Raptors defense plus Pascal Siakam proves too much for Warriors, Toronto wins Game 1

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The Warriors were determined not to let Kawhi Leonard beat them.

Philadelphia and Milwaukee had failed to do just that and they are now home watching these games on television like the rest of us. Leonard has been the best player these playoffs — making his case for “best player in the world” — but Golden State had a plan: trap him off screens, send double teams, and try to force the ball out of his hands. Make someone else beat you. It kind of worked, Leonard had 23 points but shot 35.7 percent and had five assists on the night. He did not dominate.

Except the other Raptors did beat them.

Those Raptors — the guys without a Finals MVP trophy at home — stepped up and shot 54 percent. That was led by Pascal Siakam, who finished with 32 points on 14-of-17 shooting, and was the best player on the floor — on both ends.

As a team, the Raptors shot 39.4 percent from three. More importantly, they continued to play lockdown defense in the halfcourt.

That was enough for Toronto to lead almost from the opening tip and win an entertaining Game 1 at home, 118-109, in front of a raucous crowd.

Toronto now leads the series 1-0. Game 2 is Sunday in Toronto.

This was the kind of win that should boost Toronto’s confidence that they can take this series.

The Raptors did it without their best player needing to take over, because they moved the ball and played as a team.

“They were blitzing Kawhi on the pick-and-roll and allowing the middle of the floor open or they were switching early on the offense,” Marc Gasol said. “We did a good job of moving that ball and finding — I still think we can do a better job on it, but it was good enough.”

Gasol had 20 points on 10 shots and played spectacular defense, showing the Warriors were not just going to play him off the floor as they had done so many bigs before. The Raptors got guys like Danny Green hot again, he was 3-of-7 from three on his way to 11 points.

Most importantly, Toronto locked Golden State down in the halfcourt offense, allowing only 0.83 points per possession in that setting (the Warriors averaged more than a point per possession in the regular season). The Raptors carried over what they did against the Bucks — keeping the pace down, just 96 possessions — and owning the halfcourt defense to give themselves a chance.

Part of the Warriors halfcourt struggles were they turned the ball over, which gave Toronto some easy transition buckets.

“The biggest thing for me was our transition defense was just awful and that’s the game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s the No. 1 priority when you play Toronto, you have to take care of their transition and we gave up 24 fast-break points, we turned it over 17 times. So that’s the game, really.”

Coming off a nine-day layoff, the Warriors are rusty to start, scoring just 21 points in the first quarter on 7-of-23 shooting overall and 3-of-10 from beyond the arc. Shots the Warriors traditionally hit did not fall, and Toronto did a good job contesting Golden State’s actions. The Raptors, however, didn’t take advantage and only up by four after one quarter, 25-21.

That Toronto lead stretched out to 10 at the half — 59-49 — in large part because of Gasol, who had 14 points in the first 24 minutes, hit threes, set solid screens, plus played fantastic pick-and-roll defense showing out high and cutting off angles.

While Leonard and Lowry struggled in the first half (3-of-12 combined) the other starters were 12-of-19, and the Toronto bench shot 5-of-10.

Meanwhile, the Warriors struggled with the combination of impressive Raptors defense and rust. This was their first-half shot chart.

The Warriors never put together the kind of run we have come to expect from them, even in the third quarter, and the Raptors deserve credit for that.

“I think the big thing is you got to continue to play defense all throughout the game,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “Even though you’re trying really hard sometimes and they will come down and they will make you look silly sometimes…. We just said that some of those breakdowns will happen… You get a shot and you try to answer, and you try not to have any droughts on offense, because you know their ability to score quick.”

The Warriors defense also was not sharp at points, with slow closeouts to shooters or allowing cutters to go unguarded in the paint. Toronto was recognizing it and took advantage.

The Raptors were the sharp and better team all night. They earned a 1-0 series lead.

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.