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The Nuggets have scored some big wins lately. How far do you see Denver going this season? What has you believing (or not believing) in them?
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Steve Aschburner: Here’s how much I like the Nuggets — if LeBron James had wanted first and foremost to win another championship ring, and do so quickly, I think Denver would have been a better summer destination for him than the Lakers. Coach Michael Malone is working with a great ensemble, in need mostly of that tent-pole guy and reliable closer. As is, I think the Nuggets can go as far as the Western Conference finals, particularly if they get marvelously skilled big man Nikola Jokic to consistently play more aggressively on offense.
Shaun Powell: You must believe in Denver because as good as this team has looked lately, they’ve yet to reach the ceiling. What happens when Will Barton returns? Are you a believer in Isaiah Thomas, who’s also mending? Assuming these additions will only deepen and bolster the lineup, there’s no reason not to believe the Nuggets will be a top-three team when the playoffs approach. Their deep lineup, solid defense most nights and freakish center in Nikola Jokic spells trouble for others.
John Schuhmann: It’s fair to believe that the Nuggets are the early favorite to be the team that loses to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. They’re the only West team that ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, having seen the league’s biggest improvement on defense (6.4 fewer points allowed per 100 possessions than last season). There’s reason to be a little leery of that, because their new system (like that of the Bucks under Jason Kidd) can give up layups and corner 3-pointers, and much of their success is about their opponent 3-point percentage (lowest in the league), a number which can be a little deceiving at this point in the season. But the players have bought in and they’ve played more games against top-10 offenses (nine) than they have against bottom-10 offenses (seven). Their bench has been very good (Trey Lyles can play), and should be better upon the return of Will Barton.
Sekou Smith: The Nuggets came into this season on my teams-on-the-rise list and they’ve lived up to it so far. They’ve got the talent and depth to be a top-four team in the Western Conference playoff chase. They are that good. And yes, it’s easy to believe in a team when they are tied for the No. 1 spot in the West. But what we’re talking about is projecting where this Nuggets team is headed over the course of the next four-plus months. I’m not nervous at all about projecting the Nuggets as a part of that top-four mix. I am confident they won’t see a repeat of last season, when they played for a playoff spot on the final night of the regular season (and lost it to the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime).
Nurse says Lowry ‘playing through pain’ in East finals
* Tonight on TNT: Game 5, Raptors vs. Bucks (8:30 ET)
The Toronto Raptors have forged a tie in the Eastern Conference finals with the Milwaukee Bucks behind back-to-back solid performances from standouts Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Both players, however, have been hobbled a bit by injury as Game 5 of the series looms.
Leonard scored 36 points in 52 minutes in a double-overtime win in Game 3 on Sunday despite dealing with leg soreness. Time and again, he came up with clutch plays in that victory, but was a little less impactful in Game 4. Although Leonard finished with 19 points in 34 minutes, he appeared to hobble at times throughout that game.
As for Lowry, he scored 12 of Toronto’s first 17 points and finished with 25 points overall, going 10-for-10 at the free-throw line. On Wednesday, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Lowry is definitely playing through pain in this series, while Leonard is apparently doing better than he appears to be.
“He’s feeling good,” Nurse said about Leonard in a Wednesday conference call. “No concerns at this point. He’s good.”
Lowry has been battling a left thumb injury that he suffered in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. He has been wearing a specially designed glove that looks like an oven mitt to try and help speed up his healing process. Nurse said Wednesday that Lowry is admittedly still playing through some pain.
“Kyle’s hand is not great,” Nurse told reporters. “You know, he’s — it’s hurt and it’s sore and it causes him a lot of pain. But he seems to be able to manage it through the game and do what he can do.
“He’s obviously scoring and playing great on top of the other things he always does, and we’re really [seeing] a heck of a lot of toughness and again, the spirit that he just wants to be out there and help his team any way he can.”
Nurse also said OG Anunoby does not have a timetable for returning from an emergency appendectomy that has sidelined the 21-year-old forward for the entire postseason.
