Eric Bledsoe

Three things Warriors must do vs. Raptors in NBA Finals

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It seems that many believe that the Golden State Warriors are on their way to a third-straight NBA championship. They need to dispatch Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals first, but Golden State is still the overwhelming favorite in the season-ending postseason series.

The Raptors have shown surprising resilience, most recently in the Eastern Conference Finals against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Leonard and his band of merry men beat the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, and it appeared that Nick Nurse created an excellent game plan to combat the league’s likely MVP.

With Leonard on another level, and with Toronto’s coaching staff ready to take on the biggest challenge in the NBA, it’s not a given that Golden State will win another NBA title. Now is the time for maximum effort, and no doubt Steve Kerr’s squad will give it.

That being said, here are three things the Warriors need to do in order to beat the Raptors and take home the Larry O’Brien.

Set solid screens

This seems sort of obvious, but looking at game tape and analyzing Stephen Curry‘s worst performances of the year, one of the best things that the Warriors can do is set solid screens. Curry has struggled from the 3-point line this season only when players are able to effectively fight over the top of the Warriors screens.

The Portland Trail Blazers did a poor job of this over the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, and many thought that Curry’s onslaught was a result of Enes Kanter sitting back laughably low in the paint, particularly in Game 1. Instead, it was really the fault of the Portland guards and wings — Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — who were hung up on great Golden State screens.

Curry doesn’t struggle from 3-point range often, but many of Golden State’s awkward losses over the regular season — Orlando, Utah, Phoenix — have come when he has shot poorly and in volume from the arc. There’s no surefire way to stop him, but Toronto’s best shot is putting pressure over the top and trying to force Curry into no man’s land around 12 feet. Golden State can’t let Toronto’s athleticism get to its shooters, and they’ll need to watch tape to see what Nurse’s staff did to slow down Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton.

Stop everyone outside of Kawhi

At this point it seems like Kawhi Leonard is inevitable. The Raptors forward is playing well, so much so that Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers compared him to Michael Jordan. Leonard has been the best player of these playoffs so far, and when the Bucks were successful against Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was because Leonard wasn’t getting any help.

Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam are all susceptible to wild undulations in performance. Just a few short weeks ago people were complaining about having to watch Toronto, with an inferior roster, potentially drag down Leonard. Now that supporting cast is playing better, and those qualms have quieted. That doesn’t change the fact that Toronto is far less talented than Golden State, and its role players less reliable.

Finding a way to stop the Raptors’ new passing and 3-point attack will be crucial for Steve Kerr and defensive assistant Ron Adams. It helps that Danny Green is already in a slump, but it could be helpful to get role players uncomfortable and out of position so they can’t fire away from deep.

Leonard can’t beat the Warriors by himself, and it’s going to be easier to shut down the VanVleets and Gasols on their roster than The Klaw himself.

Let Draymond run

That brings us to our final point, and that’s the single-man fastbreak ability of Draymond Green. Against the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, Green was able to break the spirits of Portland by taking defensive rebounds deep into the opponent halfcourt all by himself.

The threat of Green’s speedy attack kept the Blazers from being able to crash the offensive glass effectively as a wing unit, and it also put Portland and a bit of foul trouble. Toronto is not the most disciplined team in the NBA, and Green could cause havoc for younger defenders in Siakam and OG Anunoby should the latter be able to return and play. That’s to say nothing of the effect Green’s running ability would have when the older Gasol or Serge Ibaka is on the floor.

Green is clearly in the best shape of any player on the Warriors roster at this moment, and he has used that to his advantage. When players have slowed down in the fourth quarter this postseason, that’s when he has shifted into his sixth and final gear. It’s unlikely that Kerr will officially program Green’s spurts into the offense, but it might be a tactic that he deploys either early in games to get Toronto off balance, or late in fourth quarters to break a tired Raptors finishing unit.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to NBA Finals

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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history DeMar DeRozan to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse mixed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays when he needed to.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments, and when he couldn’t get to the rim at will his lack of a jump shot he has confidence in showed. Those kinds of lessons come with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation — it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — and they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half, the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing in a run that got to 26-3 for Toronto, then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starting lineup is -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — was -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

On Thursday night, it was the Raptors’ bench that sparked the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

In the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, it was the Milwaukee bench led by Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill that played better and propelled their side to wins. That has flipped in the last three games, it’s been all Raptors after the starters.

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one — except Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Raptors beat Bucks, are one win away from first-ever NBA Finals

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The Toronto Raptors now lead the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, 3-2.

Thursday night’s matchup marked a three-game winning streak by the Raptors against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference to take a series lead. Kawhi Leonard & Co. now have the chance to close out Giannis Antetokounmpo back in Ontario for Game 6 on Saturday.

Much of Toronto’s success against Milwaukee in Game 5 was predicated by the same thing that got them through Games 3 and 4. Defense was incredibly important for the Raptors, who again collapsed on Antetokounmpo and pressured the shaky Bucks shooters into poor shots at the arc. Milwaukee shot just 32.3 percent from the 3-point line. Once again, both Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon struggled, combining to go 4-of-13 from deep.

Antetokounmpo had a better shooting night then he had in Game 4, but he scored just 24 points to go with six rebounds and six assists. The Greek Freak was not the same kind of impact player that he was in the first two games, and Nick Nurse forced Milwaukee to rely on its supporting cast yet again.

To that end, Khris Middleton had just six points on 2-of-9 shooting, although he did grab 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Milwaukee’s bench was awful for the second game in a row — Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova scored zero points on five shots in 20 minutes.

Much to the delight of Raptors fans, Toronto’s supporting cast rose to Leonard’s level. Pascal Siakam, who didn’t shoot well, scored 14 points with 10 rebounds and three blocks. Kyle Lowry had a solid playoff performance of 17 points on 4-of-11 shooting to go with seven rebounds and six assists.

Most surprising was Fred VanVleet, who played 37 minutes off the bench to the tune of 21 points — all from 3-point shots. VanVleet has been uneven this postseason, but Danny Green had such a poor outing on Thursday (he scored zero points as well) that it was necessary to play VanVleet heavily. Thankfully for Toronto, it worked out.

As a team the Raptors limited turnovers to just six, shooting an incredible 41.9 percent from the 3-point line thanks in large part to Leonard and VanVleet.

The momentum has shifted significantly in this series, and it has much to do with the coaching changes that Nurse has made to pinpoint the inequities in Milwaukee’s lineup. It also seems like the Bucks have gone cold at just the wrong time, and coach Mike Budenholzer will need to come up with some serious strategy to be able to combat Toronto and stave off elimination. The series heads back to Ontario for Game 6 on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. when the Raptors can close the series at home at Scotiabank Arena for their first-ever NBA Finals berth.

The Raptors beat the Bucks in Game 5, 105-99.

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

Drake responded on Instagram, first with a post that had a series of emojies, and then during an Instagram Live post where he liked a comment to his post where part of it was: “If you don’t want the opposing team to celebrate and dance, prevent them from scoring, winning, or achieving their objective.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.