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Three things Raptors need to do to beat Warriors

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The Toronto Raptors are not just happy to be here.

From the moment they finally got over the hump and won the Eastern Conference Finals, the team has followed the lead of Kawhi Leonard and been focused and looking ahead. Nobody would blame them for celebrating making the Finals — their fans sure did — but the Raptors as a team have been focused.

Toronto has a shot at winning this series.

They are not the favorites (nor should they be against the two-time defending champs), but the Raptors have the pieces to push and maybe even beat the Warriors. They have little margin for error. They need Leonard to continue to be dominant on both ends, including keeping up his improved playmaking. They need the secondary players — Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, etc. — to not be hesitant and knock down shots. The bench needs to play like it did the last two games against Milwaukee with Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell knocking down threes. And that halfcourt defense that was so good against Milwaukee has to be great again — and they need to keep playing that hard on defense even as Golden State scores in bunches. Because it will. Toronto can’t let up.

Here are three other, less obvious things the Rockets need to do to dethrone the Warriors.

• Attack Golden State’s centers on switches in the pick-and-roll.

The Warriors role out a group of long, switchable defenders with Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green (plus Kevin Durant if/when he returns). The Raptors need to create mismatches with the other guys on the court and attack. For example, have Stephen Curry’s man set the screen for Leonard and try to force that switch (and the help that would follow).

The other place to attack is the Warriors big men — if Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, DeMarcus Cousins (when he returns), or Andrew Bogut get switched onto Lowry or Leonard, the Raptors need to attack that. Fast. The Warriors big men cannot match up.

Golden State will likely counter this with traps, particularly against Leonard to force the ball out of his hands. He has to be a playmaker there, then trust Gasol as a secondary playmaker in a 4-on-3, or get the ball to other shooters, and the Raptors need to make the Warriors pay for that trap.

Danny Green has to break out of his shooting slump and stay on the court.

Against the Bucks last round, as Danny Green struggled with his shot — he hit just one of his last 15 three-point attempts — Nick Nurse could turn to VanVleet and the bench. The final couple of games (after VanVleet’s wife had their son) he 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” and will shoot right over the top of smaller defenders. Just ask Portland.

Green, at 6’6” is the kind of size and plays the type of defense the Raptors will need to have a shot 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.

• Toronto cannot have another of its disastrous Game 1s.

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

Toronto bounced back to beat Orlando and Milwaukee. It will be far tougher to dig out of that hole against Golden State.

Game 1 sets up for Toronto: At home, Golden State has been off for nine days and should be rusty, and no Kevin Durant. This is one Toronto needs to have confidence in this series. Lose this one and the Warriors will smell blood in the water.

Derrick White didn’t lose teeth, passes concussion test after nasty fall in USA loss

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There were plenty of ugly things for Team USA in its loss to Australia on Saturday — most of them on the defensive end — but later in the day on Saturday there was some good news.

It sounds like point guard Derrick White will be fine after his nasty fall and face plant during the game, reports Tom Osborne of the San Antonio Express-News.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, White was pushing the ball upcourt after an Australia miss and either got clipped from behind — there was a foul called — or stumbled over his own feet. I lean clipped, but the video is not conclusive.

White fell and faceplanted, with his head bouncing off the court. If he got away with just stitches, that’s good news for Team USA. If White had a concussion it is possible he would have missed the start of the World Cup, and the USA is not deep at the point guard spot on this roster (Kemba Walker and White are the only true point guards, a couple of players such as Marcus Smart can play a few minutes there but aren’t really suited to the position).

Team USA has one more exhibition game against Canada, then opens World Cup play on Sept. 1 in China against the Czech Republic.

Grizzlies officially waive Dwight Howard, first step on his path to Lakers

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Lakers fans are uncomfortable with it, but the Lakers did a good job hedging their bet with a non-guaranteed contract: Dwight Howard is coming to the Lakers.

That process started on Saturday with the Grizzlies officially waiving Howard.

In theory, any team could claim Howard off waivers. In practice, no team is picking up his full $5.6 million salary.

Howard gave back $2.6 million in his buyout with the Grizzlies, which is exactly how much his veteran minimum contract with the Lakers will pay him.

