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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.

Klay Thompson back on practice court with Warriors Friday

Klay Thompson cleared
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The last time Klay Thompson was on an NBA court, it was Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals when an ACL tear both ended those playoffs for him and caused him to miss all of this season.

Friday, Thompson was back on the court.

The three-time champion and five-time All-Star cleared quarantine and was in the “Dubble” where the Warriors are conducting a two-week minicamp at their facility to help prepare for next season (whenever that starts).

It’s a good sign. When next season starts, the Warriors hope he, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green are all healthy and running at 100%.

Another good sign for the Warriors, Kevon Looney has been working out and reportedly looking good at the Warriors minicamp (take all the “he looks great” reports with a grain of salt, but the fact he is on the court is a good sign).

Looney played through injuries in those 2019 Finals, and has missed parts of four of his five NBA seasons due to injuries — he played just 20 games last season and had surgery on his core in May. It led to whispers around the league he may never again find his form as a quality role player. If Looney can stay healthy — coach Steve Kerr said he went “full bore” at the team’s first practice — he becomes a solid, athletic interior presence the Warriors need to balance their elite perimeter players.

 

Jamal Murray lived in “Schitt’s Creek” Rosebud Motel for two years

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A once-rich-now-suddenly-poor family adjusting to living cramped together in a roadside motel is the premise behind “Schitt’s Creek” — the Canadian comedy that just annoyingly dominated the Emmy comedy categories. (It’s not that “Schitt’s Creek” isn’t deserving, I enjoy the show, it’s just annoying when any single show/movie dominates an awards broadcast.)

Jamal Murray watches that show and sees his former home.

Murray, Denver’s breakout superstar and a Canadian, lived in the “Schitt’s Creek” Rosebud Motel for two years, reports Chris Halliday of the Orangeville Banner, via the Toronto Star (hat tip to Hoopshype).

The real-life motel is owned by Jesse Tipping, who also is the president of the Athlete Institute Basketball Academy and Orangeville Prep.

Tipping purchased the motel in 2011 to house recruits for what’s become the most successful prep school basketball program in Canada. Former Orangeville Prep alum and budding NBA superstar Jamal Murray, of the Denver Nuggets, lived there for two years — so did Miami Heat training camp invitee Kyle Alexander.

It’s also been a filming location for a number of things, including “The Umbrella Academy” and “A History of Violence.” “Schitt’s Creek” has used the place for about a month every year for the past six years.

The popular comedy, which just ended its run, features veteran comedic actors Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, plus Eugene’s son Dan Levy, plus many more. “Schitt’s Creek” was first produced by the CBC for Canadian television, came to America on POP TV, but exploded when it got to Netflix and people discovered it.

Jamal Murray went from the “Schitt’s Creek” to Kentucky for a year, before being drafted by the Denver Nuggets as their point guard to pair with Nikola Jokic. Murray has had a breakout playoffs, leading the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals. He’s made ridiculous plays on the court and powerful statements off it about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Rumor: 76ers could hire Mike D’Antoni to lure James Harden

Mike D'Antoni and James Harden at Rockets-76ers game
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Former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni seemingly has a good relationship with James Harden.

The 76ers are reportedly interested in hiring D’Antoni.

Coincidence?

John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

If this is the 76ers’ plan, it’s foolish. Stars don’t pick teams to play for a specific coach.

Stars want, among the things in Philadelphia’s control, winning environments. Pick the coach who can help build and maintain that.

Maybe that’s D’Antoni. He had plenty of success with the Rockets and Suns. But choose him for the right reasons – not some Harden pipe dream.

Harden can become a free agent in 2022, but he’d have to decline a $47,366,760 player option for his age-33 season. Otherwise, he’s headed toward 2023 unrestricted free agency. The 76ers would have a tough time clearing max cap space in either offseason.

A trade is possible. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are intriguing chips if Philadelphia becomes willing to trade one. Harden has the cachet to have some say in a trade destination. But Houston has been committed to winning around Harden. With an older team built around Harden, the Rockets couldn’t simply pivot into a new direction with Simmons or Embiid.

In fairness to the 76ers, this is the type of rumor that spreads baselessly. People see D’Antoni’s awkward fit with Philadelphia’s roster and make wild guesses about the team’s motivation. That doesn’t necessarily match the 76ers’ internal reasoning.

