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Three Things to Know: Raptors stave off creeping doubt

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) The Raptors got a much-needed win over the Celtics. Toronto had lost five of eight, including two straight – to the Celtics and Cavaliers, its chief competition in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors had been the East’s best team throughout the season. A “reset” offense and a deep bench seemingly had them poised for playoff success. But this late skid instilled plenty of doubt in a team that has disappointed annually in the postseason.

A 96-78 win over Boston ought to calm panic in Toronto.

This wasn’t the prettiest game, but the Raptors played with more purpose. They defended more aggressively, kept the ball moving and relied on balanced contributions. Kyle Lowry made a positive impact the day after his dud against Cleveland, which followed him going to San Antonio to watch Villanova win the national championship. The reserves came up big.

These weren’t necessarily the Celtics that Toronto would face in the postseason. Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Shane Larkin were out. Boston used 11 players through three quarters.

But that only increased the impetus for the Raptors to win.

They didn’t prove anything last night. This team can’t do that until the playoffs, anyway. But at least Toronto stopped the bleeding (of a boo-boo that probably looked worse than it actually was).

2) The Mavericks out-tanked the Magic. Dallas’ 105-100 loss to Orlando might wind up last night’s most significant game on the NBA’s long-term landscape. The defeat dropped the Mavericks (24-55) ahead of the Magic (24-54) in the tight tank race.

Dallas pulled out all the stops. Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, Dwight Powell and Dirk Nowitzki – who all started the previous game – sat last night. Two-way player Johnathan Motley started and played 41 minutes. Aaron Harrison started and played 42 minutes. Kyle Collinsworth and Dorian Finney-Smith each played 35 minutes. Another two-way player, Jalen Jones, played 27 minutes. It’s as if the Mavericks were trying to overwhelm their already-overmatched players.

Orlando didn’t idly watch Dallas tank. The Magic rested Nikola Vucevic. Three starters – Aaron Gordon, D.J. Augustin and Bismack Biyombo – sat the entire fourth quarter. Jamel Artis played 32 minutes.

But Gordon (20 points in 26 minutes) did too much in his limited playing time and got the Magic the unneeded win.

3) The Spurs fell to the Lakers, but at least remain in playoff position. Last night’s games otherwise featured chalk between a team in the playoff race and a team not – 76ers over Pistons, Heat over Hawks, Pelicans over Grizzlies. But San Antonio fell to Los Angeles, 122-112, in overtime.

The Lakers, without their own draft picks this year, are still feisty. They’ve got nothing to tank for. Kyle Kuzma scored 30 points, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (21 points on nine shots) and Channing Frye (19 points on nine shots) were remarkably efficient.

The Spurs still haven’t clinched a playoff berth, so a loss to an eliminated team is a real letdown.

The Western Conference playoff-race standings now:

4. Utah Jazz (45-33)

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (45-34)

5. San Antonio Spurs (45-34)

7. Minnesota Timberwolves  (44-34)

7. New Orleans Pelicans (44-34)

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9. Denver Nuggets (43-35)

10. Los Angeles Clippers (42-36)

Tonight will feature a couple big games – Clippers at Jazz and Timberwolves at Nuggets.

Trey Lyles had some not-so-nice things to say about playing for the Utah Jazz

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Trey Lyles is now a member of the Denver Nuggets, but the University of Kentucky product started his career with the Utah Jazz, and although he played significant minutes it wasn’t the best start to a career.

Lyles was moved on draft night in 2017 for Donovan Mitchell, who is now a Rookie of the Year candidate for the Jazz. Lyles, meanwhile, has been a better player for Denver during the 2017-18 season.

Still, that doesn’t mean the bad taste from his experience in Utah has left Lyles’ mouth. During a recent edition of Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye‘s “Road Trippin'” podcast, Lyles voiced his general displeasure with Utah, Salt Lake City, and coach Quin Snyder.

Via Deseret News:

Jefferson: “I liked playing in Utah. I really did.”

Lyles: “Who was your coach then?”

Jefferson: “I had Tyrone Corbin.”

Lyles, grumbling: “So y’all didn’t practice? Y’all didn’t do nothing, yeah. See, we had practice every day (under Quin Snyder). I thought I was in Kentucky again.”

Jefferson, sarcastically: “You had practice every day? Oh, sorry for making you work hard. Sorry. What’s wrong with working hard, Trey?”

Lyles: “I didn’t say nothing about working hard. Three-hour practices? C’mon now.”

