NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Another Game 7, as Raptors define themselves — Growing pains. Notice that it’s a plural noun. Adolescence of any sort would be a lot easier if it were singular, a one-and-done experience or rite of passage that got you quickly from Point A to Point Done. But real life rarely works that way and neither does the maturation of an NBA playoff team, as the Toronto Raptors are finding out. Toronto, as it tries to go toward something special in the Eastern Conference, has faced a gauntlet of tests and pressures. From the expectations that accompany home-court advantage for a No. 2 seed to getting pushed to seven games in the first round, from the frustrations of a franchise that historically has left its fans wanting to now, again, feeling the burden of a Game 7 (3:30 ET, ABC) that could define everything the Raptors have done since October. Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star looks at the Raptors’ advancement, more internally than merely through the East bracket:
The Toronto Raptors and Wade’s Miami Heat will play Game 7 Sunday afternoon, and the winner gets to keep playing under the lights. Let’s be honest, for Toronto, the playoffs have been a fine agony, punctuated by the exhilaration of escape.
Two more Game 1 losses, because the Raptors almost always lose Game 1. So many missed shots, bad shots, empty shots. Kyle Lowry’s elbow, Kyle Lowry’s head, Jonas Valanciunas’s ankle, DeMar DeRozan’s thumb, DeMarre Carroll’s wrist. A Game 7 win that seemed comfortable, then nearly slid into the lake, then didn’t. And another Game 7, with the pieces dented or missing.
These are the Raptors. The franchise, in its best moments, has tended towards anxiety. The Raptors have never seemed born for this.
But these are the franchise’s best moments, or near enough. It can be hard to remember that when they get drilled off the dribble in Game 6. There was Vince Carter’s graduation day, and then there were 14 years that ended with 49 empty-calorie wins and a fourth humiliating game in Washington last season, and there is this.
At the trade deadline Masai Ujiri could have traded the top-10 pick he has in the draft, plus pieces, and brought back a rental — Ryan Anderson from New Orleans, maybe. Instead he stood still. That day Ujiri said, “you play with that in your mind a little bit, but I just don’t think we’re there yet, as a team, as a ball club. We’ve got some good momentum coming in here, but we’re a good team in the East, and we want to keep plugging along and figure out the playoffs.”
He wanted them to prove what they are worth, and while that picture is still muddled in places, here they are. Before Game 5, with Valanciunas sidelined, Lowry said that if he and DeRozan got going, “I think we’d have an opportunity to do something special. We’re not playing well and I think we still have an opportunity to do something special. And that’s the scary thing.” Lowry was asked how he would define something special.
“Finals,” he said. He didn’t have to, but he did.
“I already had this conversation with Kyle on numerous nights the last couple weeks — we can’t never get down, or let the media, or people discourage us in any type of way on the way we’ve been playing,” said DeRozan, before the Raptors won Game 5. “As long as we have the opportunity to put on these shoes and this jersey and go out there and play, we still have an opportunity to go as far as it goes. And that’s to get somewhere this franchise has never been to, to play for the world championship. That’s six (wins) away. And that’s the type of motivation, whatever we need to believe in ourself, we’re right there.
“And we can’t say, OK, we got this close, we can get even closer next year. We got to take advantage. I tell everybody, we might never get this opportunity again.”
No. 2: Was Pacers’ answer sitting right there? — Head coaches decide, assistant coaches suggest – and apparently so do associate head coaches. That might explain why a staffer with the loftier title – Nate McMillan, Frank Vogel‘s first lieutenant for the past three seasons in Indiana – and the presumed input that McMillan had given that status could be seen as offering a significant change in direction for the Pacers next season. That must be it, right, if reports of McMillan’s likely hiring to replace Vogel prove to be accurate? Some might think that whatever McMillan could bring to the mix could have been offered up by now, whether in X&O tweaks to give Pacers president Larry Bird the faster, high-octane offense he craves these day or the “voice” behind Vogel’s voice to get the players mentally where Bird wants them to be. But just as Cleveland has seen in making its midseason change from David Blatt to Tyronn Lue, Indiana might need McMillan behind the wheel rather than riding shotgun. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star provides some nuts and bolts of the seemingly imminent hiring while a rogue’s gallery of Tweeters bandy it about:
The Indiana Pacers’ search for a new coach appears to have extended only a few seats down the bench.
