Linas Kleiza's Greek vacation has made him a new man

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Thumbnail image for Kleiza_Lithuania.jpgHe is scoring 19.1 points a game on 60.4 percent shooting, is getting to the line, has shown everyone what he is capable of on the World Stage and is the unquestioned leader of a team in the FIBA World Championships.

Kevin Durant? No, although their statistics are nearly identical.

It’s Linas Kleiza. The former Nugget and soon to be Raptor who is leading Lithuania up against the Americans on Saturday.

Kleiza was a nice backup guy for the Nuggets, but some who watched him then and now have a question: Who is this guy with the well rounded game and is putting up Durant-like numbers in Turkey?

Player development guru David Thorpe knows, and he isn’t surprised. Thorpe is the executive director of the Pro Training Center (as well as ESPN analyst) who worked with Kleiza a few years back and said he always had this in him.

“In reality what we’re seeing now is just the natural evolution of a guy asked to play the three but was only a guy allowed to shoot threes and dunk in [the Denver] system,” Thorpe said. “He was a much more fluid player than he was allowed to show.”

Denver had Carmelo Anthony and for much of Kleiza’s time Allen Iverson — they had dynamic scorers, better scorers than Kleiza. The result of that is what happened to him happens to a lot of players Thorpe said — they get put in roles that work for the team but do not show off or exploit all a player can do. There are plenty of players collecting NBA paycheck and living the NBA lifestyle in the same boat.

But Kleiza’s answer was different — he broke the mold and went to play for Olympiakos, the Greek powerhouse (along side Josh Childress, now of the Suns). There he got to both show off the variety of his game and gain confidence that he can be a leader and top scorer — he was one of the leading scorers in EuroLeague.

That is what he is bringing back to Toronto.

“I’ve always thought he was a starting level three,” Thorpe said. “He’s very explosive, very rugged and though a guy who can race the floor… He’s your classic mismatch nightmare because he’ll just pulverize smaller players with his strength but he can also hit the three.”

China struggled to find a matchup for him in the round of 16 at the World Championships. They didn’t want to wear out Yi Jianlian on him, so they went with a smaller player and Klieza just backed him down and hit little 8-footers over him. If you go bigger he is too quick and can get open on cuts and in transition, plus he can space the floor.

Team USA may be better suited than anyone to have answers for Kleiza, Thorpe said. Both Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala are quick enough to stay with him on the perimeter but their strength and length will keep Kleiza from getting easy looks around the basket.

But it will not be easy, because if there is one thing Kleiza brings its toughness. He will scrap for what he wants.

Most teams that take on Toronto will face the same matchup challenges that the world has faced in recent weeks, Thorpe said. He added he thinks Kleiza could be the Raptors leading scorer next season or should at least be in the mix.

“He’s a very good three point shooter who can finish around the rim, has great hands and can take the punishment…” Thorpe said. “Not a lot of guys who can do all that.”

Report: Raptors could get OG Anunoby back during Finals

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The Toronto Raptors are headed to the 2019 NBA Finals, and they are going to need every player on their roster if they want a chance at dethroning the Golden State Warriors.

Forward OG Anunoby has been out since early April after needing an emergency appendectomy. He has not played in the playoffs yet this season, but a new report says the Raptors may be hopeful he could return before the end of this final series.

Via Twitter:

Anunoby Is a useful second-year forward who plays hard on both ends of the floor. Toronto is going to have a hard time matching up with the Warriors defensively, whether Kevin Durant plays or not. Having Anunoby available would help Toronto be more switchable and more adept at taking on some of Golden State’s smaller lineups.

We don’t have a timetable for Anunoby’s potential return yet, but the way the Finals are spaced out (Game 1 is on Thursday, Game 2 is next Sunday) it could help get players healthy and ready.

That could be good news for Kawhi Leonard, who sat out several games this year simply to rest. Leonard has looked a little banged up through these playoffs, as has just about everyone else. The bad news for Toronto is that this time between games could also help the Warriors get Durant ready to play.

Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals is on Thursday at 6 p.m. PST in Canada.

Drake gave Nick Nurse another shoulder rub (VIDEO)

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People are already getting tired of Drake being a prominent figure in the storyline of the Toronto Raptors. They will have to just deal with it for now as Toronto is headed to the 2019 NBA Finals after beating the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night.

That said, Drake is actually an ambassador for the Raptors. Some folks seem to forget that.

There was a dust-up during the Eastern Conference Finals about Drake having given Raptors coach Nick Nurse a shoulder rub during Game 4. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer thought that fans shouldn’t be interacting with members of the coaching staff or players, but the Raptors didn’t seem to think it was that big a deal.

After the Raptors won on Saturday, Drake embraced Nurse yet again, playing off of the initial kerfuffle.

Via Twitter:

Get ready to see more Drake than you’ve ever wanted.

Watch Raptors fans celebrate Finals berth in streets of Toronto (VIDEO)

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The Toronto Raptors are headed to their first NBA Finals in franchise history. Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry beat Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night in Game 6 to send them home and push Toronto into the final series of the year against the Golden State Warriors.

Raptors fans, who have been perennially disappointed by teams who were just good enough, naturally found themselves celebrating in the streets of Ontario. Videos of cars honking and people walking through the avenues surfaced on social media, with the whole thing looking like a big party.

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The Raptors aren’t the most talented team in the Eastern Conference, but they did have the best player in the entire playoffs this season in Leonard. Coach Nick Nurse figured out a way to stop the Bucks by collapsing on Antetokounmpo, and Milwaukee’s shooters went cold at just the wrong time. The rest of the Raptors bench finally gave Leonard some support, and Toronto was able to mount a comeback in the series to push themselves into the NBA finals.

For that, both Toronto and the Raptors fans deserve to be overjoyed with what’s happening right now.

Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals will be on Thursday at 6 p.m. PST in Toronto.

Bucks fans greet team, Giannis Antetokounmpo at Milwaukee airport (VIDEO)

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The Milwaukee Bucks season is over. Giannis Antetokounmpo and his supporting cast couldn’t get things done in Game 6 on Saturday night against the Toronto Raptors in Canada. Now it’s Kawhi Leonard who is heading to the 2019 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

This season was a magical one for Milwaukee, one in which they took the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference and likely have the league’s MVP in Antetokounmpo.

As you might expect, Bucks fans are happy about that fact, and showed up to the Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport to greet their returning team.

Via Twitter:

It has to be nice for athletes to get this kind of treatment. Although some may want to just go home and languish in their defeat, the unwavering support of fanatics has to take the bite out of the sting, even if just a little bit.