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Serge Ibaka Raptors
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Serge Ibaka says Raptors are ‘locked in’ for restart in Orlando

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Don’t sleep on the defending champions. Yes, Kawhi Leonard went home (and Danny Green went West, too), but Toronto proved to be no one-man show.  The Raptors are the two seed in the East with a 46-18 record, a +6.4 net rating that is fourth-best in the NBA, they have the second-best defense in the league, they have an emergent superstar in Pascal Siakam who is surrounded by other stars such as Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Fred VanVleet. Toronto is playoff tested.

And the Raptors are “locked in” for the NBA restart, according to Serge Ibaka.

Here is what the veteran said in a conference call with reporters on Saturday, via Steven Loung of Sportsnet Canada.

“Mentally, I think we’re ready,” Ibaka said. “Mentally as a team, I can see from everybody, I think mentally we’re ready. We know what is waiting for us out there, now it’s time to get a little bit (of) game condition and then we’ll be good to go…

“I saw just how everyone is in great shape. They came here in great shape and as soon as we got here everyone was starting to put in work,” Ibaka said. “I’ve been in the league for 11 years. You can see when people are locked in and they’re ready mentally, and when they’re not. So I can tell you right now mentally everybody is ready. Everybody is ready.”

Any run to the Finals out of the East goes through Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Raptors have the confidence of having beat them last season. It’s no secret the Raptors want to make a run at  Antetokounmpo in 2021 and a good showing by their young core in this postseason helps the “come join us” pitch (even if it is a longshot). Boston and its emerging young stars — and another elite defense — also are lurking as a threat.

Toronto, however, cannot be overlooked. VanVleet and Gasol are back healthy, Norman Powell has stepped up this season giving the team more depth, and Nick Nurse has been a master of putting players in the right positions to succeed.

Toronto is healthy and, to hear Ibaka tell it, in shape. This is a strong, deep roster that understands what it takes to win in the playoffs. The Raptors have not earned the rights to be favorites in the East heading to Orlando, but sleep on this team at your own risk.

Report: Lakers to sign J.R. Smith

J.R. Smith at Lakers game
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The lasting memory of J.R. Smith in the NBA: Forgetting the score in the NBA Finals.

He’ll have a chance to change the narrative.

The shooting guard is set to reunite with former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James on the Lakers, who won’t have Avery Bradley for the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Smith will turn 35 during the scheduled playoffs. He hasn’t played well in four years.

I wouldn’t expect much.

But Smith has chemistry with LeBron, who excels at attracting attention and dishing to 3-point shooters like Smith. On a good team, Smith won’t face the issues that doomed his finish in Cleveland.

Smith will likely fall behind Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo in Los Angeles’ perimeter rotation. Though Smith might get spot minutes, the Lakers will definitely miss Bradley’s feisty defense. Smith isn’t duplicating that.

Also: Smith, Dion Waiters, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee now all play for the same team. Nay, the same championship contender.

Danny Green says NBA, union talks on restart ‘very up in the air right now’

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Just more than a week ago, National Basketball Players’ Association representatives voted 28-0 to back the concept of the NBA restart plan with 22 teams and to have further negotiations.

That did not speak for all the rank-and-file NBA players, many of whom have serious concerns about the restart plan, such as the impact of a restart on the Black Lives Matter/social justice movements, the injury and health risks, and freedom of movement within the bubble itself. Led by Kyrie Irving (and with other name players such as Dwight Howard and CJ McCollum in their corner), about 80 of those players expressed those issues on a call Friday night.

The NBA and players’ union are still negotiating the restart, and Lakers’ player rep Danny Green described it all as “very up in the air right now.” Green spoke with Mark Medina of the USA Today about all this and the NBA restart in Orlando did not sound as solid as the league has made it seem.

“It’s very up in the air right now. There are still a lot of moving parts. We’re trying to figure that out. We have 80 percent knowledge of how Orlando is going to be. There are still moving parts to figure out, which teams are going to stay where, how they’re going to do it and how they’re operating in the bubble. Right now, the bubble doesn’t seem as effective as they would like or as lenient as we would like. We’ll have to figure it out.”

While there are legitimate concerns about the social justice implications of a return to play, as there are concerns about injuries and health, players are telling the union they are more about life in the bubble and how confining it will be, Green said.

