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Raptors’ reserves rolling, and they don’t plan to let playoffs stop them

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DETROIT – Fred VanVleet remembers sitting on the end of the Raptors bench with teammates like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam last season. None held a permanent rotation spot, and they discussed what they would do better if they got an opportunity.

“If you’re made of anything, nobody likes sitting on the bench,” VanVleet said. “So, we’re all kind of pissed off.”

They’ve gotten a chance to channel that frustration into production, and they’ve sure capitalized. Those four and C.J. Miles, who signed with Toronto last summer, lead the NBA’s best bench and comprise one of the league’s top lineups.

“The question has been whether we’re going to keep them in, that group, during the playoffs,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said without even being asked about the postseason, a time most teams shrink their rotation. “And why not? Until they prove us wrong and prove that they can’t perform in the playoffs, that’s our plan.”

Toronto is outscoring opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions with mostly reserves in, one of the best marks in the last couple decades. Here are the top benches by net rating since 1997, as far back as NBA.com data goes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Many productive benches ground overwhelmed opponents into submission with tough defense. The Raptors’ reserves excel offensively and defensively. Their 110.8 points per 100 possessions ranks third among benches since 1997 (behind only the 2012 Spurs and 2018 Rockets).

Other benches are propped up by staggered stars who carry backups. Not in Toronto. The all-reserve lineup of Wright, VanVleet, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl is outscoring opponents by 22.2 points per 100 possessions. Of 43 five-man units to play 200 minutes this season, only the Timberwolves’ Tyus Jones/Jimmy Butler/Andrew Wiggins/Taj Gibson/Karl-Anthony Towns lineup has fared better (+23.4).

Here are the top lineups with at least 200 minutes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Casey said he has seen opponents juggle their rotations to play more starters against his bench. Yet, the reserves have held up. That’s a big reason he has so much faith in the group for the playoffs.

But Casey didn’t have much choice to entrust these recently deep reserves with bigger roles initially.

The Raptors lost DeMarre Carroll (traded to Nets), P.J. Tucker (signed with Rockets), Patrick Patterson (signed with Thunder) and Cory Joseph (traded to Pacers) last offseason. Shedding that depth was necessary to re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and remain under the luxury-tax line.

Of course, Toronto knew it had developing players who might have been ready for larger roles. But the way everything has come together has been incredible.

These players mesh so well. They space the floor and pass willingly. Wright, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl all have the length and mobility to swarm defensively, allowing the pesky, but undersized, VanVleet to aggressively pressure the ball.

They’ve formed an identity without commonality, the outliers adapting to the group.

They like to talk about how they’re young players trying to prove themselves. Wright is 25, Siakam 24, VanVleet 24, Poeltl 22. But Miles is 30 years old and in his 13th season

“The exuberance they have and the way they play the game, it keeps me in it,” Miles said.

They bring how they’ve all been overlooked. Wright and Siakam were drafted in the 20s. Miles was a second-rounder. VanVleet went undrafted. But Poeltl was a top-10 pick.

“I feed a lot off my teammates’ energy, also,” Poeltl said. “I’m the type of guy that, if we all get fired up, I get dragged along with that. And then, at that point, I also bring a lot of energy to the table. That drags my teammates with me.”

Another trait contagious among the group: unselfishness.

Some emanates from Wright and VanVleet. Both essentially point guards, they were competing for a spot on the depth chart a year ago. Now, VanVleet is in a contract year, and Wright will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Both admitted some trepidation about playing together.

“It would be easy for me to be selfish going into my contract year,” VanVleet said. “It would be easy for Delon to try to make his mark going forward.”

Yet, they make it work. When VanVleet initiates the offense, Wright cuts. When Wright initiates the offense, VanVleet spots up.

“It was really our first stint of having a role on a team,” Wright said. “So, I don’t think there’s no time to be selfish when you’re just getting your opportunity.”

Of course, that attitude can’t last forever. The Raptors’ reserves are tasting success and hungering for more.

“People are asking why we’re so good. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got good players.

“We know most of us, if not all of us, can start on other teams. And that’s something that we hold to our heart.”

VanVleet probably won’t overtake Lowry or DeMar DeRozan to start in Toronto’s backcourt. But as a restricted free agent this summer, he’ll have the first opportunity to seek a starting job elsewhere. Toronto faces a potential luxury-tax bill next season and might decide not pay VanVleet, especially with Wright there.

For now, the Raptor reserves are just gearing up for the playoffs and enjoying each other’s company.

“The camaraderie we have as a unit is unbelievable,” Miles said. “It’s non-stop laughter, not-stop joking.”

The newcomer, Miles saw that brewing when he arrived over the summer. He recognized a group of young players who bonded over their lack of playing time and thought back to his first few seasons, when he was in the same boat. He told his emerging younger bench-mates he wanted to be part of what they were doing, not an outsider.

Now, they’re dominating.

“It’s really special when you think about it,” Miles said.

As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

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Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.

Ben Simmons earns triple-double, Sixers own fourth to win Game 4 vs. Heat, take 3-1 lead

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Joel Embiid’s biggest battle in Game 4 was with his mask — he hates that thing. A couple of times Saturday he tried to sneak into the game with it off, only to force Brett Brown to be the parent and threaten to bench him if he didn’t put it on immediately (winning Game 4 is not worth risking permanent eye/vision damage). Embiid was also battling his offensive game at times, still looking a little rusty.

