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Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have Raptors looking tougher for playoffs

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Raptors coach Dwane Casey praised plenty of his players after beating the Pistons on Wednesday – Kyle Lowry for hitting the ground running after a wrist injury, Cory Joseph for sparking a 20-point comeback, DeMar DeRozan for nailing a big shot late, Jonas Valanciunas for hitting a clutch free throw.

And then Casey got to Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.

“They gave us physical toughness,” Casey said, “that we haven’t had.”

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Toronto has won 201 games – more than any team in the East. But the Raptors have disappointed in the playoffs.

As the No. 3 seed in 2014, they lost to the Nets. Again with home-court advantage in 2015, Toronto got swept by the Wizards. The Raptors finally got off the schneid after winning franchise-record 56 games and securing the number two seed last year, but they still looked unimpressive while scraping by the Pacers and Heat in seven games a piece.

This year could be different.

Toronto (48-31) is once again impressing in the regular season. But Ibaka and Tucker – acquired in February trades before the deadline – have changes this team’s dynamic in a way that bodes well for the postseason.

Ibaka is a shot-blocking big man who’s hitting the defensive glass harder in a contract year. Though just 6-foot-6, Tucker uses his strength and physicality to be a combo forward who can even cover some guards.

With those two on the court, the Raptors have allowed just 100.3 points per 100 possessions – a mark that would lead the league over the full season.

“Of course. It’s not surprising,” Ibaka said. “That’s why we’re here.”

For now.

They’re really in Toronto to help in a potential playoff rematch with the Cavaliers, who beat the Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Tucker has even received some buzz as a LeBron James stopper, and though his ability to shut down LeBron is surely overstated, Tucker brings a new element to his new team.

Toronto’s offense has drive the team’s success the last few years.

The Raptors ranked third in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating in 2014-15. So, they signed DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo the following summer to shore up their defense. It improved, but not to a high level. Last season, Toronto’s defense ranked 11th – its fifth-ranked offense still better. That style continued to start this season, the Raptors ranking fourth offensively and 16th defensively at the All-Star break.

Enter Ibaka and Tucker.

Toronto has the NBA’s fourth-best defense since the trade deadline.

Here’s the Raptors’ ranking in offensive (red) and defensive (black) rating each year, with this season split by the trade deadline:

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Year Offensive Defensive
2013-14 9 9
2014-15 3 23
2015-16 5 11
2016-17 (pre) 4 16
2017-17 (post) 13 4

Don’t fret about the offensive drop in the second half. Lowry – Toronto’s best offensive player – has played only game due to a wrist injury. With him back in the fold, the Raptors should score much more efficiently.

Ibaka and Tucker will also help. They’re not defensive specialists who can get schemed off the floor in the playoffs. Their 3-point shooting – Ibaka (39% this season, 37% career), Tucker (36% this season, 35% career) – will space the floor for Lowry and DeRozan drives and provide efficient points.

Ibaka’s and Tucker’s outside shooting become major weapons when they play center and power forward, respectively. Though it’s just in 80 minutes, including only three with Lowry, here’s how Toronto has fared with Ibaka at center and Tucker at power forward, per NBAwowy!:

  • Offensive rating: 126.4
  • Defensive rating: 105.7
  • Net: +20.7

Overall, Toronto has scored 110.8 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka and Tucker on the floor, which would rank fifth among teams over the full season.

But the biggest gains come defensively.

Though he insists he was content coaching to his personnel, Casey long seemed uncomfortable coaching an offensive-oriented team. He never wasted an opportunity in press conferences to turn the focus to defense, even when asked about his excellent offense. And that was apparently the case behind the scenes, too.

“That’s all he cares about,” Lowry said. “He don’t care about nothing else but defense.”

Said DeRozan: “That’s what he’s always on us about, period. Nothing else, just strictly defense. And that’s what it’s always been.”

Now, with Ibaka and Tucker, Casey has a team that better fits his image. Toronto is defending well and playing with toughness.

