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Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have Raptors looking tougher for playoffs

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Raptors coach Dwane Casey praised plenty of his players after beating the Pistons on Wednesday – Kyle Lowry for hitting the ground running after a wrist injury, Cory Joseph for sparking a 20-point comeback, DeMar DeRozan for nailing a big shot late, Jonas Valanciunas for hitting a clutch free throw.

And then Casey got to Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.

“They gave us physical toughness,” Casey said, “that we haven’t had.”

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Toronto has won 201 games – more than any team in the East. But the Raptors have disappointed in the playoffs.

As the No. 3 seed in 2014, they lost to the Nets. Again with home-court advantage in 2015, Toronto got swept by the Wizards. The Raptors finally got off the schneid after winning franchise-record 56 games and securing the number two seed last year, but they still looked unimpressive while scraping by the Pacers and Heat in seven games a piece.

This year could be different.

Toronto (48-31) is once again impressing in the regular season. But Ibaka and Tucker – acquired in February trades before the deadline – have changes this team’s dynamic in a way that bodes well for the postseason.

Ibaka is a shot-blocking big man who’s hitting the defensive glass harder in a contract year. Though just 6-foot-6, Tucker uses his strength and physicality to be a combo forward who can even cover some guards.

With those two on the court, the Raptors have allowed just 100.3 points per 100 possessions – a mark that would lead the league over the full season.

“Of course. It’s not surprising,” Ibaka said. “That’s why we’re here.”

For now.

They’re really in Toronto to help in a potential playoff rematch with the Cavaliers, who beat the Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Tucker has even received some buzz as a LeBron James stopper, and though his ability to shut down LeBron is surely overstated, Tucker brings a new element to his new team.

Toronto’s offense has drive the team’s success the last few years.

The Raptors ranked third in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating in 2014-15. So, they signed DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo the following summer to shore up their defense. It improved, but not to a high level. Last season, Toronto’s defense ranked 11th – its fifth-ranked offense still better. That style continued to start this season, the Raptors ranking fourth offensively and 16th defensively at the All-Star break.

Enter Ibaka and Tucker.

Toronto has the NBA’s fourth-best defense since the trade deadline.

Here’s the Raptors’ ranking in offensive (red) and defensive (black) rating each year, with this season split by the trade deadline:

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Year Offensive Defensive
2013-14 9 9
2014-15 3 23
2015-16 5 11
2016-17 (pre) 4 16
2017-17 (post) 13 4

Don’t fret about the offensive drop in the second half. Lowry – Toronto’s best offensive player – has played only game due to a wrist injury. With him back in the fold, the Raptors should score much more efficiently.

Ibaka and Tucker will also help. They’re not defensive specialists who can get schemed off the floor in the playoffs. Their 3-point shooting – Ibaka (39% this season, 37% career), Tucker (36% this season, 35% career) – will space the floor for Lowry and DeRozan drives and provide efficient points.

Ibaka’s and Tucker’s outside shooting become major weapons when they play center and power forward, respectively. Though it’s just in 80 minutes, including only three with Lowry, here’s how Toronto has fared with Ibaka at center and Tucker at power forward, per NBAwowy!:

  • Offensive rating: 126.4
  • Defensive rating: 105.7
  • Net: +20.7

Overall, Toronto has scored 110.8 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka and Tucker on the floor, which would rank fifth among teams over the full season.

But the biggest gains come defensively.

Though he insists he was content coaching to his personnel, Casey long seemed uncomfortable coaching an offensive-oriented team. He never wasted an opportunity in press conferences to turn the focus to defense, even when asked about his excellent offense. And that was apparently the case behind the scenes, too.

“That’s all he cares about,” Lowry said. “He don’t care about nothing else but defense.”

Said DeRozan: “That’s what he’s always on us about, period. Nothing else, just strictly defense. And that’s what it’s always been.”

Now, with Ibaka and Tucker, Casey has a team that better fits his image. Toronto is defending well and playing with toughness.

The Raptors’ roster never befit a finesse team, but they too often slipped into playing like one. Ibaka and Tucker have rallied the team another direction.

“It’s contagious,” DeRozan said. “It’s something that everybody feed into, everybody love. And you have no choice but feed into it when guys bring that intensity every day.”

Ibaka and Tucker have played just 21 games each for Toronto, and Ibaka admitted he’s a little surprised by how quickly he and Tucker have clicked with their new teammates.

“But this group of guys, all they think about is winning,” Ibaka said. “So, when you play on a winning team, this happens.

“We’re ready to make big step in playoffs.”

Avery Bradley scores 23, Celtics eliminate Bulls 105-83

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CHICAGO (AP) — Avery Bradley scored 23 points, and the hot-shooting Boston Celtics pounded the Chicago Bulls 105-83 to win their first-round series 4-2 on Friday night.

The top-seeded Celtics simply torched Chicago to finish off a tougher-than-anticipated series and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Boston regrouped after dropping the first two games at home and will meet Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 1 is Sunday.

Bradley finished one point shy of a playoff career high he set in Game 5. He nailed three 3-pointers and the Celtics hit 16 of 39 from long range.

Gerald Green scored 16 and Isaiah Thomas had 12 before heading home to Washington state for his sister Chyna’s funeral on Saturday. Her death in a car accident the day before the playoff opener dealt a blow to the Celtics. But Boston rallied around its star player and regrouped when it looked like the series might slip from reach.

Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 23 points. But the Bulls never really found their rhythm over the final four games with point guard Rajon Rondo sidelined by a broken right thumb.

