Posts Tagged ‘Dwane Casey’

Blogtable: Hot start, staying hot

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Miami 2010 vs. Cleveland 2014 | POR, TOR or WAS? | Tick, tick, tick in OKC



VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan steps into the studio with Ernie, Greg Anthony and Chris Webber

> Which of these teams do you believe can best maintain its hot start? Which team has the most room for improvement? Your picks: Portland, Toronto, Washington.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comGimme the Trail Blazers. As much as I like the Raptors and the Wizards – and as desperately as the Eastern Conference needs them for depth and swagger – I’m not sure their ensemble approaches will hold up as well over the long season as Portland’s reliance on All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers’ depth concerns me but Nene’s sore foot is a red flag for the Wizards, in my view, and Toronto still seems to lack experience or a strong enough veteran influence to ride out the season’s rough spots. Happy to be proven wrong on all counts.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: While the Cavs try to figure out a way to play together and the Bulls try to figure out a way to keep Derrick Rose on the court, coach Dwane Casey has the Raptors playing confident and effectively at both ends and could be on their way to the No. 1 seed in the East.  The Blazers are just as solid and have added depth in Chris Kaman and a healthy C.J. McCollum.  I’d put them just slightly behind the Raptors because they play in the much tougher West.  Because Bradley Beal has just four games under his belt and the Wizards rank just 20th in offense, they’ve got the most room to improve.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Tough call because I thought all three of the teams were the real deal all along, so I don’t see hot start as much teams that will be at or near the top the entire way. (Not at the same win pace, though. The Raptors aren’t going to win 70.) But most room for improvement? The Wizards. Bradley Beal is a difference maker, and he has barely played. Otto Porter, in his second season, will continue to develop and become an important contributor. Plus, unlike the Blazers, Washington and Toronto have the benefit of being in the East.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Of the three, only the Wizards were missing a big piece (Brad Beal) for much of November and so I’ll go with them, in terms of maintaining their start and showing the most improvement. Remember, the Wiz play in the (L)East, which gives them an envious advantage over the Blazers, and their bigs are better than Toronto’s bigs.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comI believe in Portland, because their improvement has come mostly on defense, which is an extension of in-season improvement last year. In the same vein, we can’t forget that Toronto was 41-21 after the Rudy Gay trade last season. And really, Washington has the most room for improvement, having just got Bradley Beal back and still waiting on Martell Webster. They have a strong defense, but desperately need the floor spacing those guys provide on offense. So, I guess I like all three of those teams.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: All three of them have a great chance to sustain this early season effort, provided they stay healthy at key positions. But I think the Raptors, given their position in the Eastern Conference, have the best chance to grind all the way through this season at a high level. Their make up, from head coach Dwane Casey to catalysts Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan all the way down to crucial role players like Lou Williams, James Johnson, Amir Johnson and Greivis Vasquez, gives them the sort of sound foundation that lends itself to long-term success.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Let’s go with the Raptors as the team most likely to stay on top, because they’ll face the least resistance from their weakling division. The Wizards will show the most upside as Bradley Beal keeps working his way back in and Paul Pierce becomes more ingrained.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: One thing’s for certain: All three of those franchises have fan bases that are fired up and ready to see their team contend. I love Toronto. They’re deep, they have a nice mix of quality and different positions, and they’re playing in a depressed division with a lot of teams they can beat up on. Washington is the team of that trio which gives me a bit of pause. Getting Beal back is helpful, yes, but they’ve got several players with a history of injuries, and I still think they could use one more veteran off the bench to add depth and help stretch the floor.

Marc-Oliver Robbers, NBA.com/Germany: I believe this time the Blazers will remain constant. Their starting five is as good as ever, Damian Lillard improved again and finally arrived in the point guard elite. And LaMarcus Aldridge is a beast of a power forward. But the most important thing is that they finally have a bench mob. Chris Kaman and Steve Blake fit perfect and they help with their experience. But I think that Toronto and Washington will easily reach the playoffs as well. Paul Pierce is a perfect addition for the Wizards. The young core will learn intangible much from him. Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. have lots of room for improvement. And if the frontcourt stays healthy it can cause big matchup problems.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: I really like all three of them. I believe that the Wizards have the complete package to because the underdog that can make a lot of noise this season. Now that Beal is back they have a great duo in the backcourt, they have a lot of bodies in the frontcourt, they have a great bench (don’t forget Paul Pierce), so they have it all.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/Italy: I bet on Toronto to keep doing what they’re doing right now. They’re deep, talented, they’ve great offense and good defense, they’re well coached. Portland has the most room for improvement: Lillard had a slow start, Batum came back few games ago from an injury, their bench is finally giving them something. And Washington? Great, interesting team: they can be dangerous

Aldo Avinante, NBA.com/Philippines: The Washington Wizards are the best equipped team to maintain their hot start, they did damage minus Bradley Beal, one of the top young shooting guards in the game. They are a complete team from top to bottom with the addition of veteran leader Paul Pierce they will be able to take in stride any challenges ahead because he is there to guide them. “The Truth” picked wisely in the past off-season.