The Raptors’ roster never befit a finesse team, but they too often slipped into playing like one. Ibaka and Tucker have rallied the team another direction.

“It’s contagious,” DeRozan said. “It’s something that everybody feed into, everybody love. And you have no choice but feed into it when guys bring that intensity every day.”

Ibaka and Tucker have played just 21 games each for Toronto, and Ibaka admitted he’s a little surprised by how quickly he and Tucker have clicked with their new teammates.

“But this group of guys, all they think about is winning,” Ibaka said. “So, when you play on a winning team, this happens.

“We’re ready to make big step in playoffs.”

Report: Gregg Popovich met with Kawhi Leonard in San Diego

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Don’t count the San Antonio Spurs out of the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes just yet.

We have been waiting on pins and needles to see whether or not Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would meet with the apparently disgruntled Leonard this week before San Antonio approaches Thursday night’s NBA draft.

According to Yahoo! Sports’ Shams Charania, Leonard and Popovich met on Tuesday night in San Diego where Leonard has been working out.

Via Twitter:

For what it is worth, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reporterd that Popovich has not yet met with Leonard, but is traveling to Southern California to meet with the Spurs forward. Even further, Leonard has reportedly requested a trade to Los Angeles from the Spurs, specifically to the Lakers.

Via ESPN:

Leonard wants a trade to Los Angeles, preferably the Lakers over the Clippers, league sources said. He has privately maintained that he no longer wants to play in San Antonio, and will eventually alert rival teams considering trades for him that his intentions are to sign in Los Angeles — preferably with the Lakers — when he can become a free agent in 2019, league sources said.

Leonard had told confidants that he did not want to sit down with Popovich and has been purposely difficult for the Spurs to reach recently. Among the issues, Leonard is angry over what he believes was the Spurs’ mishandling of a quad injury, and remains irate with public comments out of teammate Tony Parker and Popovich that he felt were not supportive of him, league sources said.

We had to know this was coming. San Antonio wasn’t going to let Leonard dictate the terms of his departure from Texas all by himself. Although Leonard has put the Spurs in a tough situation given his reported open request to play in Los Angeles, no doubt both parties would be better off from a basketball perspective if they were together. San Antonio apparently doesn’t want to make a deal with a Western Conference team, either.

Since the Spurs were trying to get in touch with Leonard before Thursday’s big selection night, it could be a signal that Leonard is on the move. Several teams, including the Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers are rumored to be interested in Leonard’s services.

Rumor: Cavaliers could have trade interest in Kemba Walker

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to do everything in their power to retain LeBron James. They are also doing everything they can do to prepare themselves for if James decides to leave Cleveland once and for all.

Last week we heard rumors about how the Cavaliers were trying to prepare an offer to snag Kawhi Leonard away from the San Antonio Spurs. That move could be seen either as an intent to entice James to stay, or as a replacement for The King.

Now, we have rumor that the Cavaliers could be interested in acquiring an Eastern Conference point guard, presumably to help LeBron next season.

According to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, the Cavaliers have inquired to the Charlotte Hornets about the availability of point guard Kemba Walker.

Walker, 28, just became the Hornets all-time leading scorer this last season. The University of Connecticut product has just one year left on his current deal at $12 million, and could be both a good rental for a season as a means to bolster another James Finals run, or as a focal piece moving forward.

As is the issue with any package for Leonard, a trade to the Cavaliers from Charlotte for Walker really depends on what a third trade partner can bring into the mix. Not many of Cleveland’s young players have performed well enough to be used as trade bait for marquee guys. That necessarily means that Kevin Love will be the main trade bait, and it is tough for many teams to have interest in the sharp-shooting forward given many already have that position filled.

We are just 48 hours away from the 2018 NBA Draft and no doubt rumors like this will continue to heat up as we get closer to 4 p.m. Eastern on Thursday night.

Michael Porter Jr. compares himself to Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo

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It has been rumored that Michael Porter Jr could be the player the Sacramento Kings draft at No. 2 overall on Thursday night in the 2018 NBA Draft. Meanwhile, according to Porter himself, there is good reason for his sudden leap up the draft boards.

