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NBA Daily: How Toronto Is Getting Past Its Playoff Demons

Even if they’re not facing the toughest opponent, multiple factors have helped the Raptors get over their playoff woes and dominate a playoff series, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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Being up 3-1 is usually child’s play for a No. 2 seed. For Toronto, it means so much more.

Since the Raptors’ rise to prominence in 2013, this is how every single playoff series for them has turned out.

2014: Lost to the fourth-seeded Nets team in seven games
2015: Lost to the fifth-seeded Wizards in four games
2016: Beat the seventh-seeded Pacers in seven games, beat the third-seeded HEAT in seven games, lost to the first-seeded Cavaliers in six games
2017: Beat the seventh-seeded Bucks in seven games, lost to the third-seeded Cavaliers in four games
2018: Beat the eighth-seeded Wizards in six games, lost to the fourth-seeded Cavaliers in four games

For the past half-decade, Toronto would either struggle to beat an opponent or get flat out embarrassed by it. In so doing, the franchise has developed a reputation for not being able to step up its game when the postseason comes around.

When the Magic stole Game 1 from the Raptors last week, fears of history of repeating itself surfaced. In the past, the Raptors have not responded well to obstacles. They may have been able to defeat an inferior opponent who showed some fight, but when the Raptors got over the hump, they made it harder on themselves than it had to be.

In the three games following Game 1, Toronto has bested Orlando three consecutive times, and they’ve done so relatively easily. The Raptors have beaten the Magic by an average of 18.67 points per game.

Beating the Magic, a team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in six years with a roster full of playoff virgins, is not what should be catching people’s eye. It’s that after several years of promising that things change for the better only to fail every time, Toronto has finally put its money where its mouth is.

Trading DeMar DeRozan – who had very well-documented struggles in the postseason – for Kawhi Leonard – the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP – probably had something to do with that, but that was expected and more importantly, it hasn’t been just that.

Toronto’s success so far in the playoffs has not stemmed from Kawhi being a one-man show. In fact, there are multiple reasons as to how the Raptors have been able to make their playoff struggles a thing of the past.

The Continuing Rise of Pascal Siakam

There doesn’t need to be much explained about the third-year player because you’ve probably heard all about him. The New Mexico State alum has risen above the ranks to become one of the finer young players in the league and is one of the frontrunners for Most Improved Player. The refinement in his all-around game vaulted him to perhaps the second best player in Toronto.

The only question in hand was whether Siakam could keep up his impressive play in the postseason. This wasn’t out of lack of trust in him. It was because Toronto’s previous All-Stars like DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (more on him later) showed time and time again that they could not be trusted in a playoff series.

Pascal has put all those worries to bed. At least for the time being. Siakam has been nothing short of dominant in the four games that he’s gone up against Orlando, averaging 22.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field as well as nine rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

The highlight of his performance was his Game 3 stat line in which Siakam put up 30 points on 65/75/100 splits as well as 11 rebounds and four assists. Compared to DeRozan and Lowry, who sometimes had good playoff performances but just not consistently good performances. Pascal Siakam’s dependability should make the Raptors feel good about their chances as the postseason continues.

As it stands now, he has shown he is not afraid of the moment. Only time will tell if it stays that way for him.

Marc Gasol’s Presence

If trading for Kawhi was the evidence that Toronto wasn’t messing around with its window of opportunity, then trading for Gasol was the evidence that it would do everything in its power to reach its ceiling.

The Raptors pounced on the rare opportunity to acquire the former Defensive Player of the Year for pennies on the dollar, and Gasol’s acquisition has paid off big time since his arrival. Gasol not only provides them with a rim protector down low. He also brings a pretty advanced playoff pedigree.

Adding defense wasn’t necessarily a must for Toronto at the deadline, but an upgrade was definitely welcome. It didn’t take long for Gasol to take the starting center position from Serge Ibaka, and when he did, it got results.

The Raptors had the fifth-lowest defensive rating overall this season, allowing 106.8 points per 100 possessions. Gasol definitely made his own mark on the defense, as the Raptors actually had the third-lowest defensive rating – allowing 105.7 points per 100 possessions – after they had acquired him.

This postseason, Gasol’s impact on the floor couldn’t be more valuable. Coming into the series, Gasol’s task was to stop Orlando’s main source of offense, Nikola Vucevic. Vooch had his best season as a pro, averaging 21/12 on 52/36/79 splits, which earned him an All-Star nod.