Dwyane Wade shot just 1 of 10 in a two-point effort that could be his final appearance for the Bulls. He has a $23.8 million option on the two-year deal he signed last summer to leave Miami and come home to Chicago.

The Celtics led by 13 at the half and outscored the Bulls 34-18 in the third quarter to put this one away. Things got so bad that loud boos started ringing through the United Center.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Bradley said he was planning to attend Chyna Thomas’ funeral. That hinged on the flight options and whether the Celtics were playing on Sunday. “If I’m not able to be there I’m going to make sure I’m supporting him however I can to let him know I’m here for him during this time,” Bradley said.

Bulls: Hoiberg said there is no structural damage in Butler’s right knee. He also had this response when asked what soreness means: “Uh, that it hurts.” … New Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 pick in the draft, got a rude welcome from the Chicago crowd. He was booed when he was shown on the videoboard in the third quarter.

“Fire Hoiberg” chants break out as Bulls eliminated from playoffs

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The problems with the Chicago Bulls — the ones that led to a mediocre season and a first-round exit from the playoffs after being up 2-0 on the Celtics — are certainly not all coach Fred Hoiberg’s fault. Blame starts with the roster that GarPax put together.

However, Hoiberg didn’t have the respect of his stars, his rotation management was bizarre at points, and there just seemed to be no consistent structure. What kind of team where the Bulls trying to be? What was Hoiberg doing to get them there?

As the Bulls were being eliminated by the Celtics Friday night, “Fire Hoiberg” chants broke out at the United Center.

Bulls fans are understandably frustrated, but they are not going to get this wish. Not this summer.

Hoiberg was the handpicked replacement for Tom Thibodeau, the guy Gar Forman and John Paxson — the Bulls front office brain trust — had their eye on and plucked out of the college coaching ranks. They bet big on him, and to admit that was a mistake after two years could endanger their jobs. So Hoiberg will stay.

What the Bulls roster will look like next season is another, more vexing question. Will Dwyane Wade be back? Jimmy Butler? With the seeming lack of a plan by GarPax, it’s all just speculation where they might go.

Whatever happens, Hoiberg will be coaching Chicago next season. Sorry Bulls fans.

John Wall takes over late, clinches Wizards 115-99 win over Hawks, Washington advances

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Closing teams out is hard.

Already up 3-2, Washington on the road was in complete control against Atlanta, up 22 in the third quarter, seeming destined to cruise to a win and a meeting with the Boston Celtics in the next round. Then it started to come apart. The Hawks moved the ball and made some shots, while the Wizards got tight. The lead shrunk down to three at 93-90 Washington, and Atlanta had all the momentum.

Then John Wall happened.

First, he made this play.

That changed the momentum as the Wizards closed the game on a 22-9 run where Wall scored the final 13 points on his way to 42 for the night on 25 shots. The result was a 115-99 Wizards win to close the Hawks out 4-2.

Washington starts the second round Sunday against Boston.

“I was just trying to close the game out, man,” Wall said of his block on Dennis Schroder and his run at the end of the game. “We had a big lead, but we knew those guys was not going to stop fighting. We had a couple careless turnovers, I had, but we just kept fighting and we came back and got this win.”

Heck, Wall was even taunting Julio Jones sitting courtside as he rattled off those late-game points.

Bradley Beal had 31 points in this one as well. Washington had 26 fourth quarter points, Wall and Beal combined for 24 of them. The Hawks went small in the end, benching Dwight Howard in the fourth again, and that was just fine with the Wizards, who have better athletes when small.

Wall and Beal learned over the course of this series to read and adjust to what Atlanta was doing. The Hawks chased and trailed over the top of picks all night, with their bigs staying back trying to protect the rim, and Wall and Beal both just took the shots given them and knocked them down. More than just those two, the packing of the paint by the Hawks in Game 6 allowed Bojan Bogdanovic, Otto Porter and others to step into clean midrange shots they missed earlier in the series. Washington made Atlanta pay for the Hawks’ defensive gameplan.

The feistiness of this game bubbled over in the second quarter when Bradley Beal had a breakaway layup and Kent Bazemore pushed him a little in the air. Beal got up and went right to Bazemore angry.

The referees reviewed that play and Beal and Bazemore got technical fouls with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jason Smith also getting them for jumping into the fray late.

For Atlanta, an interesting offseason begins where they will try to retain Paul Millsap, an unrestricted free agent, and if they can’t a rebuilding will start in earnest.

For the Wizards, it is on to Boston.

Bradley Beal, Kent Bazemore get technicals for scuffle in Hawks, Wizards

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It’s been a chippy kind of playoff series — one where Paul Millsap gets called a crybaby — and with the Hawks on the brink of elimination emotions were especially high on Friday night.

Kent Bazemore had been frustrated with a couple of calls (and no calls) and he took that out on the play above — he got picked by Kelly Oubre, who threw the ball ahead to Bradley Beal for a layup, and Bazemore gave him a little push in the air. It wasn’t much, but when a guy is airborne and defenseless that touch throwing off balance can lead to serious injury.

Beal bounced up and got in Bazemore’s face. Then an NBA version of a scuffle started.

The referees reviewed it and Beal and Bazemore got technical fouls with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jason Smith also getting them for their role later in the “festivities.”

The league should come in with a fine for Bazemore on this — you cannot let guys push other guys who are airborne, even slightly. That was a dangerous play, and I’m surprised the officials did not call a technical.