Nurse this | Kawhi that | Kerr this | Durant that | This guy did that | That guy did this….GAME 6 is tonight and we don’t need to know anything else.
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“It’s devastating. You work so hard to get to this point, these are the last games, you see him try to come out and push himself, obviously he tried to do a move, and I feel bad for him,” Leonard said. “I’ve been in that situation before. I hope he has a speedy recovery, and just gets healthy. And I hope that he’s going to be OK mentally, just throughout the whole rehab process. Because like I said before, we work so hard to either play in the Finals or just play in the NBA, and when you’re not playing, it’s hard to wrap your mind around it. But I’m pretty sure he’s going to attack each day and get better and come back strong.”
That Leonard pointed to the mental side of recovery is important. Injuries present gruelling physical hurdles and long, arduous journeys back to health. In Durant’s case, he’s facing rehabilitation from an injury from which very few players returned to their peak. There could be surgery, rehab and then a slow progression back to, hopefully, where he was before as a player. Injuries also present a major psychological hurdle, an element of injury and recovery that tends to go underappreciated in most cases.
Leonard would not be the first player to admit to the mental struggle of dealing with an injury and how losing the ability to play — for many players, their singular life focus — affected him. Durant even posted to his Instagram story to share what he was going through in the immediate aftermath.
“Dub Nation going to be loud as fuck for Game 6,” he wrote. “I’m hurting deep in my soul right now. I can’t lie, but seeing my brothers get this win was like taking a shot of tequila. I got new life, LOL, #Dubs.”
Players around the league, including several from the Raptors, expressed their support for Durant on social media. Many touched on the mental grind ahead and offered messages of encouragement and strength. Teammate DeMarcus Cousins, who is about as familiar with and close to Durant’s situation as someone can get, was a little more pointed in his comments.
“It’s bigger than basketball here. We’re human beings just like everybody in this room. We go through things. We have life crises. We have emotions. We have up and downs,” he said in response to general manager Bob Myers being choked up speaking about Durant. “The difference between us, though, is we have to zone all that out and become these superstar athletes. With that being said, they know us outside of the lines. They know the everyday struggles. They know the adversity and the ups and downs we go through on a daily basis. He’s feeling for the man. It’s not about basketball. It’s about everything else. The shit that you all don’t care about.”
There were other moments that passed by, but more will likely come. The Raptors have played 23 playoff games this spring, and in every one but Games 3 and 6 in Philadelphia, and Game 2 in Milwaukee, a play here or there would have made the difference. Of the 23, they had a chance to win 20.
In Game 6 of the NBA Finals here on Thursday night — leading the series three games to two against the ragged, glorious ruins of whatever is left of the Golden State Warriors dynasty — some Raptors will take the biggest shots of their lives, under oceanic pressure. Every one will be a test of nerves, poise and will, and might decide a championship. What does it take?
“A willingness to accept the consequences of missing,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who hit the shot that won Chicago the 1997 title, among a long list of big shots. “Until you get to that point, it’s going to be tough. So you have to go into it knowing that even if you are the best in the world, you’re going to miss half the time. If you can hit half your game-winning shots, that’s a hell of a percentage.
“But if you go into it thinking, ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to miss, it’s a big situation,’ then you’re defeated already.”
Game 5 was the first time these defensive-minded Raptors had scored at least 104 points per 100 possessions in a playoff game and lost. With their season and dynasty on the line, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry hit Golden State’s 18th, 19th and 20th threes of the game. The Raptors still nearly won.
“As far as stepping into those shots, we practise those every single day,” said Thompson, who might be the second-greatest shooter in history behind Curry, or thereabouts. “We know what it’s like to take those, and we can live with the make or miss. It’s just what it comes down to.”
But the Warriors, riven by injuries, are barely holding on. For the series on open threes, Kawhi Leonard is 7-for-21, Lowry 8-for-27, Pascal Siakam 2-for-15 (and 0-for-12 from three overall in his last four games), Danny Green is 9-for-25, Marc Gasol is 6-for-16, and Fred VanVleet is 10-for-27. If the Raptors make enough shots in one game, they will win a title.
The Raptors’ Kyle Lowry, working on his shot on the eve of Game 6 against the Warriors, had the NBA championship in his hands at the end of Game 5.
