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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.

Report: Anthony Davis intends to receive full trade bonus

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The Lakers are reportedly on track to trade for Anthony Davis on July 6 – the date an important distinction in determining the Lakers’ cap space.

The other key question: Will Davis take his full $4,063,953 trade bonus?

The Pelicans will pay the bonus. It will count against the Lakers’ cap.

Especially considering Davis requested a trade, New Orleans could have pressed him to waive the trade bonus in order to accommodate him. Likewise, the Lakers – his desired team – could have made the deal contingent on Davis waiving the trade bonus.

Ramona Shelburne on ESPN:

My understanding is he doesn’t intend to waive that. He’s due the four million dollars, and he’s going to keep it. But again, as you just noted in that monologue, things can change.

If he takes the full bonus, Davis’ salary next season will increase from $27,093,018 to $31,156,971. And good for him. He earned the trade kicker in his contract.

This also supports agent Rich Paul’s contention that he puts Davis’ interests first while representing Davis, not catering to fellow client LeBron James. Because while the extra money is nice for Davis, this hurts LeBron’s Lakers.

The Lakers now project to have just $24 million in cap room. They can still get a helpful player or two, but $28 million would have gone further.

I wonder whether the Pelicans prefer to pay Davis’ bonus. Though a $4,063,953 check is nothing to sneeze at, tying up the Lakers’ cap space has value with New Orleans getting so many future draft picks from Los Angeles. Maybe the Pelicans have already made Davis getting his full bonus an essential aspect of this trade.

If not, the Lakers have a week before the Davis trade can become official to pitch free agents. Perhaps, if they line up certain free agents and show him the spending power of that extra money, Davis would waive all or some of his trade bonus.

But I wouldn’t blame him if he wants his money and puts the onus on the Lakers to build a strong team, anyway. That’d sounds a lot like another Paul client.

Kawhi Leonard leaving NBA-champion Raptors would be unlike anything we’ve ever seen

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Many Raptors fans hoped Kawhi Leonard would use yesterday’s championship parade to declare his plan to re-sign with Toronto.

They got a laugh and not much else.

But they can be heartened – or maybe eventually heartbroken –a by this: Stars almost never switched teams immediately following a title.

Before this year, there have been…

  • 49 Finals MVPs who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
  • 147 All-Stars who won a championship. None switched teams that offseason.
  • 124 All-NBA players who won a championship. Only one switched teams that offseason.

In 1998, Scottie Pippen got signed-and-traded from the Bulls to the Rockets. He was neither an All-Star nor Finals MVP that year, but he made the All-NBA third team. After leaving Chicago, he never achieved any of those accolades.

Leonard checked all three boxes this season – Finals MVP, All-NBA, All-Star. He looks poised to take over as the NBA’s best player for the next few several years.

It’d be unprecedented for someone like him to bolt.

The most productive player to leave a championship team immediately after winning a title? It might be Tyson Chandler, who posted 9.4 win shares for the 2011 Mavericks then got signed-and-traded to the Knicks.

Even while missing 22 games amid load management and minor injury, Leonard posted 9.5 win shares last season.

Here’s how Leonard compares to the players with the most win shares in a title-winning season who began play elsewhere the following year:

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Of course, Leonard isn’t bound by history. He’ll make his own decision. If he wants to leave the Raptors for the Clippers, Knicks or anyone else, he can.

But players just usually stick with a champion. LeBron James said he might have re-signed with the Heat if they won the 2014 title. Kyrie Irving was unhappy after the Cavaliers’ 2016 championship but didn’t request a trade until they lost in the 2017 NBA Finals. Shaq and Kobe coexisted peacefully enough until the Lakers stopped winning titles.

It’s just hard to leave a team that has proven its ability to win a championship, and Leonard would have that in Toronto.

Report: Al Horford opting out with Celtics

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Celtics president Danny Ainge called restructuring Al Horford‘s contract status – which would involve the center declining his $30,123,015 player option then re-signing for a lower starting salary but more total compensation in a multi-year deal – a priority.

This is either a step toward that or a step toward Boston, with Kyrie Irving seemingly exiting, losing multiple stars this summer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics would project to have about $32 million in cap space. That’d be about enough for a max player with fewer than 10 years experience, and Boston would get the room exception (projected to be about $5 million)

Or the Celtics could use Bird Rights to re-sign Horford, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris. That route would come with a mid-level exception, either the non-taxpayer (projected to be about $9 million) or taxpayer (projected to be about $6 million).

Horford could determine Boston’s path. If the 33-year-old wants to re-sign, that’d probably consume most of the Celtics’ cap space. If he sees Irving leaving and wants to chase a title elsewhere, Boston could reset around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and three first-round picks in Thursday’s draft.

The Celtics could bring back Rozier, who’ll be a restricted free agent, in either scenario. But if Horford departs, that’d at least open the door to pursue an outside point guard – like D'Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon – to replace Irving.

Report: Kyrie Irving has ‘ghosted’ Celtics as free agency approaches

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The emerging expectation: Kyrie Irving will sign with the Nets in free agency.

Many thought the Celtics had a chance of changing his mind by trading for Anthony Davis. But Boston didn’t deal for the star center.

There’s little reason to believe Irving will re-sign with the Celtics now.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

The strangest part of the Irving situation right now is that it appears he has essentially ghosted on the Celtics. The people within the organization I have spoken with have made it clear that they have had little, if any, communication with Irving in recent weeks.

Irving is the prize. He’s not interviewing for jobs. Employers are chasing him. By becoming one of the best basketball players in the world, Irving has earned the power to act however he wants in this situation.

The season is over. If Irving wants space, he’s entitled to it.

Maybe it’s because he’s being a jerk. Maybe it’s because telling Boston he wants to leave isn’t an easy message to deliver.

Either way, Irving can proceed as he sees fit. The Celtics will still offer him a max contract if he wants to stay.

This is the same tact he reportedly took on his way out of Cleveland. So, it’s believable he’s behaving this way again.

But we’ve also repeatedly seen players smeared on their way out the door. Whether or not it’s accurate, this report will reflect poorly on Irving in many circles. So, in light of recent history, have at least a little skepticism for this depiction of Irving.