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After pre-draft hype and lost contract opportunity, Nerlens Noel building himself back up with Thunder

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Nerlens Noel ranked No. 1 in his high school class. After his lone season at Kentucky, I placed him atop my 2013 NBA draft board. Noel, based on circumstantial evidence, had the logo of the Cavaliers – who had the No. 1 pick – sewn into his draft-night jacket. He made the All-Rookie first team. After his rookie-scale contract, the Mavericks reportedly offered him a four-year, $70 million deal. Multiple advanced statistics peg his production this season as elite.

Also: Nerlens Noel is on his third team in four years. He’s a backup averaging just 14 minutes per game and earning a minimum salary.

Is Noel on or off track?

“I feel like I’m at a really good point in my career, in my life, my mindset, my mentality,” Noel said. “And I’m not slowing down.”

In his first season with the Thunder, Noel is quietly making good on the promise he showed entering the league. But this has come only in a limited role and only after his stock hit rock bottom.

Noel entered the NBA amid disappointment. He slipped to No. 6 in the draft and missed his first season with the 76ers due to injury. While out, he racked up several fines for tardiness and other issues. Philadelphia then drafted Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor and wisely chose Embiid as the center to build around. But it took a while – and plenty of frustration – until the 76ers unloaded Noel. In the meantime, his reputation tumbled.

Philadelphia finally sent Noel to Dallas just before the 2017 trade deadline. Noel performed well enough to draw a reported four-year, $70 million offer from the Mavericks as a restricted free agent that summer. But when he rejected the deal, Dallas never made him another offer. Noel accepted his qualifying offer, and everything went sideways between him and the Mavericks last season.

They questioned his work ethic. Noel eating a hot dog was treated as a major incident. He missed the final five games of the season due to suspension for a drug violation (almost certainly marijuana).

Instead of earning a $17.5 million annual salary, Noel made just $4,187,599* last season and is making just $1,757,429 this season.

*Noel’s qualifying offer would have been $5,848,910 – $1,661,311 higher than his actual qualifying offer – if he started just one more game during his first season in Dallas. He initially came off the bench after the trade, but he worked his way into the starting lineup, starting 11 of his final 12 games that season. Curiously, he came off the bench for one game against the Bucks in that span. “I have no comment on that,” Noel said.

Why didn’t Noel just take the large contract offer from the Mavericks?

“I just wanted to maximize myself with no restrictions, go out there and show why I feel like I’m the player that I am and just make smart decisions,” said Noel, who repeatedly praised Dallas and Coach Rick Carlisle. “Regardless, the past is the past. I’m just really looking forward to the future and just putting myself in the right position with people that want me to succeed.”

Noel says he has that in Oklahoma City, but he’s also playing even less than he did with the Mavericks last season. In a career-low 14.0 minutes per game, Noel is averaging 5.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. That’s why he hasn’t drawn more attention for what might be his breakout season.

Playing-time-agnostic advanced stats show someone having a heck of a year. Noel is among the league leaders in PER (25.0), box plus/minus (+6.8) and win shares per 48 minutes (.300).

In fact, Noel’s win shares per 48 minutes rates as one of the best marks of all-time. He’s sandwiched between two Michael Jordan and two LeBron James seasons. Here’s the full win-shares-per-48-minutes leaderboard (must qualify for minutes per game leaderboard):

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This is not to suggest Noel is as good as the all-time greats listed here. He’s obviously not. And though 309 minutes is a meaningful sample, it’s hardly conclusive.

But maybe Noel deserves a second look.

Noel is a heck of a defensive disruptor. He’s quick and bouncy, and when he’s active, he covers a lot of ground. He generates so many steals and blocks.

The 6-foot-11 Noel is posting a steal percentage this season (3.4%) higher than any 6-foot-10-or-taller rotation regular has ever has in a full season. His block percentage (7.8%) ranks fourth among rotation regulars this season, behind only Mitchell Robinson, Myles Turner, Hassan Whiteside, JaVale McGee.

No rotation regular has ever matched the combination of Noel’s steal percentage (3.4%) and block percentage (7.8%) over a full season. Only David Robinson – 3.1%, 7.4% in 1992 – has come particularly close.