More importantly, Embiid was also battling the Heat in the paint — when he was in the game Miami struggled to get good looks inside, allowing Sixers defenders to more aggressively challenge shooters on the wings.

That — and Ben Simmons’ triple-double — sparked a comeback from 12 late in the third as the Sixers held on to take Game 4 106-102, and that gives Philly a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to the City of Brotherly Love for Game 5.

Simmons is the first rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980 to post a triple-double in the playoffs, with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

This was the nail in the coffin of the Heat’s season — if the Sixers turn the ball over 26 times, shoot 7-of-31 from three and still win on the road, the Heat are overmatched.

For much of the game, Miami did not look overmatched in the least and this looked like a game they could win.

Miami brought the defense in this game, and they did it by getting physical and using their length to force turnovers — through three quarters the Sixers had turned the ball over on 28.2 percent of their possessions, more than one in four trips down the court. Miami also did a better job contesting threes in this game, and the Sixers struggled from there all game (22.6 percent from deep).

The physicality led to a chippy game.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Miami led by a dozen late in the third, but Philadelphia closed the third on a run and carried over to the fourth, a 14-0 run that put the Heat in front as they found their defense. Ersan Ilyasova was key in that stretch with a driving and-one and the next time down the court a three, two plays that changed the momentum of the game.

All series long, the Sixers have been the better team down the stretch — which is unexpected for a young team taking on a more veteran squad. Now that we’re four games in, this is a thing.

In Game 4, the Sixers kept running “horns” sets and the Heat seemed to have no answers. Then late with the game on the line Miami had a couple of terrible defensive breakdowns, one allowing Simmons a clear path to the basket without help rotations that led to a dunk, and the other was Hassan Whiteside not going out to challenge J.J. Redick in the corner and letting him have a clean look (Redick’s foot was on the line so the expected three was a two, but still).

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid owned the paint on defense. When he sat for a little fourth quarter rest, Brett Brown went to the “Ben Simmons and shooters” lineup that was so effective through the final eight games of the season for them when Embiid was out, and that worked. The Sixers kept executing and getting the shots they wanted, the Heat kept hoping Dwyane Wade would bail them out again. He couldn’t, despite a strong 25 point game. Miami also shot itself in the foot going 13-of-25 from the free throw line for the game.

Redick had 24 for the Sixers, while Embiid had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Goran Dragic had 20 points for Miami, and James Johnson added 15.

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

Associated Press
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Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

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Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.

Advantage Utah? Jazz’s Derrick Favors “100 percent” back

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Derrick Favors can find ways to impose his will, good things happen for the Utah Jazz.

Favors has been quietly, albeit effectively, getting it done against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in the shadows of Utah rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

But a healthy Favors is making an impact.

The Jazz have returned to Utah with the series tied 1-1, thanks in no small part to Favors. He tallied career playoff highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds in Utah’s 102-95 road win on Wednesday.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder will start Favors at power forward alongside Gobert beginning with Game 3 on Saturday. But he will also utilize him as a backup center to spell Gobert. Favors has done his part to make playing alongside Gobert work by extending his shooting range to improve offensive spacing. He has also made himself an effective roller.

“He’s always been a good pick-and-roll player, regardless of `position,”‘ Snyder said. “We’ve never really thought of him as one position or the other. We’ve thought of him as a basketball player and tried to have him understand his strengths and then play to his strengths.”

Indeed. In the first two playoff games against the Thunder, Favors is averaging 13.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds.

It is exactly the type of impact Favors envisioned making when fighting to reclaim his body from knee and back injuries that afflicted him for the better part of two seasons.

“I’m back to being 100 percent,” Favors said. “Back healthy. Back moving the way I know I can move and playing the way I know I can play. It’s a big advantage for us.”

There’s no question having Favors at full strength has improved Utah’s ability to counter a Thunder team featuring the potent trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The veteran forward/center offers versatility on both ends of the court honed through playing multiple positions as circumstances dictate.

Crashing the boards definitely tops the list when checking off Favors’ strengths. He ranks second on the Jazz roster in rebounding behind Gobert with 7.2 rebounds per game.

When Favors is active on the glass, it can change the direction of a game for Utah. In Game 2 against Oklahoma City, he grabbed eight offensive rebounds through the first 2 1/2 quarters. By contrast, the Thunder totaled six offensive boards as a team in the same stretch.

“His length and his strength allow him to get his hands on balls,” Snyder said. “He’s got such good hands that even when he keeps the ball alive, usually something good happens.”

Favors’ willingness to go full throttle around the basket has turned him into a reliable complimentary player on offense. He rolls to the basket with consistency and, more often than not, it pays off for him.

It has turned Favors into a legitimate offensive presence again. He averaged 9.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting while limited to 50 games a year ago. This season, Favors is scoring 12.3 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.

“Other teams and other opponents, they look and see I’m 6-foot-10 and think I’m a 5 man or whatever, so they try to take advantage of it,” Favors said. “It just feels good to be able to go out there and move the way that I know that I can move and be able to play the way I know that I can play and teams can’t take advantage of it.”

Favors is focused on staying aggressive as the series with the Thunder shifts to Utah. He is having fun playing basketball again and wants to make sure Oklahoma City continues to feel his presence on both ends of the court.

His teammates certainly do and they understand what a difference it can potentially make as the Jazz battle to keep going in the postseason.

“He’s been like that all year,” Mitchell said, “but he’s definitely turned it up with what he can do.”