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.”

Will Toronto give Pascal Siakam a max extension?

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In his third year in the league last season, Pascal Siakam made a leap. He averaged 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, shot 36.9 percent from three, became a shot creator, played quality wing defense, and he was a key part of the Raptors earning the right to have a parade and hoist a championship banner. He earned that Most Improved Player trophy.

Siakam is Toronto’s future after a summer where Kawhi Leonard left.

Siakam also is eligible for an extension right now.

Should the Raptors give him the max of five years, $170 million? A number of executives around the league told Frank Urbina of Hoopshype that Siakam may be worth that number.

A Western Conference coach agreed: “With Toronto in the situation that they’re in, no longer having Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green, Pascal Siakam may be a safe bet for them and they may want to give him a max extension to lock him up. I’ve been impressed with his development; he’s improved into a highly, highly serviceable player who’s very efficient and does a lot for that team. From the outside looking in, it seems like he’ll be able to continue his development too. He seems highly motivated and very grateful to be in the situation he’s in and he doesn’t take anything for granted.”

Is “highly serviceable” worth the max? The two players who got that money this summer were Ben Simmons in Philly and Jamal Murray in Denver. Most of the GMs spoken to for the article would try to extend him for less than the full max.

“I think they’re going to try to extend him,” one current Eastern Conference GM said. “I haven’t talked to Toronto, but he’s obviously a huge piece for them, helped them win a championship, he’s getting better, he’s young, he’s athletic and he can shoot. They’re going to try to extend him. Do I think he’s a max player? No. Do I think he’s a good player? Certainly. It’ll come down to what he thinks he’s worth, and I’m sure his agents have called around to see what kind of offers he could get if he enters restricted free agency.”

Another Western Conference executive agreed that he’s not worth the max, telling HoopsHype: “Out of Pascal Siakam, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram and Buddy Hield, [the main candidates remaining for a rookie-scale extension], I don’t think any of them will get the max or deserve the max. If I was running each team, I would force them to play it out. In some situations, keeping their cap holds is so much more beneficial. You should only extend if you get a below-market-value deal or if it’s a no-brainer extension.”

If the Raptors come in at less than the max with an offer, Siakam may just want to play out this season and head into restricted free agency next summer. If he has another strong season, when he hits the market in a down year for free agents he may find a team willing to make a max or near max offer and Toronto will have to match or let him walk. Essentially, Siakam would bet on himself.

We’ll see if Toronto and Siakam’s people can find a number that works for both sides, the deadline is Oct. 21. The sides are talking, but its more likely this rolls into next summer.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.