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.”

On fringe of rotation, Sixers guard Korkmaz reportedly requests trade

NBA: JAN 17 76ers at Clippers
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Last season, Furkan Korkmaz was a regular part of the 76ers rotation — he played in 69 games, started 19, and averaged 21 minutes and seven shot attempts a night.

With De'Anthony Melton added to the rotation this season, Korkmaz has played in 25 games (less than half of the team’s games) at 10.2 minutes a night when he does get in, and he averaged 3.1 shots per game. Korkmaz wants to be somewhere he is wanted and used and has requested a trade, reports Keith Pompey at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Sources have said the Turkish player has requested to be traded before Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. Asked about it, Korkmaz would only say he “would not confirm nor deny it.”

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey didn’t immediately respond to a text message asking if Korkmaz asked to be traded. But sources have said Korkmaz was informed the Sixers will try to package him in a deal.

Korkmaz is not the only 76ers whose name comes up in trade conversations, wing defender Matisse Thybulle also has drawn trade interest. The Sixers are looking for a backup point center for their playoff run.

Korkmaz, 25 and in his sixth NBA season, is a career 35.4% shooter from 3 at the guard spot, but his competent shooting has not made up for limited playmaking and poor defense at the NBA level. The Sixers went out and got an upgrade this offseason in Melton.

Korkmaz makes $5 million this season and has a fully-guaranteed $5.4 million on the books for next season. A fair price if a team believes the Turkish guard can help their guard rotation, but the market for him is likely limited.

Still, it’s another name to watch in Philadelphia as we move toward Thursday’s trade deadline.

After missing out on Kyrie Irving, now what for Lakers?

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The Lakers tried. Maybe not as hard as some segments of Lakers’ nation wanted, but Rob Pelinka and company tried. Los Angeles had serious negotiations with the Brooklyn Nets about bringing Kyrie Irving to Los Angeles, potentially giving them a true at-his-peak third star next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It didn’t work out — Irving is headed to the Dallas Mavericks.

Why it didn’t work out is a glimpse into the mindset of the Lakers’ front office — whether fans think they did the wise thing or should have pushed more chips into the center of the table — and informs what will come next for the Lakers.

The primary reason the Lakers’ trade offer didn’t work out was beyond the team’s control — Brooklyn wanted to quickly retool a competitive, contending team around Kevin Durant and the Lakers couldn’t offer the quality of players needed to make that happen. The core of any Lakers’ offer was two distant first-round picks — 2027 and 2029 — and Russell Westbrook, a player the Lakers moved out of the starting lineup. Dallas (and for that matter, the Suns and Clippers) could always offer a better version of what the Nets wanted. (It didn’t help that Irving wanted to go to the Lakers and Nets’ owner Joe Tsai didn’t want to send Irving to his desired destination, Marc Stein reports.)

There were other players the Lakers could have added to the mix — Austin Reaves and Max Christie — but L.A. was only going to do that if Irving agreed to a two-year, $78.5 million contract extension (the max the Lakers could offer), reports Jovan Buha at The Athletic. Irving would never accept that, his trade request was always about maximizing his income with a new team.

So where does all this leave the Lakers?

They can’t trade Westbrook without attaching at least one of those highly-valued first-round picks — his $47.1 million contract this season is still an anchor on a deal — something they are unwilling to do unless it brings back a true third star. That reduces the Lakers to making a smaller trade to bring in a role player that could give them depth and help them win a few more games, pushing into the postseason. The Lakers have reached out to Utah and Toronto primarily, Buha reports, although the entire league is waiting to see what Toronto will do at the deadline.

Kyle Goon at the Los Angeles Daily News sums it nicely:

But instead of an All-Star like Irving in return, the Lakers face figuring out if a package of role players can help them push toward the playoffs. Those have less glamorous possibilities attached: Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt or Malik Beasley from Utah; Jakob Poeltl, Josh Richardson or Doug McDermott from San Antonio; Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier or Mason Plumlee from Charlotte…

So Pelinka and the Lakers seemingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place, already committed to making another move before the deadline, but also without an obvious trade that boosts them to new competitive heights.

The Lakers are shopping around that smaller deal using the contract of Patrick Beverley and second-round picks but trying not to use one of those first-rounders, sources tell NBC Sports. Plus, if the Lakers are hesitant to put young players such as Reaves or Christy in a trade for a player the caliber of Irving, they are not about to do it for a role player.

The historic distraction of LeBron James breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record will dominate a lot of the Lakers’ storylines, very possibly just past the trade deadline. That could be a good thing for the Lakers. But when the smoke of the trade deadline clears, Lakers fans — and LeBron — are not likely to be happy with the new landscape.

Three things to Know: Now what for the Nets, Mavericks?

Dallas Mavericks v Brooklyn Nets
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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Now what for the Nets, Mavericks?

So much for a quiet trade deadline. In a blockbuster trade, the Brooklyn Nets are sending Kyrie Irving and Markieff Morris to the Dallas Mavericks in return for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, a 2029 unprotected first-round pick and two second-round picks (the first in 2027). Brooklyn chose the Mavericks’ offer over the Lakers (Russell Westbrook and two first-rounders), Suns (Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and picks), and the Clippers.

The thing is, it can’t be the last move for either the Mavericks or Nets if they want to contend this season. It’s not a coincidence this trade got done days before the deadline, it leaves room for both teams to make more moves to maximize what happened in this deal.

What is next for both?

