Will Raptors finally get past LeBron James, Cavaliers?

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Before the Cavaliers and Raptors met in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, Toronto coach Dwane Casey called Cleveland “probably the best team in the league right now.” That proved prescient, as the Cavs beat the Raptors in the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history then went on to win the NBA title.

After losing that series to the Cavaliers, Casey said: “We’re learning. We’re not where (the Cavaliers) are right now. We’re going to be.” Will that also come true? It didn’t last year, when Cleveland swept Toronto in the second round.

Maybe third time’s a charm.

The Cavs and Raptors will meet in the third straight postseason, beginning with Game 1 of their second-round series tonight in Toronto. If the Raptors are ever going to beat LeBron James, this ought to be the time.

Toronto has been better than Cleveland throughout the season. Better offense. Better defense. Better starters. Better bench.

On the other hand: LeBron.

LeBron has ruled the Eastern Conference for years. Count the Raptors among the teams he has tormented, and he doesn’t seem to fear them now.

The Cavaliers showed little urgency down the stretch to secure the No. 3 seed and get on the same side of the bracket as the injury-riddled Celtics. Do the Cavs believe they have Toronto figured out?

If so, it’s hard to doubt LeBron’s assessment. But it also might be just hubris.

The Raptors have revamped their offense and empowered their role players. They look better prepared for the playoffs, when Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and crew have faltered annually.

But Toronto didn’t exactly steamroll the Wizards in a 4-2 first-round series. Sure, Washington is better than the East’s typical No. 8 seed, and bench lynchpin Fred VanVleet was injured. (He’s healthy now.) But the Raptors weren’t exactly encouraging.

To be fair, neither was Cleveland in a 4-3 win over the Pacers. Strapped with his worst supporting cast since his first Cavs tenure, LeBron had to do nearly everything – in the first round. LeBron has had to shoulder such a heavy load before, but not in the first round like that in many years. And the Cavaliers were still outscored by 40 by Indiana, the third-worst point difference ever for a series victor.

That’s why this familiar matchup feels so unfamiliar.

LeBron is such a mainstay in the playoffs. He has been involved every instance of teams meeting in three straight postseasons in the last decade:

  • Cavaliers-Raptors (2016-18)
  • Cavaliers-Warriors (2015-17)
  • Heat-Pacers (2012-14)
  • Heat-Celtics (2010-12)

The big names are the same between Cleveland and Toronto: LeBron, Love, Lue, Lowry, DeRozan, Casey. LeBron’s teams build so clearly around him, not even Kyrie Irving‘s departure changes the Cavaliers’ identity.

Maybe their ability, though.

LeBron says he’s worn down. Perhaps, the deep Raptors can grind him into elimination.

But it often seems LeBron can simply will his team to victory no matter the odds, like he did against Toronto in the regular season. Especially if this series goes deep, LeBron has proven far more trustworthy in the clutch than the Raptors.

Is Toronto good enough to vanquish the Cavs quickly and not face those situations? Home-court advantage could help.

The Raptors have been building toward this moment for years. Trending the opposite direction, so have the Cavaliers.

Their paths cross again. How that goes seems more uncertain than ever.

Lakers’ Anthony Davis ‘good to go’ for Game 5 despite sprained ankle

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This was expected, but when the Lakers officially listed Anthony Davis as questionable for Game 5 with a sprained ankle, it raised a few eyebrows.

Davis will play in Game 5 Saturday night, coach Frank Vogel said pregame.

Anthony Davis sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and while he stayed in the game there were questions about how it would respond the next day.

The Lakers are up 3-1 on a Denver team they know will not be easy to close out.

To do that, Los Angeles needs Davis: When AD has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions, but when he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

The Lakers want to close out in five games to get some added rest. The NBA Finals are expected to start next Wednesday, Sept. 30 (unless one conference finals series goes seven games, then it is likely Friday, Oct. 2). If the Lakers lose Saturday but win Game 6 Monday it would be a short turnaround (as it would be after a Game 7).

Denver, however, has played its best basketball whenever it has faced the prospect of packing its bags and going home.

New York congressman insults Knicks, James Dolan funds opponent

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Things are changing with the Knicks. Leon Rose is in the front office, Tom Thibodeau is the coach, and together they are talking about developing players and having a plan moving forward. It’s a reason for hope…

Then there’s James Dolan.

Max Rose, a Democratic congressman from Staten Island, echoed the voice for a lot of Knicks fans when he said: “I’m a Knicks fan to the day I die, but Dolan’s gotta sell. Right now, this is an absolute disgrace.”

We have seen how Dolan reacts to fans saying he should sell the team. In the case of Rose, he is fundraising for the Republican running against him. It would be easy to say “Dolan is a big President Donald Trump supporter and donates to GOP causes all the time” and this isn’t personal, except Dolan sent out an email to help raise funds for Republican candidate Nicole Malliotakis and the New York Post got a hold of it.

“Max Rose thinks he can make our team and my ownership his political platform,” Dolan wrote in a personal email to friends last week that was obtained by The Post. “I need to let him know that we will not stand for this. The best way to do this is to help his opponent. He is in a tight race for the US Congress in Staten Island. … Please join me in helping Nicole defeat Max Rose for Congress.

