NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Lowry on advancing to semifinals: ‘We have to do this’ — One win is all that stands between the Toronto Raptors’ first Eastern Conference semifinals appearance since 2001. Yet grabbing that final victory won’t be easy as the Indiana Pacers have given the No. 2-seeded Raptors everything they can handle in their opening-round series. Toronto’s players definitely are feeling the pressure to advance and star guard Kyle Lowry admitted as much in an interview with The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
Perhaps this Eastern Conference series shouldn’t be such a struggle for a No. 2 seed with 56 regular-season victories, but the truth is unmistakable: Winning a playoff series has transformed into a monstrosity for the Raptors.
“The crowd is waiting,” GM Masai Ujiri told The Vertical. “The fans are waiting. The city is waiting. The whole country is waiting. We hope we can do it for everybody. And the players, I know they feel it.”
Hours earlier in the corridor of the arena late Tuesday, Ujiri had been chatting with the most famous Raptors fan of all. Drake had exhaled too, and shared a laugh with Ujiri and Raptors executive Jeff Weltman over a past postseason memory. Fifteen years of fervor since Vince Carter led the team past the New York Knicks in 2001, 15 years of regular-season futility and playoff failures linger like a fog rolling off Lake Ontario.
“It’s there,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey told The Vertical. “We can’t hide from it. … Listen, you’ve got to go through something as a program. Five years into our program [as a coaching staff], and the expectation level is through the roof.
“For our program, this next step is the hardest one to get … one of the hardest things to do in sports.”
“I haven’t once talked about our woes in the first round,” Casey told The Vertical. “Not once. There’s so much hoopla. There’s so much pressure.”
Between Games 5 and 6, Lowry stopped to study a series of text messages that popped into his phone. His college coach, Villanova’s Jay Wright, broke down Lowry’s decisions and plays in the final several minutes of Tuesday night’s victory. Three weeks ago, Lowry was sitting behind the Villanova bench for the national championship victory over North Carolina.
“I’ve always listened to him – except when I was in college,” Lowry told The Vertical.
Now, there’s a Game 6 in Indianapolis on Friday night, a chance to unburden these Raptors, himself, and reach the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“We know what it is,” Lowry told The Vertical. “We hear it. We’ve played with the pressure on our shoulders. We’ve been here three years now. That’s the biggest thing: the first round – we’ve got to get out of the first round. We have to get that monkey off our back.”
Eventually, there are no more text messages and speeches and game plans and pep rallies outside the arena. Eventually there are no more excuses and explanations for an organization and its GM and coach and star players.
“We have to do this,” Kyle Lowry finally said, and that’s the burden of this franchise, the hard truth of 15 long years that hang like an anvil over these Toronto Raptors.
No. 2: Rockets’ dysfunctional season comes to close — It’s hard to believe that these Houston Rockets are essentially the same group that pushed the Golden State Warriors to a Game 5 in the 2015 Western Conference finals. After last night’s loss in Game 5 of the first round to the (essentially the same) Warriors, a Houston season that started with promise has fallen flat on its face. ESPN.com’s Calvin Watkins attempts to make sense of a Rockets season that leaves more questions than were likely expected and also addresses the future of the James Harden–Dwight Howard partnership:
It’s no big surprise since this has often been a season of dysfunction. It starts with Harden and Howard, the team’s two stars. They have tried to be friends — Harden picked up Howard’s tab for dinner in New York on his birthday. During dinner in Phoenix at the All-Star break, the two discussed their on-court issues.
But ultimately, the chemistry between the two hasn’t been there. One team source said: “It’s cordially bad.”
Howard feels he’s a star and should be respected in the locker room. Howard, known to be playful with media members, was distant over the last two months of the regular season. He was largely frozen out of the offense despite coaches and players saying he needs the ball.
But Howard’s stature on the team is in question. There is a perception that several players are not happy with Howard based on a February team meeting, after which one person close to the Rockets said, “If you want the ball, you need to speak up about it. He lost players’ respect.”
One player offered a different view, saying he didn’t mind if Howard spoke up or not. “We just need to play basketball,” the player said.
While Howard is irked by not getting the ball as often as he would like, it is Harden who is dismayed by the center. He wishes Howard would demand the ball and not goof around so much. Howard’s personality — bubbly, friendly, warm — often can rub guarded people such as Harden the wrong way. Howard jokes with fans during games and easily becomes frustrated with referees.
The Rockets will have a comprehensive list of coaches to view whenever the season ends. Bickerstaff, who remains in good standing with management, will be part of that conversation. Leslie Alexander and Daryl Morey believe that Harden will play a role in helping to hire a coach and potentially sign free agents.