“(It takes) probably just another higher level of focus,” said VanVleet, who has hit 54 per cent of his threes since emerging from a deep slump eight games ago. “I think that I found another step up of just trusting yourself and trusting your shot, and not getting swayed by the moment, and not changing your technique and not getting down when you miss a couple, or changing anything, or doing anything drastic.
So now in Game 6, everyone gets another chance to succeed or fail, but the chances are running out. It’s a clean slate, but everyone knows what’s coming. The Raptors have to figure out — among many things — how to somehow keep the best shooting backcourt in NBA history under some semblance of control. Think too much about it and it’s terrifying. Simply being on the floor with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson invites risk, the chance that they can do something great and you’re merely the prop for another one of their magic acts as they showed in the final moments of Game 5.
“It’s all game. It ain’t just down the stretch. You got to be aware. When they’re on the floor, you got to be aware of them,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. “They’re probably two of the top, whatever, all-time shooters in the game of basketball. So when they step on the floor first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter, you got to be aware of them at all times.”
Fail to keep them within reach and the price is steep. The Raptors got a taste of it in Game 5 when Curry and Thompson combined to hit three-straight threes in the space of 95 seconds to extend the series to a sixth game, stopping a Canada-wide celebration in its tracks.
The pair are shooting 44 per cent from three through five games and combined to shoot 12-of-27 — or 44 per cent — in Game 5.
They have every conceivable motivation to draw from. Oracle Arena has been a source of Golden State’s power over the years, although the fanbase may have gentrified from its Oakland-based roots when the Warriors weren’t the glamour team they’ve morphed into now. But Curry has played there for 10 seasons and Thompson eight. They feel a responsibility to put on a good show on the building’s last night.
Similarly, the image of Durant hobbling off the floor in Game 5, having risked his health for a chance to help them win their third-straight title is vivid in their minds as well.
“We’re not even thinking about the future. We’re just thinking about enjoying this last show at Oracle we’re about to give our fans,” said Thompson. “And I expect our fans to be the loudest they have ever been, especially in the name of Kevin, and bringing his type of spirit he would bring to the fight and the competitiveness.
“I know our fans will do that because we deserve it, but more importantly Kevin does for what he gave this team, this organization. There wouldn’t be banners if it wasn’t for his presence. So we expect our crowd to be loud for him.”
Chances are if the Warriors are to survive and force a Game 7, it will have a lot do with Thompson and Curry, making plays and taking shots that only they would think about and shooting them freely. They’re prepared to risk failing because they’ve succeeded so many times.
Nurse had never been an NBA head coach before this season, but he has two decades of experience in the lead seat in minor leagues across the world. He managed the season with an unusual calm for a first-year NBA head coach. He did not over-practice. He did not overwhelm the team with film. On some days, even after bad games, he did not show them any film at all.
He understood the wear and tear of the 82-game grind. He knew he would need to inundate the players with X’s and O’s details when it really mattered.
“There were a lot of games where I knew we didn’t play well and we won, and I just kind of filed the win away and got the hell on with it and didn’t really address it,” Nurse said. “Now in this long playoff run, we were able to address some problem areas.”
All the mental and tactical preparation didn’t exactly flip the Philly series on its ear. Toronto eked out Game 4 101-96, behind 39 points from Kawhi Leonard on 13-of-20 shooting — including 5-of-7 from deep. It felt as if the Raptors needed every ounce Leonard could give — every point, every shot — as they wheezed toward the finish line of a game they had to have.
(It also helped Toronto that Embiid was wheezing a bit; he scored 11 points on just seven shot attempts while dealing with what the team termed a respiratory infection. If he is healthy, who knows how the rest of the postseason unfolds.)
With 1:01 left and Toronto clinging to a 91-90 lead, Leonard dribbled right around a Gasol screen and hit an off-the-dribble 3 over Embiid’s outstretched arm to put Toronto up by four. It was not a game winner or a buzzer-beater. It did not bounce on the rim four times for dramatic effect. But it was nearly as big a shot as Leonard’s legendary Game 7 corner heave that broke a tie, avoided overtime and ended the series.
“We were pressing late and needed a bucket,” Nurse said. “We had nothing going. It was not open. It was just a monster shot.”
