Kurt Helin

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Playoff Preview: Five key questions in Toronto Raptors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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The less-anticipated Conference Finals starts tonight in Cleveland. Can Toronto even make it interesting? Here are five questions they will need to answer.

1) Can Cleveland keep raining threes? The numbers are astounding (I would dare say Warriors-like if you ignore the fourth quarter of Monday’s game): Cleveland has taken 42.8 percent of its shots from three-point range this season and is shooting 46.2 percent on those. Both of those lead the NBA. For comparison, the Cavs took 35.2 percent from three in the regular season and shot 36.2 percent on them. Certainly part of that has been defenses that have done a poor job chasing the Cavaliers off the arc, but they are moving the ball and when they need to hitting contested shots. The only question is can they keep it up. The Raptors were a below average team at defending the three (teams shot an average amount of them but hit a high percentage), and the Cavaliers took advantage to shoot 50 percent from three against the Raptors in the regular season. Meaning look for it to keep raining threes in Cleveland, which is bad news for the Cavaliers.

2) Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will try to drive, but can they finish? At the end of the last series against Miami, the All-Star Kyle Lowry started to return — the high energy player who can attack off the dribble, hit threes, and keeps moving off the ball. That’s also the Kyle Lowry who averaged 31 points a game against the Cavaliers this past season (more than he averaged against any other team. The Raptors are going to need peak Lowry all series long to have a chance. Beyond that, DeRozan has struggled to finish drives in the playoffs (at least until Hassan Whiteside went out last series). He has to get into the paint, get buckets and draw fouls, and do so relatively efficiently. Overall these playoffs DeRozan and Lowry combined are shooting just 33 percent on drives to the basket; that will not cut it now.

Toronto relies on these two guards to create almost all of their offense. Expect the Cavaliers to go under picks and try to turn them into jump shooters — even if Lowry hits some threes Cleveland can live with those results over the course of a series more than those two getting into the paint.

3) Can DeMarre Carroll make LeBron James work hard for his buckets? This is why the Raptors went out and got Carroll in the off-season — to contain guys like LeBron James on a big stage. Nobody stops LeBron, Carroll will need help (as will Patrick Patterson, who also will draw some time on LeBron), but the idea is not to let him score and facilitate at will. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love can make plays, but LeBron remains the head of the snake and the Raptors need to, if not cut it off, at least neutralize it.

Carroll looked better in Game 7 against Miami than he has all playoffs. That’s a positive sign for Raptors fans. But LeBron is a test of another level.

4) When does Jonas Valanciunas return? Can he punish the Cavaliers inside when he does? Cleveland has a lot of advantages this series, in terms of playmakers and skill. Try to find where Toronto has an advantage and thoughts turn to Valanciunas — he is a load inside and scores efficiently. Well, at least when Lowry and DeRozan bother to throw him the ball. Tristan Thompson is a good defender, but Valanciunas would punish him with buckets. Another advantage to his return is his size and scoring inside makes it hard for the Cavaliers to play their small/shooting lineups with Kevin Love and Channing Frye up front. But without him, it’s Bismack Biyombo and he can’t punish them inside make the Cavs pay.

Valanciunas is out for Game 1 and according to coach Dwane Casey likely will miss Game 2 as well due to a sprained ankle suffered against the Heat. The sooner he returns the better for the Raptors, they need him.

5) Outside of the two guards, who will step up for Toronto? Cleveland has its big three in LeBron, Irving, and Love, but throughout the playoffs they have gotten production from J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Frye, Matthew Dellavedova and on down the line. This is a deep team that is comfortable playing together.

Beyond DeRozan and Lowry, who steps up for Toronto? Valanciunas when he gets back, but the series may be lost by then. Carroll, Cory Joseph, Patterson, even Terrence Ross will have to contribute a lot more to make up for the depth advantage Cleveland has.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5. This could be another sweep, although I expect one insane Lowry game in Toronto to get the Raps a win. Toronto has had the greatest season in franchise history, their rabid should celebrate that. Savor being here. But this is where it ends.

Your NBA Draft Lottery Primer: Everything you need to know before lottery balls drawn

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Before the two best teams in the Eastern Conference show us what good basketball looks like (or, at least we can hope the Raptors are up to that task), the NBA’s worst teams get to watch fate play a hand in their fortunes.

The NBA’s Draft lottery is Tuesday night in Brooklyn.

