Norman Powell

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Durant. Oracle. Warriors have a lot to play for in Game 6, but is it enough?

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OAKLAND — “We do it for Kevin.”

That was Klay Thompson’s assessment of Golden State’s motivation after the two-time Finals MVP went down with a torn Achilles.

Thursday night also will be the final Warriors game inside Oracle Arena. Ever. After 47 years in the gritty, loud building in the heart of Oakland, the team will pack up and move to a glitzy, expensive new arena in the middle of San Francisco next season. Thursday night is a chance to exit Oracle and Oakland in style.

“This has been just an incredible environment in which to coach, and play back in the day,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Even when the Warriors weren’t any good, to come in here as a visitor and feel the energy in this building, you could tell that the fans loved the game. This was a basketball hotbed. And just the atmosphere out there, the energy, the noise, over the last five years with our team’s rise, combined with that organic energy that this place has always had, it’s just been an incredible experience to coach here.”

Throw in the fact that the Warriors still have their backs up against the wall, down 3-2 in these NBA Finals, and it’s obvious Golden State has a lot to play for.

This is the Warriors’ last stand in Oakland.

Will that be enough?

It’s going to take more than motivation for Golden State to force a Game 7.

The simple fact is the Toronto Raptors have been the better team in this series — including taking the two Finals games played at Oracle already. Toronto has won 14 of the 20 quarters played this series, the Warriors four (two were tied). One of those Warriors quarters was the first quarter of Game 5, when Durant was playing.

This will have to be another Splash Brothers’ game. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 12-of-27 from three in Game 5 — including three makes from beyond the arc in the final three minutes to secure the win. The pair combined 57 points. It was a game that added to their legacy and fueled a Warriors team that shot 20-of-42 from deep.

The Splash Brothers will have to do it again, this time against a Raptors team that knows it needs to be better dialed in on defense.

“We don’t want to give up that many to those guys…” Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse said of Curry and Thompson’s 27 threes. “Still, we got to figure out a way to control those two. There’s transition. There are pin downs. They’re excellent at pushing off to create space. Their screens are long, wide and moving that they’re coming around a lot. So you got to work doubly, triply hard sometimes. You got to absorb contact at the start. You got to absorb contact coming off the screen. Sometimes you put two on the ball screens. There’s lots of stuff going on out there. But we do need to do better.”

Expect to see a lot of the Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll, because the Raptors (like pretty much the entire league) have not been able to slow that play down.

DeMarcus Cousins also is going to have to have another good game. Cousins had 14 points and six rebounds in Game 5, stepping up when Durant went down and providing an offensive spark. Cousins needs to score like that to balance things out because the Raptors are attacking him on defense — both Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry had success in the second half going right at Cousins off switches and picks.

How much Cousins plays depends on what Kevon Looney can give, Looney is questionable but likely will again try to play through the pain of his fractured collarbone.

Green also has to have a huge impact on both ends of the court for the Warriors to win.

For Toronto, their bigs — Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka — need to have strong defensive games because they have become a place the Warriors have attacked.

One other thing to watch: How does Pascal Siakam respond to being benched the final nine minutes of Game 5? Norman Powell was getting some of those minutes, and that’s a tradeoff the Warriors will take.

It’s hard to imagine the Warriors dropping a closeout game — both for the series and the arena — at home on Thursday night… then again, it was hard to imagine the Warriors losing Games 3 and 4.

This is an elite Raptors defense that has smothered the Warriors in the halfcourt most of this series. The Warriors need transition buckets, and they need some breaks and baskets in the halfcourt.

If not, well, the story of Oracle may not have a fairytale ending.

Three things Raptors need to do to beat Warriors

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The Toronto Raptors are not just happy to be here.

From the moment they finally got over the hump and won the Eastern Conference Finals, the team has followed the lead of Kawhi Leonard and been focused and looking ahead. Nobody would blame them for celebrating making the Finals — their fans sure did — but the Raptors as a team have been focused.

Toronto has a shot at winning this series.

They are not the favorites (nor should they be against the two-time defending champs), but the Raptors have the pieces to push and maybe even beat the Warriors. They have little margin for error. They need Leonard to continue to be dominant on both ends, including keeping up his improved playmaking. They need the secondary players — Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, etc. — to not be hesitant and knock down shots. The bench needs to play like it did the last two games against Milwaukee with Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell knocking down threes. And that halfcourt defense that was so good against Milwaukee has to be great again — and they need to keep playing that hard on defense even as Golden State scores in bunches. Because it will. Toronto can’t let up.

Here are three other, less obvious things the Rockets need to do to dethrone the Warriors.

• Attack Golden State’s centers on switches in the pick-and-roll.

The Warriors role out a group of long, switchable defenders with Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green (plus Kevin Durant if/when he returns). The Raptors need to create mismatches with the other guys on the court and attack. For example, have Stephen Curry’s man set the screen for Leonard and try to force that switch (and the help that would follow).

The other place to attack is the Warriors big men — if Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell, DeMarcus Cousins (when he returns), or Andrew Bogut get switched onto Lowry or Leonard, the Raptors need to attack that. Fast. The Warriors big men cannot match up.

Golden State will likely counter this with traps, particularly against Leonard to force the ball out of his hands. He has to be a playmaker there, then trust Gasol as a secondary playmaker in a 4-on-3, or get the ball to other shooters, and the Raptors need to make the Warriors pay for that trap.

Danny Green has to break out of his shooting slump and stay on the court.

Against the Bucks last round, as Danny Green struggled with his shot — he hit just one of his last 15 three-point attempts — Nick Nurse could turn to VanVleet and the bench. The final couple of games (after VanVleet’s wife had their son) he was lighting it up.

