Associated Press

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to NBA Finals

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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history DeMar DeRozan to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse mixed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays when he needed to.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments, and when he couldn’t get to the rim at will his lack of a jump shot he has confidence in showed. Those kinds of lessons come with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation — it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — and they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half, the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing in a run that got to 26-3 for Toronto, then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

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There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.

Report: Klay Thompson could be interested in Clippers if Warriors don’t max him

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Most everyone has expected that Klay Thompson will return to the Golden State Warriors next season. That seemed even more of a lock after Thompson tore his ACL, which might scare off outside teams.

Thompson is certainly a max-level player, and the Warriors will need to decide whether they are going to offer him that contract this summer. It’s not clear whether Thompson would be willing to take a discount, or if he’s finally ready to cash out in a big way.

Golden State will have a hard time keeping their core intact as everyone continues to get more expensive. Finding some leeway with Thompson’s contract has been seen as one way for the Warriors to at least limit their luxury tax bill.

But according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there are other teams interested in giving Thompson a hefty sum if the Warriors decline to offer him a max deal.

Via ESPN’s “Woj & Lowe” special:

“The one team that I think — my information is — he would be very open to going down to sit down with are the Clippers. And if they have a chance to sell Kawhi Leonard with Klay Thompson, certainly that’s an appealing sell for any free agent.”

It seems unreasonable that the Warriors would not try to max both Thompson and Kevin Durant. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe said as much during their special.

But we have seen made promises to spend in the past, and often that decision has been reversed. Golden State might end up choosing a handful of their core players to keep, and either Durant or Thompson could be left looking elsewhere.

There will be plenty of suitors for either of these guys, and both are still max-level players despite their catastrophic injuries. Whether both, one, or neither will be in San Francisco next year is the question heading into July 1.

Danny Green on fans trying to delegitimize Raptors title in light of Warriors injuries: ‘We don’t care’

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The Toronto Raptors are your 2019 NBA champions. For some folks, this title comes with a caveat thanks to injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Many fans feel as though there should be some kind of asterisk next to their championship in the record books.

This is, frankly, is sour grapes at best and patently insane at worst.

What-ifs are some of the more fun things to contemplate in a league like the NBA, but reality is inescapable. What has come to pass is the truth, and in front of our very eyes we saw the Golden State Warriors go down in six games to Toronto. And should have been five.

Raptors guard at Danny Green shares the same sentiment, saying is much too the New York Times Marc Stein in his newsletter this week. When asked about the prospect of adding an asterisk to the Raptors championship in light of Golden State’s injuries, Green disagreed.

Via NYT:

In a phone interview Monday night, Toronto’s Danny Green forcefully scoffed at the asterisk question before I could even finish the sentence. “We don’t care,” Green said. “Doesn’t matter to us.”

Should I be surprised that this is an actual conversation happening between NBA fans in 2019? Probably not. I’ve been around for too long. But here I am, and the incessant idiocy of excuses remains ever-present.

Now, if only we knew with this kind of certainty where Kawhi Leonard was going to sign this summer.

Report: Rockets to be “aggressive” going after Jimmy Butler, do sign-and-trade with Capela, Gordon

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It is fully expected in league circles that come Sunday evening, when free agency opens, the Philadelphia 76ers are going to offer Jimmy Butler a five-year max contract at $189.7 million. Considering the Sixers are contenders, plus the facts Butler will be 30 next season and has a building history of injuries (not unexpected considering his hard-charging style of play), he may well jump at that offer.

The Houston Rockets are going to try hard to convince him to come to Houston with James Harden and Chris Paul.

That’s been reported for a while, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added details and emphasis to that on Tuesday:

Once free agency starts on Sunday, the Rockets are planning to recruit Jimmy Butler to push the Philadelphia 76ers for a sign-and-trade deal that would allow the All-Star forward to join James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston, league sources tell ESPN.

The Rockets don’t have the salary-cap space to sign Butler, so they’d need the threat of the Sixers losing him for nothing to a team with the available room to motivate Philadelphia into a trade. The Rockets also would potentially need to make this a multiteam deal to satisfy the rules of base year compensation that would cover Butler’s outgoing salary…

Butler would be eligible to sign a four-year, $140 million contract on the way to the Rockets, but Houston likely would need to include two of these players — center Clint Capela, guard Eric Gordon and power forward P.J. Tucker — to make the financial deal work, sources said.

A few thoughts here:

• If Philadelphia balks at giving Butler a fifth guaranteed year on his new contract — which is reasonable, sources from other teams told me they would be scared of the fourth year of a max with him — that could push this closer to reality. If that fifth year is on the table, then Butler has a different choice to make.

• The other question here: Does Butler want out of Philadelphia? Because to head to Houston he would give up guaranteed money and leave a team clearly a contender for a more uncertain situation.

• As noted by Woj, Philly would only agree to a sign-and-trade if Butler told them he was leaving anyway so the Sixers might as well get something for him.

• Under the new CBA, Butler can sign “only” a four-year, $140 million contract for a sign-and-trade, he cannot get that fifth year and the larger raises the Sixers can offer then trade that contract to Houston. A sign-and-trade can only be for what the team receiving the player could have signed him for as a free agent.

• Jimmy Butler, James Harden, and Chris Paul all in one locker room with a lame duck coach. What could possibly go wrong?

• If Butler forced this to happen, it would not be the worst result ever for the Sixers. Eric Gordon would be a great fit (especially if J.J. Redick leaves in free agency) and Capela could be platooned with Joel Embiid up front, or traded for another player the Sixers see as a fit. Capela has real value around the league.

• Houston, however, would be giving up a lot to go all-in for the season the Warriors are down due to injuries (and maybe defections). This trade would hurt Houston’s depth and make them top heavy (how did that work for the Warriors this past Finals?), but with that big three they would need to be mentioned among the contenders in the West, no matter how the rest of free agency shakes out.