Andrea Bargnani returns, scores season high 36 points to lead Raptors past Suns

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The Toronto Raptors came into Tuesday’s game against the Suns having lost eight straight, the last six of which came with their best player, Andrea Bargnani, sidelined due to injury. The Suns were playing in Phoenix after a five-game, eight-day East coast road trip that concluded just the night before with a loss in Dallas.

Bargnani’s return to the Toronto lineup proved much more effective than the Suns’ return home.

The Raptors erased a 14-point first-half deficit, behind a season high 36 points from Bargnani, to get in the win column or the first time since Jan. 9 by a final of 99-96.

“We needed a W,” Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey said afterward. “To keep our confidence, to keep our ship going in the right direction. We needed a W just to reinforce what we’re talking about.”

On this night, everyone was talking about Bargnani. He logged over 42 minutes of playing time, and scored 27 of his 36 in the second half to take the game over and ensure victory for the Raptors. His third quarter was particularly impressive.

Bargnani dropped 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the period, including knocking down four of his five attempts from beyond the three-point arc. He was equally stellar defensively, sending back a shot of Marcin Gortat’s down low, while executing his coach’s halftime instructions on defending the pick and roll to perfection.

As good as Bargnani was, his team wouldn’t have been close enough for his surge to matter without the second quarter play of Leandro Barbosa. The former Phoenix Suns’ Sixth Man of the Year came off the bench for an 11-point second quarter  that kept his team in the game, and helped reduce a double digit lead to just four by halftime.

Barbosa said afterward that he felt the win was a result of the collective will of he and his teammates.

“I think everybody made a commitment that this is the day we’ve got to win,” Barbosa said. “It was a good opportunity. They played last night, it was a back-to-back for them so it was a good advantage for us running up and down so they get tired and we get the victory, and we did it.”

Ironic, isn’t it, that Barbosa would say that running is the way to actually beat his former Suns team? But this is what things have come to in Phoenix.

As Toronto opened up a double-digit lead of its own that reached as many as 12 in the fourth quarter, the Suns did manage to mount an exciting rally that cut the lead to two with under 23 seconds remaining. That effort will go a longer way than it should for a 6-11 team that started the season with hopes of making the playoffs, and one that got stellar performances from Steve Nash (17 points, 14 assists) and Marcin Gortat (21 points, 12 rebounds — his ninth consecutive double-double, the longest active streak in the league).

Interestingly enough, both teams are struggling with their rotations, trying to find out what the best combination of players may be for both the starting and the second units. Toronto inserted Aaron Gray into the starting lineup for the first time this season, and Casey was pleased with his physical presence.

On the Suns side, Alvin Gentry continued his tweaks, getting Hakim Warrick into the game to try to gain the offensive production that Channing Frye has yet to provide this season on any type of a consistent basis. Warrick played 26 minutes and finished with 17 points and four assists — this, after receiving DNP-CDs in the Suns’ previous two games.

Ultimately, each team will have its own perspective on this one. The Suns will likely look at the fact that they were able to rally late on dead legs and almost come all the way back from 12 down in the fourth to get a win. The Raptors, meanwhile, will be thrilled with Bargnani’s return and the team’s ability to overcome its own double-digit deficit on the road to secure a win.

Trouble lies ahead for both clubs, and it’s not going to be an easy season for either of them. But the expectations are lower in Toronto, with a new coach in his first year with a squad no one expected to compete. In Phoenix, the playoffs were the realistic goal that was laid out to start the season. And as Jared Dudley said afterward on Twitter, what’s happening right now isn’t going to get them there.

“Can’t be a playoff team and lose to last couple teams we have played at home,” Dudley wrote. “Gotta figure this out. I believe in this team.”

Notes

– Robin Lopez was ejected in the second quarter for bumping an official while protesting a call. As an aside, the Suns were particularly interested in discussing the officiating on this night, with Gentry leading the way, and Gortat and Nash following right along for most of the night.

– James Johnson tied a career high in rebounds with 10, and Linus Kleiza tied a season high in rebounds with 10 for the Raptors.

– Toronto has now won just three times in its last 13 games, and all three wins have required 30 or more points from Bargnani.

– Toronto had lost 14 straight to Phoenix before Tuesday’s win. The Raptors last beat the Suns in February of 2004.

– Leandro Barbosa said there was no advantage to playing his former Suns team, that whatever knowledge he had of their old system is no longer there.

“I think that’s gone,” Barbosa said. “Last year was tough for me just to come and see my friends. It was tough. But that’s gone. I miss them and everything, but this is my team now. I came to play and win.”

Report: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers expected to sign super-max extension

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Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers entered this postseason with an opportunity to prove themselves to each other. Portland had gotten swept in the first round the last two years, including a devastating sweep as the No. 3 seed last season. Lillard would be eligible this offseason for a super-max extension that projects to be worth $193 million over four years.

Everyone feels good now.

Lillard hit one of the biggest shots ever, and the Trail Blazers advanced to their first conference finals in 19 years. Both sides want to continue their partnership.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are expected to come to terms over the summer on a four-year, $191 million supermax contract extension, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Lillard is under contract two more seasons. So, his extension would take effect in 2021, when it’s exact value would be determined. I project it at $193 million over four years.