One team official said he even considers it a bigger shot than Leonard’s Game 7 clincher.
Toronto for the most part had an even-keeled, businesslike regular season. The Raptors took the long view of the regular season and followed the lead of their coach and stone-faced superstar. But if there was a moment when it all felt rickety to them — when the season seemed on the brink — it was those two days between Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia.
Toronto survived. Thursday night brings a new test.
The Raptors have recovered from emotional letdowns all year. After being shellacked in Leonard’s return to San Antonio, the Raptors recorded what was maybe their best, and least likely win of the year, beating the league-best Bucks in Milwaukee. Against Philadelphia, the Raptors were blitzed in Game 3 and grinded out a win on the same court the next time out. The Raptors blew Game 1 in Milwaukee, got slaughtered in Game 2, and then the Raptors strung together four straight wins. Game 5 seemed like the best chance to close out the Warriors, and you certainly don’t want to give a team as talented and battle-tested as Golden State extra chances, but maybe it was just too straightforward for the Raptors. There were lots of questions about the validity of momentum on Wednesday, and while the Warriors spoke about believing in it, we have seen throughout the playoffs that one game so often has little to do with the next.
That does not mean there is not the risk of an emotional hangover for the Raptors. Klay Thompson reiterated on Wednesday that he expected the Oakland crowd to be raucous, and that the Warriors would be playing for Durant. It might not be very tangible, but a little extra motivation and sense of purpose never hurts. Durant’s injury rocked the Warriors, for sure, but the Raptors, too. Luckily, they have dealt with that this season, too.
“Oladipo had his injury (when the Raptors played them). We always lose those games,” Green said, referring to Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo rupturing his quadriceps in a game in January. “That one lingered more than this one. For them, it might give them extra motivation. I don’t think it lingered. It’s tough to see anyone go down, whether it’s your team or the other team, to just continue to act like it happened, to continue to play basketball. But this is the Finals. We’re professional. I don’t think it lingered like it did during the season with Oladipo, at least as much.”
On Thursday, for maybe one last time, the Raptors will get to show how mentally and emotionally strong they are. Given what awaits them, it will take plenty of fortitude to absorb Monday’s lessons, learn from them, and then let them go.
A couple of high school kids who follow Hurley on Twitter have trolled him for his devotion to the Nurse beat. “They’re like, ‘Oh, another Nick Nurse tweet,’” he said. “I haven’t said it, because it would be really petty on Twitter. But I almost want to be like, ‘Hey, look at this now. There’s a reason I’ve been pushing this story.’”
Hurley is missing some regular season high school baseball and softball to cover the Finals. “If anybody complains, I’ll be like: There will always be high school sports,” he said. “There may not always be an Iowan in the NBA Finals.”
Whether Nurse wins or loses, Hurley is already planning his post-Finals content hits. In an ideal world, Hurley would love to reboot the Nursing School podcast they recorded when Nurse was still an assistant. If Nurse returns to Carroll this summer, Hurley is thinking of a Rachel Nichols–level sit-down. “Blow it out of the water,” he said. “Just have crazy videos and all this sort of stuff. Just make a huge hoopla about it.”
Hurley plans to watch Game 6 in Jurassic Park outside Scotiabank Arena. Though he’s pro-Raptors, he understands that seeing the series ender in person would reward his time on the Nurse beat. “I don’t think I want them to lose tomorrow night,” Hurley said. “But at the same time, how many people get the opportunity to cover a Game 7 in the NBA Finals?”
The Warriors revolutionized the NBA in so many different ways, but over the past five years, the strongest pillar propping up their dynastic run was the tried and true belief that defense wins championships. Since 2015, only the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz had a lower regular-season defensive rating. Before this year’s run, they finished first, seventh, second, and first in defensive rating among 16 playoff teams. But heading into Monday night’s Game 5, the Warriors had the 11th-best defense these playoffs, a precipitous freefall that can’t be explained by Durant’s absence.
Since they won the title in 2015, the Warriors only allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions in two playoff series: their first-round matchup against the Portland Blazers back in 2016 and the 2017 NBA Finals. This year alone, three of their four opponents – Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, and Raptors – cleared a 110 offensive rating with ease. Toronto’s 115.1 offensive rating heading into Game 5 was the highest these Warriors have allowed in any series, per NBA.com’s database.
