Raptors ready to test new offense in championship-or-bust playoffs

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Raptors president Masai Ujiri spent a lot of time talking about a “culture reset.” Players debated how significant the change was for Toronto – which kept coach Dwane Casey and stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan – and whether it would stick. Then, the Raptors spent all year proving their revamped offensive style worked, at least in the regular season.

They play faster, dribble less, pass more and shoot more 3-pointers. Toronto won 59 games and ranked third in points per possession.

Now, the moment of truth arrives.

“That’s the reason we did it, to try to do something different in the playoffs,” said Lowry, whose team will face the Wizards in the first round.

Sure, the Raptors’ 59 wins are a franchise record. But they’ve been successful in the regular season before. In the last four years, they won 48, 49, 56 and 51 regular-season games.

They just faltered in the playoffs every time:

  • 2014: No. 3 seed, lost to Nets in first round
  • 2015: No. 4 seed, swept by the Wizards in first round
  • 2016: No. 2 seed, beat Pacers in seven games in first round while being outscored, beat Heat (who held same record as No. 6 seed) in seven games in second round, lost to Cavaliers in conference finals in most lopsided six-game series in NBA history (-15.5 points per game)
  • 2017: No. 3 seed, beat Bucks in first round while outscoring them by just four points, swept by Cavaliers in second round

Toronto’s offense particularly stalled. Flow stagnated, and Lowry and DeRozan weren’t nearly good enough to handle all their isolations. Here are the Raptors annual offensive ratings, in the regular season (black) and postseason (red):

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Despite all these years of struggling – or maybe because of all these years of struggling – Lowry has high hopes for this postseason.

How does this team define success? Lowry barely stifles a laugh.

“Championship,” he said.

Anything less is a failure?

“Yeah,” he said.

With that attitude, Lowry isn’t worried Toronto would face mighty LeBron James and the Cavs in the second round rather than the conference finals. The Raptors might have been the East’s second-best team last year, but because they had to play Cleveland in the second round, Boston got the title of East runner-up.

“We’ve got to go out there and chase ourselves and be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “We can’t worry about about nobody else right now but ourselves.”

The idea the Raptors will revert to bad habits when defenses tighten or that the reasons their offense dipped from the regular season to the playoffs weren’t addressed by this overhaul? Players dismiss that.

“That’s our offense,” Lowry said. “Nothing is going to change. We’re going to play our game.”

Said DeRozan: “Playing in a way to where you can’t key in on one or two guys, and it’s fun. As long as we go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year, it’ll show.”

Yet, Casey admitted he’s a little nervous to see how the new offense holds up in the postseason – though also confident.

“The playoffs are a different animal, and we feel like we have an advantage now,” he said.

The first test will come Saturday, when Toronto hosts Washington in Game 1. We’ll immediately know whether the same old demons still haunt the Raptors. They’re 1-12 all-time in Game 1s with 10 straight losses, including an astounding six at home.

Lose Saturday, and all the usual questions and doubts reemerge. Win, and the path to progress remains wide open.

“Mentally, when you fail over and over, you’ve been to a place and you don’t make it, you understand what you need to do better, how you need to do it better,” DeRozan said. “As long as you get that opportunity to do it again, you understand what not to do.”

There’s a sense this Toronto is battle-tested and ready for a deep playoff run. But is one year enough to fix a half decade of tendencies?

No matter how this postseason goes, the Raptors’ “culture reset” isn’t finished.

“There’s some more things we’d like to do defensively,” Casey said. “In this situation next year, we will be doing them to help us also in the playoffs.”

Kelly Oubre: Raptors’ Delon Wright ‘doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home’

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Delon Wright made some big plays down the stretch to help the Raptors to a Game 5 win over the Wizards last night. With Toronto up 3-2 in the first-round series and the home team winning the first five games, Game 6 is tomorrow in Washington.

