Tag Archives: Toronto Raptors

NBA Quarterfinals: Worst to First

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED???

The NBA Playoffs will get underway on Saturday, and hot off the press after last night’s action, we have a full slate of first round match-ups to sink our teeth into. While this particular writer is shedding a tear because the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t even come close to making it (again), this season’s playoffs promise to be one of the more entertaining ones in recent memory. The Boston Celtics were able to snag the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since their 2008 title run; a huge milestone in the Brad Stevens era and one that will likely raise the expectations of Boston fans as the playoffs get underway.

There are four teams in this year’s playoffs that didn’t make it in 2016: The Wizards, Bucks, Bulls and Jazz. The Wizards, Bucks and Bulls all made it back in 2015, but the Jazz haven’t made it since 2012 when they were swept by the Spurs in the first round. With all of the changes that happened last off-season, we’re in for one insane playoff stretch, and it all starts with the first round on Saturday. We took a look at all of the matchups and ranked them by interest level, so when you sit down in front of your T.V. on Saturday, you’ll know what to turn on. Without further ado, here is the 2017 NBA Playoffs first round match-ups, ranked from worst to first.

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  1. Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)

Meh.

The Toronto Raptors did pretty much what you’d expect them to during the 2017 season. They kept up with the Celtics and Cavaliers and contended for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, eventually finishing third and drawing a matchup with the Bucks. The Raptors do have some new faces this season that they can use to their advantage in this series; primarily Serge Ibaka.

The key for Toronto is going to be their ability to shut down the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The bigger guys on the Raptors’ roster are going to have a handful trying to defend Giannis, but if they’re able to slow him down and Kyle Lowry has a good series, there’s no reason why the Raptors can’t win this in 6 games. It could be one of the more competitive series in the first round, but aside from Antetokounmpo, there’s just not enough star power to make this an interesting series.

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  1. San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)

This feels like a movie we’ve seen before. These two teams have squared off in a playoff series four out of the last seven seasons, and the tread on the old tire of interest is wearing a little thin.

The highlight in this match-up is the battle of the brothers. While Marc and Pau Gasol may have both passed their prime by a few years, it adds a little bit of intrigue to a series that will otherwise be overshadowed by a great Western Conference series that we’ll get into later. The Grizzlies upset the Spurs as the 8 seed back in 2011, however, and it would take a shocker like that to get us to turn our heads away from some of the other great action going on around the NBA.

  1. Washington Wizards (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)

Well, here we are again. Another year, another Hawks team that hovers in the middle of the playoff race and will be gone by the Conference Finals. Of course, the big difference this year is that they have Dwight Howard. I don’t see many people out there pushing the idea that Dwight Howard (of all people) is somehow going to push Atlanta over the hump, and this is a Wizards team that could be poised to knock them out early. After missing the playoffs last season, Washington is the four seed this year, earning home court advantage and a chance to knock off a very beatable Hawks team.

The Wizards went 3-1 against the Hawks during the regular season, the most recent of those being a thrilling 104-100 victory back on March 22. If Dwight Howard can somehow wake up from the five year nap he’s been taking and make a meaningful impact for this team in the playoffs, we might have something to talk about here for the Hawks. If not, it will be business as usual, and they can start making their tee times by the end of the month.

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  1. Boston Celtics (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (8)

The Chicago Bulls’ motley crew of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo did enough to squeak in to the playoffs at the last second as the 8 seed. At different points in their career, all of these guys were dynamic players who could shift a playoff series just by stepping on the court. Butler is still that player, Rondo can impress occasionally, and Wade, when he’s not battling injuries, is a serviceable veteran player who can hit big shots when it matters.

The end result of all of these things is a team that is often inconsistent and frustrating, but if everything were to click at once, they could make this a series. That is going to mean slowing down Isaiah Thomas, however, and that is no easy task to say the least. Thomas is averaging 28.3 PPG in his last ten games, and the Celtics have a renewed sense of confidence after claiming the 1 seed in the east. Although it is a 1 vs. 8 matchup, these two teams split the regular season 2-2, so we could be in for at least a six game series if all goes well for the Bulls.