The 14 teams that didn’t make the playoffs — well, except the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, both of whom traded away their picks — will have representatives on hand hoping to land a spot to draft Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram in the top two spots (because there is a drop off after those two). Below is everything you need to know for the evening.

• What are the lottery odds? Here you go:

Team, odds of No. 1 pick, odds of Top 3 pick
1. Philadelphia 76ers, 25%, 64.3%
2. Los Angeles Lakers, 19.9%, 55.8%
3. Boston Celtics (via Nets), 15.6%, 46.9%
4. Phoenix Suns, 11.9%, 37.8%
5. Minnesota Timberwolves, 8.8%, 29.1%
6. New Orleans Pelicans, 6.3%, 21.5%
7. Denver Nuggets (via Knicks), 4.3%, 15.0%
8. Sacramento Kings, 1.9%, 6.8%
9. Toronto Raptors (via Nuggets), 1.9%, 6.8%
10. Milwaukee Bucks, 1.8%, 6.5%
11. Orlando Magic, 0.8%, 2.9%
12. Utah Jazz, 0.7%, 2.5 percent
13. Phoenix Suns (via Wizards), 0.6%, 2.2%
14. Chicago Bulls 0.5%, 1.8%

• If the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick falls out of the Top 3 — and there’s a 44% chance that happens — the pick goes to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the Steve Nash trade.

• The Brooklyn Nets traded their pick unprotected to the Celtics as part of the Kevin Garnett deal.

• The Denver Nuggets traded the rights to swap picks with the Knicks. Denver gets to keep their own pick or take New York’s whichever is better (combined that gives then a 21 percent chance to jump into the top three). Then the Nuggets traded the rights to the lesser of those picks to the Raptors. So the Knicks are frozen out, and it all stems back to the Andrea Bargnani trade. Yes, Andrea Bargnani is once again haunting Knicks fans.

• The Wizards’ pick is Top 9 protected, so if it does jump to the Top 3 (2.2 percent chance) then the Wizards get it back from the Suns.

• If the Sacramento Kings’ pick jumps to No. 1 (a 1.9 percent chance), it goes to the Sixers as part of the Nik Stauskas deal. If three teams below the Kings jump them into the top three (the odds of this are infinitesimal) it falls out of the Top 10 and the Bulls get the pick.

• There will be three players from the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats on the NBA Draft Lottery Stage.

• Who is representing the teams on the stage? No owners’ sons this year, the league tightened those rules (hallelujah!). Here is the list of representiatives:

1) Brett Brown, coach, Philadelphia 76ers
2) Mitch Kupchak, GM, Los Angeles Lakers
3) Isaiah Thomas, player, Boston Celtics
4) Devin Booker, player, Phoenix Suns.
5) Karl-Anthony Towns, player, Minnesota Timberwolves
6) Alvin Gentry, coach, New Orleans Pelicans
7) Michael Malone, coach, Denver Nuggets
8) Willie Cauley-Stein, player, Sacramento Kings
9) Masai Ujiri, GM, Toronto Raptors
10) Jason Kidd, coach, Milwaukee Bucks
11) Rob Hennigan, GM, Orlando Magic
12) Steve Starks, president, Utah Jazz
13) Jimmy Butler, player, Chicago Bulls
14) Zach Leonsis, vice president, Washington Wizards (in case the pick jumps to the top three and they get to keep it)

Did Russell Westbrook travel in final minute?

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The Oklahoma City Thunder once again caught a break on a call in the final minute of a close game.

Up three with :21 seconds left after an Andre Iguodala bucket, Russell Westbrook ultimately ends up with the inbounds pass and brought the ball up with Klay Thompson on him, then just as he got over halfcourt Westbrook stopped to call a timeout.

As he does, he drags his pivot foot. It’s clear from the video.

Is that a travel? Yes.

Have NBA officials called that particular travel all season long? No. Not even close.

The NBA will once again issue a ruling in its two-minute report, and once again that will be moot because it changes nothing. Steve Kerr can play the role Gregg Popovich did last series and frustratedly shrug off the report.

Warriors fans, this call is not why you lost. Rushed shots, Stephen Curry‘s off-balance game and seven turnovers, struggling with the Thunder’s bigger lineups, there were plenty of reasons Golden State dropped this game. This travel call wasn’t a key one. But once again, a Thunder opponent was robbed of a chance to even the game late because of a call.