Akshay Manwani, NBA.com/India: I will go with Portland because they do play in the tougher conference which is the West. Also, Toronto, which has the best record of the three at the moment, has played just four games on the road. Besides that, the core of Damian Lillard, Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum are as good as you will get across the league. And Lillard and Aldridge are qualified stars, who can turn a game on its head with their performances. Surprisingly, I think Toronto can still improve. As good as Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are, they lack the same intimidating presence of Nene and Marcin Gortat in Washington or Aldridge and Lopez in Portland. The frontcourt is something Toronto can improve upon and should look to do so before the mid-season trade deadline.

XiBin Yang, NBA.com/China: The Raptors finally regained their identity. With the loaded roster, they could be a really good team in the regular season, when they’re playing that Canadian team basketball. They’ve got a good chemistry, an enhanced defensive mind, and amazing rotation lineups. Each night there could be one guy step up in the Air Canada Centre. My pick on the team which could still improve more is the Wizards. When you got John Wall making plays, Bradley Beal and Pierce stick to their spot, you really should be a better offense team. They’re already  a better team than last year, even if the Wizards’s offense(104.8 on ORtg, 20th in the NBA) has not fully clicked yet.

Blogtable: Didn’t see that coming

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Clippers soft | Forsooth, this fortnight | LeBron’s move


> We’re two weeks into the new season. What didn’t you foresee in this opening fortnight that you maybe should have?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I didn’t foresee the Raptors’ fast start but should have, given their early schedule; two victories over ORL, plus PHI, BOS and banged-up OKC means they’re 2-1 in their own weight class. Their next four are at home, too, though visits from Chicago and Memphis might give us a better sense of Toronto’s legitimacy. The roster is deep, Kyle Lowry is playing as if he wants another contract on top of the one he just signed and Dwane Casey is in control of that group, having raised them from li’l lizard hatchlings.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: You mean besides getting a question that includes the word “fortnight?” Well, old chap, I’ll cop to taking a nap on the LeBron-less Heat.  Chris Bosh has played like a member of the royal family and tossed his hat into the early MVP conversation.  Lord Dwyane Wade is healthy and productive. Prince Luol Deng has been a good arranged marriage into the lineup.  Sir Erik Spoelstra continues to prove that he wasn’t just a guy with a good seat on the Miami bench through those four straight trips to The Finals.  He’s had the S.S. Heat thriving and steaming ahead with an efficient offense in spite of what could have been a gaping hole in the hull.  So far, it’s tea and crumpets.

Greivis Vasquez and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors (Ron Turenne/NBAE)

Greivis Vasquez and Kyle Lowry of the Raptors
(Ron Turenne/NBAE)

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I won’t say the Kings, a big surprise, because anybody who claims 5-3 was realistic at the start of the season is a liar. So I should not have seen that coming. Maybe I should have seen Rajon Rondo from a distance, but did not. Eleven assists and eight rebounds a game is very nice work, whether he’s a Celtic for the long term or raising his trade value.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Well, I certainly didn’t expect OKC to lose Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and for Derrick Rose to pull up lame in the second week. But given the carnage of the last two years, when the league lost a number of stars for long stretches and even entire seasons, I should knock myself upside the head for not seeing this coming (and risk a possible concussion and long recovery, of course).

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I certainly didn’t see the Bucks ranking as the No. 2 defense in the league. Seven of their eight opponents have been below-average offensive teams (and four rank in the bottom six), but the Bucks are supposed to be an opponent that those teams boost their numbers against, not continue to struggle against. I don’t know if anybody could have foreseen this, but Jason Kidd‘s Nets turned their season around with a strong defense last season, and his new team has similar length and versatility on defense. They’re not going to stay in the top five (or even the top 10), but this 4-4 start (and Saturday’s win over the Grizzlies) tells me that they’re going to be a better team than I thought they were. They already have a longer winning streak (two games) than they did all of last season.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Memphis Grizzlies should have been on my mind heading into this season with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph healthy and ready to go and all of their offseason front office drama in the rearview. When your team is built on the bedrock of rugged defense and an adherence to playing the game the gritty and grimy way the Grizzlies play every night, a solid start should be expected, particularly in a Western Conference shaken up by significant injuries (OKC) among the elite. The Grizzlies play in what is easily the toughest division in the league, so their hot start should be kept in context. It’s early. But I should have had them on my mind.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I should have known that Miami would be off to a better start than Cleveland. The Heat have been able to survive LeBron’s absence because they have everything else going for them: They know who they are and how they’re going to play. The Cavs have yet to figure out any of that. The Cavs are going to have the last laugh, I’m sure of it, but it may not be so easy to get there.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Look, I publicly ate crow about this last week on the Hang Time Podcast, so we might as well warm it up again so I can chow some more. I didn’t expect that Klay Thompson would be this good this season. While I dismissed him as player who was a terrific shooter but subpar in other areas, he’s become one of the most well-rounded guards in the League. Not only can he stroke it from the perimeter, but he’s getting to the basket and getting to the free-throw line (averaging a career-high 6.6 FTA per game, almost triple his previous high). He’s also a strong defender who obviously puts in work on the defensive end. And his development might be enough to carry Golden State into parts unknown in the postseason.