Since the series started, Gasol has made life miserable for Nik, as Vucevic as averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 37/27/78 splits. According to NBA.com, Vucevic’s offensive rating is 98 when Gasol is on the court and 118 when he is off the court. Overall, both Vooch’s and the Magic’s net rating when he and Gasol share the court together is -19.8.

The Magic were plus-17 offensively with Vucevic on the court during the regular season, so if he’s not scoring, they are in trouble. Gasol has clearly made a ton of trouble for Orlando alone because of how he’s neutralized Vucevic.

If Gasol can stop one of the league’s most offensively talented bigs in Vucevic, that has to make the Raptors feel good about how he does against the center on their next most likely opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers.

Lessening Kyle Lowry’s Role

Outside of that abominable performance he had in Game 1, Lowry hasn’t been that bad since the playoffs began. Lowry’s averaging 14.3 points on 48/40/78 splits in Games 2 through 4. Those aren’t world-beater type numbers, but they are solid for a starting point guard.

That doesn’t change that Lowry’s numbers have declined in this year’s playoffs. Even though he’s averaging the same number of minutes he usually does, Lowry is averaging the lowest field goal attempts he’s ever had in the playoffs on average (9.5) as well as his lowest usage rate at 17.2 percent.

This is because the Raptors have relied more heavily on Kawhi and Pascal to shoulder the scoring load, which has done wonders for them offensively. Lowry is not a bad offensive option by any means. Leonard and Siakam have just proven to better at the moment.

Strangely enough, by decreasing his role offensively on the team, it somehow made him more effective overall as a player. Toronto is somehow a plus-50.7 when Lowry is on the floor, as the team has been dominant on both ends of the floor when he’s playing. Because his role isn’t as substantial as it had been in previous seasons, Lowry may just be playing in a role that was better suited for him. Some players do better when there isn’t nearly as much pressure on them.

Again, we expected that Toronto would do better after the personnel moves they made this summer. What we didn’t expect were these other subplots that made them more dynamic and much more of a threat in the postseason.

The road ahead only gets tougher for the Raptors, but if they can keep this up, then they might be the ones representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals – which could be enough success to make a pitch for re-signing Kawhi Leonard this summer.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Passion And Competitive Spirit Define Jarrett Culver

Jordan Hicks takes a look at Jarrett Culver, a stand-out player who led Texas Tech to the NCAA Championship game who has the NBA world buzzing going into the 2019 draft.

Jordan Hicks

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Jarrett Culver is entering the 2019 NBA Draft with two years of college experience under his belt. His two years with the Texas Tech Red Raiders gives us a pretty good idea of the type of NBA player he is capable of becoming.

His freshman season saw him as more of a complementary player. He had a strong outing from the three-point line knocking down shots at 38.2 percent. He was also called upon to provide a strong presence defensively.

Things changed moving into his sophomore season. He was essentially the number one option, so while his scoring improved significantly, there was a slight dip in his shooting percentages. His defense was still a high-point, and he finished the season as the Big 12 Player of the Year. He led the Red Raiders all the way to the NCAA Championship game where they lost in overtime to Virginia.

He struggled in both Final Four matches, mainly due to the fact that he was keyed on so heavily by the opposing defenses. Regardless, he brings a robust skillset to the NBA, which should allow him to find the court quickly with whichever lottery team selects him.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with Culver at the 2019 NBA Combine.

Culver dove into how his outside shooting will help him in the league.

“You spread out the floor when you’re able to shoot,” Culver said. “I’m working on it a lot. Right now I’m putting a lot of shots up [you know], repetition.”

While his three-point shooting took a slight dip his sophomore season, it was likely due to the fact that he was shooting much more off-dribble. His freshman season, where he played a more secondary role, he had a lot more open looks that were catch-and-shoot. That, in essence, paints a picture of the type of NBA career he’s capable of having.

Chris Beard, Culver’s college coach at Texas Tech, has mentioned that he is addicted to basketball.

“My love and passion for the game, its something I’ve always wanted to be better at,” said Culver, expanding on what Beard meant. “And its something I can continue to get better at. I don’t see it as a job, I see it as something I love – to go out and play basketball.”

There’s no doubting Culver’s passion. Not many college players have the opportunity to go on a deep NCAA tournament run similar to his, and every game you could see his desire to win.

When asked what he could bring to the table right away, Culver had this to say: “Right away I feel like defense. I take pride in defense and that’s something I want to do. People don’t realize how competitive I am.”

Culver discussed how watching Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan at a young age helped him realize the type of mentality he needed when playing basketball. Competition is a big part of his game, and he wants that to translate to the NBA.

