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Raptors dethrone Warriors to win Toronto’s first NBA title

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OAKLAND — In the end, the injuries were too much.

Too much for the emotion of the final night at Oracle Arena — and a deafening crowd — to overcome.

Too much for the greatness Stephen Curry to overcome — although he got a good look at the game-winning shot and just could not get it to fall.

Too much against an outstanding Toronto Raptors team that was resilient all season and came out on fire in Game 6, setting a tone that would lead them win all three games on the road at Oracle Arena in this series. The Raptors were too good, too deep, they had too much Kyle Lowry early, and too much Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard when it mattered.

Toronto made the plays late against a shorthanded Warriors squad and hung on a 114-110 win — giving the Raptors the win and Toronto its first NBA title.

The Raptors accepted the Larry O’Brien trophy in front of hundreds of Toronto fans who had traveled south with the team to witness history. Those fans were loud and had the passion that a first-time champion can inspire.

Leonard — picked up last summer on a huge roll of the dice by GM Masai Ujiri, trading away the franchise’s greatest and most popular player in DeMar DeRozan — was named Finals MVP in a redemptive moment. Leonard has missed all but nine games the previous season with a quad tendon injury, one that had fans and people around the league wondering if he would ever be the same again.

In this series, he looked like the best player on the planet.

Still, a shadow hung over this game.

Warriors’ All-Star Klay Thompson went down in the third quarter with an ugly left knee injury when he was fouled on a dunk. Thompson landed awkwardly then laid on the ground in clear pain. He came back to a huge ovation to take a couple free throws.

However, the Warriors subbed Thompson out after that, and soon he would be ruled out for the night (later an MRI confirmed an ACL tear). It made Thompson a spectator at the end. Just like Kevin Durant (who was in New York recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles suffered in Game 5).

“I mean more than the what-ifs is just feeling bad for the players involved,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Injuries are always part of the NBA season — any professional sport, injuries play a huge role. It’s just the nature of these injuries, the severity of these injuries… But it’s just brutal. It’s just brutal of what these guys have had to deal with and what they’re dealing with right now.”

It wasn’t just Durant and Thompson. Kevon Looney was playing through a fractured collar bone. Andre Iguodala was hobbling with a calf injury. DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t moving well coming off a torn quad. It forced Steve Kerr to reach deep into his bench throw out lineups not ready for the NBA Finals… and yet it almost worked.

Not against these Raptors, however.

Lowry — the face of the Raptors organization now — set the tone early. He was aggressive and red-hot, scoring the game’s first eight points and he finished the first quarter with 15 on 5-of-6 shooting. The Raptors led for much of the first quarter, but eventually Game 6 Thompson showed up, scoring 10 in the frame, and by the end it was 33-32 Raptors in a game where both teams had offensive ratings north of 118.

The second quarter was back and forth, but a theme started to emerge — the Warriors could not slow this Raptors offense, the only way Golden State was going to win was with an offensive avalanche. It was a change because defense had been the Warriors’ calling card through this run of five straight trips to the Finals. Golden State had the best defense in the NBA when this core won its first title in 2014-15, and over the next two seasons they were sixth and second in the league. The D took a step back in the 2017-18 season to 11th in the league during the regular season, but the Warriors cranked it up and had the best defense in the playoffs last season on their way to another title.

This season the Warriors were not the same on that end.

And the Raptors had scorers. Lowry and Siakam each scored 26, while Leonard and Fred VanVleet each had 26. In Game 5 the Raptors thought a their loss at home was largely due to struggling from three, but they were 13-of-33 (39.4 percent) in Game 6.

The Raptors had a 116.5 offensive rating in Game 6, for some perspective that would have been tied for the best regular season average of any team (the Warriors). Toronto attacked the Golden State centers off the dribble and, with the injuries, Steve Kerr ran out of options to counter it.

He ran out of options in this series overall, and Toronto had all the answers. Toronto was the better team and it is the champion.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.