Noel might gamble too much chasing steals and blocks. “That could be better,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. But Noel has the athleticism to wreak havoc. And it seems Noel is striking enough of a balance. Oklahoma City is allowing 2.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Noel on the court than when he’s off.

On the other end, Noel is excellent finisher, shooting 75% in the restricted area. Playing with downhill point guards Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook, Noel can build a head of steam toward the rim in the pick-and-roll, as the opposing big often must help contain the point guard. The guards’ driving attracting help defenders also frees Noel to crash the offensive glass like never before. With his ability to finish above the rim, that makes him so dangerous.

There’s probably a ceiling on Noel’s contributions with the Thunder. Steven Adams is their established starting center and locked up two seasons after this.

But Noel, still just 24, can become an unrestricted free agent next summer by declining his minimum-salary player option. Though it’s a tough market for centers, Noel has the mobility to thrive defensively in the modern NBA. In a spread offensive system, there’d be a lot of space for him to catch lobs and tip-in offensive rebounds.

It’s too early to declare Noel has turned a corner, but it’s time to acknowledge he might have.

“I’ve always felt like, in the right position, I could do this,” Noel said. “…I think I’m in the right position. “

Complete list of 2019 NBA draft early entrants

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Who’s the best senior in the 2019 NBA draft?

Washington’s Matisse Thybulle? North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson? Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield? Villanova’s Eric Paschall? Belmont’s Dylan Windler?

They’re all only borderline first-round picks. Though I think at least one will get picked in the opening round, this could be the first NBA draft without a senior selected in the first round.

Like most drafts in this era, the top prospects are largely underclassmen. They had to declare for the draft by Sunday. Some will definitely stay in. Others will withdraw by the NBA’s deadline (June 10) or, more importantly, the NCAA’s deadline to retain eligibility (May 29). Unlike previous years, players can hire agents while retaining college eligibility. But they had to enter the pool by now to stay in.

Here are all 2019 early entrants, players who came through the American system followed by international players:

Player Team Height Status
Milan Acquaah California Baptist 6-3 Sophomore
Bryce Aiken Harvard 6-0 Junior
Nickeil Alexander-Walker Virginia Tech 6-5 Sophomore
Al-Wajid Aminu North Florida 6-7 Junior
Desmond Bane TCU 6-5 Junior
RJ Barrett Duke 6-7 Freshman
Charles Bassey Western Kentucky 6-11 Freshman
Tyus Battle Syracuse 6-6 Junior
Troy Baxter Jr. FGCU 6-8 Sophomore
Darius Bazley Princeton HS (OH) 6-9 Post-Graduate
Kerry Blackshear Jr. Virginia Tech 6-10 Junior
Phil Bledsoe Glenville State (WV) 6-6 Junior
Bol Bol Oregon 7-2 Freshman
Marques Bolden Duke 6-11 Junior
Jordan Bone Tennessee 6-3 Junior
Ky Bowman Boston College 6-1 Junior
DaQuan Bracey Louisiana Tech 5-11 Junior
Keith Braxton St. Francis (PA) 6-4 Junior
Ignas Brazdeikis Michigan 6-7 Freshman
Oshae Brissett Syracuse 6-8 Sophomore
Armoni Brooks Houston 6-3 Junior
Charlie Brown Jr. St. Joseph’s 6-7 Sophomore
Moses Brown UCLA 7-1 Freshman
Nico Carvacho Colorado State 6-11 Junior
Yoeli Childs BYU 6-8 Junior
Brandon Clarke Gonzaga 6-8 Junior
Nicolas Claxton Georgia 6-11 Sophomore
Amir Coffey Minnesota 6-8 Junior
RJ Cole Howard 6-1 Sophomore
Tyler Cook Iowa 6-9 Junior
Anthony Cowan Jr. Maryland 6-0 Junior
Jarrett Culver Texas Tech 6-5 Sophomore
Jarron Cumberland Cincinnati 6-5 Junior
Tulio Da Silva Missouri State 6-8 Junior
Caleb Daniels Tulane 6-4 Sophomore
Aubrey Dawkins UCF 6-6 Junior
Silvio De Sousa Kansas 6-9 Sophomore
Javin DeLaurier Duke 6-10 Junior
Mamadi Diakite Virginia 6-9 Junior
Alpha Diallo Providence 6-7 Junior
James Dickey UNCG 6-10 Junior
David DiLeo Central Michigan 6-7 Junior
Davon Dillard Shaw (NC) 6-5 Junior
Luguentz Dort Arizona State 6-4 Freshman
Devon Dotson Kansas 6-2 Freshman
Jason Draggs Lee College (TX) 6-9 Freshman
Aljami Durham Indiana 6-4 Sophomore
Carsen Edwards Purdue 6-1 Junior
CJ Elleby Washington State 6-6 Freshman
Steven Enoch Louisville 6-10 Junior
Bruno Fernando Maryland 6-10 Sophomore
Jaylen Fisher TCU 6-2 Junior
Savion Flagg Texas A&M 6-7 Sophomore
Daniel Gafford Arkansas 6-11 Sophomore
Darius Garland Vanderbilt 6-2 Freshman
Eugene German Northern Illinois 6-0 Junior
TJ Gibbs Notre Dame 6-3 Junior
Quentin Goodin Xavier 6-4 Junior
Tony Goodwin II Redemption Christian Acad. (MA) 6-6 Post-Graduate
Kellan Grady Davidson 6-5 Sophomore
Devonte Green Indiana 6-3 Junior
Quentin Grimes Kansas 6-5 Freshman
Jon Axel Gudmundsson Davidson 6-4 Junior
Kyle Guy Virginia 6-2 Junior
Rui Hachimura Gonzaga 6-8 Junior
Jaylen Hands UCLA 6-3 Sophomore
Jerrick Harding Weber State 6-1 Junior
Jared Harper Auburn 5-11 Junior
Kevon Harris Stephen F. Austin 6-6 Junior
Jaxson Hayes Texas 6-11 Freshman
Dewan Hernandez Miami 6-11 Junior
Tyler Herro Kentucky 6-5 Freshman
Amir Hinton Shaw (NC) 6-5 Junior
Jaylen Hoard Wake Forest 6-8 Freshman
Daulton Hommes Point Loma Nazarene (CA) 6-8 Junior
Talen Horton-Tucker Iowa State 6-4 Freshman
De’Andre Hunter Virginia 6-7 Sophomore
Ty Jerome Virginia 6-5 Junior
Markell Johnson North Carolina State 6-1 Junior
Keldon Johnson Kentucky 6-6 Freshman
Jayce Johnson Utah 7-0 Junior
Tyrique Jones Xavier 6-9 Junior