Nate McMillan, who served as associate head coach the past three seasons, is finalizing negotiations to become the new head coach, IndyStar confirmed with a league source on Saturday night. Yahoo Sports reported the story first. McMillan did not respond to requests for comment by IndyStar.
McMillan would replace Frank Vogel, whose contract was not renewed at the end of the season.
McMillan, 51, has previous head coaching experience with the Seattle SuperSonics (2000-05) and Portland Trail Blazers (2005-12). In 12 seasons, McMillan had a 478-452 record and made five postseason appearances. McMillan’s Portland ties with Kevin Pritchard, who was the Blazers’ general manager and now serves as the same capacity under Larry Bird, have continued to Indiana
On May 5 when Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations, announced the dismissal of Vogel, he said the team needed a new voice, a coach to hold players accountable and get the roster to raise its level of play. It’s also no secret that Bird has wanted the team to truly embrace small ball in an effort to score more points.
McMillan has a reputation as a defensive-minded coach with an efficient offense. In Portland, McMillan’s teams were down-tempo and deliberate, never averaging more than 98.9 points per game and annually ranked near the bottom of the league in pace of play. However as a testament to his offense’s production, five of the McMillan-led teams in Seattle and Portland ranked within the top 10 overall.
McMillan interviewed for the Sacramento Kings’ head coaching position on May 6. Former Memphis coach Dave Joerger was hired to fill the position.
No. 3: Adams: No formula for Durant, Westbrook — Ron Adams isn’t just the highly respected defensive coordinator for the Golden State Warriors, a veteran assistant coach trusted completely by head coach Steve Kerr. Adams spent two seasons on Scott Brooks‘ staff in Oklahoma City, gaining first-hand knowledge of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as potent offensive players and seeing evert defensive wrinkle the other 29 teams threw at the young Thunder stars. So he seemed a good resource to tap in setting up the Warriors-Thunder matchup in the Western Conference finals, and Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News did just that. Here is an excerpt of Kawakami’s Q&A with Adams (who understandably doesn’t give away the strategy store, as far as Golden State’s defensive game plan):
Q: What was it like when those two supremely talented guys first got on the court together years ago? Was it an adjustment for everybody?
Adams: It was. And when I was there, we had James Harden. And James is a marvelous player. But yes, you have Russell, who’s a great competitor. Russell has the mentality that ‘I can score over this brick wall, regardless how high it is.’ That’s the spirit that really carries him as a player, really a competitive guy.
And Kevin, a bit different make-up. However I would say he is also of the same ilk, and that is he loves challenges, he has supreme confidence in his own self, his own game. I think he’s a guy who really loves his teammates, has always been great with his team. So maybe they’re not that much different in terms of being competitors, other than the way their personalities show up.
Q: When you think about defending them for a series, what comes to your mind? Other than–they’re really good.
Adams: Both are really difficult covers one-on-one. You have to be extremely alert. We’re going to have to be really aggressive without fouling. We’re going to have to make really good one-pass-away reads, when either one of them have the ball. There is no formula and there are no easy answers for defending either one of them. What we will do is take the things that we’ve done all year defensively–now we’re into the Western Conference championship, which means much more will be asked of us, as far as the fundamentals, the schemes that we’ve done all year. More will be asked of us individually and also in the detail of schemes. There’s no magic formula for stopping either one of them.
Q: You’ve done pretty well statistically against Westbrook. But Durant has had big games. Has that been part of the scheme or has just happened within the flow of these recent games?
Adams: Kevin has scored more freely than I would like to have had him do against us in the regular season. You break down all the ways he scored on us and categories and so on, you get kind of a feel for it. But the problem with Kevin is when you make mistakes you pay for them. We have to be really focused again in defending him without fouling him. He’s shot a number of free throws against us, too, that’s part of his scoring package. Obviously the motions or sets that he has hurt us on, we try to pay attention to and try to defend them better. But it’s a possession by possession experience.
