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At least the Raptors avoided a catastrophic slide

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I’m grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

After his team’s fourth straight playoff disappointment – even the team’s run to the 2016 Eastern Conference finals included barely scraping by with home-court advantage in the first two rounds then losing in the most lopsided six-game series ever – Raptors president Masai Ujiri declared a need for a “culture reset.”

How he planned to implement that was another question.

DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas alone were guaranteed more than $160 million. Other players were also owed enough that Toronto would have only limited means to replace its best player, Kyle Lowry, if he walked in unrestricted free agency – which seemed quite possible.

It appeared Ujiri was on the brink of pushing the button on a halfhearted detonation. It could have taken the Raptors years to tear down and maybe even longer to build back up.

And it’s not as if Ujiri had complete control. Lowry could have left and made preservation an unavailable option.

But after the foundation of the Raptors’ best era in franchise history shook and settled, they rebuilt a downsized structure atop it that includes only some of the previous furnishings.

Toronto re-signed Lowry and Serge Ibaka to three-year contracts – Lowry for $93 million and Ibaka for $65 million. The players get fairly high salaries, but at least the Raptors can move onto their next chapter in a few years. It’s a logical compromise.

Those deals came at a major immediate cost, though. Toronto is apparently unwilling to pay the luxury tax for a team that has shown no way to get past the Cavaliers. So, there was a large drain on production around the Raptors’ top players. Outgoing this summer:

Toronto even had to include a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second-round pick and incur a $1 million cap hit each of the next three seasons from Justin Hamilton’s contract for Brooklyn to take Carroll.

The only major contributor going against the tide and toward Toronto is C.J. Miles, a sweet-shooting swingman who can defend well when not outmuscled. He’ll help the Raptors. He won’t come close to replacing all that they lost.

Toronto is counting on all the young talent is has cultivated to step up. Norman Powell and Delon Wright are definitely in line for bigger roles, and Pascal Siakam probably is, too. The Raptors would probably like to cut bait on Jonas Valanciunas to elevate Jacob Poeltl. O.G. Anunoby, Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo are also in the pipeline as potential rotation players.

Credit Toronto for identifying and developing this deep crop of youngsters, who allowed for the team’s strategy this summer. These players have been preparing, and at some point – ideally while still on cheap contracts – they deserved the opportunity contribute.

But make no mistake: The Raptors downgraded across the board. The supporting cast around Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka – a trio in or near its prime – is less-equipped to help a team designed at the top to win now.

It feels like this team’s best chance of winning the East has come and gone. LeBron James is still in Cleveland. The Celtics have probably already overtaken Toronto, and the 76ers’ rise appears inevitable.

The Raptors have had a good few years. They might have a few more good ones left.

But it seems their self-imposed budget has resigned them to playing out the string on a plan that has already peaked.

Offseason grade: C-

Pacers use late surge to beat Clippers, close in on playoffs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 28 points and the Indiana Pacers used a late 9-0 run to hold on for a 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, putting them on the precipice of clinching a playoff spot.

The Pacers won for only the second time in five games but can clinch a playoff berth with one more win or a Detroit loss.

Los Angeles’ fading playoff aspirations were dealt another blow. The Clippers are now three games behind Utah for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference. Utah was playing later Friday.

Lou Williams led Los Angeles with 27 points and DeAndre Jordan finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds as the Clippers lost for the fifth time in six games.

They certainly had a chance to turn things around.

After the Clippers rallied from an 18-point deficit to take an 88-87 lead with 7:36 left in the fourth quarter, the teams traded the lead 10 times before Victor Oladipo made one of two free throws to leave it tied at 100 with 2:17 to play.

Bogdanovic broke the tie with a 12-footer and the Pacers followed that with seven straight points before Williams made a layup with 12 seconds left to end the run.

The Clippers were making shots early but couldn’t pull away from Indiana.

They led 28-27 after one and allowed Indiana to use a 9-2 spurt midway through the second quarter to erase a six-point deficit and take a 40-39 lead.

The Pacers scored the final five points of the half to break a 53-all tie and broke it open early in the third when Oladipo made his first three shots of the game, including two 3-pointers to make it 66-55.