His defense is certainly something that can be impactful right away, but downplaying his offensive skills would be foolish. While his three-point percentage dropped roughly eight percent on similar attempts, he was still able to increase his overall field goal percentage by roughly one percent from freshman to sophomore season. That is very impressive considering the load that was placed on his shoulders to generate buckets.

And generate buckets he did. Culver averaged 18.5 points his sophomore season and dished out an additional 3.7 assists per game.

Standing at 6-foot-6 with a wingspan of 6-foot-9, Culver plans to assist whatever team drafts him. He was asked about the prospect of going to Chicago, Phoenix or the New York Knicks and had nothing but positive things to say about all the franchises. He mentioned on multiple occasions that he felt like he’d mesh well with younger players. Obviously, that would make sense – Culver is only 20 years old himself.

Overall, Culver came off as a humble young man who would feel blessed to be selected by any team,  and even more blessed that he will likely end up high in the lottery. He is in a great state mentally,  which should bode incredibly well seeing as the transition to a full-time basketball professional could absolutely take a toll on one’s mind.

Mindset is more than half the game, so combined with his physical gifts, whichever team takes a chance on Jarrett Culver should more than likely come out as a winner.

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Brungardt, BAM Changing The Game In Accurate Athletic Assessment

Spencer Davies speaks with strength and conditioning specialist Brett Brungardt about co-founding Basic Athletic Measurement and its role in the NBA Draft Combine.

Spencer Davies

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As the NBA’s postseason continues and the crowning of a champion in the Finals draws nearer, the rest of the league’s attention is set on June 20, the date of the 2019 NBA Draft.

Last Tuesday in Chicago, the results of the draft lottery determined the first-round order of the top selections in the field. Over the next three days, attention shifted to the annual NBA Draft Combine.

You didn’t see Zion Williamson’s or RJ Barrett risk injury or hurt their chances by participating. Ja Morant, Jarrett Culver, Coby White and Cam Reddish all spoke to the media and met with teams, but they didn’t actually do anything physical. You rarely see any of those premier prospects do so.

The purpose of the NBA Combine is to help boost the draft stock of professional hopefuls that aren’t pegged at the top of their class. It’s the place where some late first-rounders turn into mid-first-rounders. Where once-thought-of undrafted players move up into potential draftee status through athletic testing and live scrimmages in front of executives, agents and coaches.

Every year, there’s always a “winner” at the NBA Combine, and sometimes there are multiple that benefit come draft time. We’ll find that out in about a month.

Whoever that may be, though, will have to thank Brett Brungardt.

Boasting over 25 years of experience—notably as a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Washington and with the Dallas Mavericks—Brungardt is responsible for the co-founding of Basic Athletic Measurement (BAM), a standardized athletic testing organization that has essentially been the straw that stirs the drink at the NBA Combine since the company’s inception in 2008.

Brungardt hatched the idea of BAM based on conversations with head coaches over his time as a strength and conditioning assistant. He’d field questions about 40-yard sprint times and vertical jump measurements, and then would refer to spreadsheets with recorded year-by-year results to answer them.

Unfortunately, almost all the time, Brungardt’s numbers didn’t match up with the staff’s findings—so he brainstormed.

“In the back of my mind I kept thinking there’s gotta be a way to have reliable and valid information in a linear component that’s looking at athletes through time that we can trust,” Brungardt told Basketball Insiders at Quest Multisport in Chicago. “We were the original fake news, to be quite honest.

“On the back of that, we decided to come up with a standardized way of assessing athletes and looking at what we call our performance parameters, and then put that in the equation of making sure we’re creating a well-balanced, healthy athlete through some…they really are quite simple tests, but what we’ve added to make it more reliable is the technology. So we’re looking at a lot of data points. Not necessarily the end results become important, but it’s all the significant data points between the start and finish.”

Brungardt put in the work to travel across the world, scouring through New Zealand and Australia to find the perfect technology that would best help drive his brainchild. Doing his due diligence, he agreed to partner with Fusion Sport, a global leader in human performance software.

And so, along with Martin Haase, his co-founder who had an extensive background in software and statistics to help on the organizing end of things, Brungardt launched BAM.

For the past 11 years, BAM has taken a combination of advanced technological equipment and data collection to record times and scores—labeled BAMScores—for standardized tests specific to certain drills.

“It’s like an SAT for younger people,” Brungardt said.

At the NBA Combine, BAM administers five different tests, all of which are incorporated into BAMScore:

Pro Three-Quarter Court Sprint: Determines acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance.

Lane Agility: Tests movement patterns in all four directions around the lane and measures the ability to make quick changes of direction while moving at speed.