Of course, competition matters. The Warriors squared off against offenses that were led by Leonard, Damian Lillard, James Harden, and — last but not least— Lou Williams. They finished the regular season as the second- (Rockets), fourth- (Blazers), sixth- (Raptors), and eighth-best offenses (Clippers) in the entire league. Golden State ran through what professional scientists often call “a gauntlet.”
Some of their lack of defensive success can be explained by luck from deep. Before Game 5 of the Finals, those four teams made just under 41 percent of their wide-open threes against Golden State. Last year, the Warriors allowed 36.9 percent, then 36.4, 39.8, and 37.1 in previous years on similar shots. Still, while the NBA playoffs were a different world five years ago, this Warriors team has given up nearly six more wide-open threes per game in these playoffs than they did during that initial run.
The former longtime British and G-League coach still has his team leading the series, 3-2, and hasn’t gotten nearly the respect he has deserved — even getting mocked for his youth-basketball box-and-one defense earlier in the series that actually worked. So it’s no surprise Nurse was on the defensive instead of just admitting he killed the Raptors’ momentum.
Moreover, Nurse should be accused of not having the Raptors refocused after Kevin Durant’s catastrophic injury. As his players attempted to quiet the Toronto crowd, which was cheering Durant’s misfortune, the Raptors saw their deficit balloon from five to 12 points after Durant departed with his ruptured Achilles.
At Wednesday’s practice, several Raptors repeated the same theme about being “locked in and focused.’’ They will mourn Durant’s injury after the championship.
“We still are staying in it,’’ Lowry said. “We’re not too up, we’re not too down. We’re just one game [away]. Hey, we lost [Game 5]. Now we got to move on to the next one.’’
The series trend is in Toronto’s favor. The last four games have been won by the road team — which Nurse credits to two teams being mentally tough. The Raptors won Games 3 and 4 in Oakland. Now Oracle Arena — regardless of the outcome — will host its final Warriors game, with Golden State leaving for San Francisco next season.
“Go out there in the next game and just play with each other, have one focus and one goal and try to win it,’’ said Leonard, who committed five turnovers in Game 5.
“Obviously this was a missed opportunity, but luckily we have a lot of basketball to play and other opportunities to get it back,’’ Raptors guard and Long Island native Danny Green said. “We know we can play better, offensively and defensively. We only lost by one.”
Serge Ibaka Off The Bench
Serge Ibaka has been terrific coming off the bench in the past three games for the Raptors. In Game 3, he blocked six shots and looked like the most athletic player on the court. In Game 4, he was the Raptors second leading scorer with 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting. In Game 5, he brought the energy once again, scoring 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting with six rebounds.
His activity level has propped up the units without Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. The VanVleet-Powell-Green-Siakam-Ibaka lineup that Nick Nurse likes to use to start the second quarter has played to a +7 in 16 minutes so far this series. The offense for that unit features a lot of Fred VanVleet pick-and-roll with Serge Ibaka hanging around the glass but hey, you can’t argue with effectiveness.
The most impressive play for Ibaka this series came in Game 4. He had the ball at the top of the key, considering a dribble handoff with Danny Green. Serge decided, though, with 17 seconds left on the shot clock, that he was better off putting the moves on DeMarcus Cousins. He crossed him over, put the ball behind his back, and rose up for the 20-footer. It was equal parts amusing and shocking. But he made it, and the Raptors ended up needing his offense. Looking ahead to Game 6, Ibaka represents a good option for Nick Nurse if the Raptors need an offensive spark.
Leonard may be largely inscrutable, but in some arenas his stoicism is a virtue. “It never seems like he’s in a hurry,” says Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. And if Leonard isn’t feeling rushed, why should any of his teammates? Now we see so many of the Raptors as they truly are, their psychic weight lifted. It has never been easier to appreciate Lowry’s complete game—the angles he creates with a bump, the turnovers he forces by reading ahead—than when he was relieved of the burden of being a volume scorer. Not a year ago Gregg Popovich seemed to lose patience with Danny Green. Now Green helps to wear down Stephen Curry and punishes the Warriors for their defensive miscues.
