The Extra Pass: Raptors’ salary dump trade could mean a few more wins, too; plus Sunday recaps

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LOS ANGELES — Make no mistake, this was first and foremost about money. And future flexibility.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri made a smart trade sending Rudy Gay out of town in a deal that sets his team up for the future by removing up to $12.4 million from the books next season. This summer  Andrea Bargnani’s anchor contract and now Rudy Gay’s oversized one are off the Toronto books. This Gay trade was all about the financial savings.

But it could mean a few more wins in there here and now, too.

Without the duplication of Gay and DeMar DeRozan’s talents the Raptors offense on Sunday night against the Lakers played faster and had better spacing then it has in some time. There was less isolation and more pick-and-roll. The Raptors got 28 percent of their shot opportunities from either the ball handler or roll man in the pick-and-roll against the Lakers (up from 22 percent on the season) while the Raptors got just 7 percent of their shots from isolation plays (down from a 12 percent average on the season).

The result was a 106-94 win spoiling Kobe Bryant’s return.

Part of the good play can be attributed to the Raptors pulling together when shorthanded — something we see all the time in sports for short runs.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for it happen today,” Kyle Lowry said after he scored 23 Sunday night. “I didn’t. You don’t expect it to happen this fast or this soon. You say you feel something coming but you can’t say anything until it happens and now that it happens you say ‘we knew it.’”

However, the improvement in the Raptors offense — ranked 17th in the NBA in points per possession — may well be more than just a one-night boost.

Without Gay getting his team-high 18.6 shots a game — with one-in-four coming from an isolation play — the Raptors offense looked improved.

“The floor was spaced a lot,” Amir Johnson said after he dropped 32 on the Lakers. “They pay attention to DeMar a lot, especially coming off those curls. So when you have that big (defending Johnson) help, he was able to get that dunk pass and I was able to get those layups. It was working for us tonight.”

Lowry was happy, too.

“I’m really happy how we played, the ball moved out there, swinging, everyone chipped in it was a great effort from everyone.”

Nobody in the Raptors locker room had a negative word to say about Gay — just the opposite, most players seemed upset to have lost a teammate they genuinely liked.

“Rudy is a prince of a guy,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a dynamic, athletic wing player, he gets to the basket at will. He can shoot the ball, handle the ball, we were using him more in drag situations, pick-and-roll situations and he was growing into that role, doing a better job getting a feel for the defense. And that was a different role for him to do that but he was growing into it, getting better with it.”

Still, the offense looked better.

Now on top of that thanks to the trade Toronto adds a playmaking guard in Greivis Vasquez, a solid vet in Chuck Hayes, and a guy who can provide some wing depth in John Salmons. We’ll see how it all fits together — and who gets moved again before the deadline, this is a roster in flux — but all the pieces could fit together a little better than it has up to this point.

Toronto did not make this trade trying to win the sad Atlantic division — for the Raptors this is about saving money and roster flexibility. Gay is not the kind of guy Masai Ujiri wants to build around, especially not if he picks up his $19.3 million option for next season. This trade was about financial flexibility.

But with the Raptors starting five being +19 against the Lakers (who were out of sync with the Kobe’s return) you have to wonder if this might mean a few more wins this season, too.

—Kurt Helin

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Celtics 114, Knicks 73: New York didn’t bother to show up for this one, as the early noon tip-off time at home once again proved to be too much for the Knicks to deal with. The team fell behind by 25 points in the first quarter, didn’t hit a field goal for the game’s first six-plus minutes, and essentially erased any good feelings they created by coming out of their nine-game losing streak with consecutive wins by a margin of more than 30 points each.

Heat 110, Pistons 95: Detroit handed Miami one of its five losses on the season less than a week ago, so you can bet that the Pistons got the Heat’s full attention in the rematch. That meant a near triple-double performance out of LeBron James, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, and a blistering 32-17 third quarter where the Heat put this one away for good and turned the final 12 minutes into nothing more than extended garbage time.

Thunder 118, Pacers 94: It’s easy to dismiss this loss for the Pacers, considering how dominant they’ve been to start the season along with the fact that a Spurs-Thunder road back-to-back isn’t exactly the fairest of schedules to deal with. But Kevin Durant turned in an above-average performance regardless of what his opponent’s circumstances were, and finished with 36 points and 10 rebounds to lead his team to the win — perhaps because he was tired of hearing about Paul George and his breakout season thus far. George had 32 points and five rebounds of his own in the losing effort.

