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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.”

Jay Wright: NBA intrigues me, but I’m staying at Villanova

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Villanova’s Jay Wright is the hot name in NBA coaching searches. Brad Stevens’ success with the Celtics has opened the door for college coaches, and Wright looks like he could translate. His offense spaces the floor at an NBA level. He gets his players – often undersized in order to maximize offensive skill on the floor – to defend effectively by taking advantage of their versatility and provoking toughness. His record of player development is strong.

But good luck luring him.

Wright, in a Q&A with Dana O’Neil of The Athletic:

Wright openly discussed his NBA ambitions. I doubt Villanova fans would loathe him if he pursued those.

But he didn’t have to put this so bluntly. “I’m staying.” That didn’t leave much wiggle room and would only generate backlash if he left now.

It’s possible Wright got ahead of himself in this interview. More likely, he already thoughtfully considered his options then reached this conclusion.

In a perfectly Knicks twist, Wright’s interview coincides with this report.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

The Knicks intend to contact Villanova’s Jay Wright about their head coaching vacancy, the Daily News has learned.

I suppose there’s no harm in trying.

PBT Awards: Defensive Player of the Year

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Kurt Helin

1. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

2. Joel Embiid, 76ers

3. Anthony Davis, Pelicans

If Joel Embiid had stayed healthy through the end of the season, maybe I view this differently, but maybe not — Rudy Gobert was so dominant the second half of the season it’s hard to see anyone else winning this. It’s not just the blocks, it’s the guys who see him and pull up from 12 feet out rather than challenge him that changes things. I decided to go with Anthony Davis over Al Horford for the final spot of the three, but it’s really close. Horford was fantastic on the back line for Boston. If Andre Roberson had played more than 39 games, this entire list could look different.

Dan Feldman

1. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

2. Joel Embiid, 76ers

3. Robert Covington, 76ers

The top spots became pretty obvious as the season wound down – Gobert defending at an elite level, Embiid seeing his playing-time advantage shrink as he sat out due to injury. Two 76ers on the ballot? Yup. Embiid gets most of the credit, but Covington’s versatility was essential for Philadelphia’s cross-matching, and Covington usually took the toughest perimeter matchup. The 76ers defended at an elite level when he played (with or without Embiid), and that was while covering for some teammates with defensive deficiencies. Al Horford, Clint Capela, Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler also strongly contended for the final spot.

Dane Carbaugh

1. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

2. Joel Embiid, 76ers

3. Dejounte Murray, Spurs

It’s sort of ridiculous that you only have one spot for a center on the All-Defensive teams, which puts me in an awkward situation here with Rudy Gobert on my first team and Joel Embiid on my second. In any case, each have been incredible this season but Gobert deserves the credit he should have received last year. Murray, meanwhile, has been a big part of why the Spurs have been able to both move on from Tony Parker and remain a playoff team for yet another season despite losing Kawhi Leonard.

Joel Embiid ‘unlikely’ to play in 76ers-Heat Game 1

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid said it’s unlikely he’ll be available for at least Game 1 of the playoffs against the Heat this weekend.

Embiid hasn’t played since March 28 when he suffered a broken bone around his left eye in a collision with teammate Markelle Fultz. Embiid, who has since been cleared of a concussion suffered from the accidental headbutt, had surgery on March 31. The 7-footer wore the mask during pregame shooting drills and would need one in the postseason.

“I don’t think I’m ready to play,” he said. “It still doesn’t feel all the way right.”

The Sixers clearly need their big man if they’re going to make a run in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Embiid leads the team with 22.9 points and 11 rebounds in 63 games, helping Philly clinch its first playoff berth since 2012.

Embiid says it’s “unlikely but still a chance,” he plays in Game 1.

“I want to play but right now I feel like I’m not ready yet,” Embiid said. “It’s getting there. I’ve got to keep working every day. With the way it’s been progressing, I’m hopeful I’ll be back soon.”

He said the eye was still swollen and he doesn’t suffer from blurred vision.

“I’m actually surprised how fast it is getting better,” he said.

The Sixers have won a team-record 16 straight games.

Embiid said he hoped the NBA would allow him to wear a black mask that made him look like the 76ers’ version of Zorro.

“With a clear mask, it kind of feels like there’s so much reflection, and I can’t really see,” he said. “With the black mask, it kind of gives you a clear vision. Hopefully, it gets approved and I get to play in it.”

Embiid has yet to participate in any contact drills and has limited his activities to light workouts.

Embiid is used to sitting out with the Sixers – he missed his first two seasons with a broken foot and played just 31 games last season because of a knee injury. The Sixers had been cautious this season and initially held him out of the back end of consecutive games on the schedule. But he stayed healthy until the freak injury and developed into one of the league’s top defenders (1.8 blocks, 38 double-doubles).

He stumped for Brett Brown to win NBA coach of the year, teammate Ben Simmons for rookie of the year and himself, naturally, to win NBA defensive player of the year.

“I feel I’ve been the best defensive player in the league this year,” Embiid said. “We have the resume. We won a lot of games. We’re a top-three defensive team in the league and a lot of that speaks for itself. Last year, I kind of had a knock on me for not playing a lot of games. This year, when I actually do play a lot of games, I don’t know what excuse they’re going to find next.”

Anything else?

“I should be first-team All-NBA, too,” he said, smiling behind his mask. “I feel like I’m best the center in the league.”

 

Report: Magic fire Frank Vogel

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The Knicks were quick out of the gate to fire Jeff Hornacek.

The Magic aren’t wasting much time, either.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Hornacek and Vogel were by far the two coaches most widely expected to be fired this offseason. They won’t be the last, but any other coaching changes will carry a higher degree of surprise.

There are plenty of parallels between Hornacek and Vogel, who went 29-53 and 25-57 in Orlando. Both had more success in prior jobs (Vogel far more with the Pacers). Both worked this season for executives who didn’t hire them. Both had lacking rosters. Neither did nearly enough with their teams to stave off firings.

Like last offseason, Magic president Jeff Weltman is still limited in his ability to shape the roster. The only way to open significant cap space is losing Orlando’s best player, Aaron Gordon, in restricted free agency.

But changing coaches will allow Weltman to move toward building his team. He deserves space to do that.

Vogel might land on his feet. He’s still respected from his time in Indiana, and everyone understands how deficient and ill-fitting the Magic’s roster was.