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.”

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.