Jamal Murray is having a great playoffs. Has he arrived for good?

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray
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Jamal Murray shot 4-for-18 in the Nuggets’ Game 7 loss to the Trail Blazers last year.

“I didn’t have the game I was supposed to have,” Murray said.

Supposed to have. What a telling glimpse into Murray’s mindset. He was raised to be an NBA star. Anything less was just… wrong.

Well, Murray is having the games he’s supposed to have now.

The Denver guard is the breakout star of the playoffs. He’s averaging 27 points per game while shooting 54% on 2-pointers and 47% on 3-pointers. He’s passing better and playing sharper defense, helping the Nuggets reach the Western Conference finals

Not bad for someone who not only has never been an All-Star, but hasn’t drawn much serious All-Star consideration.

Is this sustainable? Has Murray made The Leap? Or is a streaky player having a well-timed hot stretch? Is he somehow particularly benefitting from the unique conditions of the bubble?

Murray has increased his PER from 17.7 in the regular season to 24.7 in the playoffs. That’s one of the biggest jumps in NBA history – especially among players on such a deep postseason run.

Marcus Camby posted a PER of 17.8 as a rookie with the Raptors and hovered around that mark with the Knicks in his third season. Then, he broke out during New York’s run to the 1999 NBA Finals. The big man played well off the bench then really elevated his game once Patrick Ewing got hurt. He finished with a postseason PER of 24.8.

Camby had several productive seasons with the Knicks and Nuggets afterward. But he never quite matched the hype he built during the 1999 playoffs.

Which is the norm for players who made postseason surges like that.

Here are the largest PER increases from a previous regular-season high to a postseason (minimum: 500 minutes in each segment):

Just four of the 15 players on that chart matched their breakthrough playoff PER in a future regular season:

  • As a rookie, Oliver Miller came up big off the bench for the Suns in their run to the 1993 NBA Finals. He continued to improve in his second season then signed a lucrative contract with the Pistons in 1994. But amid weight issues, never sustained his production.
  • Anthony Mason began his professional career overseas then spent a couple seasons hopping between minor leagues and deep-bench roles in the NBA.  He signed with the Knicks in 1991, played well and got a bigger role the next season. By the 1993 playoffs, he was really clicking. That was truly a sign of things to come. Mason became a quality starter for the Knicks, Hornets and Heat, even making an All-Star team with Miami.
  • Danny Ainge really stepped up during Celtics’ legendary run to the 1986 championship. He was in his fifth season and seemed to understand his capabilities as a player. His prime continued from there with Boston then the Kings, Trail Blazers and Suns.
  • Gail Goodrich began his career with the Lakers, grew steadily, got picked by the Suns in an expansion draft, made an All-Star team while shooting a lot for a lousy Phoenix team then got traded back to the Lakers. That’s when he really found himself. Goodrich parlayed his strong 1971 playoffs into a higher level of play and four straight All-Star selections with Los Angeles.

Otherwise, these were blips – magical runs that couldn’t be repeated. LeBron James is great. He can’t sustain the 37.4 PER he had during the 2009 playoffs. (For perspective, Giannis Antetokounmpo broke the single-season PER record with a 31.9 this season.)

But could Murray be another exception?

Maybe.

For one, this wasn’t completely out of left field. The Nuggets already gave him a max extension expecting this type of growth. (That might have turned into a super-max extension if All-NBA included the playoffs).

Murray is just 23. This looks somewhat like natural progression.

He has excelled against tough defenses in the Jazz, Clippers and Lakers. Murray wasn’t merely taking advantage of favorable matchups. He’s producing, regardless – though the challenge is rising.

Murray also appeared on the chart last year (as did teammate Nikola Jokic). Murray is clearly improving. Maybe there’s something in his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs, too.

On the other hand, some of this is clearly unsustainable. Though Murray is good at making difficult shots, his 47% shooting from beyond the arc will come back down to earth.

Denver’s playoff run will likely end soon, too. Despite the easy 3-1 jokes, the Nuggets will probably fall to the Lakers. There’s a reason Denver’s comebacks against the Jazz and Clippers were so impressive. Teams down 3-1 almost always lose. That’s still true.

But Murray’s run could be just beginning.