“He is being more active every day,” Nurse said. “I think we are getting closer to a point where we’re – you know, unpack is the next step for him. He’s moving pretty good, he’s shooting, etc., but still a ways away from being able to take hits and contact in the areas that he needs to test out.”
On the Bucks side of things, coach Mike Budenholzer knows his team must get more from his bench, which has outscored Toronto’s reserves 130-78 through the first three games of the series. In Game 4, it was a different story as the Raptors’ bench, led by forward Norman Powell’s 18 points, rang up 48 points Tuesday to help Toronto even the series.
“They need to play well,” Budenholzer said Wednesday of his reserves. “I think our whole team, whether it be the bench or the starters, needs to be better defensively. I think there’s things offensively where the bench can, you know, just like the rest of us, we have to execute a little bit better. … this series, the benches have been critical and very influential and credit to Toronto’s bench, particularly. They really stepped up and had a huge game, and we need that from our group.”
Aside from that storyline, one involving rapper Drake has also gotten a lot of attention in the East finals.
Drake’s impromptu massage of Nurse’s shoulders is getting a lot of attention, though the Raptors’ coach said he didn’t even realize it had happened.
“I didn’t even know I got the shoulder rub last night until somebody showed me a picture today,” Nurse said. “I didn’t even feel it. I was so locked into the game. Didn’t distract me at all.”
Drake has been very animated at courtside, and Budenholzer said if the rapper steps onto the court, it crosses the line.
“I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize,” Budenholzer said. “There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”
Drake took to social media to respond to Budenhozler’s criticism, firing off a series of emojis on Instagram. He then did an Instagram Live post in which he linked a user’s comment that read, in part: “If you don’t want the opposing team to celebrate and dance, prevent them from scoring, winning, or achieving their objective. Get over it and keep moving.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Raptors look to keep rolling in Game 5, while Bucks could benefit from lineup change
MILWAUKEE — The Eastern Conference finals have become a best-of-three series.
After Game 2, the Milwaukee Bucks looked like the best team in basketball. Now, their second two-game losing streak of the season has brought their first taste of playoff adversity. The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, are very much alive after coming just a possession or two from a 3-0 deficit just a few days ago. They’ve led for 61 percent of the minutes in this series and their complete victory in Game 4 — execution on both ends of the floor, contributions from the entire rotation — sets up a huge Game 5 back in Milwaukee on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
Have the Raptors found their mojo? Do the Bucks need to change things up? Here are some numbers of note with the series even at two games apiece.
Game 4 was the Bucks’ worst defensive game (120 points allowed on 96 possessions) of the postseason, and that was the focus of head coach Mike Budenholzer’s frustration Tuesday night. The league’s No. 1 defense simply can’t have the same kinds of breakdowns going forward.
But the more consistent issues for the Bucks have come on the other end of the floor, where, over the two games in Toronto, they scored less than a point per possession.
Before Game 3, it was noted that the Bucks had been been beating the Raptors in the pace battle. And even with Toronto playing much better in Games 3 and 4, Milwaukee has still scored 30 more points (82-52) on field goals in the first six seconds of the shot clock.
Of course, the counter to that is that the Raptors have been the better team in the half-court. When Milwaukee hasn’t scored in transition, offense has been a struggle. And its in their numbers from beyond the arc where their half-court issues have showed up. In the first 12 seconds of the shot clock, the Bucks have shot 34-for-96 (35 percent) from 3-point range. In the last 12 seconds of the shot clock, they’ve shot just 15-for-68 (22 percent) from 3-point range.
Credit the Toronto defense, which has been terrific in its ability to show help on Giannis Antetokounmpo and recover out to the Bucks’ shooters. Giving Kawhi Leonard the Antetokounmpo assignment for Games 3 and 4 has certainly had an effect. The Bucks have scored just 86 points on the 94 possessions (with Antetokounmpo shooting 7-for-23) that the Raptors’ star has been guarding his Milwaukee counterpart.