Mfiondu Kabengele Florida State 6-10 Sophomore
Sacha Killeya-Jones NC State 6-11 Junior
Louis King Oregon 6-9 Freshman
V.J. King Louisville 6-6 Junior
Nathan Knight William & Mary 6-10 Junior
Sagaba Konate West Virginia 6-8 Junior
Martin Krampelj Creighton 6-9 Junior
Romeo Langford Indiana 6-6 Freshman
Cameron Lard Iowa State 6-9 Sophomore
Dedric Lawson Kansas 6-9 Junior
A.J. Lawson South Carolina 6-6 Freshman
Jalen Lecque Brewster Academy (NH) 6-3 Post-Graduate
Jacob Ledoux Texas-Permian Basin 6-3 Junior
Nassir Little North Carolina 6-6 Freshman
Tevin Mack Alabama 6-6 Junior
Malik Maitland Bethune-Cookman 5-9 Guard
Trevor Manuel Olivet (MI) 6-9 Junior
Jermaine Marrow Hampton 6-0 Junior
Naji Marshall Xavier 6-7 Sophomore
Charles Matthews Michigan 6-6 Junior
Skylar Mays LSU 6-4 Junior
Jalen McDaniels San Diego State 6-10 Sophomore
Davion Mintz Creighton 6-3 Junior
EJ Montgomery Kentucky 6-10 Freshman
Ja Morant Murray State 6-3 Sophomore
Andrew Nembhard Florida 6-5 Freshman
Kouat Noi TCU 6-7 Sophomore
Zach Norvell Jr. Gonzaga 6-5 Sophomore
Jaylen Nowell Washington 6-4 Sophomore
Joel Ntambwe UNLV 6-9 Freshman
Jordan Nwora Louisville 6-8 Sophomore
Chuma Okeke Auburn 6-8 Sophomore
KZ Okpala Stanford 6-9 Sophomore
Miye Oni Yale 6-6 Junior
Devonte Patterson Prairie View A&M 6-7 Junior
Reggie Perry Mississippi State 6-10 Freshman
Lamar Peters Mississippi State 6-0 Junior
Filip Petrusev Gonzaga 6-11 Freshman
Jalen Pickett Siena 6-4 Freshman
Shamorie Ponds St. John’s 6-1 Junior
Jordan Poole Michigan 6-5 Sophomore
Cletrell Pope Bethune-Cookman 6-9 Junior
Nik Popovic Boston College 6-11 Junior
Kevin Porter Jr. USC 6-6 Freshman
Jontay Porter Missouri 6-11 Sophomore
Myles Powell Seton Hall 6-2 Junior
Payton Pritchard Oregon 6-2 Junior
Neemias Queta Utah State 6-11 Freshman
Brandon Randolph Arizona 6-6 Sophomore
Cam Reddish Duke 6-8 Freshman
Isaiah Reese Canisius 6-5 Junior
Naz Reid LSU 6-10 Freshman
Nick Richards Kentucky 6-11 Sophomore
LaQuincy Rideau South Florida 6-1 Junior
Austin Robinson Kentucky Christian 6-2 Sophomore
Isaiah Roby Nebraska 6-8 Junior
Ayinde Russell Morehouse 6-3 Junior
Kevin Samuel TCU 6-11 Freshman
Paul Scruggs Xavier 6-3 Sophomore
Samir Sehic Tulane 6-9 Junior
Josh Sharkey Samford 5-10 Junior
Simisola Shittu Vanderbilt 6-10 Freshman
Nike Sibande Miami (OH) 6-4 Sophomore
Justin Simon St. John’s 6-5 Junior
D’Marcus Simonds Georgia State 6-3 Junior
Ja’Vonte Smart LSU 6-4 Freshman
Justin Smith Indiana 6-7 Sophomore
Derrik Smits Valparaiso 7-1 Junior
Lamar Stevens Penn State 6-8 Junior
Jalen Sykes St. Clair College (Canada) 6-5 Junior
Marlon Taylor LSU 6-6 Junior
Ethan Thompson Oregon State 6-5 Sophomore
Killian Tillie Gonzaga 6-10 Junior
Donnie Tillman Utah 6-7 Sophomore
Tres Tinkle Oregon State 6-8 Junior
Obi Toppin Dayton 6-9 Freshman
Rayjon Tucker Arkansas-Little Rock 6-5 Junior
Justin Turner Bowling Green 6-4 Sophomore
Nick Ward Michigan State 6-8 Junior
PJ Washington Jr. Kentucky 6-8 Sophomore
Tremont Waters LSU 5-11 Sophomore
Kaleb Wesson Ohio State 6-9 Sophomore
Coby White North Carolina 6-5 Freshman