The furthest Marc Gasol had ever advanced in the playoffs was the 2013 West finals, when his Grizzlies were swept unceremoniously. Playing in Toronto allowed him his first real chance to steady a championship club—to help talented teammates think their way through possessions at the highest possible level. His co-center, Serge Ibaka, looked to be out of his depth in the ’18 playoffs. It turned out that all he needed was a slight change in role and the benefit of stability around him. Siakam, once defined by his flaws, now plays fearlessly.
Within these Finals lies indelible, incontrovertible proof of the Raptors as winners, no matter the actual championship result. It takes an all-powerful belief to advance this deep into the playoffs—to seize Game 7 against the Sixers; to knock out the Bucks, who had been the most dominant team of the regular season; and to wallop the Warriors three times before they had the opportunity to get healthy. The Raptors saw themselves as championship-level players, and are clearly so. Even if Leonard were to strike a deal with the Clippers at the first opportunity, none of that would change. What he leaves behind is the kind of glimmering validation that no one can ever take away.
Any team’s first trip to the NBA Finals is an act of personal revelation. We already knew who the Warriors were: a clever team that had long understood how to make use of its incredible—if unconventional—talent. There’s only so much mystery as to what piece goes where when you’ve already seen the puzzle completed. These playoffs, however, have shown the Raptors in a new light. This was a group of players who eyed the title from the very start, and along the way, convinced themselves it was theirs. “Obviously, as human beings, we do think in the future,” Leonard says. “Been thinking in the future since the beginning of the season, just trying to get to this point. You just got to stay current and stay in your routine, be patient and not rush anything.”
The Warriors do not win without 14 points and six rebounds from Cousins, who sat on the bench until Durant’s injury forced Kerr to rework Golden State’s rotation. In the early part of the second quarter, Cousins set good screens, finished around the rim, and dished some nice passes.
Kerr drew this bad boy up out of a timeout. Draymond Green’s hockey check nudges Toronto into switching Siakam onto Cousins. Siakam fronts Cousins, but the lob is clear because every help defender who might deter it is transfixed by the threat of Curry popping off a screen on the right wing.
Toronto attacked Cousins on the other end on almost every possession. It worked, though Cousins held his own on two pick-and-rolls — one each by Leonard and Lowry — with about 1:45 to go on the trip that ended with Lowry heaving the ball into the backcourt.
Cousins will have to dig deep in Game 6 — especially if Looney is limited. (Golden State found some success switching against pick-and-rolls with Looney, though it felt tenuous. Their switching has been uneven overall; the Raptors have rumbled to the rim ahead of them too often. The team’s remaining core four and Looney are minus-10 in 41 minutes, and have allowed Toronto a fat scoring number in that time, per NBA.com.)
Toronto will come at Cousins. Can he produce enough on offense to even things out again? Can the Warriors notch the first home win in this series since Game 1?
It feels dangerous predicting anything in the most off-kilter Finals in recent memory.
Siakam has shot 50.4% from the field and 33.3% from beyond the arc in Toronto’s 15 playoff wins this season, vs. only 40.1 and 15.8 in the eight losses.
With the Raptors potentially on the cusp of history, Siakam, who will surely be named the NBA’s most improved player later this month, is aware of what he has to do.
“I think I’m getting decent looks. I’m getting open looks,” Siakam told the Toronto Sun on Wednesday. “I haven’t been able to make them, but I think I’m getting the shots that I want to most of the time. I’ve just got to be able to knock them down and continue being aggressive and finding ways to be effective,” he said.
Earlier in his scrum, Siakam had been asked how he was doing, given this is his first time going through all of this.
“I’m feeling great. I’m feeling like I’m on the highest stage and a lot of people dream to be at this level,” Siakam said. “To be able to play still, it’s an amazing feeling just being here and having the chance to compete for a championship.”
Siakam ran wild over both Orlando in Milwaukee in series-clinching games and in Game 7 against Milwaukee was quiet offensively but hauled in crucial rebounds.
The struggling forward was yanked three minutes into the fourth quarter of Game 5. Expect to see a lot more of him come Thursday.
Get back in the Splash Brothers’ kitchen
We’re talking right in their grill. Yes both are world class shooters and the Warriors employ world class screeners to get them open looks. But the Raptors have a world-class defence, one that can switch just about any time they want and if it means switching Fred VanVleet who gets caught up on a screen to Marc Gasol then so be it.