Rockets 98, Magic 88: This one wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate, mainly because the Rockets held a lead of 22 points in the third quarter and lost focus in the final period by shooting a dismal 5-of-22 from the field over the game’s final 12 minutes. James Harden finished with 27 points and 10 assists, and Dwight Howard added 20 points, 22 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Raptors 106, Lakers 94: Kobe Bryant was back on the court, but as had to be expected he was rusty and his teammates were not used to playing with him. Kobe had 9 points on 2-of-9 shooting, with eight rebounds and eight turnovers. The Lakers five starters combined to shoot 25 percent and none scored in double digits — they were that out of sync. Meanwhile Amir Johnson was back home in Los Angeles and dropped 32 in front of his friends, while DeMar DeRozan (26 points) and Kyle Lowry (23) slashed their way into the lane. The Raptors scored 60 points in the paint on the night. Rudy Gay who?

Here are LeBron’s best shots from his seven 40-point playoff games (VIDEO)

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LeBron James has had an incredible playoff run. He has nearly single-handedly kept the Cleveland Cavaliers alive in the postseason against the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and the Boston Celtics.

James has largely been dominant, scoring 40 points or more in seven playoff games just this postseason alone. That is more than many NBA legends had in their entire playing career. According to Basketball Reference, LeBron’s seven games of 40 points or more is a higher mark than than Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, or Magic Johnson had during their entire careers.

LeBron and the Cavaliers are set to take on the Celtics for Sunday’s Game 7 matchup, and it’s possible we see yet another 40+ point performance from The King.

Meanwhile, the NBA has put together a highlight video to show some of the best plays from LeBron’s 40+ point games this season.

Watch the full video above. Game 7 is at 5:30 PM PST.

Both conference finals reach Game 7 for first time in 39 years

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Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team had just defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State team to win the NCAA Tournament. “Apocalypse Now” and “Alien” had just been released into the theaters. Van Halen II had just hit your local record store, in both vinyl and cassette tape form. “Three’s Company” was the hottest show on television and “The Dukes of Hazzard” had just made its debut.

It was May 1979, and that was the last time that both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals went to a Game 7.

Until this year, that is. Sunday night LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will head to Boston for a Game 7 to try and return to the NBA Finals (it would be LeBron’s eighth straight trip to the Finals). Monday night, Houston will try to hold on at home in a Game 7 without Chris Paul and advance past the offensive onslaught of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors.

In 1979, it was a very different NBA — there was no three-point line (that started next season, and even then few players took the shot, it was not something they grew up practicing). The shorts were a lot shorter. The Jazz were in New Orleans, the Kings in Kansas City, the Clippers in San Diego, and there was a Seattle SuperSonics team.

A very good Seattle team — they beat the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. The Sonics were led by the backcourt of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson, with Jack Sikma as the big man inside providing balance. Seattle won the first two games of the series at home, then the Suns — led by Paul Westphal and Walter Davis — tied the series holding home court in games three and four. Phoenix stole Game 5 in Seattle, but the Sonics returned the favor with a dramatic 106-105 Game 6 win in Phoenix. Game 7 went to Seattle 114-110.

In the Eastern Conference, it was the Washington Bullets and the San Antonio Spurs (yes, the Spurs used to be in the East). Those Spurs, led by George “Ice Man” Gervin (who averaged 31 points a game in the WCF), went into Washington and stole Game 1. After the Spurs held home court in Games 3 and 4, they had a commanding 3-1 series lead. That’s when Washington — led by Bob Dandridge and Elvin Hayes — got on a roll and won the final three games, and it was Dandridge who hit the game-winner with eight seconds left to seal Game 7.

The Finals didn’t live up to quite the same hype, with the Sonics downing the Bullets in five games. It was the Sonics’ lone NBA title.

Three things to watch in Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers Game 7

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One game. Winner moves on to the NBA Finals, loser can book early tee times starting Monday.

It’s a dramatic Game 7 between Boston and Cleveland for the Eastern Conference crown. In a series that has swung wildly in favor of whoever was the home team that night, the season comes down to one game for these two team. At this point, there are no more real adjustments — both teams, both coaches know what to expect from the other side. It’s about poise. It’s about keeping your head. It’s about what role player will step up big (as one always seems to do in quirky Game 7s).

Here are three things to keep an eye on in this game.

1) LeBron James. He’s the best player on the court, the best of his generation, and with the Cavs it all starts with him — he can’t be just merely good for the Cavaliers to win, he has to be superhuman. Which is what we’ve come to expect — he had 46 points in 46 minutes of play in Game 6 and that’s going to be needed again.

It’s worth watching early on to see if the tweak to his knee suffered in Game 6 has any impact — he scored 12 points after it in that game, but it’s possible it tightened up after his body cooled down. Does LeBron have the same lift and explosiveness? Either way, he’s going to make plays. From the Celtics’ perspective, they just need to make him work hard for them.