Lyles went on to say he “just didn’t like” playing for the Jazz, adding that he felt players who buy into Salt Lake City are usually people with families. Translation: young NBA dudes in SLC don’t have their choice of clubs for post-game relaxation and that didn’t rub Lyles the right way.

Here’s my favorite part of the whole exchange, again from the Deseret News:

“It’s sunny all the time in Utah,” Jefferson said.

Lyles: “Hmmmm.”

“The fans are really, really good.”

“Hmmmm.”

Lyles didn’t want to practice all that much and he’d rather his city has more nightlife. To each his own, although I doubt many NBA franchises listening to that are going to be impressed. Lyles’ current contract runs out in 2018-19.

Will pending free agent Isaiah Thomas get career back on track?

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DETROIT – Some people believe a bad ending between Isaiah Thomas and the Cavaliers was inevitable.

“I think somebody is f—ing stupid,” said Channing Frye, whom Cleveland traded with Thomas to the Lakers as part of a deadline day shakeup.

Nothing was inevitable with Thomas. Nothing is inevitable with Thomas – certainly not his desired Brinks truck.

Thomas will enter unrestricted free agency this offseason trying to reclaim his star standing. Less than a year after finishing fifth in MVP voting, he’s just trying to convince everyone he’s not a sixth man.

Time is running out. In one of the most unfortunate aspects of the trade for him, Thomas went from a team that would have given him an extra couple months to show progress from his hip injury to one that will end its season in a couple weeks. Thomas might finish even sooner, as he left the Lakers to consult doctors about treatment options for his still-ailing hip.

The trade also dented Thomas’ reputation. The Cavs and Lakers seemingly used him more for his expiring contract than on-court ability. The good team didn’t want him. The bad team just wanted to clear cap space. Fairly or not, Thomas not working in Cleveland will reflect poorly on him.

But it didn’t have to turn out this way.

What if Thomas underwent surgery? What if he played for the Cavs’ minor-league affiliate in an extended rehab stint? What if he assumed a smaller offensive load while not yet at full strength? What if the Cavaliers tweaked their system more to accentuate his skills? What if he realized things he said wouldn’t go over well while he was struggling on the court? What if teammates had been more sensitive to what he was trying to overcome? What if Cleveland had been more patient? What if everyone made more of a concerted effort not to judge him against Kyrie Irving, whom the Cavs dealt to the Celtics for a package that included Thomas?

“There are so many things that had to have happened for the situation to be what it what was,” Frye said.

Yet, this is the way it went, and Thomas now has no choice to deal with it.

He has played a little better with the Lakers – but not well and certainly not near his peak form. Still, there advantages to being with Los Angeles.

“Here, he was able to play through his mistakes, where in Cleveland, there was a lot of pressure to be, you know, Isaiah,” Frye said. “Which is almost unrealistic at times, now that I look back at it.”

The big question: Will it ever be realistic again?

Thomas’ determination is incredible. Just 5-foot-9 and the last pick of the 2011 draft, he built himself into a star.

But he’s also 29 now and dealing with a lingering hip injury. Quickness and agility are built into Thomas’ game, and he can’t be the same player if he doesn’t move as well.

Especially in a tight salary-cap environment, teams will have major questions about his health.

They’ll also inquire about his willingness to be a team player. Many of those concerns stemming from his time in Sacramento and Phoenix dissipated in Boston. But they reemerged in Cleveland.

The day Thomas joined Los Angeles, Lakers coach Luke Walton took him out for dinner and calmed a brewing storm. Walton told Thomas told each other what they wanted from each other.

“It’s been a great relationship ever since,” said Walton, who wouldn’t divulge specifics of their conversation but just kept gushing about Thomas:

“He’s been amazing teammate.”

“He’s kind of like having an extra coach on the floor.”

“What he has brought to our group from a leadership standpoint has been awesome.”

Until saying he needed to leave the team, Thomas kept insisting he was healthy enough to play.

“Whatever it is, it hasn’t shown on his face at all,” Walton said. “He’s upbeat. He’s great with his teammates, great with the coaching staff. He’s got just a great way about him that’s fun to be around.”

It’s the type of assessment that could make the difference in a team gambling on Thomas next summer. As the previous couple seasons showed, the upside is high.

“I think Isaiah is a great player, and I think when he gets this opportunity, the way he’s built and wired, he’s going to shock the world or prove somebody wrong,” Frye said. “Or I’m going to be wrong.”

It’s so easy to root for Thomas, the underdog made good. He made it this far. Why can’t he rise from the bottom again?

But injuries are fickle, as the Cavs learned the hard way. Even if Thomas overcame hip woes earlier in his career, it only gets harder with age.

