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The Toronto Raptors Are Poised For An Upset

The Toronto Raptors are primed for a potential upset in the playoffs, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard

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While some teams in the top half of the bracket have ridden favorable health or a favorable schedule to home court advantage for the upcoming NBA playoffs, the Toronto Raptors have joined the Cleveland Cavaliers in enduring true adversity. With the latter struggling defensively and the Wizards and Celtics unproven in the playoffs in their current iterations — and with Toronto playing astonishingly well in the absence of Kyle Lowry — the Raptors could be poised for a surprising run in the postseason.

The Raptors reached the All-Star break with a 33-24 record. Somehow, without Lowry, the Raptors have ripped off an 11-5 stretch and outpaced the Hawks for the fourth seed. Atlanta has fallen apart — currently embroiled in a seven-game losing streak — and dropped into a three-way tie with the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, a full seven games behind Toronto.

With no team in position to challenge Toronto for the fourth seed, a number of scenarios emerge in which the Raptors could make an improbable return to the Eastern Conference Finals for a second consecutive season. The Cavaliers are vulnerable, with the league’s 22nd-ranked defense. As Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype tweeted, only the 2001 Lakers have won an NBA title without a top-12 defense.

But the Cavaliers aren’t the only East contender that could be vulnerable in a playoff series. ESPN’s Marc Stein pointed out a scheduling quirk in his Week 21 Power Rankings that has likely contributed to Boston’s strong finish and potential run to the top seed. Prior to the Celtics’ March 15 win against the Timberwolves, Stein noted that Boston faced a very weak schedule to close the season. The Celtics also got help from the schedule-makers in the form of a light travel schedule in the season’s final month.

The combined winning percentage of Boston’s 16 remaining opponents entering Sunday’s afternoon rout of Chicago was a mere .435. The Celts won’t leave the Eastern time zone for the rest of the season and will travel fewer than 3,000 miles between now and the playoffs. The average NBA team … will travel nearly 9,000 miles during the season’s final month.

That favorable schedule could have two interesting consequences. The Celtics might win the East’s top seed thanks to extra love from the NBA’s front office. However, if Boston does so, it could be an extremely vulnerable top seed. The Celtics are only 2-5 against Washington and Toronto this season. If the Raptors remain fourth while the Cavs slip to second, it means Toronto can avoid Cleveland until a potential rematch in the Conference Finals. If the Cavaliers retain the top spot, the Raptors currently sit a mere game behind the Wizards for the third seed.

Either scenario presents a potential second-round match-up with a Celtics team that has yet to prove anything in the post-season. Boston lost in the first round in six games to the Hawks last season, and after Atlanta took a 3-2 series lead following a home victory in Game 5, coach Brad Stevens talked about the adjustment Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer made to help his team to a crucial victory (at the 1:40 mark in this video).

“He trapped a lot of Isaiah [Thomas’] pick and rolls, obviously,” said Stevens of Coach Bud’s Game 5 adjustments. “So they were very extended on that which forces other guys to handle and make plays and make shots. I thought Isaiah did a really good job of just getting rid of the ball. That’s what you have to do when you’re being trapped.”

As sure as the sun will rise in the East, the Celtics will be dealing with traps on Thomas from every opponent in the forthcoming playoffs. Stevens adjusted in Games 3 and 4 of the Hawks series by moving Jonas Jerebko into the starting lineup for additional spacing and Evan Turner for additional playmaking. Jerebko likely won’t be needed to repraise that role with Al Horford capably stretching the floor. And Marcus Smart will need to handle much of the secondary ball handling duties with Turner departed to the Trail Blazers.

Could the Celtics be even more susceptible to efforts to get the ball out of Thomas’ hands in the upcoming playoffs? As mentioned in a discussion of Thomas’ standing among a plethora of Most Improved Player candidates, while his five-point bump in Player Efficiency Rating is impressive, it’s accompanied by a five percent increase in usage.

Horford’s presence will certainly help with his ability to serve as a release valve on pick-and-pops, and passing ability that is scarcely rivaled among players his size. In three seasons Horford played under Budenholzer in Atlanta, the Hawks finished first or second in manufacturing what NBA.com terms wide-open shots (no defender within six feet). This was widely credited to the ball-movement system Budenholzer brought with him from the Spurs. Without Horford this season, though, Atlanta plunged to 12th while Boston shot from 15th last season to second in this category.