Indiana then poured it on. Thaddeus Young‘s layup with 9:02 left in the third made it a 12-point game. Milos Teodosic‘s basket briefly halted the run, but the Pacers scored the next nine points to make it 75-57 with 6:19 to go.

Los Angeles closed the third quarter on a 12-5 run to get to 82-76.


LeBron James throws touchdown pass like Cleveland fans hope Sam Darnold can

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Cleveland fans can only hope Sam Darnold is as good a passer as LeBron James.

And that his receivers are better than Jose Calderon. Or at least taller.

LeBron James grabbed a rebound and threw a perfect touchdown pass to a leaked out Jose Calderon as the Cavaliers went on to beat the Phoenix Suns Friday night.

🙌🏽 @kingjames 🎯 @jmcalderon8 🙌🏽

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By the way, LeBron made a nice dish to the returned Larry Nance Jr., too.


Report: Rockets to waive Brandan Wright

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Finally healthy, it was easy to see where big man Brandan Wright would fit on Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets — he’s an athletic big man who can get up and down the court, he knows how to finish lobs above the rim, and could provide some front line depth behind Clint Capela and Nene. That’s why the Rockets picked him up in February after he was bought out by the Grizzlies.

It didn’t work out that way. Wright played in one game with Houston before his sore knee forced him to shut it down. He has not played since.

The Rockets are moving on, waiving Wright and bringing in forward Le’Bryan Nash out of the G-League on a 10-day contract, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

With center Brandan Wright unable to return from his knee issues this season, the Rockets will release Wright, who signed as a free agent last month, a person with knowledge of the move said…

He had a minor procedure and will work on his rehab with the Rockets staff, the individual familiar with the plans said.

 “Brandan did everything positive,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He just wasn’t physically able to hang in there. We hate it that the guy isn’t part of this.”

Wright has played in just 28 total this season averaging 5 points and 3.4 rebounds in 13.6 minutes. He’s battled knee issues for a few seasons now and has not played more than 28 games in the last three. If healthy he can help teams, but we’ll see if he ever gets back into the NBA.

The Rockets use Ryan Anderson as their backup center, using Nene less of late, although how much D’Antoni can use Anderson in the playoffs due to his defensive challenges remains to be seen.

Nash, who played a season at Oklahoma State, will get his first taste of the NBA. He was a highly recruited kid out of high school, and this season has averaged 8.5 points in 19 minutes per game for the Rio Grande Vipers this season.



Cavaliers get Nance Jr., Thompson, Hood back from injuries

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cavaliers are closer to being at full strength.

Forwards Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, and Rodney Hood all returned from injuries on Friday night as Cleveland, which has been riddled with injuries all season, hosted the Phoenix Suns. Acting coach Larry Drew said none of the players will start and all will be on minutes’ restrictions.

Drew, who is filling in while coach Tyronn Lue is on leave to address his own health, plans to keep his starting lineup intact and ease the returning players into the rotation.

LeBron James, Jose Calderon, George Hill, Jeff Green and Kevin Love were scheduled to started against Phoenix, which has lost nine in a row. Drew said he and Lue will talk again Saturday about lineup changes for the upcoming trip to Brooklyn, Miami and Charlotte.

“I really didn’t want to disrupt the starting five that we have out there right now and those guys will be playing limited minutes, so I wanted to get them slowly back and acclimated to what we’re doing,” Drew said. “There’s a chance that there could be some early substitutions to get the guys in there. I’m not ruling that out, but right now I just kind of want to stay with the flow, stay with what we’ve done the last couple of ballgames and then we’ll probably after tonight we’ll see as far as where we stand as far as starters are concerned.”

Thompson missed nine games with a sprained right ankle, Nance Jr. was out four with a hamstring issue and Hood was out the past three games with a bad back.

Drew said he did not know if Lue will accompany the team on its trip.

But while the Cavs are healthier than they’ve been in weeks, the team is still missing Kyle Korver, who is with his family in Iowa following the death of his brother, and rookie Cedi Osman, who is sidelined with a left hip flexor strain.