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  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (7)

If the Cavaliers had drawn a first-round match-up with the Bulls, this might be a little bit higher on the list. Of course, we’re always up for watching a great duel between LeBron James and Paul George, but this doesn’t appear to be more than a small roadblock for the Cavaliers. An interesting side note here, however, is that Lance Stephenson is back with the Pacers, and the last time he was in the playoffs, he was whispering sweet-nothings into LeBron’s ear. With that in mind, we ask Lance Stephenson please, give us more great theater like this. I want to turn on SportsCenter and see more of Stephenson trying to get under LeBron’s skin. Yes.

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  1. Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Portland Trailblazers (8)

For the casual NBA fan, the name Jusuf Nurkic might not ring a bell. Nurkic was drafted 16th overall by the Bulls in 2014, then traded to the Nuggets on draft night. Now, standing at 7ft 0in, he is the second tallest player on Portland’s roster, and he could play just enough of a role to make this more than a four game sweep for the Warriors. If Damian Lillard can also put the team on his back, we could be talking about a five or six game series, but don’t hold your breath. Golden State is just getting warmed up.

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  1. Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)

The Los Angeles Clippers are in a weird spot. They have largely underachieved the past few seasons, but in a conference dominated by the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, it’s not like they ever had much of a chance. They’ve been playing very well lately, however, and their starting five are as good as anybody’s in the top of the conference (ok, maybe not the Warriors, but who cares).

The Jazz, on the other hand, are a new product. They last made the playoffs in 2012, and the only holdovers from that team are Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, and Gordon Hayward. The Jazz were sneaky good this season, finishing with a record of 51-31. For comparison, that is the same record the Cavs and Raptors finished with this season. They might not be much compared to the powerhouses of the West, but they could become the little engine that could if they’re able to advance to the second round and steal a few games from the Warriors. Don’t sleep on the Utah Jazz, you heard it here first.

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  1. Houston Rockets (3) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

Now here is the juiciest of juicy match-ups. Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden in what amounts to the MVP-Bowl of playoff series. It’s fun enough watching these two go at it for one game, but the possibility of 4,5,6, or perhaps even 7 make this must-see television for the first round. This is what everyone is going to be talking about. During the regular season series, Houston went 3-1, with both teams averaging well over 100 points in each of the four games (Houston averaged 115, while the Thunder averaged 111).

The fireworks, however, came in their final match-up of the regular season, when the two teams combined for 262 points in a 137-125 Houston victory. The interesting stat in that game? James Harden was Houston’s fourth leading scorer, while Westbrook dropped 39 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds. If they’re able to beat the Thunder and the ever-bucket-draining Westbrook in this series when Harden has a quiet night like they did on March 26th, there just isn’t much wiggle room for the Thunder to be able to take this series. Russ will have to play like a madman, and we’re assuming he will. Will it be enough? Who knows. That’s why they play the games.

 

2016-17 NBA Expectations Meter: Atlantic Division

Rather than simply previewing each team heading into the 2016-17 NBA season, we analyzed each team and created what a successful season would look like for each franchise. Obviously, the bar is much lower for some than others (spoiler alert: the 76ers and Warriors do not have the same expectations), but each team has goals to work toward.

We begin this week with the Atlantic Division; home to the Celtics, Nets, Knicks, 76ers and Raptors. Two out of these five teams made the playoffs last year, and with other Eastern Conference teams such as the Pistons, Hornets and Wizards looking to take the next step, it is hard to envision three teams getting in from this division.

Perhaps the most interesting storyline to follow in the Atlantic Division is if any of the bad teams from last year can rise to challenge the incumbent playoff teams. The Toronto Raptors finished first with a 56-26 record, followed by the Boston Celtics at 48-34. After that, there is a stark drop-off; the Knicks, Nets and 76ers formed the basement of the Eastern Conference standings last season. In fact, those three teams combined for 63 wins, which is still 10 shy of the Golden State Warriors’ record setting season. Without further ado, here is each Atlantic Division team and their benchmark this year.

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Boston Celtics

                                  2015-16                                     2016-17
                                     48-34                                      53-29
              Lost to ATL in RD1 (6 Games)                           Conference Finals
                  2nd in Atlantic Division                       1st in Atlantic Division

The Atlantic Division in 2016-17 is going to essentially be a toss-up between the Celtics and Raptors. The biggest influence in that is going to be how quickly Al Horford settles into his new team. You may notice that our expectations for the Celtics, like the Raptors, is the Conference Finals. Only one of these teams is going to end up there. The Raptors are the known commodity, while the Celtics appear to be on the fringe of something good.