Meanwhile, the Raptors have produced some interesting stats of their own. DeMar DeRozan’s averages have remained fairly consistent while Toronto has seen needed bumps from guards Cory Joseph and Norman Powell. Joseph upped his 8.5 points and 2.7 assists pre-All Star to 11.1 and 4.6 while Powell stepped up from 7.4 points and two rebounds to 11.3 and 3.1. No big surprises there. However, Toronto’s performances in fourth quarters since the All-Star break have been nothing short of stupefying.

Prior to the All-Star break, the Raptors were +9.2 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarter net rating, second only to the Utah Jazz (+11.8). Since the break, the Raptors are an unthinkable +33 per 100 possessions in fourth quarters. All five of Toronto’s losses during this stretch have come against playoff teams. Without Lowry, the absolute centerpiece of the Raptors’ attack, Toronto has emerged with a killer instinct that should have playoff opponents trembling.

The Raptors currently sit a mere 3.5 games behind the first-place Cavaliers. Assuming Toronto gets out of the first round, none of the current top three in the East should assume that Lowry’s potential absence will make for an easy series. If Toronto continues to annihilate opponents in fourth quarters, the Raptors could exceed expectations with a deep playoff run for the second time in as many seasons.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA

David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled

David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.

He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.

He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.

“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”

Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.

He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.

“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”

Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.

He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.

“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”

The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.

“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”

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NBA Daily: The Los Angeles Lakers Could Be Up Next

The Los Angeles Lakers may not make the playoffs this season, but they’re trending in the right direction.

Dennis Chambers

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The Los Angeles Lakers are coming.

They may not be playoff-bound this season as some of their purple and gold faithful hoped for, but the prestigious franchise occupying the Staples Center is showing improvement from their young players. Perhaps even enough to lure the likes of established stars come summer time.

In Luke Walton’s second season as the Lakers’ head coach, he hits the All-Star break with his team holding a 23-34 record. Granted, that’s not the level of success he was used to during his time with the Golden State Warriors, but it is only three fewer wins than his team had all of last season.

Prior to limping into the break on the back of a three-game losing streak, the Lakers had won eight of 10. During that stretch, they’d beaten the likes of Oklahoma City (twice), Indiana, and Boston. Along with making the most of their performances over that span, the Lakers were also doing so without 2017’s second overall pick, Lonzo Ball, who’s sidelined with an injury.

But Ball isn’t the only Los Angeles darling who has shined this season. In fact, it’s arguable that he’s not even the most impressive youngster on the team.

Drafted second overall last season, Brandon Ingram is showing the improvement this season that warranted such a high selection. His play thus far suggests he’s one of the building blocks of the Lakers’ next era in contending for a championship.

In his 53 games this season, Ingram is averaging 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. His shooting from the floor and from beyond the arc have both seen dramatic increases as well this season. Over the same stretch that saw the Lakers go 8-2 with wins over cemented playoff teams, Ingram upped his assists per night to 5.2, taking the place of facilitator with Ball sidelined.

Though Ingram and the Lakers haven’t been setting the win column on fire all season, the steady growth and improvement show to him that the team is moving in the right direction, under the right coach.

“I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ingram said to reporters during All-Star weekend. “I think guys have gotten better every single day. I think we come in with the mindset that we have a really good coach that pushes us every single day. I like the progress of what we’re doing in our organization.”

Walton, this season more than last, has shown the ability to get the most out of the players he has. Ingram’s improvement, plus the capability as a point guard Ball has shown, are the givens. They were highly selected players, expected to contribute immediately. But it’s the production of the players who were afterthoughts that are a major testament to Walton’s teachings.

Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart were selected with the 27th and 30th picks in last June’s draft. Both were collegiate upperclassmen with noted handicaps in their respective games that led to teams selecting younger, or more athletic, or sweeter shooting players in their place.

A few years from now when everyone looks back, that could prove to be a silly mistake.

All Kuzma has done this season is keep his name consistently in the Rookie of the Year award race by averaging 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and shooting nearly 36 percent from beyond the arc. He’s been a lightning rod of scoring for the Lakers on nights where they desperately need it, racking up 13 games where he’s reached at least 20 points, and three games breaking the 30-point plateau.