Marcelo Nogueira, NBA.com/Argentina: I just wish there were fewer injuries. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if it’s something that’s related to each team’s preseason system, but the disappearance of stars is opening up the road to teams we thought would be struggling to reach high places.

Simon Legg, NBA.com/Australia: I don’t think I expected the Raptors to be this good. They were great post the Rudy Gay trade and I had expectations that they would make the playoffs again. But their start to the season has exceeded expectations. I think we knew the capabilities of their starting group and that Terrence Ross would improve even more this season, but it’s been their new additions to the second unit that have surprised me. James Johnson has given them an edge defensively and Lou Williams has given them a nice offensive blend and he has the ability to heat up. I expected they would hover around the 4-5 range in the East, they’re a legitimate chance to finish top 2 now.

Orr Ziv, NBA.com/Israel: How well the Kings have played. It’s easy to dismiss Sacramento after years of futility, but Mike Malone has done a great job so far in making those guys believe that they can compete. And Boogie Cousins is in my mind the front-runner for Most Improved Player of the year.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: OK, we expected the Lakers to have a tough beginning, but not this tough. Kobe and Co. are in deep trouble the way they playing right now. They lost Julius Randle, but that’s not their only problem.

Ole Frerks, NBA.com/Germany: Generally speaking, I didn’t anticipate the Team USA guys making that big of a leap this season. Davis, Cousins, Thompson, DeRozan, Curry and Harden all rank among the best players of the young season so far. Guys like Davis, Curry and Harden could also be thrown into the early MVP conversation. And speaking of Cousins: I’m surprised by the nice start the Kings have enjoyed. I anticipated him to provide his usual monster stats, but so far they’ve been competitive in every single game and could even make the playoffs. If they make it, that would be a lot earlier than I would have expected.

Karan Madhok, NBA.com/India: I knew that the Warriors would be better this season than the last, but I honestly didn’t foresee them to be the last undefeated team in the league and sit atop most NBA Power Rankings by the end of the second week. In hindsight, their improvement makes sense: They have already been blessed with the league’s most volatile offensive backcourt between Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but the real difference-maker has been Andrew Bogut, whose healthy return has helped this squad secure the best defensive rating in the early season. If you’re doing everything right on both ends of the floor, you deserve to be on top.

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Talking numbers with Raptors’ Casey


VIDEO: 2014-15 Raptors Team Preview

NEW YORK – To be a true title contender, a team must be among the league’s best on both ends of the floor.

There were four teams who ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season. Three of them should be no surprise. But four months later, it’s still strange seeing the Toronto Raptors as the Eastern Conference’s only representative on the list.

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The Raptors were a surprise in the standings too. After five years outside the playoffs and a 6-12 start, the Raps went 42-22 over the final four months and finished third in the East.

But the Raps still finished one possession short of the conference semifinals. So they have to find ways to keep getting better after making jumps on both ends of the floor last season. (more…)

NBA coaching in the time of social media

One by one they arrive, each man pulling up in his elegant sedan, sports coupe or luxury SUV and, for all intents and purposes, bringing his family, his friends, his fans — his peeps — and his digital world along with him.

Denver coach Brian Shaw says keeping players off social media and engaged with the task at hand is one of his biggest challenges. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Denver coach Brian Shaw says keeping players off social media and engaged with the task at hand is one of his biggest challenges. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

In the locker room, where they dress and tease and bond and strategize, it’s all about chemistry. Except when it’s about technology.

“Say we have a shootaround or a team meeting that starts at 9:30. Guys start trickling in at 9:15,” Denver coach Brian Shaw said the other day, talking about these modern times. “We used to come in and sit around and talk to one another face to face. Now these guys have their devices and they’ll all be sitting at a table and nobody’s saying anything to anybody. They’re just punching buttons and looking down, and there’s no interaction.”

That novel about Love in the Time of Cholera? The men who oversee NBA teams are coaching in the time of social media, which might just be trickier.

