Kawhi Leonard dominates, Raptors roll Sixers in Game 1

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This is why the Toronto Raptors got Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard was the best player on the court Saturday night in Game 1 against Philadelphia, scoring 45 points on 16-of-23 shooting, grabbing 11 rebounds, and dominating defensively with plays like this.

Behind Leonard’s play and the Toronto starters outplaying the Philly starters, the Raptors raced out to an early lead, held off charges, and when things got tight played like a team who had largely been together for a while — not adding players through trades during the season — on their way to an easy 108-95 win.

So much for that Game 1 Toronto curse. Leonard smashed that.

This was domination in the critical areas of the game and the series by Toronto. It wasn’t just Leonard, Pascal Siakam had 29 points on 12-of-15 shooting, and the two of them dominated the first quarter, helping Toronto shake off those Game 1 jitters. On the night, Leonard and Siakam shot a combined 28-of-37.

The other key thing — right at the top of our “three things to watch in this series” preview — was Marc Gasol keeping Joel Embiid in check. For the game, Embiid shot just 5-of-18 and got to the free throw line only six times. When he is not a force inside the Sixers offense is not smooth, and that was the case in this game. Toronto didn’t match Gasol with Embiid all game, Serge Ibaka got time on Embiid and the Sixers didn’t take advantage of that and pound Embiid in the post (but they likely will try in Game 2).

Philly had stretches of good offense, but this is not the kind of shot chart that leads to wins.

J.J. Redick led Philly with 17 points as no player got above 20.

All game long the Raptors also did a good job of pushing the pace, particularly against the Sixer bench units, to get some easy buckets before the defense got set.

Philadelphia needs to win the battle of the starting lineups to win this series, but to open Game 1 it was the Raptors starters who took charge. Toronto made 14 consecutive shots at one point in the first quarter. Leonard and Siakam combined for 34 points in the first quarter alone, outscoring the Sixers by themselves (31). It was more than just those two, the Raptors had a 77.8 true shooting percentage and zero turnovers in the first quarter, and with that a 162 offensive rating. However, the Sixers scored too and it was 39-31 after one.

The Sixers closed the gap to one in the second quarter, but Leonard came back in and stretched the lead back out, 62-53 at the half. Leonard had a career-best 27 first-half points in a playoff game.

It was like that all game. Toronto’s defense made plays when it mattered but Philly’s offense still had impressive stretches, it just couldn’t get stops.

If that doesn’t change for Philadelphia, this series will be a lot shorter than they imagined. We will see how the Sixers respond to adversity now.

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.