Losing in six games to the Hawks last season has to go down as a disappointment for Brad Stevens and company, and they will likely use that as fire to achieve better things this season. The Celts lost Evan Turner this offseason, and it has been reported that Marcus Smart will look to fill that void off the bench. The Celtics got rid of the underachieving Jared Sullinger, who was picked up by the Raptors. The Celtics will have to hope that he doesn’t find his stride with Toronto, meanwhile they have upgraded significantly in that department with the acquisition of Al Horford.

Though we have big expectations for the Boston Celtics this season, it is easy to envision them not playing out. This is a pivotal year for the Brad Stevens era, and there is a tremendous amount of pressure on them to perform. As stated earlier, a lot of this rests on the shoulders of Al Horford, but we have seen previously that big names coming to the merciless media market of Boston don’t always have the best track record.

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Toronto Raptors

          2015-16                2016-17
             56-26                   52-30
 Lost to CLE in CF (6 Games) Conference Finals (7 Games)
1st in Atlantic Division    2nd in Atlantic Division

The Toronto Raptors find themselves in a tough position as far as expectations go. Coming off a season in which they set franchise records for wins and lost in six games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Conference Finals, the only way they can really improve drastically is my making the NBA Finals. That is a tough task, considering last time we checked, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are still in Cleveland and they aren’t going anywhere.

In the offseason, the Raptors lost big-man Bismack Biyombo, but gained Jared Sullinger and re-signed DeMar DeRozan for $25 million over five years.

It is very unfair to expect the Raptors to dethrone Cleveland yet, but at the very least they could set themselves to be the next team up. If they are able to beat Cleveland, they will have exceeded our expectations, but for now, a hard-fought seven game series is their benchmark.

 

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New York Knicks

                                 2015-16                                   2016-17
                                    32-50                                    44-38
                  13th in Eastern Conference                        Make the Playoffs
                     3rd in Atlantic Division                   3rd in Atlantic Division

According to Derrick Rose, the Knicks are a super team, right? Anybody? Well, Mr. Rose was a little off on that one, but we do envision the Knicks taking a step forward in 2016-17. How could they not? They brought in Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee and several other players, and got rid of some lackluster players like Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez. That’s not to say the Knicks are going to be a great team this year, but they could be fun as hell to watch.

If there’s one glaring issue for the Knicks, it is Derrick Rose’s off-the-court distraction. Rose is currently tangled up in a rape lawsuit, and if he is declared guilty, the Knicks season is already derailed. So much of what they are hoping to do this year revolves around Rose recapturing some of the magic of early in his career, and an off-the court distraction is not how the Knicks hoped to start this season.

The problem for the Knicks is also a long-term sustainability issue. This team as currently constructed only has a couple “good” (if you even want to call it that) seasons in them. After that, Carmelo Anthony will be old, Rose will be washed up, and Joakim Noah will be a non-factor if he isn’t already this year.

The best thing that could happen for the Knicks is Kristaps Porzingis having an MVP-worthy season. If he can establish himself as a superstar in the NBA over the course of the next few seasons, the Knicks have something to build around. Until then, they will tread water in the bottom of the playoff picture.

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 4.46.46 PM.png Philadelphia 76ers

                              2015-16                                   2016-17
                                10-72                                   32-50
                 15th in Eastern Conference                              12th or Better
                     5th in Atlantic Division                      4th in Atlantic Division

I think we’re all in agreement that it can’t get any worse for the 76ers, right? They’re gaining (finally) Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, a couple long-awaited 2014 first-rounders. In addition, we might get to see a little bit of Ben Simmons, but that remains to be seen.

The new faces on the court signify progress for the Sixers’ “Trust the Process” rebuild, which is notorious for being the longest rebuild in NBA history (we think). Even if Embiid turns into Greg Oden and Saric plays like Dirk Nowitski’s uncoordinated little brother, it would be hard for the 76ers to do worse than last season. This is actually the first year in a long time that people don’t have the Sixers finishing last, and I guess that’s a good thing for 76ers fans. Maybe they’ll hit the lottery again and get another top ten pick that might see the court by 2020.

