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Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Dominant Kawhi Leonard will not let Raptors fold

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The NBA playoffs are reaching critical stages and there can be a lot to unpack with a few intense games every night, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Dominant Kawhi Leonard will not let Raptors fold, evens series with Sixers 2-2. We have seen this movie before, the one where the Toronto Raptors look on paper to be the team to beat in the East, but when faced with real adversity — previously in the form of LeBron James, this year in the form of Joel Embiid and Philadelphia — they come apart. The star players miss key shots, the role players fade, the defense stumbles, and the house of cards crumbles.

Sunday on the road, down 2-1 in a series where Philly had won two in a row and looked in Game 3 like they had figured things out, was the kind of moment where the Raptors have faded before.

Kawhi Leonard flipped the script and did this.

Leonard scored 39 points, drained 5-of-7 from three (8-of-12 on shots outside the paint), did not flinch in the clutch, terrorized Ben Simmons on defense, and lifted up his teammates — who gave him some help — to get a 101-96 road win.

Philadelphia and Toronto are now tied 2-2, making this a best of three that moves to Toronto on Tuesday.

This is why the Raptors rolled the dice on Leonard in a trade. It was challenging to get a feel for these Raptors at points during the season because of the words “load management, but this is why they went down that road — because peak Leonard changes the course of games, series, and franchises. In his last six games, Leonard has averaged 35.5 points per game on 62.5 percent shooting, hitting 52.6 percent from three and killing it all over the floor. If it wasn’t for that lanky scorer in the Bay Area, we’d be saying Leonard is the best player in these playoffs.

He’s doing it and, it seems, barely breaking a sweat in the process.

“I think that’s not fair to the Sixers,” Leonard said after Game 4. “I’m definitely breaking a sweat out there.”

Leonard’s play lifted up the other Raptors. This is the Kyle Lowry the Raptors need every game, attacking and aggressive on his way to 14 points and 7 rebounds, Marc Gasol had his best game of the series (16 points), Serge Ibaka stepped up into the minutes an injured Pascal Siakam could not and played well, and Danny Green hit shots and made plays.

Joel Embiid — still battling a virus we learned — did not put up huge numbers (11 points, eight rebounds) but his defense remains critical to Philly’s chances.

The Sixers just need to do better when Embiid sits, and Greg Monroe appears not to be the long-term answer to that. While one-game plus/minus is a flawed stat, it’s worth noting the Sixers were +17 in Embiid’s 35+ minutes, but in the 12.8 minutes he sat they were -22.

Jimmy Butler had 29 points on 18 shots to lead Philadelphia.

The Sixers have tried to make it hard on Leonard — look at that dagger shot above, it’s a step-back three over Embiid’s outstretched arm, how many guys in the league could hit that? — it just hasn’t mattered. Leonard has been brilliant, and when he gets a little help the Raptors are the deeper team in this series, and it shows.

Leonard and these Raptors felt like they were changing the movie ending on Sunday. If they can do it again Tuesday we will all start to buy in.

2) Denver is learning fast, wins Game 4 on the road to even series with Portland. This was supposed to be a learning experience playoffs for a young Denver team. This was one of the NBA’s youngest teams and its core guys — Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, in particular — had never been in the playoffs. There were going to be hard lessons that they would learn from.

Or, maybe they are more ready than we think.

For the second series in a row, these young Nuggets got down 2-1 and then won tough Game 4 on the road. Tired legs from Game 3 be damned, Denver got 34 points from Murray and a triple double — 21 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists — from Jokic, and the Nuggets got a 116-112 win on the road in Portland.

This series is tied 2-2 with Game 5 back in Denver on Tuesday.

This has been a series all about offense, which means the team that can get even a few key stops has a massive advantage. Denver did that in the third quarter of Game 4, holding Portland to just 14 points in the quarter on 35.1 percent shooting. Led by C.J. McCollum (11 points in the fourth) and Damian Lillard (15) the Trail Blazers made a comeback, they scored 35 points as a team in the fourth. However, down the stretch, Portland could not get stops. Murray had 12, Will Barton hit a couple of key threes, and the Nuggets scored 32 in the fourth to hang on and get the win.

This is the most entertaining series in the second round because these teams are so evenly matched. That was obvious in the 4OT game, but in this Game 4 it was more of the same: Denver had one more made field goal (40-39) but Portland had one more made three (12-11), with Denver making just three more free throws. It’s so close. And in those games it will come down to the little things.

And getting a few stops.

3) Jamal Murray had THE shot of the day on Sunday. If not for Lillard’s ridiculous closeout shot against Oklahoma City, this might be the best shot of the playoffs — Denver’s Jamal Murray with an opening moments over-the-backboard bucket.

After that, you kind of had a feeling it was going to be Denver’s day.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.

Losing Kemba Walker would always sting. Hornets made it nearly as painful as possible

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hornets faced a miserable choice this summer:

  • Lose not only their by far best player, but the greatest player in franchise and someone with a deep connection to the community
  • Sign a point guard to an expensive contract that will further inhibit an already-strapped team from competing at even a moderate level

Charlotte’s choice? Both.

The Hornets let Kemba Walker leave via free agency and replaced him with Terry Rozier (three years, $56.7 million). That’s a failure, not one of solely this offseason, but a failure nonetheless.

