that sent the game to overtime.

Miami owned the overtime and went on to win 135-121. Butler took to Instagram after the game to say Trae Young is no Nostradamus.

That back-and-forth is entertaining, but it missed the real story of the night — Miami won that game because it’s young core bailed them out.

As it has all season. Jimmy Butler has been phenomenal and was in this game — a triple-double of 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists — but the Heat don’t win if their young core guys do not go off. Miami is 18-6 and third in the East because their young core is better than anyone predicted.

Just ask the Hawks. Bam Adebayo is playing at a near All-Star level and had a triple-double of 30 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. Kendrick Nunn is in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race and led Miami with 36 points. Then there is Duncan Robinson, who drained 10 threes on the night.

This season Miami got back to its identity — Pat Riley’s team has always found young diamond’s in the rough and developed them into quality players as well as any organization in the league. That — and Miami’s ability to get veterans into great shape and raise their level of contributions — has fueled consistent excellence over the decades. Of course, the Heat also hunted and bagged star players (Miami is a place you can recruit big names to come).

The Heat got back to that identity this season — they went out and got Jimmy Butler, but it’s the young core of guys (and we didn’t even discuss Tyler Herro or Justise Winslow) that is at the heart of why the Heat keep on winning this season.

2) Joel Embiid was having a little fun again and the Sixers improved to 13-0 at home. Joel Embiid has been a little subdued this season. He’s still been one of the game’s elite centers, but his minutes, shot attempts, points per game, efficiency, and his trash-talking fun factor all have been down a little this season.

Which is why it was so much fun when the old Embiid broke out for a minute against Denver. Embiid hit a circus shot while being fouled and then ran out to center court to do a little shimmy for the crowd.

Last Sunday, Embiid explained his more subdued self this year this way, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“The whole season it feels like I’ve been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I’m healthy for the playoffs,” he told reporters. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I’ve been part of I’ve not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I’ve been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body.”

After the win against the Sixers, Embiid said we may see more of the old-school, fun version of himself this season going forward, via Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that’s kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I’m having fun, I dominate.“

With the win, the Sixers improved to 18-7 on the season — 13-0 at home but 5-7 on the road.

3) Two guys vying for Most Improved Player — Davis Bertans and Devonte’ Graham — put on a show in Hornets win over Wizards. Of all the end-of-season awards, Most Improved Player is the one that usually takes me (and a lot of media and league followers) to settle on. It’s just the nature of the award. Most improved usually goes to a player nobody expected to make a massive leap doing just that, so you don’t see it coming. Then, guys come out hot to start the season, but can’t sustain it. For MIP, it just takes longer for the field to sort itself out.

Two guys in the discussion early on for the award are Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham and Washington’s Davis Bertans — and those two put on a show Tuesday night. Bertans had a career night, scoring 32 on 11-of-18 shooting off the bench, including 8-of-12 from three.

Graham, who has gone from a guy who played in just 46 games a season ago to Charlotte’s leading scorer at 19.2 a night, had 29 points on 19 shots to lead the Hornets.

Charlotte picked up the win, 114-107, and if you want to dream big, remain 2.5 games back of the eight seed and a playoff berth in the East.

Joel Embiid was having fun, dancing at mid-court in another Sixers win at home

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid scored 22 points, including two key free throws with 15.3 seconds left, and Tobias Harris added 20 to keep the Philadelphia 76ers perfect at home with a 97-92 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.

Embiid was having fun going against Nikola Jokic, and after Embiid hit a circus shot he was out at center court doing a little shimmy and exhorting the crowd.

Matisse Thybulle added 13 points for the Sixers, who are 13-0 in Philadelphia. They have won three straight and seven of eight.

Will Barton had 26 points to lead the Nuggets, who have lost three in a row and five of six. Leading scorer Jamal Murray was injured with 6:49 left in the first quarter when he collided with Ben Simmons and didn’t return.

The Nuggets set a franchise record for largest fourth-quarter comeback when they rebounded from 19 points down to start the final period in a 100-97 win over Philadelphia in Denver on Nov. 8. They tried again, but couldn’t come all the way back this time.

The 76ers led by 10 early in the fourth after Josh Richardson‘s deep 3-pointer from the top of the key made it 88-78 with 8:54 remaining. The Nuggets scored the next eight, capped by Barton’s three-point play with seven minutes left, to pull to 88-86.

But then Thybulle hit a pivotal 3 and grabbed a big offensive rebound on Philadelphia’s next possession, which ended with Al Horford‘s jumper that put the 76ers in front 93-86 with 4:36 to play.

Denver had chances from that point on but went cold from the field, making just one field goal until Nikola Jokic’s runner made it 95-92 with 18.9 seconds left. Embiid then sank both free throws after being fouled for a five-point lead before Barton missed a 3 from the top of the key.

Trae Young waved “game over,” after Heat comeback win Jimmy Butler mocked him

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In the NBA, a minute can be an eternity.

Trae Young didn’t think so, he thought Atlanta was going to get the upset after his assist to Alex Len for a dunk put the Hawks up 6 with less than a minute to go in the game.

Did we mention a minute can be an eternity in the NBA? Miami came back and a Jimmy Butler three sent the game to overtime. Butler finished the game with a triple-double of 20 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Miami owned the overtime and went on to win 135-121.

Butler didn’t miss the chance to mock Young on Instagram

It was a big night for the Heat’s young core. Bam Adebayo had a triple-double of 30 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, Kendrick Nunn led Miami with 36 points, and Duncan Robinson drained 10 threes.