 

When Thunder stayed big, defended better, Warriors lost composure, Game 1

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With 4:04 left in the first half, Billy Donovan’s Thunder team was down six and he decided to experiment against the Warriors: He would go small. Serge Ibaka moved to center, Kevin Durant was at the four. Warriors coach Steve Kerr quickly responded with his small ball “death lineup” where Draymond Green is the center.

By the half, the Warriors were up 13. Donovan learned he couldn’t out Warriors the Warriors.

So in the second half he stayed big — including playing Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together for 7:45, in which time the Thunder were +14. Yes, they had a rebounding advantage and that mattered, but the real change was that the Thunder defended better in the second half. All that size protected the rim — the Warriors were 8-of-19 shooting inside eight feet of the rim in the second half. The Thunder were smarter about switching and playing the pick-and-roll. The size slowed the game down. The Thunder were more disciplined about chasing the Warriors off the arc, but Golden State didn’t make the Thunder pay when they drove.

“A lot of quick shots, too many quick shots,” Kerr said of his team, which shot 26 percent in the fourth quarter.” Five minutes to go in the game, we’re down four, and we were acting like we had 20 seconds left.”

Size mattered and the Thunder came back to take Game 1 108-102. Game 2 is Wednesday.

The length of the Thunder defenders seemed to bother the Warriors. So did the quickness of Russell Westbrook.

“He’s probably the quickest guard in the league in terms of getting his hands on loose balls, long rebounds, getting his hands in on a steal, whatever,” Kerr said. “There were several key ones in the second half when we kind of lost our momentum. Careless passes, when we didn’t have the flow to whatever set we were running. I thought when we lost our momentum a lot of it had to do with his speed and aggressiveness.”

Westbrook was on Stephen Curry much of the night (although with switches and cross matches in transition Curry had a number of guys guard him.) That didn’t make Curry’s life easy,

“They didn’t make many mistakes on the defensive end,” Curry said

Oklahoma City can play better, too — Durant and Westbrook shot a combined 17-of-51. And their defense has been improving over the course of the season if you ask Donovan.

“One of them was to my fault early in the year… more trying to have guys make reads in pick-and-roll coverages — where the ball gets to, when we should late switch it, when we should trap it. At times, to be honest with you, I think it was a little too confusing for them, and it was too much,” Donovan said. “Then we simplified some things, made things very clear and a little more concrete.”

Donovan has become more comfortable making adjustments, and the one he made to stay big and when to switch the pick-and-roll worked in Game 1. The challenge is that Kerr and the Warriors have been fantastic at adjusting the past couple seasons, and they have the versatility to do it.

But the first statement of the series goes to the Thunder defense.

NBA VP Kiki Vandeweghe doesn’t see “anything imminent” in change of lottery system

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Tuesday night, the lottery balls will fly around in the back room at the Barclays’ Center, while out on stage players/coaches/GMs will sit and awkwardly wait for their franchise’s fortunes to be pulled out of oversized envelopes.

The lottery was put in place to prevent tanking, teams intentionally racing to the worst record so they would get the top pick in the draft. With the lottery, the Philadephia 76ers — the worst team in the NBA this past season — has just a 25 percent chance of the top slot. They can’t fall any farther than fourth.

Sam Hinkie is gone, but his unapologetic effort to take his team to the bottom to draft elite players still lingers over the NBA, with people still throwing around lottery reform ideas.

But don’t expect any soon, NBA senior vice president of basketball operations Kiki Vandeweghe told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News.

What do you think of the current NBA lottery system?

Vandeweghe: “The first thing is, the lottery is not supposed to incentivize losing. In theory, it’s supposed to help the teams with the worst record. That’s the whole purpose behind it. It’s been constructed in different ways and changed a variety of times over the course and adjusted as needed. But those are the two tenets to keep in mind.”

Have there been any recent league proposals to change it?

Vandeweghe:: “Nothing recently. I don’t think see anything imminent. A year and a half ago, there was a lot of momentum for change. We brought some thoughts to the Board of Governors. The majority of the owners were in favor of change. But a change really takes a super majority (two/thirds of owners, or 23). So we barely missed that. I don’t know what has happened in between that. We’ve focused on different areas. I would assume it hasn’t really changed that much.”

It was small and middle market owners that balked at change, mostly because they feared they would be screwed when some day in the future they were going to try to rebuild through the draft. They saw the system tilting to potentially favor larger markets, which already have some recruiting advantages.

With Hinkie gone and every team around the league about to be flush with cash, team building is taking on different forms. The momentum for change is gone. At least for now.