Gasol is plenty long and plenty smart enough to crowd an elite shooter enough to make him second guess taking that three-pointer.
The very strength of Toronto’s offence is its versatility. Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam and to a lesser extent Gasol can and have guarded every position on the floor.
VanVleet, when he’s out there, has done as good a job as anyone in these playoffs limiting the damage Steph Curry can inflict. But in Game 5 in Toronto, Curry got off 13 and 14 three-pointers respectively with Thompson hitting seven and Curry five.
Those numbers jumped off the page for Kyle Lowry as he sat at the podium after the Game 5 loss.
“I think the fact that Steph and Klay were able to get off 14 and 13 threes is too many,” Lowry said … For guys like them, they’re going to make — you give them that many threes, they’re going to make some. So we let them get too many threes off.” Expect that to change in Game 6.
Leo Rautins explains why it’s important that Kyle Lowry, who missed the last shot in Game 5, comes out with his aggressive style of play in Game 6, and discusses how the Raptors’ defence can try and limit the Warriors from beyond the arc.
Kawhi Leonard’s free agency (player option) is not a cut-and-dry turning point for the Toronto Raptors.
They acquired him under the guise that they had just locked down their championship window for years to come or set themselves up for a clean reboot in 2019-20. That might still be the case.
Toronto will be left pursuing ring-chasers and poring over the markdown section if Leonard stays. It is no longer a lock to start over if he leaves.
Pascal Siakam’s swift ascension is part of the new calculus. So is the Raptors’ top-to-bottom depth. Siakam, OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol (player option), Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet are an Eastern Conference noise-maker on their own. They’re not a contender, but they don’t need to be.
Anunoby, Siakam and Powell (restricted) are the only players from that gaggle under contract beyond next season. The Raptors can talk themselves into a year of respectable transition before enjoying gobs of cap space.
Or, again, they could start over. Or they could have Leonard.
We can’t be sure what happens next. And while the Raptors won’t have cap space unless both Gasol and Leonard bolt, the specter of their free-agency search is at the mercy of too many unknowns and subsequent possibilities.
Save your outside-the-box takes until we know what box they’re operating within.
Even after letting Game 5 slip away, Toronto has a 3-2 series lead and still has to be considered the strong favorite to find a way to close these Finals out, beginning with the fact the Raptors can win either Thursday or in Game 7 back home Sunday night.
Beyond that, though, Golden State is riddled with injuries. Forward Kevin Durant underwent surgery Wednesday to repair his ruptured Achilles tendon. Center Kevon Looney is questionable after aggravating the chest injury he suffered in Game 2 in the second half of Game 5. Forward Andre Iguodala and swingman Klay Thompson are playing in the wake of leg injuries earlier in these playoffs and this series, respectively.
Still, Toronto knows it is facing the two-time defending champions, and injuries or not, the Warriors are going to need to be taken out of the series if they are going to lose. The Raptors know the title won’t be handed to them.
“Just go out there and do our job,” Raptors guard Lowry said. “We’re a professional basketball team. We have been in the same situation. We have been the same team all year.
“We don’t get too up. We don’t get too down. We live in the moment. We understand that today is today and tomorrow will be another test of who our group will be on the road. We’ll be against a team that will be ready to go, but we’ll be ready to play too.”
Oracle will undoubtedly be rocking Thursday night, as the Warriors try to keep their season — and their chances for a three-peat — alive with a win in what will be the final game the arena ever hosts. Next season, Golden State will be moving across the Bay and into the palace that will be the Chase Center in San Francisco.
Kawhi Leonard is enjoying one of the most dominant postseasons in NBA history, but the Warriors might stand a chance at containing him thanks to Klay Thompson.
Kawhi is currently in a great situation. The Raptors are a top team in The East. The Raptors have depth, an amazing coach and one of the best GMs in the NBA.
Does it make sense to leave an NBA Championship level team? If Kawhi waits until next season to hit free agency he can contend for another title in Toronto, while keeping an eye on his suitors this summer.
The window is not closing for Kawhi. He doesn’t need to move this summer. Teams will wait for him. If the Clippers, Knicks or Lakers think they can eventually sign Kawhi they will leave a max slot in their cap for that day he decides to leave the Raps.