Q: You have put many different guys on him. [Shaun] Livingston did a nice job last time. What makes Shaun good for that role?
Adams: Shaun’s length is good against Kevin. We have guarded him with four, five different people. Each person brings something a bit different. It’s interesting when you do that, how one defender’s better in a given game than another, for whatever reason, more intense, closing space… it’s kind of random. But Shaun did do a good job on him. We’re just really going to have to be diligent and understand that he’s a big key to their offense and stopping him is a big key to our success.
No. 4: Ginobili weighs old love vs. new life — Most of the attention in the moment was on Tim Duncan and rightly so – as the San Antonio Spurs’ magnificent season wound down in its elimination game against Oklahoma City Thursday, Duncan’s looming decision to retire or continue playing loomed large. As well it should given Duncan’s status as one of the top 10 or 15 NBA players of all time. But Manu Ginobili, who holds a smaller role in the Spurs’ and the NBA’s pecking order yet figures to join Duncan one day as a Naismith Hall of Famer, faces the same decision. Longtime Spurs observer Buck Harvey examined Ginobili’s should-I-stay-or-should-I-go options in his column:
Those around the Spurs could see tears in Duncan’s eyes after Game 6. The emotions could have been about losing, but most think there was more to it. Duncan acted as if he already knew Thursday was his last day in uniform.
Ginobili likely feels the same. He heads to training camp with the Argentine national team July 1, and a few weeks later he will turn 39 years old. All of that seems too much for someone who has struggled with injuries throughout his career.
Then there is this: Ginobili and Duncan might sense their franchise, as painful as it would be for the Spurs, is ready to go forward without them.
Emotions change, though, which is why both men will take some time to see things clearly. Ginobili did a year ago; after the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge, he was excited and ready to go.
But as the roster changed, he also did. After being frustrated the year before, he came back this past season, as one put it, “fine with everything.”
That was clear in October, in Oklahoma City, after the Spurs lost the season opener. Asked about not being on the floor at the end, when he had always been, he shrugged with a smile.
“I’m OK with it,” he said
Ginobili spent his career competing with a fearless fire. He was the kind of closer on championship teams that the Spurs didn’t have this postseason, and yet he found a way to reprogram himself. Just as few Hall of Fame players could accept coming off the bench, few could accept such a diminishing role.
“This year he’s been happy,” said one on staff. “He was at peace.”
Maybe there’s something else to read into that. Maybe Ginobili tried to enjoy every minute of this season because he knew it was his last one.
There were times, such as after a playoff game in Memphis, when his body was sore. And the way he talked Thursday sounded as if he’s retiring.
“It’s been an amazing run,” he said.
But Ginobili also said this: “If there’s a reason why you always want to come back and keep being part of this, (it’s) because of the amazing chemistry, the good times and the good people that you play with and spend time with. It’s not always about winning a game or winning a championship.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Home teams have won 80.5 percent of Game 7s in NBA playoff history, including 10 of the past 11. But wouldn’t you know it, the lone loss in that stretch is owned by Toronto, which faces Miami Sunday (3:30 ET, ABC) for the right to face Cleveland in the East finals. Our man John Schuhmann has a bunch of other pertinent numbers to throw at you. … The West finals tip off Monday night in Oakland, so check out NBA.com scribe Fran Blinebury‘s analysis and prediction. … The NBA draft combine in Chicago is over but some questions remain for the city’s resident franchise. Will the Bulls rely again on the draft or get busier in the trade market, even considering a deal to move All-Star Jimmy Butler, as a way to climb back into the playoffs? … The Phoenix Suns don’t have a power forward under contract for next season but saw several job applicants at the Chicago talent roundup who could fill that void. … Draymond Green burns hot on a generally cool team – and that’s what makes him so vital to Golden State’s formula and quest to repeat as NBA champs. The New York Times takes a look at Green and the edge he brings to the Warriors.