Red Auerbach never had to worry about some tabloid photographer popping out of a darkened doorway to snap a photo with his date. Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson barely stuck around long enough for cell phones. Coaches today face the full arsenal of gadgetry, as far as where their guys might turn to lose themselves or what a civilian might use to catch players unawares. TMZ, remember, pays real folding money and, after all, 15 minutes of fame is better than none.

“It’s a big challenge coaching now,” said Shaw, who  — when he was an NBA rookie in 1988 — needed a quarter and a glass booth if he wanted to fiddle with a phone at the Boston Garden. “There are so many more options for them, so many more things to take their attention away from what you’re trying to do as coach. You have to constantly bring them back in and keep them engaged.”

Twenty years have passed since Magic Johnson, in his unsatisfying 16-game stint as Lakers coach, threw Vlade Divac’s cell phone against the wall after it rang during a team meeting.

Sounds quaint now.

“I feel his pain,” Shaw said, chuckling. “A coach like Phil Jackson, the majority of the years that he coached, these are challenges that he didn’t have to deal with. To me, the X’s and O’s kind of cancel each other out, between me and the coaches I’m opposing at the other end. Keeping everybody dialed in and not being distracted by outside forces — that’s what the real challenge is.

“I’m contemplating making the players, an hour before practices and an hour before games, check their cell phones in. So they can’t even have ‘em in the locker room. It’s, ‘You’re here. We need your undivided attention right now.’ “

Been there. Doing that.

“We have rules against cell phones in the locker room after a certain point before a game,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, whose owner, Mark Cuban, is the king of NBA social media, at least among the Board of Governors. “If someone’s cell phone goes off, the guy gets hit with a pretty hefty fine. And we all have a good laugh about it. If it happens again, we may have to have a serious discussion about it. And the fine’s going to be heavier.”

(more…)

Summer Dreaming: Coach of the Year

Let’s face it. For all the talk about stability and commitment, most NBA franchises change coaches the way the rest of us change T-shirts on these sweaty dog days of August — often and without even thinking twice.

When the regular season begins in two months, there will be nine new coaches roaming the sidelines. Some will sink, some will swim and some will stand out from the pack.

So as our Summer Dreaming series continues, let’s take a bold leap to next April and have a look at the five candidates most likely to be filling the Coach of the Year ballot for 2014-15.

Send us your picks.


VIDEO: Doc Rivers and Steve Ballmer discuss new Clippers era

Doc Rivers, Clippers — After making the coast-to-coast jump from Boston to L.A., Rivers probably didn’t think his leadership duties on the West Coast would include being the spokesman and face of the team in the difficult scandal involving former club owner Donald Sterling. But as you might have expected, Rivers was out front, direct and kept a firm hold on the situation and his locker room, though it’s hard to discount some effect in the playoff loss to OKC. Now with a new owner and clean slate, he can get back to just concentrating on basketball, where he already upped the franchise record for wins from 56 to 57. He used an up-tempo attack to overcome the losses of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick for stretches. His fingerprints were all over the dramatic improvement of center DeAndre Jordan to become a mainstay rather than a sideshow in the lineup along with CP3 and Blake Griffin. The next step is the Western Conference finals and real bid for a championship.


VIDEO: Erik Spoelstra’s exit interview

Erik Spoelstra, Heat — Now you see him, now you don’t. One minute you’ve got the best player in the game in your starting lineup every night and the next minute he’s gone home to Cleveland. Maybe that’s what it takes to finally get Spoelstra noticed for being more than just Pat Riley‘s pupil and the guy who let’s LeBron James pile up wins. Truth is, he dramatically revamped the Heat offense after that 2011 loss in The Finals and that did lead to back-to-back championships. But as Phil Jackson learned with the Bulls and Lakers, there is nobody overlooked more than the coach of the reigning league icon. The Zen Master won the award just once (1996) despite his 11 titles. Now if Spoelstra can keep a reinvented Miami attack built around Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng in the top half of the Eastern Conference race, he’d finally get the credit he’s been due.


VIDEO: Dwane Casey accepts the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Dwane Casey, Raptors — Midway through last season, Casey was on many lists as the coach most likely to be fired next. But talk about pulling yourself back from the brink. Once the Raptors unloaded the contract and the bad fit that was Rudy Gay to Sacramento, Casey got his team to raise its level of play by getting the Raptors to tighten down on defense and make that a calling card. So much for the outside world that thought the Raptors were going into the tank for a lottery pick. They went from ranking 22nd in defensive rating the previous season to finishing 10th and used that identity to win 48 games and the Atlantic Division title. It all came together enough to convince free agent Kyle Lowry to remain committed to what Casey is doing and sign back on. Casey himself re-upped on a new three-year deal. With up and comers DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, there’s no reason to think the Raptors can’t build on their success and stay in the fight in a rejuvenated Eastern Conference.