With this move, Brooklyn signaled they plan to retool a contender around Kevin Durant, which is a noble idea but his roster is not good enough. Adding Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith brings versatility and depth to the Nets lineup, but it leaves them with one star capable of elite shot creation and points in KD, the Nets need more.

Brooklyn can use that depth plus what is now three first-round picks they control to try and trade for another star to go next to Durant, except there are no such stars on the market. At least yet. The Nets did check in with the Raptors to see if any of their stars — maybe Fred VanVleet or O.G. Anunoby — will be made available, reports Ian Begley of SNY.TV. Brooklyn has until early this summer to build a roster Durant believes can win it all and wants to play with, or his trade demand could end up back on the table. There are many other teams — led by the Suns — waiting to see that happen.

As for Dallas…

Trading for Irving is a huge role of the dice for the Mavericks and they need it to work, partly because they reportedly did not commit to a long-term contract with Irving (he wants the max, four years, $198.5 million, he could have gotten). Irving is a free agent after this season and could walk.

To make it work, Dallas needs two ball-dominant players in Irving and Luka Dončić to mesh on the court. More importantly, Dallas has to improve its 23rd-ranked defense (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers) despite having just traded away its best perimeter defender in Finney-Smith.

Dallas is still active on the trade market to round out the roster— Christian Wood is a very common name bandied about as available — but the focus now has to be on bringing in enough defense. Their offense could be electric with Dončić, Irving and plenty of shooting, but they are not going to score their way out of the West, Dallas needs stops. Which means Dallas needs defenders.

Expect both the Nets and Mavericks to try and make more moves before Thursday.

2) Stephen Curry out “weeks” with shin injury, could be a month

For a Warriors team that is just a game above .500 and struggling to avoid the play-in, they got terrible news on Sunday.

Stephen Curry has torn ligaments in his leg — in the shin area just below the knee — and while the team does not have an official timeline, he will miss time.

Shams Charania reported it would be “weeks” and the Warriors are hoping that means about three and Curry return just after the All-Star break, reports Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

However, Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes said that, while this is a rare injury for the NBA, he likely is out for around a month.

The Warriors are not the same without Curry, who is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game. The Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and get outscored by 5.4 when he is off. Can they hold on to even a play-in spot without him?

Also of interest, Curry will miss the All-Star Game where the fans voted him a starter.

Here’s the interesting question: Fans voted Irving a starter in the East, except now he plays for a Western Conference team. Does Irving now slide into Curry’s starting spot in the West, and then NBA Commissioner Adam Silver name a replacement player in the East? Or, does Silver make the changes in the West (likely bumping Ja Morant to starter and naming a reserve from Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox or Anthony Edwards).

3) Knicks rally from 21 points down to pick up quality win over 76ers

The 76ers had been hot and won 9-of-10, and Joel Embiid had another monster night scoring 31 points (18 of 19 from the free-throw line) and grabbing 14 rebounds.

It was not enough, the Knicks came back from 21 down to get the win behind 24 points from Julius Randle, while Jalen Brunson scored 21 points and Evan Fournier came off the bench to add 17.

“I thought our second unit came in and struggled,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said, via the Associated Press. “This is the second time that has happened. The same thing happened in Orlando (the other recent Philly loss). Both times, we were scoring too easy. The second group comes in and thinks this is an offensive game and they didn’t see why the first group got the lead because of defense.”

Morant says friend banned from arena over incident with Pacers

Indiana Pacers v Memphis Grizzlies
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant tweeted Sunday that a friend of his has been banned from games at FedExForum for a year as a result of a confrontation between his supporters and members of the Indiana Pacers organization after the game between the teams a week earlier.

The NBA confirmed that unnamed individuals have been banned from the arena, while adding that its investigation found no evidence that anyone was threatened with a weapon during the incident, which happened after the Grizzlies beat the Pacers on Jan. 29.

Citing unnamed sources, The Indianapolis Star and USA Today reported that multiple members of the Pacers saw a red dot pointed at them, and The Athletic reported that a Pacers security guard believed the laser was attached to a gun.

“NBA Security and league investigators conducted an investigation interviewing numerous eyewitnesses and reviewing video surveillance following allegations made by the Indiana Pacers organization regarding a postgame incident on Jan. 29. While we substantiated that a postgame situation arose that was confrontational, based on interviews and other evidence gathered, we could not corroborate that any individual threatened others with a weapon,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in an emailed statement.

“Certain individuals involved in the postgame situation and a related matter during the game that night have been subsequently banned from attending games in the arena. If additional information becomes available related to the postgame situation, the league office will conduct a further review,” Bass’ statement continued.

Morant didn’t play in the Grizzlies’ 106-103 loss to Toronto on Sunday because of right wrist soreness and was not available for comment after the game.

Before the game, Morant tweeted that reports about the incident “paint this negative image on me and my fam. & banned my brother from home games for a year. unbelievable.”

During the Jan. 29 game, there was barking between Pacers players and friends of Morant seated along the sideline. A close friend of Morant’s, Davonte Pack, was escorted from the arena as Pacers bench players shouted in Pack’s direction.

The talking reportedly continued into the players’ parking area after the game.

Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said the team addressed the matter internally.

“Aware of the investigation of the NBA. Did a full investigation,” Jenkins said. “We were fully compliant with it, and I think they came out with a statement saying nothing was corroborated or found.

“That’s what I know, and that’s all I’m going to comment on it.”