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.

Kevin Huerter dunked, then stared down Jimmy Butler (VIDEO)

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Atlanta Hawks rookie Kevin Huerter contributed seven points, five assists, three rebounds, and two steals during his team’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night. He performed reasonably, and he’s often been a double-digit scorer for the Hawks this season.

But for Huerter, the moment of the game came for him on a breakaway dunk attempt with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter. In a close game, Taurean Prince was able to poke the ball away from Joel Embiid, leading to Huerter streaking down the floor with the ball.

Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler ran to recover, but couldn’t quite stop Huerter, who threw it through the rack.

That’s when Huerter stared down the wily vet.

Via Twitter:

If Butler is the kind of guy who likes “dogs” then perhaps he has a newfound respect for Huerter these days?

Trae Young beat the Sixers on a game-winning floater, 129-127.

Jeremy Lamb hits 48-foot game-winning shot of the season (VIDEO)

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The Charlotte Hornets are still alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race. As the Hornets took on the Toronto Raptors in Ontario on Sunday, things came down to the wire between the two East rivals.

With less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter, Kawhi Leonard appeared ready to play the hero yet again. Leonard hit a game-winning shot over the Portland Trail Blazers at the beginning of March, and it looked like he had sealed a win out of a time game against the Hornets with just 45 seconds left. With everything tied, 112-112, Leonard scored on a go-ahead 18-foot jumper.

Leonard then blocked Kemba Walker‘s shot attempt with 32 seconds to go, giving the Raptors real hope to win the game. Toronto was unable to score on the ensuing possession, and it came down to a final shot attempt for Charlotte.

On a sideline out of bounds, Jeremy Lamb had just 3.1 seconds to get off what was undoubtedly the game winner of this 2018-19 NBA season.

Via Twitter:

The Hornets are now in 10th place, two games back of the Miami Heat for the eighth seed in the western conference with just nine games to go in the regular season.

Charlotte hasn’t been eliminated just yet, thanks in large part to Lamb’s incredible play.

Pau Gasol says Chris Wallace joked about being traded for brother Marc

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The Pau Gasol trade shaped the face of the NBA as the first decade of the new millennium ended. It made the Los Angeles Lakers relevant again, and gave Kobe Bryant a solid second running mate to push him to another two championships in 2009 and 2010.

Gasol was famously traded in a package that included the rights to his younger brother Marc Gasol, who became a star for the Memphis Grizzlies before being traded to the Toronto Raptors this past winter.

Big trades involving superstars like the Gasol often come with the benefit of advanced knowledge by the player or their agent, and with some communication between them. But according to Gasol, the first person to tell him about the trade was newly-minted Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who had joined the team before the 2007 NBA Draft.

Speaking on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast, Gasol said that Wallace tried to make light of the situation by pointing out the irony of being traded for his own brother.

Via the Woj Pod:

I walk in and the first thing he tells me is, ‘Pau please, come in, sit down. You just got traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.’

I’m like, ‘Sorry, what?’

I couldn’t take it in. What are you talking about? At that point I was not expecting to be traded at all.

[Wallace said], ‘You got traded for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, a second round pick, and the funniest of all, your brother Marc.’

I’m like, what? Is this a joke, [he’s] trying to be funnier and funnier? At that time I couldn’t process what he was saying, I’m like, is this really happening? Why is he making a joke out of it when I’ve be here for six-and-a-half years, [Wallace] basically just got there, and now I’m traded.

Obviously I got more excited as the minutes went by, but it was crazy and it was Chris that told me. Obviously it was one of the greatest moments of my career just because …. at first it was hard to to process being treated and moving away from the team that you’ve given so much to (and in the other way around) but then I walk into a situation that would allow me to to win. Which is what exactly what I wanted, what I craved, and to play with one of the greatest players in Kobe and to be coached by Phil Jackson.

It is one of the great NBA narratives that both brothers were swapped for one another, and that each had continued success at a level in the NBA that not many siblings have experienced in their lives.

Perhaps he didn’t know why Wallace was joking about the trade at the time, but obviously Gasol knows that it worked out OK for him in any case.

Report: Jason Kidd holding off on Cal job until Lakers decide on Luke Walton

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The Los Angeles Lakers could be headed toward a departure with their head coach in Luke Walton. The Lakers will miss the playoffs yet again, this time coming up short despite adding LeBron James over the summer.

James has reportedly wanted Walton out for some time, and when the season ends many are expecting to see the two sides part ways. The list of potential coaching candidates for Los Angeles appear to be a group of also-rans, potential LeBron favorites who no self-respecting basketball decision-maker would want in charge of a championship-hopeful franchise.

One of those potential head coaching candidates is Jason Kidd, who was fired by the Milwaukee Bucks in January of 2018. We have seen rumors of Kidd being on the list of candidates for the Lakers job for some time, but now it appears that Kidd is basing his decision-making on the availability of the Los Angeles job.

Via Twitter:

Kidd holding out on making an employment decision until the Lakers decide what to do with Walton makes sense. That L.A. would be interested in Kidd to lead their group is another thing altogether.

Talent is a salve that has often pushed teams passed their failings, and this offseason for the Lakers will be a big-time test of that medicine. Los Angeles is not a well-run franchise, and the fact that they have expected anything different from their results speaks to the dissonance between their ability to make basketball decisions outside of branding.

But if they can add one or two big stars in free agency this summer, they might have enough talent on the roster to overcome the inherent issues with having LeBron run the team by proxy. It’s hard to have any faith in the Lakers to make the right decision at this juncture, and considering Kidd for the most important head coaching position in the NBA is par for the course.