At 29, Walker would’ve likely become a negative value on a long-term deal. But at least he would’ve kept Charlotte more firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff race in the near term – not that on the fringes of that competition is a great place to be. There were reasonable arguments for and against keeping Walker.

But if the Hornets were willing to offer him only $160 million (about $62 million less than his super max), they should have traded him before it got this far. Why did they keep him past last season’s trade deadline? To have him represent Charlotte in the All-Star game there? To make a longshot run at the No. 8 seed? Without knowing exactly what other teams offered, that seems highly likely a mistake.

The Hornets weren’t good enough to make the playoffs with Walker. What makes them think they’ll be good enough with Rozier?

Losing Walker always would’ve invited a year of pain. Charlotte is too capped out, too veteran-laden to pivot in a meaningful way. But at least Bismack Biyombo‘s, Marvin Williams‘ and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist‘s contracts will expire next summer. Nicolas Batum‘s and Cody Zeller‘s will expire the following year.

Now, Rozier is on the books another year after that.

Maybe Rozier, 25, will become a key part of the Hornets’ next successful era. He has the requisite athleticism and has shown flashes of being a good starting point guard. But he’s coming off a down year. That counts, too.

It’s easy to pin Rozier’s struggles on a tough situation behind Kyrie Irving. That surely factored. Still, most players on a starting track would’ve fared better in those circumstances.

Credit Charlotte for creativity. By signing-and-trading Walker to the Celtics for a signed-and-traded Rozier, the Hornets got more spending power. But they probably would’ve been better off with a point guard in the mid-level-exception range like Tomas Satoransky, Delon Wright or Tyus Jones. It’ll take a major jump for Rozier to justify his near-$19 million-per-year salary.

Charlotte isn’t giving him much help. Jeremy Lamb left in free agency. Even though they have enough breathing room under the tax line to use the rest, the Hornets haven’t used their mid-level exception other than sliver for No. 36 pick Cody Martin.

Internal prospects look limited. Charlotte didn’t place anyone on our list of the 50 best players in 5 years. No. 12 pick P.J. Washington probably won’t change the franchise’s arc.

The Hornets didn’t reach this dismal point in one offseason. But this summer worsened the predicament.

Offseason grade: D-

Stephen Curry on playing in 2020 Tokyo Olympics: ‘That is the plan, for sure’

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It wasn’t just one thing that had the USA finishing seventh in the recent FIBA World Cup in China, but there was one overriding factor — the USA did not send it’s best players. That’s no knock on Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown and others who sacrificed and certainly gave it their all for Team USA, but we see this every NBA playoffs and now in international ball — the level of play of the top 10 or so players in the world is just different, it  changes and wins games. It takes them to win an NBA title, and now that is true of the gold medal.

Expect some of those elite players to suit up for Team USA in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Stephen Curry is in the front of that line, he told Rachel Nichols of ESPN.

“That is the plan, for sure. You know, obviously knock on wood, you don’t want any injuries or things like that to interfere…

“Definitely wanna go. I’ve never been on the Olympic team. I’ve been on two World Cup championship gold-medal teams. But the Olympics is the experience that I want. And next year will hopefully be it.”

Draymond Green also has said he wants to suit up for the USA in Tokyo.

This was to be expected. As has been written about before here at NBC (and in numerous other publications), it was poor decisions by the international governing body FIBA — in their quixotic quest to have the basketball world cup rival the soccer version — that hurt the USA’s roster, as well as the rosters of other teams around the world.

FIBA moved this World Cup to 2019 — one year before the Olympics — instead of 2018, when it would have traditionally fallen. This shift kept a number of players away. To play for Team USA is a six-to-seven week summer commitment, during the offseason when players are trying to rest, get their bodies right, relax a little, and spend time with friends and family. Putting the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years (and FIBA would love to kill 5-on-5 at the Olympics, but that’s another discussion) had players choosing between the two events, and for Americans the Olympics are always going to win that fight. Also, FIBA scheduled this World Cup for early September, so it ran right up against the start of training camps around the globe, with little break for the players. That was another strike (the Olympics next year run late July to early August, and you can catch it all on NBC).

Expect a number of other elite players to want to head to Tokyo. While USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo has talked tough about players who backed out this year, there is no chance he says no to an Anthony Davis/James Harden/Kawhi Leonard level player if they want to go. The USA wants gold and it needs its best players.

Such as Curry.

Wizards’ Isaiah Thomas out 6-8 weeks following thumb surgery

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With John Wall out likely for the season, the Washington Wizards are going to lean on Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas to handle point guard duties (although Bradley Beal will have the ball in his hands a lot and do plenty of playmaking, too).

Now the Wizards will be without Thomas through training camp and into the start of the season after surgery Wednesday to repair a ligament in his thumb, the team announced. The injury happened during a regular workout Monday at the team facility.

“This was an unfortunate setback for Isaiah, but with his resolve and the top care he will receive from our medical team, we expect him to make a full recovery,” said Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard in a statement. “In the meantime, he will continue to mentor our young guards and have a positive impact on the team as we start training camp.”

After Smith and Thomas, the only point guard on the roster is undrafted rookie Justin Robinson (on a non-guaranteed contract).

This is a fluky, unfortunate injury for Thomas, who has battled through years of hip and other injuries and is looking forward to the chance to prove himself with the Wizards. Thomas went to Washington for the opportunity, and that will still be there, but missing camp is a setback.