The problem is the Warriors will light him up. VanVleet is listed at 6’0” while Lowry is 6’1”. Curry and Thompson are 6’3” and 6’7” and will shoot right over the top of smaller defenders. Just ask Portland.

Green, at 6’6” is the kind of size and plays the type of defense the Raptors will need to have a shot in this series. If he is still slumping and not an offensive threat, the Warriors will be able to help off him and cause more trouble.

• Toronto cannot have another of its disastrous Game 1s.

Toronto came into these playoffs with a reputation of blowing Game 1s in ugly fashion — and it has lived up to that billing. The Raptors lost to the Magic in the first game of the first round. This past round, they led by as many as 13 but didn’t score on their final seven possessions and blew the chance to steal Game 1 on the road.

Toronto bounced back to beat Orlando and Milwaukee. It will be far tougher to dig out of that hole against Golden State.

Game 1 sets up for Toronto: At home, Golden State has been off for nine days and should be rusty, and no Kevin Durant. This is one Toronto needs to have confidence in this series. Lose this one and the Warriors will smell blood in the water.

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’ halfcourt defense, big games from Gasol, Lowry evens series with Bucks

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Slow your roll on “these Bucks can challenge Warriors” takes…

They are going to have to get out of the East, first. And that is proving to be more difficult than it looked after two games.

Back home in Toronto, the Raptors slowed the game’s pace down and used an impressive halfcourt defense — the Bucks scored less than a point per possession when transition was taken away — to control this game. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Khris Middleton added 30 points, but outside those two the Bucks shot 35.4 percent and had just 13 fast break points. It all kept the Bucks offense relatively in check.

Relatively is good enough when everyone is hitting their shots.

Kawhi Leonard had a quiet 19 points, although he did have the dunk of the playoffs all over Antetokounmpo.

Leonard didn’t have to carry the team because everyone in white seemed to be knocking down their shots. Kyle Lowry had 25 points on 11 shots, Marc Gasol had 17 (and his aggressive offense the last two games has stressed the Bucks defense), Norman Powell had 18, Serge Ibaka 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Fred VanVleet had 13 points on six shots. The Raptors bench scored 48 points. Leonard (or Lowry) would draw attention on drives, but when the ball was kicked out and swung around, the open man didn’t hesitate and rarely missed.

All that led to a 120-102 Raptors win where Toronto was in control most of the way.

The series is now tied 2-2 and heads back to Milwaukee where the best-of-three left starts.

The Raptors continue to defend well in the halfcourt, with the Bucks scoring less than a point per possession (0.93) this game. In three of the four games, the Bucks have scored less than a point per possession in the halfcourt, but that only really matters if they can keep Milwaukee out of transition. The Raptors did that at home in a game with just 96 possessions, the fewest in this series (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Individually, Milwaukee and Mike Budenholzer have leaned on Nikola Mirotic more in recent games, and the Raptors are now attacking him when they have the ball.

Combine that with an aggressive Gasol — he has started taking the shots from three that he hesitated on in the first two games — and his 3-of-6 from deep has become a big problem for Toronto.

Toronto had this in hand much of the second half, so much so that Drake was helping Nick Nurse relax on the sidelines.

The Bucks will need their other players — Eric Bledsoe, who had 5 points on 7 shots, and Brook Lopez, who had 8 points — to step up in the final games if they are going to advance.

The Raptors have found a formula that works, it’s on the Bucks now to adjust.

Raptors outlast Bucks in 2OT to take Game 3 of ECF

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Don’t count the Toronto Raptors out yet.

On Sunday, Kawhi Leonard and his bench mob outlasted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 118-112, in 2OT.

Finally back at home, Toronto showed up in the biggest way possible, and in exactly the way they had been needing in Games 1 and 2. Pascal Siakam, a non-factor in those contests, scored 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, grabbing 11 boards to go with three steals. Norman Powell scored 19 off the bench, including hitting three 3-pointers.

Of course, the Raptors were led by none other than Leonard, who had 36 points and dominated at the free-throw line, going 12-of-13. Toronto’s best player also had nine rebounds and five assists.

As a team, Game 3 was about Toronto finally hitting on all cylinders from the 3-point line. Where before almost no players outside of Leonard were able to get it going from deep, Game 3 was a much different story. Eight Raptors combined to make at least one three each, and Toronto shot 37.8% from the arc.

By the same factor, the Bucks struggled. As the home crowd pushed Toronto forward, Antetokounmpo and his squad just couldn’t get it going. The first half only treated the Raptors right, who scored 58 points. And although Antetokounmpo started to come on a bit better in the third quarter, the game eventually developed into a bit of a rock fight by the fourth.

Toronto looked like it had sealed up the win the end of regulation. Fred Van Vleet came up with a crucial block on Khris Middleton on the final possession, but the Milwaukee guard scooped up the loose ball and put it back in the hoop to push it to extra time.

By the time the second overtime rolled around, Antetokounmpo only had one foul left to give. The Bucks’ superstar then fouled out just 36 seconds into the second overtime while trying to draw a charge on Siakam.

That allowed Leonard score eight of Toronto’s 15 points in the second OT en route to the six-point victory.

It took a wondrous night on defense for the Raptors to force Antetokounmpo to shoot just 5-of-16 from the field. Even still, Milwaukee’s star had 23 rebounds and seven steals, and it took until he fouled out in the second overtime for Toronto to grab a win.

The Raptors should be happy about what they were able to accomplish on Sunday night. Getting wins at home in a crucial playoff games is what championship hopeful teams should do. Still, it took every single ounce of what Toronto had, and even then it was only just barely enough to grab their first win of the series at home.

Nick Nurse will need to build on what he learned from Game 3 and see if they can improve upon it to level the series in Game 4 on Tuesday night.