Jimmy Whitt Jr. SMU 6-3 Junior
Joe Wieskamp Iowa 6-6 Freshman
Lindell Wigginton Iowa State 6-2 Sophomore
Kris Wilkes UCLA 6-8 Sophomore
Charles Williams Howard 6-6 Junior
Emmitt Williams LSU 6-7 Freshman
Grant Williams Tennessee 6-7 Junior
Zion Williamson Duke 6-7 Freshman
Holland Woods II Portland State 6-0 Sophomore
Kenny Wooten Oregon 6-9 Sophomore
Dikembe Andre Paulistano (Brazil) 6-9 1999 DOB
Felipe Dos Anjos Melilla (Spain) 7-2 1998 DOB
Darko Bajo Cedevita (Croatia) 6-10 1999 DOB
Aleksander Balcerowski Gran Canaria (Spain) 7-1 2000 DOB
Goga Bitadze Buducnost (Montenegro) 7-0 1999 DOB
Vrenz Bleijenbergh Antwerp (Belgium) 6-9 2000 DOB
Adrian Bogucki Radom (Poland) 7-1 1999 DOB
Leandro Bolmaro Barcelona (Spain) 6-6 2000 DOB
Ognjen Carapic Mega Bemax (Serbia) 6-4 1998 DOB
Leo Cizmic Girona (Spain) 6-8 1998 DOB
Digue Diawara Pau Orthez (France) 6-9 1998 DOB
Nenad Dimitrijevic Joventut (Spain) 6-1 1998 DOB
Sekou Doumbouya Limoges (France) 6-8 2000 DOB
Henri Drell Baunach (Germany) 6-9 2000 DOB
Paul Eboua Roseto (Italy) 6-8 2000 DOB
Osas Ehigiator Fuenlabrada (Spain) 6-10 1999 DOB
Biram Faye Avila (Spain) 6-9 2000 DOB
Ivan Fevrier Levallois (France) 6-9 1999 DOB
Aleix Font Barcelona (Spain) 6-4 1998 DOB
Philipp Herkenhoff Vechta (Germany) 6-10 1999 DOB
Dalibor Ilic Igokea (Bosnia) 6-8 2000 DOB
Matas Jogela Dzukija (Lithuania) 6-6 1998 DOB
Panagiotis Kalaitzakis Holargos (Greece) 6-6 1999 DOB
Mate Kalajzic Split (Croatia) 6-2 1998 DOB
Lukasz Kolenda Trefl Sopot (Poland) 6-5 1999 DOB
Marcos Louzada Silva Franca (Brazil) 6-5 1999 DOB
Andrija Marjanovic Mega Bemax (Serbia) 6-8 1999 DOB
Gytis Masiulis Neptunas (Lithuania) 6-9 1998 DOB
Jonas Mattisseck Alba Berlin (Germany) 6-5 2000 DOB
William McDowell-White Baunach (Germany) 6-5 1998 DOB
Nikita Mikhailovskii Avtodor (Russia) 6-6 2000 DOB
Nikola Miskovic Mega Bemax (Serbia) 6-10 1999 DOB
Adam Mokoka Mega Bemax (Serbia) 6-5 1998 DOB
Muhaymin Mustafa Tofas (Turkey) 6-5 1999 DOB
Abdoulaye N’Doye Cholet (France) 6-7 1998 DOB
Toni Nakic Sibenik (Croatia) 6-8 1999 DOB
Tanor Ngom Ryerson (Canada) 7-2 1998 DOB
Joshua Obiesie Wurzburg (Germany) 6-6 2000 DOB
David Okeke Fiat Torino (Italy) 6-8 1998 DOB
Louis Olinde Brose Baskets (Germany) 6-9 1998 DOB
Zoran Paunovic FMP (Serbia) 6-7 2000 DOB
Dino Radoncic Murcia (Spain) 6-8 1999 DOB
Sander Raieste Baskonia (Spain) 6-8 1999 DOB
Neal Sako Levallois (France) 6-10 1998 DOB
Luka Samanic Olimpija (Slovenia) 6-10 2000 DOB
Yago Dos Santos Paulistano (Brazil) 5-10 1999 DOB
Tadas Sedekerskis Baskonia (Spain) 6-8 1998 DOB
Njegos Sikiras Tormes (Spain) 6-9 1999 DOB
Borisa Simanic Crvena Zvezda (Serbia) 6-11 1998 DOB
Deividas Sirvydis Rytas (Lithuania) 6-7 2000 DOB
Khadim Sow ASVEL (France) 6-11 1999 DOB
Filip Stanic Mega Bemax (Serbia) 6-10 1998 DOB
Michael Uchendu Coruna (Spain) 6-10 1998 DOB
Bastien Vautier Nancy (France) 6-11 1998 DOB
Arnas Velicka Tartu Ulikool (Estonia) 6-4 1999 DOB
Warren Woghiren Cholet (France) 6-10 1998 DOB
Arturs Zagars Joventut (Spain) 6-3 2000 DOB
Yovel Zoosman Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) 6-7 1998 DOB