VIDEO: Tom Thibideau talks about the Bulls’ upcoming season

Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — Admit it. After what he’s done just grinding out wins the past two seasons with holes in his lineup, we want to see just how far Thibs can take the Bulls if a healthy Derrick Rose stays on the court. And don’t forget that the front office dealt Deng out from under him at midseason. You have to know that Carmelo Anthony‘s decision to stay in New York was all and only about the money when he passed up an opportunity to be the perfect piece in the puzzle in Chicago. Neverthless, Thibodeau gets to supplement his frontline with the ultra professional Pau Gasol, who’ll fit in nicely alongside the semi-controlled frenzy that is Joakim Noah. There is no question that the Bulls have bought into the philosophy and completely taken on the hard-driving, do-anything, no-excuses attitude of their coach. Yes, he has overused players to the point of wearing them down to the nub. But that’s only because he’s been playing shorthanded for two years. Give him this full season with all of the key players able to stay healthy and the Bulls will be challenging LeBron and the Cavaliers at the top of the East with a real shot at championship contention for the first time since that guy with the statue outside the United Center was still in uniform.


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich helps celebrate the Spurs’ championship win

Gregg Popovich, Spurs — Now that he’s won five titles and also this award three times in his career, it’s no longer fashionable to say that he’s taken for granted down there in little ol’ San Antonio. But you simply can’t have any list of top five coaches in the league without including the guy who is generally regarded by his peers as being the best. Far more than just a grumpy face, Pop has changed the focus of his offense during the 17-year championship run from being low post oriented with Tim Duncan to whipping the ball around the perimeter in an international style of unselfish frenzy and filling up the bucket with 3-point shots that Pop himself admits “I hate.” He’ll stick with his plan of managing the minutes of his core players Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to the point of sacrificing wins — but never too many — in the regular season. He’ll continue to shift more of the burden to rising young players such as Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green. They’ll likely be written off again as too old, too worn out at some point during the long regular schedule. But the Spurs will win 50 games, make the playoffs and, if physically fit next spring, Pop will have them once more as the team with know-how and the ability to win West again.

Casey, Raptors want to ride continuity

 

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Dwane Casey will be looking to build on last season’s 48-win campaign. (NBAE via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – Back in December it hardly seemed possible that Dwane Casey would be standing here at Summer League with a smile on his face and his lightweight button-down shirt casually untucked, and most of all still as the coach of the Toronto Raptors.

This misbegotten big-market franchise with the redundant roster was floundering again, off to a 7-12 start, and the well-liked, but lame-duck Casey looked to be running out the clock on his three-year contract.

Then, on Dec. 8, new general manager Masai Ujiri, having built a reputation as a next-generation whiz, made the deal to send Rudy Gay and his massive contract to Sacramento for depth help in point guard Greivis Vasquez and forwards John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Around the same time, Knicks president James Dolan vetoed a trade that would have landed Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry in New York.

Suddenly, a feeling of stability overtook the team. They looked around, looked at themselves and liked what they saw. And everything changed.

“After the trade happened, I thought it brought our team together — camaraderie,” said Casey, who signed a three-year contract extension in May. “They made the decision that we were not going to be a lottery team — I think that’s what everybody expected — and we kept teaching them the principles of what we wanted to be doing and it just came together.

This wasn’t a referendum on Gay, who went to have a surprisingly efficient offensive season with the Kings. Gay and DeRozan are friends off the court, but ill-fitting parts on it, and as the parts fit better and the floor opened up, the Raptors’ offense, also buoyed by Lowry’s uprising, took off.

“It was a fit,” Casey said. “A lot of times you have talent and it doesn’t fit. DeMar and Rudy were similar and Terrence Ross is sitting there, he’s similar, so once you took all the pieces out it opened up things and we went from 29th, I think, in the league in assists to 16th or 17th. That really changed things for us. It helped us tremendously.”

On Dec. 8, the Raptors ranked 30th in assists and 28th in offensive efficiency (101.4 points per 100 possessions). From Dec. 9 to the end of the season, they ranked 13th in assists and ninth in offensive efficiency (107.2). They went 41-22 after the Gay trade and played a rousing seven-game series in front of madhouse crowds, plus gatherings of 10,000 fans in Maple Leaf Square. It was truly one of the great scenes of the postseason.

And it was enough to convince Lowry to stay put, making him the rare Raptor to re-up when he had a chance to leave. He signed a four-year deal worth $48 million. Free agents Patterson and Vasquez also re-signed. Amir Johnson, Landry Fields, Jonas Valanciunas, Ross, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough are all back, giving the Raptors a real sense of continuity in roster and process.