There are a lot of players who get tight and shrink from Game 7s. Not LeBron — for his career he has averaged 34.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 5.1 assists in Game 7s. The last five times he’s been in a Game 7, LeBron’s teams have won (his last Game 7 loss was to the Celtics in 2008). Bottom line, if there’s one thing we know will happen in this game, it’s LeBron will be great. That, alone, is not enough to get the Cavaliers a win, which leads us too….

2) With Kevin Love out, will any other role players step up for the Cavaliers? Love has been the second best offensive player for the Cavaliers in the postseason, but they can survive his loss — this is a better defensive team without him (3.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court in this series) and the offense often sees better ball movement and flow.

Cleveland’s veterans need to step up in this pressure situation, and that starts with George Hill — he is the bellwether for this team, the second ball handler and shot creator they need. When he plays well, when he is playing downhill and attacking off picks as he did in Game 6, they win. Hill was aggressive, got into the paint, and from there is both a scorer and a distributor in the last game in Cleveland. He has not been the same guy on the road, what does he have to do to be that guy again?

“I have to focus and try to do the same things that I prepared today to take into Sunday,” Hill said after Game 6. “It sounds funny, but I had to go find my Chipotle barbacoa. That’s my pregame meal, so I’m up two games — well, the three games here, that’s what I ate before the game. I’m for sure going to find a Chipotle in Boston, I’ll tell you that.”

Beyond Hill and his barbacoa, Jeff Green is getting the start with Hill out — he is a streaky player, but the good Green would go a long way to helping the Cavs in this one. Kyle Korver needs to find space and knock down threes, the good J.R. Smith needs to show up (that version of him missed a lot of time this series, he’s been dreadful for several games), and Tristan Thompson needs to get some offensive rebounds. LeBron is going to do his thing, but the man can only do so much, he needs help.

3) Are the Celtics’ young stars ready for this pressure and this moment? Boston is at home, where they are a different team and an undefeated 10-0 this season. Boston is also the younger team that bounces back faster, something that matters because this is the third game in five days for these teams (great scheduling, NBA… ugh). The Celtics deserve to be the favorite, but the question that has hung over them all playoffs still looms for this game:

Is Boston ready for this stage and this level of pressure?

“I’ve tried my best all year to try and not talk about their age,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Game 6. “It’s not about that. They’re really good basketball players. They’re really committed to each other. We all have a job to do and that’s go out and try to play the best we can. That’s regardless, Game 7, Game 1, a game in November, whatever the case may be… We need to be ready to play. We will be ready to play.”

The Celtics have already played a Game 7 in this postseason, handily beating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. That, however, is a much smaller stage. They need to do Sunday what they did in that first Game 7 — the win starts on the defensive end, making LeBron work for his buckets and not letting the supporting cast get rolling. Then, with the stops and turnovers, use those young legs to get out in transition and get a few easy buckets, force cross-matches and take advantage.

Boston gets their points by committee, they get the ball to the open man and he has to knock the shot down, whether it’s Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier or Al Horford or anyone else. In Game 6, they were not hitting those shots, and defensively they let Hill and other supporting Cavaliers get rolling. That has to change in Game 7 — make LeBron work for his buckets and don’t let the role players get hot.

Boston needs another aggressive first quarter from Brown (he’s done that most of the series). They need to force switches and run sets that get Horford space from Thompson. The Celtics need to defend, then run — they need to force the pace and try to wear down the older Cavaliers.

All season, all playoffs, despite being down men, the Celtics have just found a way to win. They need to do that one more time to reach the Finals.

Will Chris Paul play in Game 7?

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The way Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry were shooting it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of Game 6, but the Houston Rockets missed Chris Paul. They missed his steadying influence on offense, and maybe more importantly they missed his defense — Curry was directing the offense, creating space with his handles then finding people cutting off the ball and draining threes. Paul may have been able to help keep Curry in relative check.

Which all leads to this big question: Will Paul suit up and play in Game 7?

Doesn’t sound like it.

I would describe the mood of sources I spoke to on this issues as pessimistic on CP3’s chances of play.

If Paul can at all go, he will. Three years ago Paul played through a hamstring injury to lead the Clippers past the Spurs, he’ll want to do it again.

This is different. For one thing, Paul is older now, his body will not bounce back the same way. Also, there are risks in playing him — if he is at all limited with his movement the Warriors will target him with Curry and Klay Thompson, try to get CP3 moving laterally and exploiting him. If he’s not right, Mike D’Antoni needs to have him on a short leash.

But if he can go, D’Antoni will let him try.