Reaction Shuttle: Evaluates ability to show how quick and effective decisions are made and actions initiated. The brief interval of time it takes to react to an external stimulus.

Vertical Jump: Demonstrates ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible vertical displacement.

Approach Jump: Athlete starts within 15 feet of the Vertec. It is a running start vertical jump. Measurement is similar to vertical jump, but also includes the athlete’s ability to coordinate and incorporate strength and power with reach.

The process of executing such tests is quite fascinating. According to an interview Brungardt did with Access Athletes, the participants register online ahead of the events and are given an identification tag with their Fusion ID technology. They are then re-registered with their tags verified through video. During the actual tests, an electronic wristband is worn to monitor player movement.

And just in case of the rarity where the software doesn’t reflect the correct outcome, Brungardt utilizes three backups (a video, handheld PDA and a CPU backing up the system).

Once an athlete finishes a test –or is done with the full amount of testing—the timing system downloads the results into BAM’s database where all of the information is stored. From there, the times and BAMScore reports can be shared to whoever requests them.

“For basketball, it’s the biggest standardized database in the world because we’ve been doing it for such a long time and standardized this process with the technology,” Brungardt said. “There are databases out there with hand time, which is highly unreliable, and mixtures of such, but all of ours are an apple-to-apple comparison.”

Physically and athletically speaking, these tests tell us everything we need to know. As for measuring greatness at the professional level, that’s the tough part.

“To use this as a talent identification process, [no]. There’s a lot of things that go on in basketball,” Brungardt said. “Larry Bird probably would not have been a great combine tester. But if you’re looking at a specific role for a player, someone that’s gonna fill a spot, that’s gonna play a role because there’s only one basketball out there, then you may have certain metrics that you deem are meaningful.

“We acquire the data. The brains in the NBA then put their secret sauce together from this data to see what they want to utilize out of that component. There’s great athletes and they’re fun to watch. It’s fun to watch the movement patterns, see how they do. Because it’s becoming more ingrained in the culture of basketball, but it’s still not like other sports where these parameters are instilled in junior high age and kids are performing them. So some of this is new to these athletes.”

Testing well is just one piece of the puzzle. Although it’s not his area of expertise, Brungardt has a general idea of how prospective talent is evaluated by basketball scouts and front office executives.

“There’s a performance box. And if they’re outside that box, probably no matter what their skill set is, it may be very difficult for them to perform at this level because the guys are so athletic,” Brungardt said. “You could be the greatest shooter in the world, but if you can’t create the space or get your shot off fast enough, then they’re gonna get to you and they’re gonna change your world.

“So you have to be athletic enough to create space to move so then you also then can’t be a certain liability. So there’s an athletic box they look at, and then they start to move down to skill pattern. That’s still the priority.”

BAM isn’t just limited to basketball, by the way. The organization does testing in 17 sports in total, with BAMScores compiled for each so that the numbers can be compared across.

For example, Jordan Bone earned the highest BAMScore at the 2019 NBA Combine in Chicago with a total of 2401 points. Put that next to Troy Apke’s impressive showing at the 2018 NFL Combine (unofficial BAMScore of 2379—they can’t authenticate the measures) and you can infer that both are extremely athletic people.

Bone and Apke’s BAMScores fall into the “professional” range of the organization’s scale. Contrasting with the U.S. Men’s National Cricket Team tryouts in April 2018, their player’s top BAMScore was 1957, a figure that ranks in the “varsity” category, three levels below the range those two fell into.

“Some sports have certain parameters that they’re better at because of adaptations and skills that go on in that sport than others,” Brungardt said. “But it doesn’t mean that other sports can’t look at those and become better at those performance parameters.”

Brungardt’s past experiences in basketball coaching played a significant part in making his vision come to life. With Brett’s innovation and the assistance of Haase, BAM has become the standard bearer of accurate athletic assessment.

“We established: ‘These tests are helpful for this sport,'” Brungardt said “Stopwatches just are not the most reliable way in the world to do it. When you start looking at more transcription and every time you touch data humanly, things happen that make it inaccurate.

“For me, it’s about physical development. I wanted to test an athlete, then I trained them and then I wanted to re-test them in a reliable fashion to see if what I was doing in the weight room was improving him on those components. And those were the goals.”

And while Brungardt is proud of the presence BAM has, he understands that upgrading should always be on their mind.

“Anytime you have more data on a test, it becomes more valid. It’s testing when it purports to test and that’s what validity is,” Brungardt said. “The technology is better. It always gets better.