Howard and JaVale McGee will have to tag team to play all the minutes at the five the Lakers need. Anthony Davis is their best center (and it’s not close, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA) but he wants to play the four most of the game, so for 30 minutes a night the Lakers need another big body at the five.

Howard has the potential to fill that role. For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy those years just playing that defense/set-a-pick-and-roll/rebound role. He wanted more touches and particularly in the post, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role. It’s why he bounced around. Then last season he played just nine games due to more back and hamstring issues.

Howard is saying all the right things about accepting that role, and he convinced the Lakers to a degree, but that non-guaranteed contract shows the Lakers go into this eyes wide open. If Howard is up to his old antics, the Lakers can cut bait and move on.

It’s among the many things to watch in what should be an entertaining Lakers’ training camp this year.

On Mamba Day (8/24), former Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti talks about what made Kobe great

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Kobe Bryant’s work ethic is legend.

It takes talent to become an MVP, 15-time All-NBA, 18-time All-Star, and lock future Hall of Famer. However, it was how Kobe got the most out of his talent that separated him from his peers. Long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti retired a couple of years ago and will soon publish an autobiography, “32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House: What I Learned about Happiness, Greatness, Leadership and the Evolution of Sports Science.”

Vitti joined Hall of Fame photographer Andrew D. Bernstein this week on an episode of Legends of Sport to discuss his upcoming book, and he talked about Kobe (hat tip to CNBC).

“He was talented, but what if I told you he wasn’t the most talented guy out there? I’m telling you, and I’ve had them all, there’s nothing really special about Kobe. I mean he’s a big guy, but he’s not that big. He was quick, but he’s not that quick. He’s fast, he wasn’t that fast. He was powerful, but he wasn’t that powerful. I mean, there were other players that had more talent than he did, so what was there about him that more talented players had zero rings and he ended up with five?…

“He was tough in the sense that he took ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon and he just believed that he could do it. Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent.”

Nobody in NBA history did as much with the talent they had as Kobe.

On Mamba Day, enjoy his ultimate mixtape highlights above and remember what it took for Kobe to get there.

 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: ‘I am not Russell Westbrook. I’m just going to try to be myself.’

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Thunder fans are going to love Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Clippers did not want to give him up in the Paul George trade but had no real choice — Gilgeous-Alexander was a prize get for OKC. As a rookie last season he started 73 games, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game for a 48-win playoff team. Playing the most difficult position to learn in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander grew as the season wore on and has a promising future.

But he is taking over for Russell Westbrook as the point guard for the Thunder, so the comparisons are inevitable. Even though they have radically different games. Gilgeous-Alexander handled the question well when asked, as reported by Erik Horne at The Oklahoman.

Gilgeous-Alexander smiled and said he could compete with Westbrook’s fashion sense. He also deflected any notion of pressure to live up to the legacy of the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player. “He set the bar pretty high,” Gilgeous-Alexander said…

“I am not Russell Westbrook,” Gilgeous-Alexander said with no malice. “I do not have the same name, same body type, stuff like that. So, I’m just going to try to be myself and be the best me and everything else will take care of itself.

“I’m just a basketball player. Regardless of the situation, I’m going to continue to work hard and play my game. I know that eventually it will come out. I don’t worry about starting. I’m not worried about accolades or things like that. I just work hard, keep my head down and (stay) true to who I am.”

That attitude is part of why Thunder fans will love him. Gilgeous-Alexander is confident but not cocky, and he knows his game.

That game is more traditional point guard, more game manager, than the dynamic and explosive Westbrook. Gilgeous-Alexander learned for a season under a smart, player-friendly coach in Doc Rivers, who built his point guard’s confidence up as the season wore on. Rivers showed the rookie how to be a professional, how to prepare, and most of all trusted Gilgeous-Alexander — and that trust included being matched up on Stephen Curry in a playoff series. Through it all, Gilgeous-Alexander showed real promise.

Whatever is next in Oklahoma City — and there is a lot of rebuilding to do with that roster, a lot of picks to be made still — Gilgeous-Alexander can help lead it. He will be at the heart of what is next for the Thunder.

Just don’t expect him to be Westbrook. There is only one of those.