Howard is not expected to have a role. It’s expected that he will become a free agent and seek a new team. Orlando, Milwaukee, Portland and Charlotte are the favorites.
What’s left for the Rockets is Harden, a star who needs to find a willing partner whom he respects to help him achieve his goal of winning a championship.
No. 3: Bosh seems ready to play, but will he in series? — Miami Heat big man Chris Bosh hasn’t played in an NBA game since Feb. 9 after a blood clot effectively ended his season. Yet he continues to be around the team, work out on his own and do what he can to try and stay in playing shape. Before last night’s Game 5 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Bosh and his wife, Adrienne, used social media to communicate that Bosh may be ready to play (even if the Heat aren’t in a big hurry to have him back out there). So what will happen with Bosh? David Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel has more:
It was repeated in a soft whisper Wednesday across South Florida, like water running through a pipe, especially as the Heat lost to Charlotte in Game 5, 90-88, to put their season on the brink:
Does Chris Bosh want to play now?
And can he play now?
The answers: Yes, judging by his and his wife’s social-media postings, and no, according to the Heat’s consistent stance.
Or: Maybe and no. Or: No and no.
It’s complicated. And delicate. The only certainty is the Heat could use him, and it was never more obvious than on their final two empty possessions in Wednesday’s loss.
That’s why Tuesday night’s self-generated news by Bosh made Heat fans wonder what was at work.
He hasn’t played since a blood clot at the All-Star break ended a second-consecutive season. He has been there in recent weeks around the Heat, but not really there. Not practicing, but at practice. Not talking publicly, but then posting a Snapchat video of himself shooting.
“I still got it,” he wrote.
That was innocent enough. But then his wife, Adrienne, put out a message on Twitter, saying, “#BringBackBosh.” So we were off wondering if the family thinks he’s ready to play.
As always, a Heat spokesman broached the subject about Bosh by announcing before coach Erik Spoelstra spoke, “No new update on Chris Bosh. Still out indefinitely.”
There’s no legitimate opinion demanding Bosh should play. That’s because only he and the Heat know what doctors are saying on his specific case. And it’s difficult to sketch a scenario questioning the Heat at all.
They would love for Bosh to play. You don’t think he’d have been a difference-maker at the end of Wednesday’s game? That he would have been a good option to get a shot in those final possessions?
Also, if Bosh were to suffer an injury these playoffs, he wouldn’t change the practical timetable for the Heat to receive a medical exemption for his salary slot. They still couldn’t really use it until the following offseason.
So there’s only one legitimate reason the Heat aren’t playing Bosh: For his own health. For his long-term good. It’s common to question football teams for using players too soon after concussions.
This is the opposite. The Heat seems to take a rational outlook in a delicate situation. It might cost them. It might cost him. But who’s to argue with wanting him to live a long and healthy life?
And so as this series returns to Charlotte, it does so with Bosh only appearing in social media. It does have some significant straightforward truths, though.
No. 4: Westbrook grateful Durant had his back — Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant didn’t mince words after his team sent the Dallas Mavericks (and their vocal owner Mark Cuban) home for the summer. Durant called Cuban an “idiot” for claiming the first-round series between the Thunder and Mavs only had two true superstars — Durant and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, shunning Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook in the process. For his part, Westbrook is very grateful Durant stood up for him on that big stage, writes Royce Young of ESPN.com:
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook never got the chance to respond to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saying he was an “All-Star but not a superstar,” as forward Kevin Durant jumped in to call Cuban an “idiot” before Westbrook could answer the question.
On Wednesday, following the team’s practice, Westbrook was asked what it meant for Durant to jump in and defend him like that.
“It was very important [to me],” Westbrook said. “Me and Kevin’s relationship is great. He’s like my brother. We talk about different things, not just basketball-related. He’s always gonna have my back and I’ll always have his.”
Following the Thunder’s win, Durant said of Cuban: “He’s an idiot. He’s an idiot. Don’t listen to him. All right. That’s what we’ve got to say about that. He’s an idiot. Next question.”
Durant and Westbrook have been teammates since 2008. Durant has consistently defended Westbrook from media criticism, calling Westbrook his “favorite teammate in the world” at the ESPYs in 2014.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: What a difference a win makes for the Golden State Warriors’ collective psyche … Cleveland Cavaliers star guard Kyrie Irving says what a lot of NBA fans are probably thinking about the injuries to Chris Paul and Stephen Curry … ICYMI, the Sioux Falls Skyforce are your new NBA D-League champions … Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade is going to go to the wayback machine to help inspire his teammates for Game 6 … L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers was brought to tears before his pregame media session … The L.A. Lakers have been given the OK by the Warriors to interview assistant coach Luke Walton for their vacancy … Part IV of Draymond Green‘s playoff diary …