In the first half of Game 3, Toronto’s inability to match up in transition led to four Milwaukee 3s in the first six seconds of the shot clock. In the 82 minutes of game time since then, the Bucks have made just one 3 in the first six seconds of the clock.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Game 4 was both the slowest-paced game (each team had the ball just 96 times) and the Raptors’ best game of the series. If Toronto can continue to avoid live-ball turnovers, execute offensively and match up in transition, the Bucks will need to find some more offense late in the clock.
Back to the old lineup?
Improved offense could come with a lineup change. Budenholzer has made no indication that he’s ready to change things up, but there’s both a reason and a convenient excuse to have Malcolm Brogdon start Game 5.
Nikola Mirotic (6-for-28 from 3-point range in the series) hasn’t been the worst shooter in the starting lineup. That would be Eric Bledsoe, who is 11-for-45, including 2-for-19 from 3-point range, over the four games. But while Mirotic is always an effective floor spacer (because he’s always a threat to shoot out to 28 feet), Brogdon is a more dynamic offensive player.
As a fourth ball-handler in the lineup, Brogdon could push the ball into more transition opportunities. And in the half-court, he would be more successful in attacking Toronto’s close-outs. He has averaged almost four times as many drives per 36 minutes (12.7) as Mirotic (3.5).
So far in this series, the Milwaukee offense has been at its best, scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions, with Brogdon on the floor. He has the best plus-minutes in the series, with the Bucks having outscored the Raptors by 26 points in his 116 minutes. Mirotic has the worst plus-minus in the series (by a wide margin), with the Raptors having outscored the Bucks by 26 points in his 102 minutes.
Swapping Brogdon for Mirotic is just a return to the Bucks’ old starting lineup, which played 597 minutes together in the regular season. It wasn’t the most dominant lineup in the league — its mark of plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions ranked 19th among 40 lineups that played at least 200 minutes together — but it’s a plus-10 in just 10 minutes in this series.
The Bucks are 10-3 in these playoffs, but they’ve lost the first quarter in eight of their last 10 games. A lineup change probably couldn’t hurt.
Fixing the glass
In Games 1 and 2, the Bucks outscored Toronto, 41-21, on second chance points. In Games 3 and 4, second-chance points were even at 26 for each team.
The Raptors were able to fix their rebounding issues without going to their big lineup. Playing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together helped them rebound better in the Philadelphia series, but the two bigs played just 10 minutes together in Games 3 and 4. In total, Ibaka and Gasol have played 22 minutes together in the conference finals after playing 77 minutes together over the last four games of the Philly series.
Among the Raptors’ eight rotation guys, their defensive rebounding percentage has been highest (they’ve grabbed 74.5 percent of available defensive boards) with Norman Powell on the floor.
The Raptors were obviously the more desperate team in Games 3 and 4. Now both teams are two games from The Finals and two games from the end of their season. That should make for an intense Game 5.
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Cavs’ Gilbert: ‘We killed it’ with Kyrie trade
The decision to trade Kyrie Irving to Boston for a future first-round pick, Isaiah Thomas, Ante Zizic and Jae Crowder was a bonafide win for the Cavaliers.
That’s how Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert feels, anyway, a sentiment expressed via The Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday. Citing Irving’s desire to be traded — and his agent alluding to his need for knee surgery if he wasn’t dealt — Gilbert dubbed the Cavs’ escape from the awkward predicament nothing short of a win for the hard-fallen franchise.
“We could have ended up with nothing. Looking back after all the moves [general manager] Koby [Altman] made, we killed it in that trade,” Gilbert declared.
Irving has averaged 24.1 points, 6.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds en route to a pair of All-Star appearances in his two years with the Celtics. He missed the 2018 Playoffs due to injury, however, before Boston suffered a 4-1 second-round defeat to Milwaukee in 2019. Irving is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Cleveland, meanwhile, used the Nets pick they acquired in the trade to draft Collin Sexton, who earned All-Rookie Second Team honors in 2018-19. Zizic showed promise as the Cavs’ backup center this season, while Crowder and Thomas were traded again just months after Cleveland acquired them.
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