Toronto also traded Salmons to Atlanta for guard Lou Williams and intriguing developmental center Lucas Nogueria, and signed long, athletic wing James Johnson, who is coming off something of a breakout season with Memphis.

“I don’t know if [Lowry] is the first player to be a free agent to re-sign that had an opportunity to leave, so that says something about what we’re trying to do, where we are, trying to build,” Casey said. “For the first time in his career he was able to say, ‘this is a team that I’m one of the leaders of,’ and for him to come back, it does make a statement of where we are in our growth process and the kind of program we have, and kind of opened some eyes to what kind of city Toronto is.

“The continuity is huge,” Casey said. “You can just see it turning, guys are getting comfortable with the defensive system, the offensive system. We can be top 10 in both offense and defense. Now we just have to continue to do that.”

The Raptors could get some votes as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference when the preseason predictions start to hit the newsstands. LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has shaken up a conference that might boast a favorite in Chicago, but mostly has a handful of what should be entertaining squads, including Toronto, Cleveland, Washington, Indiana and perhaps Brooklyn and still Miami.

“There’s opportunity for somebody to step up, it’s so balanced right now from top to bottom,” Casey said of the conference. “It gives us an opportunity to move up and take another step.”

Back in December, that hardly seemed possible.

Nets get past Raptors by thinnest of margins in Game 7

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets hang on against Raptors in Game 7

TORONTO – Basketball can be a game of inches too.

The difference in the first round series between the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors was the length of Paul Pierce‘s fingers, which reached up and blocked Kyle Lowry‘s shot as time expired in Game 7, sending Brooklyn to the conference semifinals with a nail-biting 104-103 victory.

Lowry had somehow squeezed between Deron Williams, Alan Anderson and Kevin Garnett, losing the ball on one side of the triple-team and recovering it on the other. With all the defense’s attention on him, he had somehow willed his way to the basket one final time.

“That young man,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, “did everything he could to get to the basket.”

But …

“Sometimes, it’s about being at the right place,” Pierce said afterward, “at the right time.”

The cumulative score in 11 total games (regular season and playoffs) between these two teams was 1,070-1,070. It really doesn’t get any closer than that. Eight of the 11 games were within three points in the final three minutes. And the team that got its first Game 7 win since the Nets came to the NBA in 1976 was the team that barely hung on.

The Nets’ offense had been rolling through the Raptors over the last 2 1/2 games. They led by 11 early in the fourth quarter and by nine with less that four minutes to go. But they couldn’t stop the Raptors’ offense, which scored 30 points in the final period.

“We were right there,” Casey said.

Lowry was attacking. DeMar DeRozan was making something out of nothing. Patrick Patterson was rolling to the basket. The Nets committed a couple of dumb fouls and just couldn’t get a stop … until they absolutely had to.

“We might have bent a little bit,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said, “but we didn’t break.”

It took every last inch for the veteran team with the big names and the largest payroll in NBA history to get past the young guns who had never been here before. The Nets knew how hard it was and how good the Raptors are. Toronto’s division title was no fluke.

“This was a very difficult series,” Garnett said. “It tested everybody’s will here. If anything, I think we grew up a bit during this series.”

That says a lot about the Raptors, who face some questions this summer. The contracts of their coach (Casey) and best player (Lowry) expire at the end of June. But if those two guys are back, Toronto will be back in the playoffs, with an incredible crowd on their side again.

“This is one of the best environments in basketball,” Pierce said of the Air Canada Centre, “as far as the road crowd, the noise, the enthusiasm. This is as tough as it’s going to get. And to come in here in this type of building, the way they play and the way the crowd is, it’s so gratifying.”

The Raptors had the crowd, but the Nets had the matchups. And that’s more important in a playoff series. The Raptors just had no answer for Joe Johnson, who scored 26 points in the deciding game, half of them in the fourth quarter, repeatedly going one-on-one with whomever the Raptors threw at him.

In the fourth, that list included point guards (Greivis Vasquez) and big men (Patterson). Brooklyn’s final field goal of the series was a ridiculously tough runner by Johnson (against Terrence Ross) that gave them a seven-point lead with just over two minutes to go. Johnson played more than 45 minutes (a season-high for a regulation game) on Sunday, and the Nets needed all of it.

“For us to post him every time down, get him the ball where he’s the focal point, for him to make plays,” Kidd said, “he’s as good as they come down the stretch.”

The Nets played through Johnson all series, something that will be more difficult to do against the Miami Heat, who are bigger on the wings, in the conference semifinals, which begin Tuesday in Miami.

After grinding through a series that went down to the final play of Game 7, Brooklyn has just 48 hours to prepare for the defending champs. The Nets went 4-0 against the Heat in the regular season, but know that doesn’t matter now.