Oubre, via Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“The next game is a different story. We’re back at home. Just like Delon doesn’t play well anywhere else, you know, other than at home,” Oubre said, sharing inspiration coupled with a touch of an insult. “You can kind of chalk it up as the same story.”

Wright decided not to escalate the conflict when reporters asked him about it.

Wright has been much better in Toronto than Washington in this series. His average game score is 14.7 at home and 5.7 on the road.

But that’s such a small sample. During the regular season, there wasn’t nearly such a big split between Wright’s average game score at home (8.4) and on the road (6.9).

For what it’s worth, Oubre has a somewhat similar home-road average-game-score split, both in this series (9.4 at home, 6.3 on the road) and during the regular season (8.1 at home, 7.5 on the road). Which Oubre basically acknowledged in his diss of Wright/self-own.

This is pretty typical Oubre – hyper-competitive verging on out of control. It’s fun regardless.

Let’s just say he’s right, though, and the Wizards win Game 6. Game 7 would be Sunday in Toronto, where, by Oubre’s own admission, Wright plays well and the Raptors are undefeated in the postseason. Then what?

Rumor: Bulls expected to wait until 2019 for free-agency splash

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The Bulls tanked so hard this year, the NBA warned them to cut it out. It was a rare instance of the league responding to actual tanking measures rather than just talk of preferring to lose.

Bulls executive John Paxson, via Vincent Goodwill of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We did this year what we felt was in the longterm best interests of the Bulls,” Paxson said. “It’s not a situation that any of us want to ever be in again; it goes against everything as a competitive person that you believe in; but it’s the way the system is set up.”

Chicago could try to turn around quickly. The Bulls project to have about $25 million in cap space this summer – enough to land a good player or two.

Mark Schanowski of NBC Sports Chicago:

The assumption in league circles is the Bulls will wait until 2019 to make their big move when players like Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving could be on the market, and might consider signing with the Bulls after watching another year of development from LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.

This is the wise course. It’s unlikely Chicago can lure anyone good enough to lift such a young core quickly. The Bulls are better off remaining patient – and bad, which will net another high draft pick as Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn develop.

This is also probably the course thrust upon Chicago. Even if they wanted to, the Bulls probably can’t land a premier free agent this summer. Star free agents can see the same problems with Chicago trying for a quick fix and will likely avoid the situation.

There’d be no harm in trying for top free agents like LeBron James or even Paul George. But the Bulls will probably be relegated to 2019 if they want to sign someone meaningful. Better they realize that than make a desperate attempt for relevance this year.

Rich Cho on Trail Blazers getting swept: ‘Being a previous Portland GM, that didn’t disappoint me’

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In 2011, the Trail Blazers surprisingly fired Rich Cho after only season as general manager.

Cho – since hired and fired by the Hornets – seems to be holding a grudge.

John Canzano of The Oregonian:

That’s a sentiment many people hold toward their former employer. Few say so publicly. That Cho did indicates just how strongly he feels.

Under owner Paul Allen, the Trail Blazers have run through numerous executives. It’s part of the culture in Portland, and it leaves a lot of outgoing people bitter.

Current general manager Neil Olshey ought to be mindful of that.

Josh Allen’s old tweet: ‘I hate LeBron!!!!! #LeBronSucks’

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Josh Allen, a quarterback from Wyoming, could be the No. 1 pick in tonight’s NFL draft. But his recently unearthed high school tweets – which include using the n-word with an ‘a’ at the end – are the sports story of the day.

And there’s an NBA tie.

Via Ryan Young of Yahoo Sports:

I hate LeBron!!!!! #LeBronSucks

— Josh Allen (@JoshAllenQB) June 7, 2011

Damian Lillard went down this same road with LeBron James, and they got past it.

But it would be a little more awkward if the Cleveland Browns – who have the Nos. 1 and 4 picks – take Allen. Then, Allen will face more scrutiny over this tweet – the most innocuous of the bunch.