Raptors ready to test new offense in championship-or-bust playoffs

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Raptors president Masai Ujiri spent a lot of time talking about a “culture reset.” Players debated how significant the change was for Toronto – which kept coach Dwane Casey and stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan – and whether it would stick. Then, the Raptors spent all year proving their revamped offensive style worked, at least in the regular season.

They play faster, dribble less, pass more and shoot more 3-pointers. Toronto won 59 games and ranked third in points per possession.

Now, the moment of truth arrives.

“That’s the reason we did it, to try to do something different in the playoffs,” said Lowry, whose team will face the Wizards in the first round.

Sure, the Raptors’ 59 wins are a franchise record. But they’ve been successful in the regular season before. In the last four years, they won 48, 49, 56 and 51 regular-season games.

They just faltered in the playoffs every time:

  • 2014: No. 3 seed, lost to Nets in first round
  • 2015: No. 4 seed, swept by the Wizards in first round
  • 2016: No. 2 seed, beat Pacers in seven games in first round while being outscored, beat Heat (who held same record as No. 6 seed) in seven games in second round, lost to Cavaliers in conference finals in most lopsided six-game series in NBA history (-15.5 points per game)
  • 2017: No. 3 seed, beat Bucks in first round while outscoring them by just four points, swept by Cavaliers in second round

Toronto’s offense particularly stalled. Flow stagnated, and Lowry and DeRozan weren’t nearly good enough to handle all their isolations. Here are the Raptors annual offensive ratings, in the regular season (black) and postseason (red):

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Despite all these years of struggling – or maybe because of all these years of struggling – Lowry has high hopes for this postseason.

How does this team define success? Lowry barely stifles a laugh.

“Championship,” he said.

Anything less is a failure?

“Yeah,” he said.

With that attitude, Lowry isn’t worried Toronto would face mighty LeBron James and the Cavs in the second round rather than the conference finals. The Raptors might have been the East’s second-best team last year, but because they had to play Cleveland in the second round, Boston got the title of East runner-up.

“We’ve got to go out there and chase ourselves and be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “We can’t worry about about nobody else right now but ourselves.”

The idea the Raptors will revert to bad habits when defenses tighten or that the reasons their offense dipped from the regular season to the playoffs weren’t addressed by this overhaul? Players dismiss that.

“That’s our offense,” Lowry said. “Nothing is going to change. We’re going to play our game.”

Said DeRozan: “Playing in a way to where you can’t key in on one or two guys, and it’s fun. As long as we go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year, it’ll show.”

Yet, Casey admitted he’s a little nervous to see how the new offense holds up in the postseason – though also confident.

“The playoffs are a different animal, and we feel like we have an advantage now,” he said.

The first test will come Saturday, when Toronto hosts Washington in Game 1. We’ll immediately know whether the same old demons still haunt the Raptors. They’re 1-12 all-time in Game 1s with 10 straight losses, including an astounding six at home.

Lose Saturday, and all the usual questions and doubts reemerge. Win, and the path to progress remains wide open.

“Mentally, when you fail over and over, you’ve been to a place and you don’t make it, you understand what you need to do better, how you need to do it better,” DeRozan said. “As long as you get that opportunity to do it again, you understand what not to do.”

There’s a sense this Toronto is battle-tested and ready for a deep playoff run. But is one year enough to fix a half decade of tendencies?

No matter how this postseason goes, the Raptors’ “culture reset” isn’t finished.

“There’s some more things we’d like to do defensively,” Casey said. “In this situation next year, we will be doing them to help us also in the playoffs.”

Watch Damian Lillard put up 51 on shorthanded 76ers

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Everything is back to normal for Damian Lillard.

The All-Star point guard scored 51 points after a frustrating finish a night earlier, and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 124-121 on Sunday.

On Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers, Lillard missed a pair of free throws with 18.6 seconds to go and a 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds left in a 122-117 loss. Clippers players Paul George and Patrick Beverley were seen laughing at Lillard’s misfortune.

Lillard got the last laugh Sunday by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t really so much my performance yesterday and I wanted to perform a certain way today,” he said. “It was like, we let one slip that we should have had yesterday, and I’m a big part of why it got away from us. So tonight, I was like ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Portland bounced back and pulled within a half-game of Memphis for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers increased their chances of qualifying for the play-in series, which will start Saturday.

The 76ers lost much more than the game. All-Star center Joel Embiid left in the first quarter with what the team called a left ankle injury, and he did not return. He contested a shot, then backed up and stepped awkwardly into the stanchion. He had been averaging 30 points per game since the restart.

76ers coach Brett Brown wouldn’t say whether Embiid would miss time.

“I’m going to learn more physically,” Brown said. “I don’t know enough to comment on it.”

It was more bad injury news for the 76ers. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons is out indefinitely with an injured left knee.

Josh Richardson scored a season-high 34 points and Alec Burks added 20 for Philadelphia. The 76ers would have moved into a tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a win.

Without their stars, the 76ers fell behind by 17 in the second quarter and trailed 67-58 at halftime.

The game tightened up late. Philadelphia’s Al Horford hit a 3-pointer to trim Portland’s lead to 122-121. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic made two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining to put his team up three. Richardson missed a 3-pointer for Philadelphia, and the 76ers couldn’t get another shot off after a scramble for the rebound.

“I thought our guys fought,” Brown said. “I really thought the spirit of the group was fantastic. We called upon many different players that I think played with a spirit and a passion that you’re proud of.”

Zion Williamson, New Orleans eliminated from playoff chase; Kings, too

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There was no team hyped like the New Orleans Pelicans heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando. They had Zion Williamson healthy (or so they thought), and they had been playing the best of any of the teams in the playoff chase just before the coronavirus shut the league (and nation) down. A basketball-starved nation dreamed of a LeBron James vs. Zion showdown in the first round.

The reality of the bubble was not so kind to those dreams or New Orleans.

The Pelicans lost to the Spurs on Sunday, 122-113, despite 25 points from Williamson. Combined with the Trail Blazers beating the 76ers 124-121, the Pelicans became mathematically eliminated from reaching the nine seed and getting into a play-in series in the West.

The Pelicans are out of the playoffs. New Orleans will go through the motions of two more games in the bubble, but don’t be surprised if key players rest. The Pelicans went 2-4 in the bubble with offensive struggles holding the team back.

The Sacramento Kings also have been eliminated, extending the franchise’s playoff drought to 14 years. The last time the Kings were in the playoffs was 2006.

The Memphis Grizzlies sit as the eighth seed in the West, with Portland the ninth seed and just half-a-game back. San Antonio (one game back of Memphis) and Phoenix (1.5 games back) are both alive in the playoff chase still.

New Orleans getting eliminated ends J.J. Redick‘s playoff streak at 13 seasons, the longest of any active player and tied for seventh-longest all-time (the record is a tie at 19 between Karl Malone and John Stockton, who did it together). Getting eliminated is what leads to a 1000-mile stare meme.

 

 

 

 

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.