Golden State vs. Toronto: Five things to watch in NBA Finals

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The Golden State Warriors are looking to cement their dynasty status before what will be a summer of change.

The Toronto Raptors are trying to cap off a franchise-best playoff run with the first NBA title ever to go north of the border.

One way or another, NBA history will be made with these NBA Finals, the first ones ever to have games take place outside the United States.

This is also a series with the three players trying to vie for the mythical title of “best player on the planet” with LeBron James having not made the playoffs — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry. It’s a Finals that will feature other great players (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry) and players on the rise such as Pascal Siakam.

Here are the five things to watch that will likely swing this series toward Toronto or Golden State.

1. When does Kevin Durant return?

This is the storyline of the series because it changes everything. Durant is out for Game 1, and while nothing is official (and he did travel with the team) Warriors coach Steve Kerr made it sound like Durant will be out for at least Game 2 Sunday as well. Whether he returns for Game 3 or not may depend in part on what happens in the first two games and how badly the Warriors feel they need him.

With Durant out, Raptors coach Nick Nurse can put Leonard and his physical, elite defense wherever it will do the most damage. Leonard can be on Curry if he gets hot, on Thompson (probably where he starts), Andre Iguodala (so Leonard can help more and be disruptive that way), or whatever causes the Warriors the most trouble. It also means Siakam can cover Green, then switch onto Curry and use his length when the Warriors use their go-to Curry/Green pick-and-roll. The Raptors will be in position to crank up the defensive pressure.

All that goes away when Durant returns. Leonard has to spend the bulk of his time on Durant, which is going to mean more favorable matchups for Curry, Thompson, and Green. Plus, Durant becomes another long, quality defender they can throw at Leonard on the other end (along with Iguodala, Thompson, and Green.

Durant’s return changes a lot in this series, the questions are when will it happen, and where will the series stand when it does.

2. Kawhi Leonard has to continue to be the playmaker he was against Milwaukee.

For the first four games against Milwaukee, Leonard averaged 2.5 assists per game.

However, over the final two games he had 16 assists — it was the best playmaking we had ever seen from Leonard. As the Bucks threw multiple defenders at him, Leonard found his teammates, and they knocked down the shots. The Raptors offense has generally seen less ball movement with Leonard in the game, but not the last two.

That has to continue against the Warriors if the Raptors are going to win.

Leonard is playing as well as anyone in the world right now, but he can’t do this alone. The Warriors are a good defensive team — even better with Durant out — and while Leonard will get his, it will be making sure he finds Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and the rest of the Raptors, and that they hit their shots, that will give Toronto a chance.

Put more simply: The second biggest question in this series is will the Raptors be able to score enough to keep up with the Warriors? Leonard has to be a playmaker for that to happen.

3. Can the Raptors switching defense slow Curry in the pick-and-roll?

To beat the Warriors in a series will require a team that can switch a lot defensively — similar to what the Rockets did a season ago — and the Raptors have the long, athletic roster that can pull that off.

On paper. Yes, they have Leonard, Siakam, Danny Green, and they should get OG Anunoby back this series, all guys built for this kind of switching defense. That said, having the players for it and executing it against the Warriors is another thing. Especially the way Curry is playing right now — and Curry is motivated chasing the Finals MVP he wants so badly.

Of course, the Warriors have a counter. If the Raptors switching defense does work well, expect to see Durant back and more DeMarcus Cousins — those are the guys they lean on to punish switches. They are walking mismatches. By the way, don’t expect to see a lot of Cousins this series, but he can have an impact in short stints.

4. Danny Green has to find his shot.

Danny Green struggled mightily with his shot in the Eastern Conference Finals — he hit just one of his last 15 three-point attempts and was 4-of-23 for the series. Coach Nick Nurse turned to Fred VanVleet off the bench, and in the final couple of games (after VanVleet’s wife had their son), it worked brilliantly as VanVleet was lighting it up.

The problem is the Warriors will light him up. VanVleet is listed at 6’0” while Lowry is 6’1”. Curry and Thompson are 6’3” and 6’7”, respectively, and will shoot right over the top of smaller defenders. Just ask Portland how that works.

Green is 6’6”, meaning he has the kind of size — and plays the kind of defense — the Raptors will need on the perimeter in this series. If he is still slumping and not an offensive threat, the Warriors will be able to help off him and cause more trouble. The Raptors need Green to be a threat teams cannot help off of again.

5. Toronto cannot have one of its historically disastrous Game Ones.

Toronto came into these playoffs with a reputation of blowing Game 1s in ugly fashion — and then lived up to that billing. The Raptors lost big to the Orlando Magic in the first game of the first round. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they led by as many as 13 in the second half but didn’t score on their final seven possessions and blew the chance to steal Game 1 on the road.

Toronto bounced back handily in both of those series to win handily — that will not be the same against the Warriors.

Game 1 sets up well for Toronto: The Raptors are home, the Warriors have been off for nine days and should be rusty, plus there is no Kevin Durant. Toronto needs to win this game, both because of all that and for the confidence — drop Game 1 and the doubts about if they can match up with the Warriors will creep in. This is a different team on a different stage than Toronto has faced before.

