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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.”

Report: Russell Westbrook may sign “designated player” extension with Thunder on July 1

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Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP, coming off a historic season where he averaged a triple-double.

Westbrook also could see a massive pay raise this summer. Yes, you remember correctly that Westbrook signed one last summer after Kevin Durant left, but the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that kicks in July 1 grandfathered him (and James Harden, who also signed an extension last summer) in to get the “designated veteran” max contract. That would start at about $34.7 million (if the cap is at $99 million as expected) and go up from there.

Thunder management’s first call at midnight July 1 will be to Westbrook to offer the deal, and he may well take it reports Royce Young of ESPN.

Those close to Westbrook fully expect him to take the Thunder’s offer, quite possibly at 12:01 a.m., and stabilize the franchise and present a clear road map. Westbrook signed an extension last summer and invoked the word “loyalty” for a reason. He wanted to make a statement — a public declaration — and take on the burden of leading the franchise forward.

He likes the existing roster and has a close relationship and confidence in Presti and Weaver. He has built a strong bond with head coach Billy Donovan. He knew what he signed for and, with the Thunder coming off a successful first post-Durant season and with pieces in place to improve the team, there are a lot of reasons to commit again.

If Westbrook signs this, the Thunder can get on with the business of improving this roster — which will be next to impossible. The Thunder are capped out and have to re-sign restricted free agent Andre Roberson. Sam Presti is a smart man, but his hands are mostly tied due to some of the big contracts on the roster (ones that would have been no issue if Kevin Durant had stayed). The Thunder will make moves around the edges, but it’s going to take time to do anything substantial.

If Westbrook doesn’t sign this, more than just red flags will go up in OKC — this will be sirens and flashing red lights. The Thunder will be forced to think about trading Westbrook, or finding a way to keep him happy and in house. They will basically be right back to where they were last summer.

If Westbrook signs it — and he likely will, that’s a lot of money to leave on the table — it at least gives the Thunder a clear direction. Which is about all they can hope for this summer.

Bulls: No decision yet on Rajon Rondo’s future with team

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CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Bulls are not ready to say whether veteran point guard Rajon Rondo will be back for a second season.

Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson says that “is still to be determined.” The Bulls can pay Rondo $13.4 million or buy him out for $3 million by Friday’s deadline.

Paxson spoke Tuesday during a news conference to introduce newcomers Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and rookie Lauri Markkanen, who were acquired from Minnesota for Jimmy Butler on draft night. The Bulls were planning to meet Tuesday with Rondo’s agent Bill Duffy, who represents LaVine.

Paxson also says a buyout on Dwyane Wade after he exercised his $23.8 million option “has not been broached.” Paxson says the Bulls, at least for now, assume Wade will play for Chicago.

Report: Chris Paul met with Clipper officials to talk future of franchise, himself

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Chris Paul is going to talk to a lot of teams this summer, but if you ask people around the league, most seem to think he will re-sign with the Clippers. The ultimate reason is money: As president of the players’ union he helped steer the new CBA negotiations, which included changing the “over 36 rule” — limiting max contracts to players who turn 36 during the time of the deal — into the “over 38 rule.” That meant 32-year-old Paul could sign one more five-year max contract.

Paul also wants to win, and it’s hard to see how the assembled team in Los Angeles — which is certainly a top 5-7 NBA team, maybe a little higher when healthy — picks up a ring. Especially with the Golden State juggernaut not going anywhere.

Paul has started talking to the Clippers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

I doubt that discussion was much about money — the Clippers will offer a five-year max contract. That’s not even up for debate.

The discussion was how to build the Clippers into a contender. Will Blake Griffin, also a free agent, be back and be part of that? What about J.J. Redick? Can the Clippers get the cap space to lure huge free agents in 2018? LeBron James reportedly wants to come to Los Angeles, although whether he wants to be a Clipper is another question. (For the record, I don’t buy the idea LeBron would “never” be a Clipper. While it may be highly unlikely, people I have spoken to around the league closer to LeBron’s thinking say he wants to keep every option open, play out next season, then see where things stand. He would not fully rule out playing with Chris Paul, who could still be in L.A.)

The Clippers have backed themselves into a corner by trading away picks for veterans, and not developing young players into guys who can contribute in the rotation. When was the last time the Clippers had their Patrick McCaw or Dewayne Dedmon? Without those young, affordable players, it becomes hard to put a good roster together and keep it together. It’s part of what Jerry West — with some help from GM Lawrence Frank — need to bring to Doc Rivers’ Clippers.

That’s likely part of the discussion, too.

There’s a lot for the sides to talk about.

Michael Jordan sent Russell Westbrook personal MVP congratulatory note

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Russell Westbrook is one of the biggest stars in the NBA, he’s now an MVP, and he wears Jordan Brand Nikes.

Still, it has to be a bit humbling to get a personal, signed note from Michael Jordan himself.

Which is exactly what he got on Tuesday, a congratulatory note from the GOAT.

The note said (in all caps):

Congrats Russell.

I got buy first MVP award before my first ring, too… keep going!

It was then signed by Jordan.

Westbrook could probably fill a second home with memorabilia from his career, but this is one he’s likely going to keep safe.