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.”

Kyle Kuzma says Lonzo Ball hitting weight room hard this offseason

Associated Press
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It wasn’t just Lonzo Ball‘s awkward jumper that was a problem for him, so was his finishing around the rim — Ball shot less than 50 percent in the restricted area and 43.6 percent inside eight feet. In today’s NBA, he has to become more of a consistent scoring threat to open up his passing lanes.

Part of that is Ball getting physically stronger, something that also would help him avoid injuries and play in more than 52 games (what he did as a rookie). That part he is working on already, Kyle Kuzma told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Consistency in the weight room, that is the biggest thing,” Kuzma said on Tuesday of what he has seen out of Ball this offseason so far. “He has been in there pretty much every day I have been in here around this time. You can tell he is taking the weight room a lot more serious and that is going to help him by allowing him to recover faster and hopefully next year be on the court more because of that weight room.”

The Lakers are counting on the development of their young core — Ball, Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, etc. — as well as free agents they can attract this summer to lift them into the playoffs next season.

Magic Johnson told Ball this is going to be the most important summer of his life, that now he has to put in the work to take his body and game to the next level. To play like a No. 2 pick.

So far, so good.

Re-watch highlights from the final minutes of Houston’s series-tying win

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After the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said his team ran out of gas, which is what led to their 3-of-18 fourth-quarter shooting and just 12 points. There’s some truth to that, particularly with Andre Iguodala out forcing other guys into the rotation and a heavier load on the stars.

But give the Rockets credit here.

Part of what wore down the Warriors was fantastic pressure defense from Houston that made Golden State really work on offense. As Golden State got tired, players settled for midrange jumpers, not getting to the rim much (three times in the quarter) and not having the legs under their threes (0-of-6 in the quarter).

Meanwhile, it wasn’t pretty, but James Harden and Chris Paul were making plays.

Check out those plays again in the video above — we finally got a good game in a series, we should savor that.

Steve Kerr on Warriors’ late possession vs. Rockets: “I wanted the timeout”

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The Houston Rockets leveled the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night by a margin of 95-92. The win for the Rockets was ugly, but it leveled the series at 2-2 heading back to Houston.

It was a close game down the stretch, and it looked like Golden State’s last chance to get the win was going to come on a possession with 11 seconds to go following a missed James Harden jumper.

The Warriors immediately turned up the floor and did not call a timeout. The resulting possession was messy, and it wound up ending on a difficult Klay Thompson turnaround jumper. Golden State would get another shot at a 3-pointer with half a second left thanks to a foul on Thompson’s miss, but many were still left wondering why Steve Kerr did not choose to call a timeout during the possession before.

Kerr addressed the decision after the game.

Via Twitter:

You sort of have to side with Kerr in principle, but if you’d seen the way the Warriors played the rest of that fourth quarter you would probably err on calling a timeout and letting them set something up. Curry was 1-of-8 in the fourth, Durant shot poorly most of the game, and Golden State scored 12 total points in the final period.

When you consider Curry got a look at a wide open 3-pointer in the corner with 0.5 seconds left on the clock when the Warriors did call a timeout on the next possession, it makes it look even worse.

In any case, Houston beat out Golden State in a close game and we’re headed back to Texas for Game 5 on Thursday.

Rockets survive gut punch from Warriors, even Western Conference Finals at 2-2

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The Houston Rockets can only win against the Golden State Warriors in one way: ugly.

During their Game 2 blowout against the defending champions, Houston’s 22-point victory was ugly for the Warriors. In Tuesday’s Game 4 win, it was ugly for the Rockets despite the 95-92 score in their favor.

Golden State came out of the gates hot, scoring the first 12 points of the game as it was clear that the Warriors were drawing off of the home crowd back in Oakland. Houston eventually settled, coming back with a massive 34-point second quarter. Mike D’Antoni, using an abbreviated rotation, found a way to up his team’s defense on the Warriors, clamping down on Golden State from the 3-point line.

The Rockets took a 53-46 lead into the half, and needed to brace for the coming changes from Steve Kerr’s squad.

Unsurprisingly, the Warriors answered with a 34 point quarter of their own to open the second half. Golden State found their range from 3-point land as — guess who — Stephen Curry started to go nuclear. Kevin Durant, who scored 27 points but shot a woeful 37.5 percent from the field, started to slow even as he got open looks off jumpers above smaller defenders.

Then came the fourth quarter.

Houston remained resolute, and full of energy as PJ Tucker and Chris Paul jumped for loose balls and battled for rebounds. Meanwhile, Golden State appeared to slowly run out of gas. Steve Kerr said as much after the game, intimating that his own shortened lineup without Andre Iguodala could have played a role.

D’Antoni, who obviously had a game plan to better defend Durant, then focused his attention toward Curry. The Warriors point guard finished the game shooting 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter, including a miss on the final shot of the game.

Curry scored 28 points with six rebounds and two assists. Durant added 12 rebounds and three assists to his scoring total. Draymond Green contributed 11 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists.

For Houston it was Harden who led the way with 30 points, four rebounds, and four assists. Paul had 27 points to go with four assists and two rebounds. PJ Tucker, who scored just four points, grabbed a whopping 16 boards. Clint Capela was much the same, scoring eight points while grabbing 13 rebounds.

This season’s Western Conference fighters has been both puzzling and Expected. Well the variants of victory margin has been much greater than any of us anticipated for both sides, the fact that the coaches on each bench are trying to out dual each other each game Runs with the idea we have of some of the best playoff series in NBA history. In fact, the back-and-forth battle between two teams as they trade winds is perhaps what makes be later rounds of the NBA playoffs so worth watching.

Houston’s victory was gritty, and defensive, and not much to look at. True to his persona, after the final horn Rockets point guard Paul called it, “A fun game.”

While we finally got ourselves a close conference finals game out West, the question now turns to what the teams will do for Game 5 back in Houston. Will this series become more competitive? Or will Houston and Golden State continue the back-and-forth, big-margin victories we’ve seen thus far?

No matter what, there’s no doubt the Rockets will be trying to recapture the defensive aura they held in Game 4 as Golden State tries to find a way to break through it.