As an All-NBA lock this year, Lillard will be eligible to sign a super-max extension this offseason or next. If he waits until 2020, he could sign a five-year extension. That deal would carry the same terms as the four-year extension for the first four years but would add a fifth year worth a projected $57 million – bringing the total projected value to $250 million. But there’s no guarantee Portland will offer the megadeal next year.

Already, this is a real risk for the Trail Blazers.

It’s probably one they must take. Lillard is an excellent player who does so much to set the team’s culture.

But paying someone projected salaries of $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34? Nearly no player can assure he’ll warrant that. Build a winner around a single player earning so much is quite difficult. Portland’s ownership situation after the death of Paul Allen, who frequently paid the luxury tax, only adds to the uncertainty.

This could be a litmus test for the designated-veteran-player-extension rule altogether. If it doesn’t work with Damian Lillard – who exudes so many traits you want in a superstar – who will it work with?

Meyers Leonard delivers all-time out-of-nowhere playoff performance

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In 1967, Richie Guerin retired. The former Knicks star had been the St. Louis Hawks’ player-coach a few years, and he shifted fully into coaching. He even won Coach of the Year that season. As the Hawks moved to Atlanta the next year, he occasionally returned to the lineup, but played sparingly while focused on coaching. He played even less the following season, scoring just seven points in eight games.

But when the Hawks were facing injuries, inexperience and a 3-0 deficit to the Lakers 1970 Western Division finals, a 37-year-old Guerin stepped up on the court. He scored 31 points in Game 4, though Los Angeles completed the sweep.

Afterward, Hawks publicity director Tom McCollister called in the game’s stats to the league office:

”Guerin played 35 minutes,” reported McCollister, quietly, ”made 12 of 17 field goal attempts, 7 for 7 free throws, had 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 personal fouls. Thirty-one points.” Pause. ”They are burying him tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.”

That was a rare time someone with a lower scoring average than Meyers Leonard scored 30 points in a playoff game.

Leonard – who averaged 5.9 points per game in the regular season – scored 30 points in the Trail Blazers’ Game 4 loss to the Warriors last night. He scored 25 in the first half!

This was the same Leonard who was in and out of the rotation all season, who had a DNP-CD in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, who had a previous career high of 24 points. That came in 2015, preceding a much-maligned four-year, $41 million contract.

But when Portland needed a more-mobile defender at center, Leonard started. He played well in Game 3, scoring 16 points and dishing four assists. That wad already an unexpectedly good night for him.

Yet, Leonard upped the ante yesterday. For a while, he was going shot-for-shot with Stephen Curry. Though he couldn’t keep up with Curry (37 points), Leonard went 12-of-16, including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers.

Here are the players to score 30 points in a playoff game with the lowest regular-season scoring averages:

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The only other player besides Guerin to drop 30 in a playoff game after scoring so little in the regular season was Daniel Gibson. Boobie averaged 4.6 points per game his rookie year then scored 31 points on 5-of-5 3-point shooting in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, helping send the Cavs to their first NBA Finals.

“If I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me up,” Gibson said. “This was perfect, to win it for Cleveland.”

The most recent player to crack the leaderboard was CJ McCollum, who averaged 6.8 points per game in 2014-15 then scored 33 in a season-ending Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies in the first round. McCollum won Most Improved Player the next year and has remained a near-star ever since.

Could Leonard make a similar jump for the Trail Blazers? Don’t count on it. McCollum was in only his second season. Leonard, who just finished his seventh season, has been in the league even longer than McCollum now.

But appreciate Leonard’s scoring binge for what it was – one heck of an outlier.

Giannis Antetokounmpo pays for basketball court in fire-ravaged Greece

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo has agreed to fund the construction of an indoor basketball court in a fire-ravaged area outside Athens where at least 100 people were killed last year.

The mayor of the Rafina area where the fire occurred last July said on Monday the local authority accepted the offer from the Milwaukee Bucks player to build the court at a new recycling park that is being planned. The mayor, Vangelis Bournous, gave no details of the construction cost but said the venue would ready at the end of this summer.

The blaze gutted the seaside resort of Mati, east of Athens, and other coastal areas, destroying more than a thousand homes.

Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are leading in the NBA Eastern Conference finals 2-1 over the Toronto Raptors.

Report: Dallas’ Dwight Powell to turn down $10.2 million player option

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Dwight Powell came to Dallas as a seeming throw-in with the Rajon Rondo trade back in 2014, but he evolved and grew into a solid rotation player for Rick Carlisle’s team. Last season he averaged more than 21 minutes a night off the bench, averaging an efficient 10.6 points and 5.3 rebounds a game.

Now he’s going to be a free agent, turning down the $10.2 million player option on the final year of his contract, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Don’t expect him to leave Dallas, they want to keep him and now will have even more cap space to do so (Dallas already has enough cap space to re-sign Kristaps Porzingis and look for a max or near-max player to put next to KP and Luka Doncic). This is most likely a situation where Powell will make a little less than the $10.2 million he would have made next season but will get more money locked in over three or four years.

Dallas wants to keep him, not only is he a trusted part of their rotation but also he is very active in the Dallas community. He’s an excellent ambassador for the Mavericks.

That said, other teams likely will inquire about a solid rotational big man, Powell will have some options.