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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

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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