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Raptors president Masai Ujiri: ‘We need a culture reset’

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Last year, Raptors president Masai Ujiri oversaw signing coach Dwane Casey to a new three-year contract. Shortly before this year’s playoffs, Masai Ujiri said there was “no question” he’d try to re-sign Kyle Lowry.

But after Toronto got swept by the Cavaliers, ending another underwhelming postseason, Ujiri took a different tone in his postseason press conference.

He never said he’d fire Casey or let Lowry leave in free agency. Still, Ujiri opened the door for plenty of tea-leaf reading.

On Toronto’s direction:

I take responsibility first. I blame myself first. I’ve questioned myself. Should I have made those trades? What should we have done? How could I have done better to put these guys in a better situation?

And then, like I said, it goes down. We’re going to hold everybody accountable, because we need to.

After that performance, we need a culture reset here. Like, we need to figure it out. Yeah, there’s been some success, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to win a championship here. To me, making the playoffs is nothing. That was back in the day. Now, we have to figure out how we can win in the playoffs. That’s the goal. I’m not trying to hear all this “super teams” or “super personnel” or whatever.

On losing to the Cavaliers:

The end of the year was disappointing. Let’s call a spade a spade. The end of the year was disappointing for us. That series was disappointing for us. We thought we could do better. I don’t know what it is. We’ve started to study it, and I can’t tell exactly what it is. At a point, we looked wide-eyed. We didn’t make shots, I understand. But I sometimes feel that wasn’t our team that we saw out there, to be honest.

On Casey:

There are things that I questioned. I think our style of play is something that we’re going to really evaluate.

One of the things that I discussed with Coach Casey is how we play. We’ve done it the same time over and over again. Is it going to work the next time? We have to figure that out. The one-on-one basketball we play, we have to question that.

The style of play is something that we need to change. I’ve made it clear, and Coach has acknowledged it, and he’s already thought about it. Just some of the things that we do, it’s not working anymore. I’ve just made it clear that it’s going to be difficult for me to keep changing players, just because of the way the CBA is situated. My short answer to that, honestly, is, yes, there’s commitment, but we are all going to question ourselves. We’re all going to seriously question ourselves now and figure out the best way to do it, because Coach Casey has been a phenomenal part of our success here. In some ways, we owe that to him. But I’ve told him that we all have to be accountable.

On Lowry:

It’s our jobs to try and get Kyle to come back and do it the best way that we possibly can. We want him back. He’s been a huge part of the success here.

You’ve built this thing for a while, and is there another level to it? We have to account for that and be accountable for that. And we have to decide, is this the way we want to go in terms of money spent?

There were mixed signals about Casey’s job security last year before his extension. It doesn’t sound as if he should feel safe now.

Likewise, Lowry probably shouldn’t bank on a full five-year max offer (worth a projected $205 million). Ujiri clearly wants Lowry back, but I’m not sure Ujiri is enthused to pay so much for Lowry from age 31 to 36.With Lowry sounding like he’s dropping hints about leaving, anything less than a full max could push him out the door.

Toronto’s ascent will be stalled until it answers a question: Would an offensive scheme other than Casey’s lead to more playoff success, or are Lowry and DeMar DeRozan ill-suited for postseason basketball? Or both?

There are many sub-questions: Can Casey change his style? Can Lowry and DeRozan change their styles? Who are the alternatives to the coach and players?

Ujiri enters a pivotal offseason, and as he said, there’s still more information to gather. But the early indications are Casey and/or Lowry might not like how it goes.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.