This can’t be what Thomas imagined while playing through injury and on a cheap contract to help the Celtics advance in the playoffs last season. But after he aggravated the injury, Boston pawned him off in the Irving trade, and the Cavaliers cut bait last month.

So, Thomas must face an uncertain future where nothing is inevitable – just as always been the case.

5 Up, 5 Down: The Rockets are who we thought they were (and so is Portland)

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

I’m not going to pretend the Houston Rockets shouldn’t be afraid of the Golden State Warriors. But this weird, lurking feeling that the Warriors are going to make this wild surge back and dethrone the “pretending” Rockets? It’s just flat out wrong. It’s been wrong all season, and Mike D’Antoni is probably going to win the NBA Coach of the Year for figuring out how to pair two of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history. Maybe he learned something the first time around with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant?

Houston’s win over the Blazers was incredible, exciting, and electric. While the game was in doubt for the No. 1 team in the Western Conference throughout the game, the way they closed was confidence-inspiring. The Rockets aren’t just a team with legitimate scorers, they are a defensive hassle. D’Antoni’s gameplan led to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum combining for just 28 points on 32 shots. Tuesday night, we learned that the Rockets are who we thought they were. That also applies to Portland, but not in the way that you might think.

So without further ado.

5 Up

Is this the year for the Toronto Raptors?

There are a lot of times we’ve wondered this, collectively, out loud. Usually right before a playoff game in which LeBron James disembowels Toronto right in front of us. I get it, it’s a touchy thing to broach. Still, the Raptors are playing in a way we’ve never seen them do before, and it’s not been all about DeMar DeRozan. Jonas Valanciunas looks trustworthy, Kyle Lowry is having another career year (it feels like his third or fourth one) and guys like Pascal Siakam are contributing.

Despite what folks in Toronto are telling themselves, pretty much everyone in the NBA is talking about the Raptors and for once that doesn’t feel like the thing that’s going to tip them over the edge. Their lead over both the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers feels wholly earned and un-precarious. And if the Cavaliers can’t straighten themselves out with Kevin Love back and if the Celtics aren’t going to play with a full roster, I think we’d all rather see the Raptors in the Finals.

This LeBron Dunk

It’s just … *chef’s kiss*

The makeup of the NBA’s best teams

This is a complete Shower Thought but it hit me the other day that we have had the benefit of a lot of teams around the league being good this year that maybe have not always been top-of-mind for casual NBA fans. Toronto, Indiana, Portland, Oklahoma City, New Orleans. Heck, even Cleveland before LeBron came around was likely a blind spot for folks on the West Coast. That the league isn’t dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks in this decade is more of a gift that we realize, I think. Plus, you know those teams will eventually be back, so get it while it lasts. Well, maybe not the Knicks but you get the idea.

The Blazers, the Rockets, and the end of a winning streak

The Blazers finally lost a game, and in doing so solidified their position as the favorites in any first round playoff series they find themselves in come spring. Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Moe Harkless were all dazzling on a night in which Portland’s 13-game winning streak came to an end.

Houston looked great, naturally, but the Blazers didn’t shy away from the spotlight for a single moment even with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum coming up short during Tuesday night’s big battle royale. I’ve been a doubter for longer than most when it comes to Portland, and they didn’t seem out of place at all against the league’s best team. Blazers fans should feel more secure even after their loss. They can hang, which is more than we could say about them when they sorted themselves out over the New Year.

This insane “LeBron to Portland” billboard

Look, if you thought it was a longshot that this billboard was going to actually get put up, you were dead wrong. Some Blazers fans who run a popular culture brand in Portland wanted to put up a billboard — mostly as a joke — to entice LeBron James to come to Rip City. They started a Go Fund Me, and despite starting slow have now gained momentum and have more than $6,800 to do what they will with it.

Not only have they made their goal, but they’ve blasted past it with the help of sponsors. They are now looking at other options, including a second billboard in Cleveland or transit ads, according to the Oregonian.

This was an inevitability. LeBron to Portland? Not so much.

5 Down

Dwane Casey got ejected even though he didn’t do anything

The battle between the NBPA and NBRA, apparently, rages on. It wasn’t helped when Raptors coach Dwane Casey was ejected from a game for a comment he didn’t even make. A fan behind him said something, which an official mistakenly attributed to Casey.

The entire end of that Raptors-Thunder game was a cluster and Casey getting tossed really was the icing on the cake. Like I’ve said before, look for big announcements this summer regarding officiating as a way for the league, the NBRA, or both to save face and get some viewer confidence back in the grey shirts.