LeBron left for Los Angeles hoping another star would join. That hope didn’t work out (yet), as the Lakers got leftovers to fill the roster. The Lakers then spent most of the year trying to unsuccessfully trade for another star.
When the league is in flux, the smartest move is to stay put. Kawhi leaving only puts him back a year. If Kevin Durant leaves Golden State, the only team Kawhi would need to worry about is the Bucks. The Bucks roster will change as they won’t have as many value players like Brook Lopez on the roster next season.
A Durant-less Warriors team will be over the cap once they re-sign Klay Thompson. Bringing the Warriors down to earth and once again re-stabilizing the Western Conference.
6-1 – Golden State’s record in potential elimination games dating back to 2015. In those games, Stephen Curry has averaged 28.9 points per game, scoring 36 points, 31 points three times, 29, 27 and 17 in the only loss (to Cleveland in Game 7 in 2016). Klay Thompson has averaged 26.1 points, topping out at 41 points, though he had only 14 in the loss.
But there’s no doubt that the Raptors have been playing some version of injury blackjack with Leonard over the course of the post-season, as the Warriors were with Durant since he went down.
As one member of the Raptors medical staff said, the only way to make sure you don’t make a mistake as the medical decision-maker in the big money, high stakes world of professional sports?
Don’t say yes.
“If you say the athlete is not ready, you are never wrong,” he said.
But that’s not how it works. If professional athletes only played when they were fully healthy, when there were minimal risks to mind, body and reputations, the whole enterprise would collapse in on itself.
Safe is boring. Safe doesn’t win, and safe doesn’t pay the bills, for anyone.
It’s why watching Leonard’s ‘load management’ strategy play out over the course of the season for Toronto has been such compelling drama in its own right, adjacent to his amazing on-court feats.
The correct and calculated business decision for Leonard was always to take this season to get his body right so he could demonstrate that he was physically capable of playing at the level he was at when he was second in NBA MVP voting in 2016 and third in 2017 before being shut down.
Get healthy and then let the market dictate his next move, whether it’s sign for five years and $190 million in Toronto; four years and $140 million elsewhere, or perhaps a shorter-term deal that would give him more flexibility and allow him to hit free agency again after a 10th season when he’d be eligible for even richer deals.
In their current state, the Warriors have no choice but to roll with Cousins, which is both risky and exciting. Nobody else gives them the offensive pop to compete. Boogie’s cantankerous physicality makes for a fun contrast to the computer brains of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Kawhi Leonard or the two-man brilliance of Draymond Green and Steph Curry. The Warriors need to manufacture slivers of space for Curry and Thompson, but they also need Cousins to hassle Gasol and put Serge Ibaka on the ground. They’ll have to live with Cousins’s immobility on defense in order to unlock his passing and rebounding on the other end of the court. That’s a more weighty responsibility than Cousins has ever shouldered in his snakebitten career. Let’s see if he’s cowed by the pressure.
“The Raptors had a chance,” Ryan said on Ferrall on the Bench, referring to Game 5. “They had (the Warriors) almost beaten but couldn’t get the job done. They’ve given life now to the Warriors.”
The Warriors erupted for 20 three-pointers in Game 5, winning without Kevin Durant, who exited in the second quarter with an apparent Achilles injury. Kawhi Leonard was sensational in the fourth quarter but couldn’t get the Raptors over the hump.
Ryan thinks that will change in Game 6.
“I think Kawhi Leonard, who had that great 10-point run that should’ve won it for them, will find a way,” Ryan said. “I still think they’re going to win.”
If the Raptors lost Game 6, they will host Game 7 in Toronto on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.
The Celtics, meanwhile, already have an eye toward free agency. The Kyrie Irving experiment didn’t work this year, and Boston could be without him next season.
“It didn’t work in terms of winning a championship or going deep into the playoffs,” Ryan said. “Kyrie is a very talented person. I don’t want to put all of the blame on him, but it didn’t work. . . . Danny Ainge is the most fearless general manager. They have to wait, though, to see what Irving is going to do. We assume he’s going to go and exercise his free-agent right. Then they have to decide if they want to keep Terry Rozier or not. I would hope they would. He’s a restricted free agent who did not play well last year. He did not react well to having Irving around. But without Irving, he might be able to go back to where he was a year ago today.”
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