“We know we can beat them,” Johnson said. “But it’s going to be a lot different from the regular season.”

The Nets can take something on these last seven games, where it took every basket and every stop to separate them from the Raptors by the thinnest of margins. But it’s already time to move on.

The champs are waiting.

Six factors that can separate the Nets and Raptors in Game 7

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets-Raptors: Game 7 Preview

TORONTO – How silly of us to think that one of these teams would win this series in six games. We should have realized that the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets have some sort of reciprocal gravity that keeps one team from ever pulling away from the other.

They’ve played 10 games this season. They’ve each won five, with a total combined score of Raptors 767, Nets 766. Eight of the 10 games have been within five points in the last five minutes.

So it’s only fitting that this first round series will come down to a Game 7 on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).

For the Raptors, this is an opportunity. A win would give their young core 4-7 more games of playoff experience against the defending champion Miami Heat. It would give head coach Dwane Casey additional job security. And it would help establish the franchise’s place on the NBA map.

For the Nets, this is another referendum. If they can’t get past the first round, what exactly did they spend $104 million in salary and another $92 million in luxury taxes on? And where the heck do they go from here?

“They have more to lose than us,” DeMar DeRozan said Saturday.

Indeed. But payroll won’t determine which team gets their first Game 7 victory (since the Nets came to the NBA). These six factors will.

The nail

Though the Nets lost Game 5, they established some things offensively. One of those was Joe Johnson operating from the middle of the floor, a set that made it difficult for the Raptors to double-team him. The Nets didn’t go to that set much in Game 6, instead using Johnson back in the low post and in pick-and-rolls with Deron Williams more often.

But the Nets did take the middle of the floor away from Kyle Lowry, who scored just three points in the paint or at the free throw line in Game 6 after scoring 14 in Game 5. They took away the Raptors’ primary offensive actions and often had them trying to improvise with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

DeMar DeRozan will make some tough shots, but if it’s only tough shots that he’s getting, Brooklyn is in good shape.

Minutes distribution

The Raptors have been at their best when reserves Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson are on the floor. They may sacrifice some defense by playing big minutes with Lowry, Vasquez, DeRozan and Patterson on the floor together, but their regular small forwards have come up empty offensively all series.

Terrence Ross is gaining experience and John Salmons is a bigger body to put on Johnson. But Raptors coach Dwane Casey shouldn’t hesitate to go to the three-guard lineup early and often, because the positives on offense will outweigh the negatives on D.

Lowry, Vasquez, DeRozan and Patterson are a plus-23 in 54 minutes together, but played just 12 minutes over the last two games.

The 3-point line

Neither team has shot well from 3-point range in the series, but both teams have attempted 22 threes per game. If one team – or just one player – gets hot, it could be the difference. With the attention that Johnson draws, Brooklyn is more likely to get open looks. That’s why Alan Anderson has replaced Shaun Livingston in the starting lineup.

Patterson, of course, puts a fourth shooter on the floor for Toronto. He can punish the Nets’ defense for its focus on Lowry and DeRozan.

Toronto on the roll

One of the bellwethers of this series has been Amir Johnson, who has averaged 14.7 points in the Raptors’ three wins and 4.3 points in their three losses. A lot of Johnson’s production has come as the roll man, catching passes from Lowry and Vasquez. The Nets’ weak-side defender needs to meet the roll man – whether it’s Johnson or Jonas Valanciunas – before he gets too close to the basket.

Transition

Both teams have averaged less than 10 fast break points per game, but have been at their best when they’ve been able to get out into the open floor. Williams pushed the pace from the start in Game 6, which allowed the Nets to get into their offensive actions early in the shot clock and before the Raptors could get set. That produced easier shots.

When the Raptors made a little bit of a run in the fourth quarter, they were getting some easy baskets in transition as well.

Turnovers

After averaging 19.3 turnovers in the first three games, the Raptors have averaged just 13.0 in the last three. But it was an issue that popped up again in the fourth quarter on Friday, keeping them from being able to cut the Brooklyn lead to single digits. Any extended turnover issues in Game 7 (for either team) could end their season.

Nets use momentum to force Game 7

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets use balanced offense and feisty defense to drop Raptors in Game 6 

NEW YORK – It’s been said that there’s no momentum in the playoffs, that every game has its own identity. In fact, Raptors coach Dwane Casey preached that very mantra earlier in this series.

But what other way would you explain the Brooklyn Nets’ first-half offense in Game 6? After scoring 69 points in the second half of Game 5 on Wednesday – erasing a 26-point deficit along the way – the Nets blitzed the Raptors for 60 points in the first 24 minutes on Friday.

Over four quarters, they scored at a rate of 140 points per 100 possessions, which is quite ridiculous. And after building a 26-point lead of their own in the third period, they never let the Raptors get within single digits, forcing a Game 7 in Toronto on Sunday with a 97-83 victory.

