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NBA PM: Raptors Are Contenders, But Clippers Might Not Be

Toronto’s on pace to win 60 games and have shown improvement. … When will the Clippers catch a break?

Moke Hamilton

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With the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors looking all but certain to meet up in the 2017 NBA Finals, it’s easy to overlook the two second-seeded teams in the respective conferences.

Although the San Antonio Spurs get a lot of love for their accomplishments without Tim Duncan, the Toronto Raptors are seemingly non-existent. Aside from being conspicuously absent from the league’s Christmas Day lineup, the Raptors are not widely considered to be a contender in the Eastern Conference.

Surprisingly, though, it is the Raptors who enter play on December 27 as the NBA’s top-ranked team in offensive efficiency—not the Warriors, not the Cavaliers and not the Spurs.

Obviously, being a good offensive team in and of itself doesn’t guarantee anything to anyone. Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns know that quite well, as do the Warriors. On Christmas Day, the Cavaliers again proved that battling on the defensive end is the most effective way to win a basketball game. They tightened the clamps on the Warriors and held the club to 5-for-13 shooting over the game’s final nine minutes. It was during that stretch that the Cavs outscored the Warriors, 29-14.

The Raptors happen to be 0-3 against the Cavaliers this season and met the same fate as the Warriors, but the three contests were decided by a total of just 11 points. The Raptors have scored victories over the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz. Through 30 games, they have gone 22-8 and are currently on pace to win 60 games. The million dollar question in all of this, though, is are they a better team than they were last season?

Simply? The Raptors are benefiting from continuity and chemistry. Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are in their fifth season together and the pieces around them—Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph and DeMarre Carroll—fit within their system. The club happens to be coming off of the winningest season in franchise history and its first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.

What’s most encouraging for the Raptors, though, is that the team has demonstrated that they can win tough road games. Monday night’s 95-91 victory at the Portland Trail Blazers improved the Raptors to 2-0 on their current six-game road trip, but also gave the squad their seventh consecutive road victory—a franchise record. The club enters play on December 27 with an 11-5 home record compared to an 11-3 road record, putting them in rare company as a team that wins more frequently on the road than they do at home.

However, even more impressive is that the Raptors have been able to fly under the radar. A few days after the Cavs scored one of their biggest wins of the season by defeating the Warriors, the Raptors enter play on December 27 trailing them by one game in the standings.

There’s a lot more season to be played, so it’ll be interesting to see where the Raptors end up, and whether they can secure home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs because that’s what they’re playing for.

The Clippers Can’t Seem to Catch a Break

With Blake Griffin and Chris Paul hampered by injuries and the Clippers having lost three straight games and four of their last six, the last thing the franchise needed was more bad news. Unfortunately, some came on Tuesday.

According to accounts from both TMZ Sports and ESPN , DeAndre Jordan was involved in what appears to have been a minor car accident. Jordan seems unscathed, as he was able to travel with the team ahead of Wednesday night’s game in New Orleans against the Pelicans. Still, the recent bout of bad luck that the Clippers seem to be experiencing probably isn’t welcomed. After defeating the Spurs on December 22, the Clippers have suffered three consecutive losses to less than stellar completion—the Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Lakers and Denver Nuggets. The three have a combined winning percentage of just 35.4 percent, meaning that, at least in the early going, the Clippers haven’t been able to beat even some of the league’s weaker competition without their two superstars in Paul and Griffin.

The prevailing sentiment as it relates to the Clippers is that—especially with Paul and Griffin potentially becoming free agents this summer—this is their last best shot at winning a championship. The team’s bench had been considered their Achilles’ heel, but those concerns were thought to have been rectified with a seemingly stronger second unit this season.

Now, the reserves in Los Angeles will get an opportunity to prove those thoughts to be correct. For the sake of Doc Rivers and the club’s hopes of holding onto one of the top three seeds out East, let’s hope the Clips can find a way to man the fort until their superstars return.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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