“It will help send a strong message to all NY politicians that the Knicks will not be their political ticket to reelection.

That’s personal. Dolan isn’t just asking other people to donate.

A $50,000 check from MSG Sports was cut Tuesday to “The Governing Majority Fund,” a PAC run by former Reps. John Faso and Jeff Denham, Dolan confirmed. The PAC’s mission is to help Republicans take back the House.

Rose represents New York’s 11th District, a solid Republican district until the 2018 midterms when it became one of 30 districts nationally that flipped blue. The GOP is trying to turn a number of those back, including Rose’s district.

Whatever you think of Rose’s politics (he’s a former Army Ranger, which helped him in a more conservative district), what he said about wanting Dolan to sell the franchise is what many Knicks fans are thinking. Dolan just doesn’t like to hear it. Maybe Rose and Thibodeau can turn the Knicks around — they certainly deserve a chance — but the team has struggled since Dolan became the owner and that’s not a coincidence.

Whatever Rose and Knicks fans want, it’s also highly unlikely Dolan sells the team, there are no rumblings about that around the league (and he certainly has had chances).

Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps shifts to become Jazz assistant coach

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While teams have moved away from anyone in a dual coach/GM role, some people bounce between coach and the front office around the NBA: Steve Kerr was once the Suns’ GM before being the Warriors coach; Sean Marks was on the bench in San Antonio before moving to their front office and eventually the head guy in Brooklyn.

Now Dell Demps is making that move. The former general manager for the New Orleans Pelicans, who was let go a year ago, will be an assistant coach on Quin Synder’s staff in Utah. Demps was the GM of the Spurs G-League team years back and hired Snyder to coach it.

“I was fortunate to work with Dell to begin my career as a head coach in professional basketball and I know he will delve into his role on the bench,” Snyder said in a statement. “He has an incredible work ethic and commitment to his craft. His vast experience both as a player and in front office roles brings a unique perspective that will be invaluable to our team. We’re excited to welcome him to the Jazz.”

“I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with Coach Snyder again,” Demps said. “I have always had tremendous respect for Quin and the Jazz organization. I look forward to joining this talented coaching staff and working with our players. My wife Anita and I couldn’t be more excited to make the move to Utah and become a part of a tremendous community.”

Demps was not the only hire by Snyder, who is also bringing former NBA player Keyon Dooling. He played for 13 years in the league and then has worked with the National Basketball Players Association in various roles — most recently as a wellness counselor and mental health advocate — in recent years. Dooling played for two years at Missouri in college, a team coached by Snyder.

“Keyon is a fantastic addition for us on multiple levels and someone I’ve always had tremendous respect for since our time at Missouri where we formed a close bond that has continued throughout the years,” said Snyder. “He’s a natural leader who was a captain on multiple teams in the league and I have no doubt that the way he approached the game as a player will translate to the work he puts in with our roster on the court.”

New Kings’ GM doesn’t change fact De’Aaron Fox expects max contract extension

De'Aaron Fox sprained ankle
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New Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair is just getting the photos of his family framed and settling into his office, but he’s made one critical decision already: Luke Walton will be back as Sacramento’s coach. McNair also decided he wants to see the Kings return to more of the up-tempo style of a couple of seasons ago (before Walton arrived). Looming after that is the 2020 NBA Draft, where the Kings have the No. 12 pick.

When free agency comes, the question becomes: Will the Sacramento Kings offer De'Aaron Fox a max contract extension?

The young point guard expects one, reports James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area.

League sources have confirmed to NBC Sports California that the Kings, under previous management, already had a discussion with Fox’s representation on an extension.

Depending on where the NBA’s final salary cap numbers come in, Fox is eligible for a five-year max money contract worth between $150-180 million. Don’t expect a discounted rate. He will ask for and likely get whatever the maximum is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.

If the salary cap were to remain flat for two years (possible, but not probable), a five-year max extension to Fox’s rookie contract is $158 million. The number will likely be higher than that, and if Fox makes a huge leap and becomes an All-NBA player, it jumps up to nearly $190 million (not likely to happen, but not impossible).

Fox averaged 21.1 points and 6.8 assists per game last season, but fully healthy he stepped up his play in the bubble averaging 26.2 points a game on 50.4% shooting and dishing out 7.3 assists a game. He was by far the Kings’ best player.

In the bubble, the Kings seemed to lack an identity. What kind of team did they want to be? McNair has come in and decided that — this is going to be an uptempo, transition team. Fox would be at the heart of that plan.

McNair said at his introductory press conference he sees Fox as a cornerstone piece.

“De’Aaron is an incredible young talent,” McNair said. “I’ve loved to see what he’s done and what he’s improved on over the years and he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.”

If this team is going to get back to running more, Fox is as good a ball-handler and decision-maker in transition as the league has. The Kings need to pay to keep him happy, then get players to go around him that fit that style. Expect McNair to spend the next season evaluating and shifting the roster around to fit that style. The problem is the pressure of the playoffs — the Kings haven’t been in 14 years, one short of tying the Donald Sterling Clippers for the longest drought in league history. There is pressure from ownership to make the playoffs and start winning sooner rather than later. It will be a tough balancing act for McNair. Welcome to sitting in the big chair.

Deciding to pay Fox may be the easiest of his decisions.