Ty Lue is out with an illness

The Cavaliers are a reality show that any cable network would love to syndicate. But, if you can peel back the curtain for a minute, you can humanize these guys in a way that isn’t so much fun to poke and prod throughout the course of a championship-hopeful NBA season. Lue, much like Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, is having some serious health issues and no doubt the stress of the season has to be contributing factor.

Hope he gets well soon.

This whole dinosaur thing with Jordan Clarkson

Let’s get a little meta for a second.

First, both Kyrie Irving and Jordan Clarkson have said patently insane things on Channing Frye‘s podcast that nobody should believe. Are all NBA players secretly hiding easily-debunked opinions that can be disproved with 7th grade Earth Science? Maybe, but there’s another common component here and it’s Frye.

Here’s a conspiracy theory of my own: All these crazy quotes are simply Frye orchestrating listens for his podcast. The only other alternative is to suggest that a lot of NBA players sincerely believe things that no good organizational base — whether they be the public school system or the financial managers, agents, and business managers hired by players — should let these guys think. Someone is failing these dudes if they believe these things in earnest.

I’ve got my eye on you, Channing.

The reading guy

This guy was reading during Spurs-Warriors this week. Was he reading Proust? Or “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? No. He was reading a book because a movie was really popular this year.

Step your reading game up, bro. Give your ticket away to someone who is going to watch the in-game entertainment. I’m pretty sure those stunt teams don’t even make minimum wage, the least you could do is look up at them during a timeout.

Players Only has got to go

I have an honest question, free of snark that I genuinely need answered: Who asked for this? Team broadcast crews are, sometimes to their detriment, already oversaturated with former NBA talent that often seem ill-equipped to handle the job. Many former players, looking to stay close to the game, get slotted into the booth for their former teams, usually as color commentators without much training or an interesting perspective to offer. There’s already been a slow creep of NBA dudes moving into the booth, and the idea of “Players Only” almost seems redundant at this point.

The mark of a good commentator differs between the play-by-play and color guys, but there should be baseline of performance that often isn’t met. Just because a guy played in the league — or because he’s gregarious — doesn’t mean he can communicate the ins and outs of the modern NBA, or even know what’s relevant when calling a game. I’m not sure what the answer is, although shows like ESPN’s “The Jump” and NBATV’s “The Starters” seem to suggest a mix of experienced broadcasters, polished players, and knowledgeable writers would be a good mix.

Because they’re all on one broadcast where a few shine and the majority fail expectations, the “Players Only” broadcasts are an embarrassing highlight of the fact that too many guys aren’t ready for a national spot in the booth. Twitter hates it. Reddit hates it. They’ve got to get rid of it.

Koby Altman: Cavaliers worried they were ‘marching to a slow death’

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The Cavaliers were 7-13 in their last 20 games heading into the trade deadline. Their defense ranked near last in the NBA. There appeared to be discord at every level of the organization – terrible timing, considering LeBron James‘ impending player option.

It felt like a dark cloud hung over Cleveland.

So, the Cavs conducted a radical overhaul yesterday. They traded six players (Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose) for four (George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson) while adding payroll and surrendering picks.

Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman, via Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic:

“We were really worried that what was going on on the floor and sort of our culture in the building, we were marching to a slow death,” Altman said Thursday night. “We didn’t want to be a part of that.”

Teams usually deny such grave problems, nobody wanting to admit they let such a toxic environment develop on their watch. Altman is being atypically blunt despite holding some culpability.

He traded Kyrie Irving for Thomas and Crowder (and, of course, the Nets pick), still approving the trade after seeing Thomas’ physical (getting just an extra second-rounder). Thomas spent most of the season sidelined, struggled upon his return while still assuming a huge role and pointed fingers. Crowder underwhelmed all season, though for reasons more difficult to pinpoint, and that only contributed to the feeling of despair in Cleveland.

Maybe Altman just got unlucky with Thomas and Crowder, whose Cavs tenures went about as poorly as could have been imagined when the Irving trade was consummated. But Wade and Rose – whom Altman crowed about – flopped for more predictable reasons. Under Altman, communication between LeBron and the front office reportedly broke down.

That was a stark contrast to Altman’s predecessor and old boss, David Griffin. But Altman’s statement yesterday brought to mind Griffin’s words when firing David Blatt: “Pretty good is not what we’re here for.”

Of course, Griffin and Altman spoke so freely only because they’d already made the bold moves to change course. Griffin’s resulted in Tyronn Lue guiding the Cavs to a championship. We’ll see whether Altman’s prompts a march toward such a fruitful outcome.