“It’s about right now, we feel it’s really good. We’re always looking to improve things, but there’s always the human component because you have proctors. There’s lots of things we try to make as consistent as possible, but here what we’re doing, everything that we touch, pretty good!”

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NBA Daily: Tacko Fall Out To Prove He’s More Than Tall

Most of the attention centered around Tacko Fall stems from his height, but after an impressive combine outing, he’s out to prove that there’s so much more to him.

Matt John

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Tacko Fall was one of the many participants who attended the NBA Draft Combine this past week in Chicago.

By so doing, the combine retrieved all of his official measurements as a player such as his height, weight, and wingspan among others. After the combine was over, Fall had the following measurements.

Height (without shoes): 7’5 ¼’’
Height (with shoes): 7’7″
Weight: 289 pounds
Wingspan: 8’2 ¼’’
Standing Reach: 10’2 ½”
Vertical Leap: 26.5″

Those measurements set many records at the combine. So, in case you didn’t know it before, growing has never exactly been an issue for Tacko Fall. Even though the findings that measured how freakishly tall Fall is shocked the masses, none of them really fazed the man himself as long as that meant he wasn’t going to grow anymore.

“I kind of already knew so I wasn’t really surprised,” Fall said. “I don’t think I’m going to keep growing. I think it’s just going to stay there. Hopefully. We’ll see.”

Fall’s physical advantages made him look like a man among boys in his four years at the University of Central Florida. The Senegal native averaged 2.4 blocks and 7.7 rebounds – in only 23 minutes per game – and put up a scorching field goal percentage of 74 percent over the four-year span of his college career. Basically, Fall’s good stats mainly come from his unrivaled length.

During his time at the combine, Fall believes that sticking to his guns and not doing things out of his comfort zone made him look good to spectators.

“I think I’m doing pretty good,” Fall said. “I’m holding my own. I’m not going out there doing anything out of character. I’m staying true to myself. I’m playing hard. I’m talking. I’m running hard. I’m doing everything that I need to do.”

Despite his towering presence, Fall is not expected to be a high selection in this year’s NBA Draft, if he is selected at all. Not many mock drafts at the time being list his name among those who will be taken, and the ones that do have him among one the last selections in the draft.

Some of his primary critiques as a player include his low assist-to-turnover ratio and his faulty shooting mechanics. The biggest one of them all is his lack of mobility. Being as tall as he is would make it hard for anyone to move around well enough to compete with NBA offenses that rely more on quickness and spacing now than it did on mass.

The concerns surrounding Tacko’s mobility were made loud and clear to him. That’s why he believed he had something to prove to the skeptics at the combine.

“For people my size that’s the biggest thing that they’re looking for,” Fall said. “‘Can he move?’ ‘Can he keep up with the game?’ ‘Can he run the floor?’ ‘Can he step out and guard?’ I feel like I have the ability to do those things. So, coming in here and having the opportunity to play against great competition and showing my abilities have been a great blessing for me.”

Before the combine, Fall’s stock benefited from his final performance as a college basketball player. Tacko and the ninth-seeded Knights fought the first-seeded Blue Devils until the very end but ultimately lost 77-76. Fall had much to do with UCF’s near-upset over Duke, putting up 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes before fouling out.

That game did a lot for Tacko’s belief in himself as a player leading to the combine. Putting up that kind of stat line against one of the best college basketball programs with three top-10 prospects with so much on the line had to make him feel good about his chances. He said as much following his performance at the combine.

“That was definitely one of the best games in my college basketball career,” Fall said. “It helps build confidence. You go toe-to-toe with those people. You think, ‘Wow I can really do this.’ All you have to do is keep working and working and keep proving that you can step out there and compete every night.”

For some prospects, the NBA Combine is nothing more than just a formality. In fact, multiple prospects for this upcoming draft – including RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, and consensus No. 1 pick Zion Williamson – decided to skip out on it. For prospects who are on the bubble like Tacko, it’s a rare opportunity to show that there’s more to them than what they showed in college.

Fall recognized the importance of the occasion and voiced his appreciation for the chance he had to show everyone who attended what he can bring to a basketball court.

“It’s been a great experience,” Fall said. “I’m blessed to be here. I worked really hard. I thank God I’m in this position. I just got to take advantage of it.”

Tacko’s efforts impressed scouts and media members alike. There have been rumblings that his play at the combine has further increased his stock in the NBA Draft. Even with all the work he’s put in and the ambition he has to make it to the biggest stage, Fall is soaking it all in.

“I’m enjoying it because not a lot of people get the opportunity to come here,” Fall said. “I’ve worked really hard and God put me in this position. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

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