“The biggest concern is for most teams is hotels, who is staying where, the space, friends and family visiting, seeing how they are going to quarantine them, if we’re going to be quarantined and for how long if we leave the bubble. How often testing is going to be?”

The NBA acknowledged these issues in a statement to Marc Stein of the New York Times.

It’s having family, friends, and visitors come into the bubble is one of the biggest issues, Green said. The NBA restart proposal calls for no visitors until after the first round of the playoffs, which would be about 53 days after players arrived in Orlando. At that point, 14 of the 22 teams would be out of the postseason and home, meaning only eight teams would ultimately have friends and family allowed on the “campus” the NBA is creating.

Of course, money plays into the players’ decisions as well. Players do not have to report to Orlando and will not be punished if they stay home, but they also will not be paid for that time.

For each player this is a personal decision — how much health risk are they willing to take on to play, how do they think this will impact Black Lives Matter — but the parameters of what the restart will look like are still being set. Everything is in pencil, nothing is in pen.

When NBA eventually returns to arenas, could there be no courtside seats at first?

No fans NBA games
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The focus on restarting the NBA season has been on the current one: Will there be regular season games? A bubble in Las Vegas? When will it start, and how deep into the summer and fall is the league willing to go? Can the NBA find a way to crown a legitimate champion?

There is another question beyond that: What will the start of the next season look like?

If the 2020-21 season tips off this calendar year, before a vaccine for the coronavirus is widely available, what will games in arenas look like? What will be done to protect both players and the people who sit courtside and come in contact with the players?

It’s possible the NBA would re-open without courtside seats, or maybe with plexiglass up kind of like a hockey game, several people suggest in an interesting story by Adam Aziz at The Undefeated.

“We have to be more informed about the virus, flus, all viruses, so we can better understand how to protect players and fans … I wouldn’t rule plexiglass out,” said Caron Butler, a two-time All-Star who retired from the NBA after the 2015-16 season. “If you told me a year ago the NBA and the world would stop, I would say you are out of your mind.”…

“It is my belief the NBA will return in a three-step process,” said Randy Osei, an entrepreneur and owner of Rozaay Management, which has worked with players such as Danny Green, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Dillon Brooks. “I can see the NBA resuming its condensed season initially with no fans in attendance, then move to no fans courtside or on the floor, and then finally allow fans on the floor but eliminate courtside and row B until the right strenuous screening measures are put into place to protect everyone.”

That progression seems logical (although the NBA and teams are not discussing this, for obvious reasons). Still, it will be strange at first with no fans, then none courtside.

Part of fans’ connection to the NBA is the intimacy of it. Some lucky (and wealthy) fans get to sit courtside and hear what LeBron James is saying to Anthony Davis or listen in on Patrick Beverley‘s trash talk to, well, everyone.

However, for 99 percent of fans that intimacy comes via television cameras, which can zoom in on the exposed faces of the players and allow us to see their expressions and do some lip-reading. That will not change.

But the intimacy of the sport will feel a little different without those fans surrounding the edge of the court.

The NBA is different than football, the fans are closer and there are no helmets. The NBA is different than the NHL, there is no plexiglass separating the players and the fans.

When it returns, the NBA will be and feel a little different, at least at first.


Lakers guard Danny Green optimistic NBA season can be saved

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On his podcast “Inside the Green Room,” Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green expressed optimism the NBA season would resume. Green recorded his latest episode after NBA players had a call with the National Basketball Players Association.

“I think, by any means necessary, we’re going to try and salvage the season,” Green said. “And right now, we’re fighting. Most guys think that for sure we’re going to have a season. It’s just going to start later than we expected. And just trying to get the next season to be pushed back is not going to be as easy as people think it’s going to be. (Resuming this season) is probably going to start in mid-to-late May maybe, that’s what we’re hoping for at the earliest. Or maybe earlier than that, but that’s the earliest we’re looking at, mid-to-late May, and it’ll probably go through August/as late as September I, guess.”

These thoughts from Green are far more positive than recent thoughts given by several others around the NBA.

Broadcasters and league insiders have remained hopeful, but have said the NBA is approaching things with a sense of “realism” about saving the season.

Multiple NBA coaches, from Green’s own coach Frank Vogel to Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, have said they are continuing to prepare as if the season will resume. The coaches who have spoken recently said they are preparing for both a shortened regular season, as well as going right to the NBA Playoffs. Budenholzer said he’s been spending time scouting both the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic, who are likely first-round opponents for the Bucks.