Fred VanVleet

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.

The time Kyle Lowry sat on multiple courts to halt Raptors practice

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Kyle Lowry is endearingly competitive and stubborn and difficult.

Especially during a Raptors practice at UCLA during the 2017-18 season.

Lowry’s teammates that year, DeMar DeRozan and Fred VanVleet, told the story on Instagram (warning: profanity in video).

VanVleet:

I tell people that story all the time. People who don’t know the NBA, I be like, “This is the NBA right here.” I tell people that story all the time.

I don’t think he wanted to practice, first. Let’s just say that.

So, we played L.A. We stayed. We go out – most of us. I don’t know who all went. Some of us went out. Most of the young guys.

But the next day – that was our bench mob year – the next day, we started playing five-on-five. Casey put the time up. We’re busting y’all ass like crazy, by like 20 in five minutes. Coach is tripping.

He ain’t really engaged, so Casey tried to take him out. He’s like, “Nah, I ain’t coming out.” So the man is sitting down Indian style. The man is sitting down criss-cross applesauce on the court like, “If I’m out, practice is over.”

DeRozan:

He tell us to go to the next court. Remember, he said, “Go to the next court. We’re going to keep playing.” The motherf—er took the ball and said, “If I ain’t practicing, nobody practicing.”

I swear to god, that’s one of my favorite Low stories.

VanVleet:

That’s all-time. That’s definitely all-time.

DeRozan:

He took the ball and, “If I ain’t practicing, ain’t nobody practicing.”

VanVleet:

At no level ever in life have I ever seen anything like that. I was like, “Yo, this is the NBA dog?” But people don’t understand, you’ve got to manage them people. Y’all are some crazy dudes, man.

Michael Grange of Sportsnet filled in some of the details:

This reminds me of the time Andrew Bynum infamously shot every time he touched the balleven from halfcourt – during a Cavaliers practice.

The big difference: Lowry is a winner, and Bynum was a malcontent. Though it’d be easy to spin this story as a negative for Lowry, he gets and deserves the benefit of the doubt.

I bet even then-Raptors coach Dwane Casey – who butted heads with Lowry before developing a stronger bond – was at least somewhat charmed by Lowry’s rebelliousness. Though maybe not at the time.

Raptors’ Fred VanVleet says odds are against NBA resuming season

Fred VanVleet
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TORONTO — Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet is bracing for the suspended NBA season not to resume and if it does, he isn’t convinced health concerns can be adequately addressed as long as the coronavirus pandemic remains a threat.

“I think everybody is just preparing for the worst-case scenario, the season being canceled,” Van Vleet said in a conference call Wednesday. “We have to do what we have to do to try to shoulder the hit as best we can for us as players and owners and the league, while also working to try to resume as best we can.”

Speaking from his home in Rockford, Illinois, VanVleet – a self-described skeptic – questioned whether a return to action could be carried out safely, and said he doesn’t relish the idea of playing in front of empty arenas.

“I could play anywhere,” he said. “Do I want to play in front of no people? No, but does it really matter? At this point, I don’t think anybody is going to have a quarrel with what happens, as long as people’s health is first and foremost, which we know it probably won’t be.

“If our league is going to be a leader in terms of public health and public safety and player safety, you’ve got to follow the guidelines of what the virus is speaking to you, so the odds are probably against us in terms of that,” VanVleet added. “But money, right? So, I think they’ll find a way somehow, some way and try to make it happen. I could definitely see it going either way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t come back and I wouldn’t be surprised if we do come back.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said player safety will be a top priority in whatever decision is made about this season while stressing that everything is on the table. After last week’s Board of Governors meeting, Silver said “when you’re dealing with human life, that trumps anything else we could possibly talk about.”

Chris Paul, the Oklahoma City guard and president of the National Basketball Players Association, has spoken with Silver often since the shutdown. Paul said Wednesday that the union and the league are seeking answers, but they just don’t exist yet.

“This is a situation where no one knows,” Paul said. “The virus is actually in complete control.”

The coronavirus pandemic also will also have an impact on free agency.

VanVleet was set for free agency this summer and acknowledged that he’s thought about it, but said he tries to keep it in perspective during the pandemic. He was averaging career-highs of 17.6 points and 6.6 assists in 48 games before play was suspended in March.

“I think the league and the union will try to do a good job to make sure that the free agents this summer get a fair shake and there’s fair negotiating,” said VanVleet, who signed a two-year, $18-million deal to stay with Toronto before the 2018-19 season, when the Raptors won their first NBA title. “Obviously, we’ll probably all take a hit at some point, and hopefully the hit is just kind of minimized to this year.”

Still, VanVleet was philosophical about the impact of lost wages for star athletes in an environment where millions of people worldwide are suddenly facing far more serious financial hardships.

“I think people’s health and well being, and frame of mind, is a lot more important than a couple of million here or there, because we’re filthy rich compared to what we came from in the first place,” he said. “So I don’t think anybody’s crying over it.”

Mock NBA expansion draft: Celtics, Nets, Knicks, 76ers, Raptors

Mock NBA expansion draft
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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division. Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Atlantic:

Boston Celtics

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 7

Ineligible – 0

Analysis: Boston’s decisions are fairly cut and dry. Jayson Tatum, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and Robert Williams are all on their rookie-scale contracts. Jaylen Brown will be starting a four-year contract extension. Kemba Walker was just signed to a max contract. Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are good values and key rotation players.

