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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.”

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.

Three Things to Know: What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) What’s next for 76ers without Ben Simmons?

“This one stings, for sure.”

That was 76ers coach Brett Brown, who has had to deal with a lot of injuries to players during his tenure in Philadelphia. But this one hurts a little more because of the timing. The Sixers will be without Ben Simmons for a while after he suffered a subluxation of the left patella — his kneecap essentially dislocated then popped back into place — against Washington.

The 76ers were adjusting to playing Simmons at power forward during the restart in Orlando. Now there are just questions.

How long will Simmons be out? That’s the big one and the answer is nobody knows for sure. The Sixers are evaluating treatment options. As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes notes, Allen Crabbe had the same injury earlier this year and missed 11 days (three games), but he had no damage to the ligaments or rest of the knee. That’s the most common outcome for this injury and it would have Simmons back around the start of the playoffs. However, if there is any ligament damage, Simmons could be out much longer. (The early reports were the MRI came back clean, but that doesn’t tell us much about the real level of damage other than it wasn’t severe.) Philadelphia has always been cautious when it comes to bringing its stars back from injury.

Who starts for Philadelphia while Simmons is out? That’s one Brown has to decide by today (Friday) and the game against Orlando. He could plug Al Horford back into the starting lineup — the Sixers were +1.4 points per 100 possessions this season with Embiid and Horford on the court together without Simmons (it was -0.7 with all three and the floor spacing was a mess). Or, Brown could keep Horford on the bench and go with another wing such as Matisse Thybulle or Furkan Korkmaz.

Philadelphia seems locked into the six seed in the East (they are one game back of five seed Indiana with four to play, but the Pacers beat the Sixers last Friday and have the tiebreaker, so it is in practice a two-game lead).

Philadelphia is 6-5 this season without Simmons, and while they can plug other players into the four they will not have Simmons’ elite defense, nor his passing skills, and the new player will not be the same threat in transition. Philadelphia is just not the same threat in the East without Simmons.

2) Portland is in control of ninth seed in West after win, New Orleans loss

There is going to be a play-in series in the West — and Portland is going to be in it.

That much seems obvious after Thursday’s action, where Jusuf Nurkic was dunking on Bol Bol and Portland was picking up a 125-115 win over Denver.

That win has Portland half a game back of  Memphis for the eighth seed in the West — and the 0-4 Grizzlies face a tough game against the Thunder Friday. The West could be tied by Saturday morning.

Portland looks to be a lock for the play-in.

Can anyone else crash that party? Sacramento earned it’s first win in the bubble on Thursday, knocking off Zion Williamson and New Orleans, meaning now both the Kings and Pelicans sit 2.5 games back of the Grizzlies with four to play. Both need to win out and hope Memphis continues losing to have a chance to get into a play-in with Portland.

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Suns and the Spurs both sit two games back of the Grizzlies and with a chance to make a play-in. Just as with the Kings/Pels, the Suns and Spurs essentially need to win out and count on the Grizzlies continued stumbles to have a chance.

Memphis controls its own destiny. But without Jaren Jackson Jr., and with Ja Morant struggling from three, a sharp turnaround is needed.

3) Milwaukee wraps up No. 1 seed in East

This was expected, but the Bucks made it dramatic. Miami led this game by 23 points in the first half, but both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton turned it on — both finished with 33 points each — and Milwaukee came back to get 130-116 win. With that, the Bucks officially wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the East.

While this is good for the Bucks — who now get an easy first-round playoff matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando — they know they will be judged on the playoffs. This is a Finals-or-bust team. And Milwaukee fans don’t want to think about the options for bust.

Milwaukee has eased into games in the NBA restart, not worrying about wins now and rather being healthy and firing on all cylinders when the games matter. They have that luxury with the lead they built up in the East, but they need to flip the switch eventually. As they did coming back on the Heat.