All joking aside, a core of Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons could be halfway decent. All the 76ers have to do is make it work effectively.

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Brooklyn Nets

                              2015-16                                       2016-17
                                  21-61                                         25-57
                 14th in Eastern Conference                                 13th or Better
                   4th in Atlantic Division                      5th in Atlantic Division

Wait, shouldn’t that be spelled the BrookLin Nets? The only real move the Nets made this off-season was bringing in Jeremy Lin from the Charlotte Hornets, and that means this is going to be a long season. The lowly 76ers will now be breathing down the Nets’ neck with an improved roster, and it will be hard for Brooklyn to even stay out of the Atlantic Division basement.

The 25-57 record above is something the Nets should strive for, but in all reality, it will be an uphill climb. The Nets look poised to be potentially the worst team in the Eastern Conference, and no amount of crazy Jeremy Lin hairstyles or missed layup attempts can change this.

The Nets, however, are bringing in a new coach, which could be a reason for excitement. Kenny Atkinson is seen as a players’ coach, but we will see how that holds up throughout the course of a long season and many losses. Until then, keep trying Brooklyn. They don’t give participation awards in the NBA.

 

Raptors Tie Series After Being Pronounced Dead Before The First Game

Going into the Eastern Conference Finals, it was widely predicted, no, widely expected, that the Cleveland Cavaliers would be able to handily defeat the Toronto Raptors. This notion was even further strengthened by the Cavaliers’ two dominant home wins to open the series. At this point, the conversation wasn’t even about the series at hand, but more about if Cleveland could complete a clean sweep of the Eastern Conference in the playoffs. Then, things moved to Toronto.

 

The Raptors won game 3 behind a strong rebounding performance from Bismack Biyombo, but that did little to change the narrative of the series. Though they exposed some of the Cavaliers’ weaknesses, Toronto was still not expected by pundits to win another game in the series.

 

Well, well, well.

 

Game Four began exactly how Toronto needed it to; strong play by the likes of Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan, and sturdy defense from Biyambo. Judging by Lowry’s 35 points, he managed to find time to “decompress” before the game instead of during it. Tyronn Lue had a bizarre approach to the game, giving big minutes to LeBron and throwing the rest of the team in confusion. It looked a lot like an overreaction to what happened the previous game, and it didn’t work. Not even close. In fact, the Raptors jumped out to a fairly quick 18-point lead in front of an energized crowd at the Air Canada Centre, and held an advantage until the waning minutes of the game. Sure, ESPN and other major outlets will talk about what the Cavaliers did wrong and how LeBron wasn’t put in a position to succeed, but here’s a thought: what if the Raptors just beat them?

 

Toronto’s Achilles heel all postseason has been their lack of consistency. It’s why their previous two series have gone to 7 games when they really could’ve been wrapped up sooner. Regardless of what Cleveland’s game plan was entering this game, the Raptors clearly had more energy, more determination, and more heart. The difference between Toronto’s first two series and this one, however, is that inconsistent play will not get them to a seventh game. Rather, they will need to play at a nearly perfect level the rest of the series. However, the way the game ended should give some pause to Toronto fans about how Game 5 will play out.

 

After making some halftime adjustments, the Cavaliers came out guns-blazing, including 6 three pointers in the third quarter to cut the Raptor lead to 9. Cleveland was even able to snag a lead with just over 5 minutes remaining in the game, following a stretch where they scored on 16 straight possessions. Kyrie Irving also got hot in the second half, finishing with 26 points. All of this was too little too late, however, as the Raptors were able to finish strong and thwart the comeback.

 

So, all of a sudden, the series that was an all but certain sweep is tied at 2-2, and Toronto will live to play another home game on Friday. Is it possible that we could see this thing go seven games? Absolutely. Cleveland will have a chance to get a grip on the series again tomorrow night, but the Raptors at home looked like an entirely different team. Additionally, if Kevin Love plays another game in this series like the one he played last night, the Cavaliers could be toast in the finals, if they even make it that far. Love was 4 for 14, finishing with just 10 points. On top of that, he appeared to injure his ankle in the fourth quarter, sitting out the remainder of the game. Lue said after the game that the injury isn’t a concern, but had love been on the floor for those final minutes, we could be looking at a 3-1 series.

