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Raptors beat Bucks, are one win away from first-ever NBA Finals

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The Toronto Raptors now lead the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, 3-2.

Thursday night’s matchup marked a three-game winning streak by the Raptors against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference to take a series lead. Kawhi Leonard & Co. now have the chance to close out Giannis Antetokounmpo back in Ontario for Game 6 on Saturday.

Much of Toronto’s success against Milwaukee in Game 5 was predicated by the same thing that got them through Games 3 and 4. Defense was incredibly important for the Raptors, who again collapsed on Antetokounmpo and pressured the shaky Bucks shooters into poor shots at the arc. Milwaukee shot just 32.3 percent from the 3-point line. Once again, both Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon struggled, combining to go 4-of-13 from deep.

Antetokounmpo had a better shooting night then he had in Game 4, but he scored just 24 points to go with six rebounds and six assists. The Greek Freak was not the same kind of impact player that he was in the first two games, and Nick Nurse forced Milwaukee to rely on its supporting cast yet again.

To that end, Khris Middleton had just six points on 2-of-9 shooting, although he did grab 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Milwaukee’s bench was awful for the second game in a row — Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova scored zero points on five shots in 20 minutes.

Much to the delight of Raptors fans, Toronto’s supporting cast rose to Leonard’s level. Pascal Siakam, who didn’t shoot well, scored 14 points with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Kyle Lowry had a solid playoff performance of 17 points on 4-of-11 shooting to go with seven rebounds and six assists.

Most surprising was Fred VanVleet, who played 37 minutes off the bench to the tune of 21 points — all from 3-point shots. VanVleet has been uneven this postseason, but Danny Green had such a poor outing on Thursday (he scored zero points as well) that it was necessary to play VanVleet heavily. Thankfully for Toronto, it worked out.

As a team the Raptors limited turnovers to just six, shooting an incredible 41.9 percent from the 3-point line thanks in large part to Leonard and VanVleet.

The momentum has shifted significantly in this series, and it has much to do with the coaching changes that Nurse has made to pinpoint the inequities in Milwaukee’s lineup. It also seems like the Bucks have gone cold at just the wrong time, and coach Mike Budenholzer will need to come up with some serious strategy to be able to combat Toronto and stave off elimination. The series heads back to Ontario for Game 6 on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. when the Raptors can close the series at home at Scotiabank Arena for their first-ever NBA Finals berth.

The Raptors beat the Bucks in Game 5, 105-99.

Tacko Fall’s agent confident if Celtics don’t keep him on roster another team will

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Tacko Fall was arguably the most popular player at Las Vegas Summer League (especially since Zion Williamson only played nine minutes). Fans chanted for him to get in games and then chanted “M-V-P” once he was in. Fall averaged 7.2 points a game on 77 percent shooting at Summer League and every play he made became a viral highlight.

But that was Summer League.

Now things are getting real and Fall is trying to make the Celtics’ roster. Fall signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Celtics, which is essentially a training camp invite.

It’s a longshot Fall makes the Celtics’ regular season roster for two reasons. First, Fall needs a lot more development to be NBA ready, both physically and in terms of understanding and reacting to the game and how fast it moves. That was evident in Las Vegas. Second, the Celtics have Enes Kanter starting at center with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams behind him, it’s unlikely they keep a fourth traditional center on the roster. Both of Boston’s two-way contracts are already filled.

If the Celtics cut Fall and he signs with Boston’s G-League affiliate the Maine Red Claws, Fall gets a $50,000 bonus.

However, Fall’s agent Justin Haynes says if Boston cuts Fall he believes another team will sign him, something Haynes told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe.

“If the Celtics release him, I don’t think he goes unclaimed,” said Haynes, Fall’s agent. “I think somebody will take a shot on him because he’s done enough to show he can find a place in the NBA. I’m really hopeful that it’s Boston. I hope they find a way, and they do have a vision for him.”

I could see another team giving Fall one of their two-way contracts, but he needs a lot more development and time on the court. He needs time in the G-League. Maybe a team gives him a roster spot and develops him there, but that seems unlikely. Fall has the potential to be an NBA player, but it’s going to take a lot of work for him to get there.

Work that this year likely will take place in the G-League.

Gregg Popovich shows off some handles, and a midrange game (VIDEO)

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This is where you insert your “if one more player drops from USA Basketball” joke…

Team USA has flown to Australia for a series of FIBA World Cup tuneup games — two against Australia, one against Canada — and they are practicing there for a few days prior to those games. At one of those practices, USA (and Spurs) coach Gregg Popovich showed off a little behind-the-back dribble and midrange game, and Donovan Mitchell caught it on his camera and posted it.

Just as a reminder, Pop did play. Never in the NBA, but he was one of the last cuts of the 1972 USA Olympic team.

That said, I think the coaching gig worked out pretty well for him.

Team USA will play Australia on Aug. 22 and 24, then face Canada on Aug. 26. From there the USA flies to China where its first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.

NBA’s Steph Curry helps Howard U. start Division I golf team

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WASHINGTON (AP) Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is helping Howard University launch a Division I golf program.

The Golden State Warriors star guard and the school announced the six-year partnership Monday.

The specifics of his contribution were not disclosed.

Howard officials say they plan to have women’s and men’s golf teams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The school had a Division II golf program in the past, along with intercollegiate and intramural club teams.

The 31-year-old Curry, who has won three NBA championships with the Warriors, says he decided to get involved after meeting a Howard student who had been trying to get the university to have a golf team.

Curry says “it’s tough” to hear about students “who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game.”