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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.

Rockets star Russell Westbrook says he tested positive for coronavirus

Rockets star Russell Westbrook
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Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Luc Mbah a Moute didn’t travel with the Rockets to Orlando for the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

Westbrook says he tested positive for coronavirus:

It’s good that Westbrook is feeling well. And, once he had coronavirus, it’s good he tested positive before the team departed. He can quarantine in the comfort of his own home rather than a hotel room. He didn’t risk spreading coronavirus during the flight.

When will he join the Rockets? That’s tough to say. He must clear coronavirus first, and it’s unclear how long he has had it. Then, upon arrival at Disney World, he faces an in-room quarantine. The length of that can vary.

With Harden as the centerpiece, Houston has built its secondary attack around Westbrook’s aggressive style. The Rockets’ unique center-less approach is a direct response to Westbrook’s minus outside shooting. Empowered by spacing later in the season, Westbrook has really thrived.

He’d be a huge loss. Houston could go from a championship-contending wildcard to one-man show – or less.

This revelation also raises questions about Harden and Mbah a Moute, whose late arrivals haven’t been publicly explained.

Report: Rockets’ Bruno Caboclo violates quarantine, must remain in room 10 days

Rockets forward Bruno Caboclo
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Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and 76ers star Joel Embiid expressed doubt about players following the NBA’s protocols in the bubble.

See Rockets forward Bruno Caboclo.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Players first arriving at Disney World is one of the most perilous times in the NBA’s plan. A player leaving his initial quarantine with coronavirus could undermine the whole operation.

The league has no practical choice but to be strict.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Luc Mbah a Moute didn’t arrive with the rest of the Rockets in Orlando. This makes four players who are behind in their ability to build chemistry and train with their teammates. At least Caboclo is just four days away from being four days away – major progress for him.

Houston has already clinched a playoff spot. But there’s some danger of slipping to the No. 7 seed and facing the powerful Clippers in the first round. So while they don’t have the most urgency for the seeding games, the Rockets are playing for something in the seeding games.

Lakers star LeBron James: #FreeWOJ!!

Adrian Wojnarowski
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Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley sent out a press release complaining about the NBA’s list of approved social-justice messages for jerseys.

ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski replied to the email, “F— you.” (Wojnarowski did not censor the first word.)

Wojnarowski apologized. ESPN condemned his behavior and, according to Andrew Marchand of the New York Post, suspended him two weeks.

Several NBA players have publicly supported Wojnarowski:

Lakers star LeBron James:

Clippers guard Lou Williams:

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray:

Heat big Bam Adebayo:

Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie:

Kings forward Harrison Barnes:

Pacers center Myles Turner:

Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver:

Wizards wing Troy Brown Jr.:

Trail Blazers guard Jaylen Adams:

LeBron’s message is particularly notable.

Obviously, he’s the NBA’s biggest star. His words carry weight.

Wojnarowski also has a long history of harshly criticizing LeBron. Here are just a few examples.

But if he can get over The Letter from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, LeBron can probably get past anything written about him.

Report: Brooklyn near deal with Lance Thomas for restart

Lance Thomas Brooklyn
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Still rounding out their roster for the NBA restart in Orlando, the Brooklyn Nets have reached out to bring back veteran forward Lance Thomas.

Thomas, who went through training camp with Brooklyn but was cut right before the season, will sign as a substitute player for Brooklyn, reports Alex Smith with SNY.TV.

Thomas is an eight-year NBA veteran who spent the last four of that with the Knicks. He can play the three or a floor-spacing small four, with New York using him more as a power forward in recent years. He’s averaged 5.2 points per game in his career and is known more as a good player to have in the locker room and guy who can soak up 15-20 minutes a night and not hurt a team. Brooklyn had Thomas in at training camp and liked his fit, but they didn’t have a roster spot for him.

They do now. Three Nets players — Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, and Taurean Prince — tested positive for the coronavirus and will not be at the Orlando restart. Wilson Chandler opted out of playing. All four of them can be replaced by substitute players for the remainder of this season, so the Nets signed Jamal Crawford, Michael Beasley, and Donta Hall. Thomas rounds becomes the fourth member of that group. (Note: The Nets cannot sign players to substitute for Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant because they are out due to injury; substitute players are only for players missing due to coronavirus issues.)

Thomas will be a free agent this offseason.

Lance Thomas and Brooklyn enter the bubble in Orlando as the seven seed in the East.