The Raptors need to put a little doubt in the mind of the Warriors on Thursday night.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans eliminated from playoff chase; Kings, too

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There was no team hyped like the New Orleans Pelicans heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando. They had Zion Williamson healthy (or so they thought), and they had been playing the best of any of the teams in the playoff chase just before the coronavirus shut the league (and nation) down. A basketball-starved nation dreamed of a LeBron James vs. Zion showdown in the first round.

The reality of the bubble was not so kind to those dreams or New Orleans.

The Pelicans lost to the Spurs on Sunday, 122-113, despite 25 points from Williamson. Combined with the Trail Blazers beating the 76ers 124-121, the Pelicans became mathematically eliminated from reaching the nine seed and getting into a play-in series in the West.

The Pelicans are out of the playoffs. New Orleans will go through the motions of two more games in the bubble, but don’t be surprised if key players rest. The Pelicans went 2-4 in the bubble with offensive struggles holding the team back.

The Sacramento Kings also have been eliminated, extending the franchise’s playoff drought to 14 years. The last time the Kings were in the playoffs was 2006.

The Memphis Grizzlies sit as the eighth seed in the West, with Portland the ninth seed and just half-a-game back. San Antonio (one game back of Memphis) and Phoenix (1.5 games back) are both alive in the playoff chase still.

New Orleans getting eliminated ends J.J. Redick‘s playoff streak at 13 seasons, the longest of any active player and tied for seventh-longest all-time (the record is a tie at 19 between Karl Malone and John Stockton, who did it together). Getting eliminated is what leads to a 1000-mile stare meme.

 

 

 

 

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.

Scoring, three-pointers taken both way up inside NBA restart bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time there was a slate of five or more NBA games on the same day, with every team scoring at least 110 points, was more than 32 years ago.

That is, until the opening of the league’s so-called bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic – where it already has happened twice.

Scoring numbers are soaring inside the NBA’s bubble, where the restarted season is happening at Walt Disney World. Entering Sunday’s games, 17 of the 22 teams inside the bubble were exceeding what had been their scoring averages before the season was suspended on March 11 because of COVID-19.

Games on average have seen nine points more than what had been the norm this season. The number of 3-pointers in each contest – which had been on a record clip when the season got suspended – is up as well. And Indiana’s T.J. Warren, not even a top-50 scorer when the pandemic hit, is leading the bubble in points per game so far, averaging 34.4 and nearly doubling what was his season average.

“T.J. Warren is on a different planet right now,” Pacers guard Victor Oladipo said.

He’s not alone. The bubble is working for just about everybody, or so it seems.

There was a six-game NBA schedule on Feb. 21, 1988, and all the teams playing that night scored at least 110 points. That hadn’t happened, on a day of five or more games, again in the NBA until July 31 – the second day of bubble games. It happened again Saturday.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle says there might be multiple reasons why the numbers are up, but foremost on the list is that the NBA has created an environment where players are comfortable.

“We came from a situation at home where players could only do individual workouts, you know, with a coach with a mask on and rubber gloves,” Carlisle said. “When you walked in the practice facility, you had to clean your shoes. You had to fill out a form, you had to take your temperature, you had do a lot of things and that was before serial testing began. So a lot has gone into this.”

It’s paying off.

Maybe this should have been expected, even after teams went 4 1/2 months without playing a real game during the suspension. Hostile fans aren’t screaming at and distracting shooters in the bubble. Nobody is weary from a long flight the night before. And the conditions inside the three different game arenas at Disney – from the lighting to the temperature – are relatively close to identical.

“Obviously, even though we are playing on different courts, they all kind of feel like the same arena,” Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez said. “It’s not like we’re going from Milwaukee to Philly, Miami, back to Milwaukee or anything like that. It’s pretty consistent in that regard.”

Only five teams – New Orleans, Toronto, Washington, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers – entered Sunday with a lower average in the bubble than they had before coming to Disney.

“It’s a very weird dynamic,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time. It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in.”

Put simply, it is taking a ton of points to win. Entering the bubble, San Antonio had been 58-5 under coach Gregg Popovich when scoring 125 points or more; the Spurs are 0-2 at Disney when scoring that many. And entering Sunday, there had been 54 games completed in the bubble – with the winning team scoring at least 100 points in all 54 of them.

“I think shooting travels,” New Orleans’ J.J. Redick said. “If you can make shots, you can make shots. … I’ve shot in high school gyms. I’ve shot in civic centers. I’ve shot in arenas. I’ve shot in basements of Catholic administrative buildings. If you can make shots, you can make shots.”

Carlisle has another theory or explanation that can’t be argued: Wherever they are, bubble or no bubble, pandemic or no pandemic, NBA players in this era can score from practically anywhere.

“To me, it’s just the level of aggression of the players,” Carlisle said. “And the fact that, you know, the skill sets of NBA players are increasing exponentially by the month. I mean, it’s just getting harder and harder to guard these guys. There’s a high level of enthusiasm. The closeness of the games has been crazy to watch. It’s just been a very special time here – even though it’s been quite unusual.”