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Three questions the Toronto Raptors must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 51-31, made the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season, got swept in the second round by the Cavaliers

I know what you did last summer: The Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka but otherwise lost plenty of productive playersP.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph – in an effort to limit payroll. Only C.J. Miles and No. 23 pick O.J. Anunoby solidly counter the exodus of talent.

THREE QUESTIONS THE RAPTORS MUST ANSWER:

1) Does anyone lift Toronto to the next level? The Raptors look like a team that has peaked. Kyle Lowry is 31, and DeMar DeRozan is 28. Toronto pushed in on its supporting cast last season, trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker before the deadline. It didn’t work. The Raptors got swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. Ibaka is now a year older. Tucker is gone. So are the long-term assets used to acquire the veterans. With cost an apparent concern, the supporting cast has been downgraded.

So, was this the end of the ascent?

If so, it wasn’t a bad run. Correction: It isn’t a bad run. The Raptors are still solidly a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the four straight postseason appearances – including a trip to the 2016 conference finals – is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Toronto.

But a taste of success only increases the appetite for more. The Raptors would love to break through LeBron James in the Eastern Conference before the Celtics develop chemistry and the 76ers ascend. The Wizards lurk, too.

The mystery: How does it happen? Toronto’s veterans look established. Its young players – Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam – are varying degrees of formidable, but these aren’t high-upside options.

Perhaps, one of those young players defies expectations. Maybe Bruno Caboclo breaks out, though the indicators are negative for the project. O.G. Anunoby could get healthy and become a difference-maker.

The odds appear against it, but with the Raptors already establishing such a high floor, attention turns intently on their search for players to raise their ceiling.

2) Will Dwane Casey oversee a culture reset? If the roster isn’t getting better, Masai Ujiri isn’t giving up. The Raptors president called for a “culture reset.”

But he kept the coach and two players (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) most responsible for Toronto’s style, and many doubt major change will occur.

Still, the Raptors’ offense looks modernized in the preseason so far – more 3-pointers, more passing. If Casey and the players stick with it, the adjustment could pay off in the playoffs, where the team’s isolation-heavy style has been repeatedly stifled.

That’s still a major if. Old habits die hard.

If Casey could coach a more efficient scheme, why didn’t he do it before? Likewise, if Lowry and DeRozan could play a more efficient style, why didn’t they do it before?

They’ll get a chance to prove it’s not too late for them to adapt. If this doesn’t work, though, it could cost Casey his job.

3) How will center shake out? The Raptors owe Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka nearly $115 million over the next three years. That’s too much for a couple players whose best position is center – especially when Toronto also has capable backups in Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira on rookie-scale deals.

Ibaka is more of a modern center who can shoot 3-pointers and protect the rim. The Raptors can build some nice small-ball lineups with him at the position.

Valanciunas, on the other hand, sees his role significantly reduced in the playoffs. The back-to-the-basket post player becomes a liability.

Toronto seems to realize the problem, shopping Valanciunas this summer. But few teams need a center, and he’s highly paid (three years, nearly $50 million remaining). If the 25-year-old plays well, maybe the Raptors can move him and address other positions.

But if he plugs along at his current pace – which is hardly bad! – Toronto will face some difficult decisions about how to use him and Ibaka.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.

 

Dwyane Wade got an All-NBA vote, Gabrielle Union would have gone with Klay Thompson

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Honesty from your spouse is a bedrock of any good relationship.

But come on Gabrielle Union, show your man a little love.

Dwyane Wade got one second-team All-NBA vote, and he took to an Instagram story to thank that voter (even if he wouldn’t have voted for himself). His wife would not have voted for her man.

Just a few notes:

• That is a funny video.

• We do not know who cast that vote for Wade, yet. The NBA’s end of season awards are voted on by 100 media members who cover the league (the NBA selects those voters). There is transparency, the full votes will be released after the NBA’s award show next month.

• Third team All-NBA guard was probably the toughest choice on the entire ballot. Because the NBA forces voters to select only two guards for each of the teams (six guards total), rather than allowing voters to just chose the 15 best players for the honor, deserving guys get left off every year. In this case, Stephen Curry and James Harden were first-team locks. Damian Lillard was a clear second-team choice, and a majority of voters had Kyrie Irving joining him on the second team. Russell Westbrook was not far behind Irving and was clear-and-away the fifth choice for voters. That left one guard spot between Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons, or anyone else considered worthy (Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, etc.). There is no wrong choice in that group. If players were not locked into positions for All-NBA more guards would have made the cut in an increasingly backcourt dominated league. (For transparency purposes, I did vote Walker in on my ballot barely over Thompson.)

• No media members I know are comfortable with these votes having an impact on player salaries. It makes us all uneasy, even as voters study and try to make the best choices. The NBA and players’ union need to come up with a better system in the next CBA. I’ve got a crazy idea, how about letting the teams decide who is worthy of being paid that much?

Brooklyn Nets like Kyrie Irving, but how much does he like them?

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Kyrie Irving is a popular guy. He has a strong relationship with Kevin Durant and rumors of them pairing up on the Knicks next season have been rampant all over the league this season. Irving also is hanging out with LeBron James in Los Angeles, and LBJ is reportedly up for the idea of getting the band back together (minus Kevin Love, and in Los Angeles this time). Boston has every intention of keeping Irving, and ideally pairing him with Anthony Davis who they would acquire via trade.

The Brooklyn Nets will be free agent players this summer and think they would be an excellent fit for Irving. The goal would be to pair him with All-Star D'Angelo Russell in the backcourt, reports Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

How seriously is Irving considering the Nets? A lot, according to Anthony Puccio of SNY in New York.