Hart, on the other hand, hasn’t been as steady a performer as his fellow late first-round selected teammate. But when called upon, especially since Ball has been out, Hart’s shown the all-around game that made him one of the most decorated players in college basketball while at Villanova.

Over the last month, Hart has averaged 8.8 points and five rebounds per game, while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. During that same stretch, Hart’s scored in double-figures six times and registered three straight double-doubles at the beginning of February.

Moving forward, as the Lakers look to add high-priced free agent in the coming summers, having guys like Kuzma and Hart on cost-effective rookie contracts is a luxury teams around the league hope to have.

Diamonds in the rough like Kuzma and more than capable contributors like Hart are nice, of course, but the real reason for optimism in L.A. is Ingram. He’s the player with a star power ceiling. He’s the guy that the likes of LeBron James and Paul George look at when they weigh their free agent options, as a guy who can handle the workload on the nights they may not have it.

Ingram’s game isn’t finished, though; far from it, in fact. But he knows that, and he’s aware of the steps he needs to take to get to that next level.

“To improve my game I think from a shooting standpoint,” Ingram said. “If I get that down, I think it would be a lot more easier for me to drive to the basket, break down a lot of guys, make plays for my other teammates. I think it would take me to a whole other level.”

Playing for the Los Angeles Lakers doesn’t come void of expectations. There, in Hollywood, everyone is always watching. Fans, other teams, the media, everyone is waiting for the next time a Laker championship comes around. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, Ingram thinks the current legend captaining the ship is the young team’s best asset to achieving that ultimate success everyone in Los Angeles is accustomed too.

“Magic Johnson,” Ingram said. “He’s in our front office. He’s at most of every practice, every single day. For any advice why not go to him, with the caliber of player he was and how many championships he won, the way he carries himself. He always there for just information on anything we need.”

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Simon Hannig recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2018.

Simon Hannig

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game was highlighted by many stars this year, including Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, Nate Robinson, Candace Parker, Bubba Watson, Rachel DeMita and many more. Team Lakers was led by head coach, Rachel Nichols. Team Clippers was led by Katie Nolan.

Quavo, of hip hop group Migos, had the first the two points for Team Clippers, and Justin Bieber had the first three points for Team Lakers.

Team Clippers defeated Team Lakers 75-66.

Quavo led the way for Team Clippers with 19 points on 7/10 shooting, with 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Olympic sprinter Andre De Grasse had 17 points on 8/14 shooting and 6 rebounds. Actor and social media star Brandon Armstrong finished with 16 points on 6/17 shooting, 11 rebounds and 3 assists for Team Clippers. Both wereamong the top three leading scorers for Team Clippers.

NBA2KTV host, actress and model, Rachel DeMita led the way for Team Lakers with 17 points on 6/12 shooting and 2 rebounds. NBA legend Nate Robinson was the second leading scorer for Team Lakers with 14 points on 4/11 shooting, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

Other notable NBA and WNBA legends stats from tonight’s game — Stefanie Dolson (Chicago Sky) had zero points. Paul Pierce had 4 points on 2/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Jason Williams had 2 points on 1/3 shooting and 1 rebound. Tracy McGrady had 3 points on 1/3 shooting, 3 assists and 2 rebounds. Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) had zero points.

Quavo was named MVP.

BBVA Compass Rising Stars Game

There is a ton of young talent in this league, and the league will be in good hands for years to come. The talent was put on display tonight in Los Angeles.

Utah Jazz rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell gave us an early preview of the dunk contest tomorrow by throwing an ally-oop pass to himself off the backboard in the first half.

However, it was all Team World in the first half as they led 78-59 at the break. Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings each had 14 points to lead Team World. Jaylen Brown led the way for Team USA with 16 points at the half.

It felt like a three point contest throughout the entire game, as there were 96 combined three point attempts. Bogdanovic led the way with seven three pointers made for both teams.

All in all, Team World defeated Team USA 155-124. Hield led the way for Team World with 29 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics led the way for Team USA with 35 points and 10 rebounds.

The MVP of the game was Bogdan Bogdanovic, who dazzled the crowd with his three point shooting. He had 26 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds with seven made three’s.

Next up for the NBA in this fun-filled weekend is NBA All-Star Saturday Night with the dunk contest, three point contest and much more.

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