Going forward for the Raptors, Kyle Lowry is going to be very important. As he heats up, so does the rest of the team. However, when he’s cold, as we saw in the first two games of this series, its bad news for Toronto. After the game, DeRozan said of Lowry “It’s a cakewalk for me when he gets going. It opens up everything.” It’s easy to forget what things were like a few games ago when things weren’t going so well for the Raptors. For the time being, all the pressure will be on Cleveland tomorrow night at the Quicken Loans Arena.

Can Anyone Dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference?

LeBron James is currently in a spot that he is used to being in. That spot being at the top of the Eastern Conference. With James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers owning the 1 seed in the East since his return to Cleveland last season it begs the question; can anyone beat LeBron and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference?

The easy answer to this question, and what the “expert” analysts would say, (looking at you ESPN) is “no.” Teams with LeBron James have made the NBA Finals each of the last five years (2011-2014 with the Heat and last season with Cleveland). So why wouldn’t this years Cavaliers team be the beasts of the East once again? Well let’s look at the team currently sitting just two games out of the lead for the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors. Toronto has been a team on the rise for a few seasons now. They won 48 and 49 games in the past two seasons respectively, but came up short in the first round of the playoffs both times. Just a couple weeks after the All-Star break, this years Raptors team already has 40 wins on the season. As the standings sit as they are right now, this would land them the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. This years Pacers team has been streaky. If led by Paul George, they can catch fire at the right time, causing a potential upset and a third straight first round exit for the Raptors. But let me tell you why I don’t think that will happen…

This years Raptors team has its best roster since the Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady days of the early 2000s. DeMar DeRozan has emerged as a legitimate star in the NBA this season. He averages a little over 23 points per game and along with the other All-Star Raptor, Kyle Lowry, this team has a solid backcourt. Lowry averages 21.6 points a game with 6.4 assists and a league leading 2.2 steals per game. Along with their two stars they have a big man in Jonas Valanciunas who can protect the rim and put up some decent offensive numbers. They also acquired DeMarre Carroll this season. Carroll was a huge piece of last years’ Atlanta Hawks team that went all the way to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Cavs in four games. The thing all of these players have in common is their ability to play defense. The Raptors are top 5 in the NBA in points per game allowed letting up just 97.8 PPG. And along with the four players listed above, they have a player in Bismack Biyombo who can protect the paint and who averages 8 rebounds per game while only playing an average of about 22 minutes.

Let’s go back to the Cavs real quick. Sure the Raptors have defense, but how can you stop an offense with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love? These are three player who average 24.9, 19, and 15.9 points per game respectively. And along with these three super stars, they also have big man Tristan Thompson who has emerged as an elite rim protector and rebounder in the NBA. Also, I know I said the defense of Toronto is good, but the Cavaliers let up an even better average of 97.2 points per game to their opponents, placing them third in the NBA. So you may ask, how can the Raptors possibly beat the Cavaliers in a seven game series? The answer is matchups. I LOVE the way the raptors matchup against the Cavs. Let’s go through the lineups, shall we?

We first have the matchup of Kyle Lowry guarding Kyrie Irving. Lowry can be a lockdown perimeter defender and has a knack for taking the ball away on defense. Let’s then look at Kevin Love. As a stretch big man the Raptors are going to need someone who can guard him on the block and behind the three-point line. Though not great defending on the block, Toronto’s Luis Scola should be able to keep Love at bay beyond the arc while getting help down low from his guards and complimentary big men.

Ok, so we know that the Raptors can guard Irving and Love; the Cavs should be no problem then, right? Oh yeah, I forgot about one other guy. LeBron James. Now in his twelfth year in the league I think we’ve all learned you can’t stop the guy completely. But you can slow him down and the Raptors may just have the perfect arsenal to do just that. With an elite defender and above average sized guard in DeMar DeRozan, Toronto has a body that can match up well against the freak athlete that is LeBron. And when DeRozan needs a break, DeMarre Carroll is another guy who is stronger than a lot of guys in the NBA and may be able to slow James down just a little bit. When you take all this into account, if the Raptors and Cavaliers meet in the Eastern Conference Finals then maybe, just maybe, the Toronto Raptors will represent the East in the 2016 NBA Finals.