Sources tell SNY that Kyrie Irving and his camp are strongly considering Brooklyn if he decides to leave Boston. Irving’s camp has kept a close eye on the Nets as the season progressed and the team got better, with the playoffs only helping their case.

SNY also learned recently that the Nets would not shy away from signing Irving even if they re-sign point guard D’Angelo Russell. The ideal scenario would be to pair two max free agents, such as Kevin Durant and Irving, but sources say the Nets would be open to pairing Irving and Russell in the backcourt together.

The Nets, just like the Clippers, could be major players in free agency this summer (the Clippers are more focused on Kawhi Leonard, but if he chooses to stay in Toronto the Clippers will be a potential force in trades and on the free agent market). This is a young team that surprised everyone and made the playoffs this season, they have a good culture and good role players, they just need a star or two to take them over the top.

Irving could be that guy, or at least one of those guys, in Brooklyn.

Irving will have options and you can bet his decision is not yet made. He may be leaning one way or another, but circumstances with other players and time to think things over may (likely will) change his mind. Maybe a few times.

Where his mind is July 1 matters. It could be in Brooklyn then, but it could be a lot of places.

Warriors know they have something special, with uncertainty ahead

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry hears the dynasty discussion about his Golden State Warriors during another postseason run.

Draymond Green realizes special teams only stay together for so long before something breaks them apart.

That’s why the Warriors decided from Day 1 of training camp to cherish this season.

Golden State is a franchise in its prime – five straight trips to the NBA Finals and seeking a third consecutive title. But the clock is ticking and the Warriors are well aware of the possible ramifications of free agency and how things could change in a hurry this summer.

“Basketball careers aren’t that long. If you can get 10 out of it, you’re lucky,” Green explained. “To be to five straight finals, I don’t even know what to say about it. This is what you play for. This is our goal every year and to get here five straight times is special.”

The Warriors started this run with three All-Stars in Curry, Green and Klay Thompson. They added two more in Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. How many they’ll have after free agency is any and everyone’s guess.

Curry – with nearly 11-month-old son Canon regularly in his arms for the ride – is certainly relishing this stretch of his decorated career, appreciating how far the Warriors have come during the 10 years he has been in the league.

A third straight title is suddenly within reach, which would be Golden State’s fourth championship in five years.

“We know what’s at stake and what we’re chasing this year, this series, this game, and that’s the only way that you can really put your best foot forward in terms of trying to get back to the mountaintop,” Curry said. “We’ll have plenty of time when we hang the sneakers up to really go back and think about all the different experiences and highs and lows, but right now, we’re two games away from another finals appearance. It’s pretty special.”

The Warriors are the first team to reach five straight finals since the Celtics advanced to 10 in a row from 1957-1966.

Another championship would cement this run of titles among the best ever.

The Los Angeles Lakers of 2000-02 – led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal – are the last team to capture three straight titles.

Golden State advanced without Durant, the reigning two-time finals MVP, and Cousins. Both were sidelined with injuries for the entire Western Conference finals. The finished off Portland without Andre Iguodala, another finals MVP who sat out Game 4 with an injury.

While the Bucks and Raptors are slugging it out in the East, the Warriors are rehabbing.

“I hope it doesn’t go unnoticed or underrated. Five straight finals hasn’t been done since the 60s, since Bill Russell’s Celtics,” fifth-year Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Hasn’t been done for a reason: It’s really, really difficult. I just can’t say enough about the competitive desire about the group of players that we have here and the culture that they have built together, playing together regardless of injury.”

Each Warriors run has been unique. When they won in 2015 it was the first title for the franchise in 40 years.

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers derailed them in 2016, but the Warriors bounced back in 2017 with a dominant 16-1 record during the postseason.

Last year, Golden State joined Russell’s Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and trio of Lakers teams – including George Mikan and company in the 1950s, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the `80s, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant nearly 20 years ago – as the only franchises in NBA history to capture three championships in four years.

“When I was here the first time, they rebuilt and retooled,” said Andrew Bogut, a member of the 2015 title team before rejoining the Warriors in March.

“They didn’t just sit on their hands thinking it was going to last forever. They freed up cap space, you have to give (general manager) Bob Myers, (owner) Joe Lacob and the coaching staff a lot of credit. There are a lot of teams that win a championship and kind of reward the whole roster, then they end up two-three years down the track and end up in a bit of a hole. Whereas this is a great run for a franchise that will end up as one of the all-time greats.”

The Warriors enjoy playing together and with so many selfless stars and a deep bench they are rarely out of any game.

That doesn’t mean it has been easy, especially with the constant free agency chatter this season.

Durant is an impending free agent and the basketball world continues to speculate on his next move. Thompson’s future with the Warriors is unclear as well, while Green is signed through next season.

“We know that these runs don’t last forever, and obviously there are so many questions and things that could possibly happen with this team this summer,” Green said. “So want to try to take advantage of this opportunity and make the most of it, and deal with the things that come after whenever those things arrive, but right now we’re focused on the task at hand and try to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time, or many times.”

The Warriors are aware of the dynasty talk, but aren’t labeling themselves. They have consistently said their focus is the task of raising another banner in the final season at Oracle Arena before the franchise moves into Chase Center in San Francisco to begin 2019-20.

“I don’t think in those terms. It’s just every opportunity we have to play, these are big moments, big games,” Curry said, “and the context of what this five-year run has been and all that stuff doesn’t really dominate my mind when we’re out there competing.”