Speaking on CBS Sports Radio on Monday, Porter said that he thought the players he most compared to right now were Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Tracy McGrady.

Of course, the context here is that Porter was prompted to give a current NBA comparison, and as a shooter and physical player, he was unlikely to compare himself to a role player. Still, it’s a bold statement from Porter to say that he is akin to the second best player in the league at this moment. Durant has a skill set that hasn’t been replicated or really seen in the NBA, so it’s tough for anyone to really compare themselves to him.

Here is the quote, transcribed thanks to Deadspin:

Right now, I’m a little, I’m a mix of Giannis and KD. You know, I like going to the hole a little more than KD does, I like bumping into people a little more physical than KD. But I also, you know I like to shoot the ball more than Giannis. So that’s what I like to compare myself to. Then also Tracy McGrady. I get compared to him a lot and I like that one a lot too. You know, those are three amazing players. So it doesn’t feel bad to be in the same conversation as them.

In a recent interview with Dime Magazine, Porter said that he thinks Durant is the best player in the league, particularly when he plays against LeBron James. So really, Porder compared himself to the best player in the league.

The Missouri product has a litany of both character and injury questions. Rumors are abound about how well he will fit into an NBA locker room, and he famously decamped to Missouri Lorenzo Romar was fired in Washington.

Porder sat out most of the year with a nagging back injury, and had to call off some of his draft workouts because of a hip issue. Porter has tried to downplay his injury concerns, and has said that former Portland Trail Blazers star Brandon Roy told him to remain patient through injury.

The draft is less than 48 hours away, and most believe that taking Porter at No. 2 is a huge risk for the Kings. We will see just how confident Sacramento is about Porter’s ability to become an NBA teammate and stay healthy here soon enough.

Michael Jordan will still have input on Hornets draft day decisions

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan hired proven general manager Mitch Kupchak this offseason to help turn around a franchise mired in mediocrity since he became the Charlotte Hornets’ majority owner eight years ago.

But that doesn’t mean the highly competitive Jordan won’t have input on personnel decisions, beginning with the NBA draft on Thursday night.

Kupchak said in a pre-draft news conference Tuesday that he’ll have final say in who the Hornets select before quickly adding, “well, with the exception of one person – and obviously that’s ownership.”

Kupchak has won 10 NBA championships, including seven as an executive with the Los Angeles Lakers – so he knows a thing or two about building a winning roster. But he’s quickly learning that Jordan, who many consider the best NBA player ever, is still very much a hands-on owner when it comes to the players he employs.

And Kupchak understands that.

“There is a huge business component to our relationship,” Kupchak said.

Kupchak said he has communicated with Jordan on the phone and via text throughout the draft evaluation process. The 55-year-old Jordan arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina on Monday and the two have been studying tape on potential draft picks since.

The Hornets, who have failed to make the playoffs three of the past four seasons, have the 11th overall pick in the draft.

Kupchak has known Jordan since he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina.

However, Kupchak said that while they both are former Tar Heels, he never had considered Jordan a friend prior to being hired this past offseason to replace Rich Cho as Hornets general manager.

Since then they have had dinner together and gotten to know each other a little more.

He said the relationship has changed for the better.

“Hopefully when all is said and done, our other relationship, which is our friend relationship continues to grow and is not altered in any way,” Kupchak said. “There are no favors being done here. We’re friends and I think we’ll remain friends, but the bottom line in this business is success and winning games.”

Kupchak was rather forthcoming in the team’s pre-draft press conference Tuesday, saying the does not expect to trade the 11th overall pick.

He also said he expects that the handful of top-notch big men will be off the board by the time the Hornets make their selection.

“Right now I think the best player on the board is the player we are going to go after – and I’d expect that player to be a guard or a wing,” Kupchak said. “… I think we expect that we will be looking at guards and wings, but we will see.”