The toughest decision was on Gordon Hayward. Carrying a salary over $34 million, the Celtics are betting he’ll go undrafted and will return to the team. Everyone else was a fairly easy decision to leave unprotected.

Brooklyn Nets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Nets are keeping their big four in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Jarrett Allen is still on his rookie-scale contract, so that’s an easy decision. With over $101 million on the books for just Durant, Irving, Dinwiddie and LeVert, Nicolas Claxton and Rodions Kurucs help bring some low-cost upside to the back-end of the roster.

DeAndre Jordan will likely go unselected, given his age and $30 million-plus owed through 2022-23. If Jordan is selected, Brooklyn can bank some potential luxury tax savings down the line. Taurean Prince was on the fence, but given his disappointing play this season, and lack of fit in a lineup featuring Durant, the Nets will take their chances he’ll be selected.

New York Knicks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 6

Ineligible – 1

  • Maurice Harkless

Analysis: The Knicks are clearing the decks for a run at free agency this summer. The expansion draft could only help along that way. New York is protecting their young players with upside, as well as Julius Randle, last year’s big free agent addition. The Knicks are also protecting Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier. Not out of fear of losing them, but in hopes that either of the expansion teams will select a bigger salary and take it off the New York cap sheet.

Dennis Smith Jr. was the only questionable player to leave unprotected, but $5.7 million is simply too much for a player out of the rotation. The other five players aren’t part of the future in New York, so that decision was easy.

Philadelphia 76ers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: Philadelphia’s decisions make themselves. The highly paid players are key rotation players. Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton are steals on minimum contracts. Matisse Thybulle is only entering year two of his rookie scale deal. Zhaire Smith was on the bubble, but he’s young enough, and under team control, that he’s worth protecting.

Al Horford is very unprotected. His signing simply hasn’t worked out for the Sixers. He’s a player Philadelphia is open to talking about a trade with either of the expansion teams. With an extra first-round pick, the 76ers hope to dangle it to entice a team to select Horford.

Toronto Raptors

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: The Raptors don’t have to expose any of their core rotation players in the expansion draft. Up front, Pascal Siakam just inked his contract extension, and OG Anunoby is still on his rookie scale deal. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are all free agents. In the backcourt, Toronto can protect Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, along with undrafted find Terence Davis. And Fred VanVleet is a free agent.

The leaves just a handful of players who don’t have a role for the Raptors. Toronto could even entertain offering a second-round pick to entice either expansion team to select Stanley Johnson and take his $3.8 million off the cap/tax.

Best in the East by far, Giannis Antetokounmpo leads Bucks past Raptors 108-97

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TORONTO — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 19 points and 19 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 22 points and the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Toronto Raptors 108-97 on Tuesday night in a matchup between the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Eric Bledsoe scored 17 points and Brook Lopez had 15 as the NBA-leading Bucks won their fifth straight and 18th of 20. Milwaukee (50-8) was playing the second game of a back-to-back after winning in overtime at Washington Monday.

Antetokounmpo finished with eight assists, narrowly missing a triple-double.

Behind by 12 points late in the second quarter, the Bucks rallied to beat the Raptors in their first game in Toronto since losing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last May, completing a disappointing collapse after winning the first two games of that series at home.

The Bucks beat the Raptors 115-105 when the teams met in Milwaukee on Nov. 2. They’ll face each other again in consecutive games on April 1 and 3.

Pascal Siakam scored 22 points and Fred VanVleet had 14 as the defending NBA champion Raptors lost for the second time in 19 games. Toronto was beaten at home for the first time since Jan. 12 against San Antonio, ending a nine-game run.

It was a rough night for Raptors starters Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. Ibaka made 2 of 15 shots and Lowry shot 2 for 12. Ibaka went 1 for 10 from 3-point range while Lowry was 1 for 7.

Lowry, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher all scored 10 points for the Raptors.

Toronto trailed 84-71 to begin the fourth, but Davis scored five points as the Raptors closed the gap with a 7-0 spurt over the first 90 seconds of the final quarter.

VanVleet’s four-point play with 2:23 left cut it to 101-94, and the Raptors forced a steal on Milwaukee’s next possession but VanVleet missed a 3. Antetokounmpo hit a 3 at the other end, restoring the double-digit advantage.

Six of Toronto’s 10 field goals in the first quarter were 3-pointers, including a pair from Siakam. The Raptors led 27-25 after one.

Toronto was up 51-39, its biggest lead of the game, after OG Anunoby dunked over Antetokounmpo with 2:58 to go in the second. Milwaukee closed the quarter with an 11-1 spurt, cutting the deficit to 52-50 at halftime.

After missing 10 of 11 attempts from 3-point range in the second, the Bucks hit three in a row from distance during their closing surge. All five of Antetokounmpo’s points in the quarter came during that stretch.

Middleton made just one of five shots in the first half but went 3 for 3 in the third and scored nine points as the Bucks outscored the Raptors 34-19 to take an 84-71 lead into the fourth.