LeBron James denies that Lakers must repair relationship with him

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Lakers president Magic Johnson reportedly planned to fire coach Luke Walton and wanted to fire general manager Rob Pelinka. Instead, Johnson resigned with a stunning public announcement without first telling owner Jeanie Buss. Pelinka, who has many detractors throughout the league, is now in charge of the front office. The Lakers reportedly offered to keep Walton, but he bolted for the Kings. The Lakers have no coach. They do have a roster LeBron James described as “[fart noise].” Johnson will reportedly help the team recruit free agents.

Nearly one year after signing LeBron James, the Lakers are a mess.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

I think it’s very precarious right now. I think the trust that LeBron James has in the Lakers organization has been damaged – maybe irrevocably. I’m not saying it can’t be repaired. But right now, there’s a tough bridge that has fallen that’s going to be need to be put back together. And that’s going to have to be a proving ground for Jeanie Buss, for Rob Pelinka, for Kurt Rambis, for Linda Rambis – whoever else is involved in this process now. And there’s going to be an initial thing proven with whoever is hired as the coach and then this summer.

LeBron, via Instagram:

Even if LeBron has lost confidence in the Lakers, his denial is important. It means he doesn’t want to escalate this issue.

LeBron, for good reason, holds extreme confidence in himself. I’m sure he believes, as long the Lakers have him, they’ll be alright.

But he can’t do everything, and he knows that, too. He often held the Cavaliers’ feet to the fire. He signed a series of short-term contracts, creating the threat of departure. He demanded Dan Gilbert spend more. He, often passive-aggressively, called on executives, coaches and teammates to perform better.

LeBron hasn’t shown that same urgency in Los Angeles, starting with locking in for three years – longer than any contract in his return to Cleveland.

Maybe this is an older and more mature LeBron trying to present steadiness amid chaos.

Or maybe this is yet another sign LeBron went to Los Angeles with priorities other than winning. After all, the Lakers’ shoddy operation won’t prevent him from enjoying his L.A. lifestyle and Hollywood proximity.

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts makes Russell Westbrook ‘next question’ jokes (video)

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Damian Lillard took a well-deserved victory lap after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer sunk Russell Westbrook – who seemingly took a shot at Lillard last year – and the Thunder.

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts had fun at Westbrook’s expense, too.

Westbrook has repeatedly answered questions from Berry Tramel of The Oklahoma with, “Next question.” Though Westbrook shifted to variants of “not sure” after the last couple games of the series, he still didn’t meaningfully answer Tramel’s questions.

Stotts interjected himself into Westbrook’s feud with Tramel before Game 3.

Clay Horning of The Norman Transcript:

Also, when former Sooner standout Terry Stotts, who is head coach of the Trail Blazers, entered the pregame interview room on Friday, the first thing he said was, “Go ahead, I’ll answer your question, Berry.”

Then, Stotts really laid it on thick after Game 5 last night, as shown in the above video. He specifically called on Tramel to ask a question then joked how badly he wanted to answer with “next question.”

Stotts landed on the hot seat after Portland got swept in the first round last year. He kept his job and did a fantastic work with the Trail Blazers this year. It’s great to see him enjoying himself.

I also can’t help but wonder how Westbrook feels about Stotts.

Kyle Lowry’s ring finger “popped out” during Game 5, he will be ready for Game 1 vs. 76ers

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In the second quarter of the Raptors’ close-out win against the Magic, Kyle Lowry injured his finger, apparently dislocating the ring finger on his right hand, his shooting hand.

However, it’s the playoffs, he was back in the game quickly and he will certainly be ready to go Saturday when Toronto begins a second-round showdown against Philadelphia. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN has the details.

Lowry jammed the finger while deflecting a ball in the second quarter. During the subsequent timeout, the Raptors’ medical staff attended to Lowry’s hand on the bench. He returned to play but went back to the locker room with 2:41 remaining in the first half.

Lowry, who was wearing a splint on the finger during the postgame news conference, started the second half for the Raptors and finished with 14 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds in 26 minutes.

“It popped out, but it’s fine,” Lowry said. “I popped it back in. Got a couple days to get it back and recover, and hopefully it will be better by Game 1. Well, it will be better by Game 1.”

It needs to be because the Raptors can’t have another 0-of-7 shooting start from him, which is what they got in an ugly Game 1 loss to Orlando. The 76ers are not the Magic, Toronto can’t have another dreadful start in Game 1 and dig themselves a hole at home.

Lowry’s shooting and playmaking will be a big part of that next series.