Casey had no choice but to agree that the Nets started this game like they finished the last one, but held his stance in regard to what might happen in Game 7.

“I still say every game is different,” Casey said. “Sunday’s game will be different. It’ll be something else we talk about.”

Casey had better hope so, because over the last 60 minutes of basketball, his team has been outscored 141-105 and the Nets have found a lineup, a point guard, a pace, and a defensive mentality that works for them.

After Alan Anderson played a role in Brooklyn’s comeback on Wednesday, he got the start in place of Shaun Livingston on Friday. The change gave the Nets more spacing offensively and allowed their primary ball-handlers more opportunities to attack the paint.

“It was more of a feeling among the coaching staff,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said, “the way that [Anderson] played for us in that fourth quarter up in Toronto, to see if he could carry that over. And he definitely picked up where he was in Toronto.”

So did Deron Williams. The Nets’ point guard has been maligned in the press (and outside Barclays Center) in this series, but also played a role in that comeback on Wednesday, picking up his aggressiveness and scoring eight points in the fourth quarter.

Williams pushed the pace late in Game 5, because he had no other choice with his team in such a hole. In Game 6, he looked to run early and often, attacking the Toronto defense before it could get set.

“When we can get some stops and get the ball out in transition,” Williams said, “I definitely think it suits my style of play. But I think it helps our offense when they can’t set up their defense. We move the ball really well.”

“They played faster,” Casey added. “They got us on our heels early.”

And they got into the paint. The Nets got 24 (their high for the series) of their 36 field goals in the paint, with Joe Johnson continuing to beat the Raptors up in the post and the Nets’ bigs benefiting from the guards’ penetration.

But as Williams noted, it started with stops. The Nets played their best defense of the series, holding the Raptors to just 83 points on 92 possessions.

While Brooklyn got into its offense early, Toronto got into its offense late. The Nets shut down their early actions and forced them to improvise with little time left on the shot clock. They continued to pressure Toronto’s guards out high on pick-and-rolls, but also did a better job of meeting the roll man before he could get to the basket.

Most of the Raptors’ first quarter offense was DeMar DeRozan hitting some very tough shots, a trend that just couldn’t be sustained. Kyle Lowry never got going, shooting just 4-for-16 after a brilliant performance in Game 5.

“They did a good job,” Casey said, “of trapping him, blitzing him, and getting him out of his rhythm.”

“Desperate basketball,” Kevin Garnett called it. “We had our backs to the wall at home, but there was no way in hell they were going to come here and get a win today.”

Now comes Game 7, with the Nets hoping things continue to go the same way and the Raptors hoping Casey is right.

Lowry carries Raptors to wild win

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Nets vs. Raptors: Game 5

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – After Game 4 in Brooklyn on Sunday, Kyle Lowry said of DeMar DeRozan, “This man is becoming a superstar before everybody’s eyes.”

That’s a nice thing to say about a teammate, but Lowry himself has been the Raptors’ best player this season and the best player in this first-round series. On Wednesday, he carried his team to a wild 115-113 victory in Game 5. Lowry scored 36 points, dished out six assists and turned the ball over only once as the Toronto Raptors took a 3-2 series lead over the Brooklyn Nets, barely hanging on after losing a 26-point lead in 12 minutes.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey had a hard time focusing on anything but the negative afterward. His team allowed an amazing 60 points on Brooklyn’s final 34 possessions of the game, making several defensive mistakes.

But they won the game, because they blistered the Nets late in the second quarter and never allowed them to pull ahead down the stretch. Lowry was the key in both cases.

Lowry did most of his first-half damage (21 points) from the perimeter, making something out of nothing on several possessions and completely outplaying Deron Williams. In fact, as Williams committed two turnovers in the final minute of the second quarter, Lowry capped a 26-4 Raptors run by hitting a floater in traffic and then a ridiculous running 3-pointer off the glass at the buzzer.

And when the Nets had come all the way back from 26 down, it was Lowry who drew a brutal foul on Mirza Teletovic 80 feet from the basket to put the Raptors back ahead. He followed that up by drawing a charge on Alan Anderson and, when the game was tied again two minutes later, he hit a gutsy, step-back three to give his team the lead for good.

“When we need an answer,” Chuck Hayes said afterward, “call Kyle. Kyle will figure it out.”

This series is the latest chapter in the rehabilitation of Lowry’s career. He’s a bulldog. He’ll get in your shirt defensively and fearlessly drive into traffic and find a way to get the ball in the basket, even when there doesn’t seem to be space to do so. He may be the best in the league at drawing fouls on both ends of the floor.

Lowry used to be a pain in the *** for everyone around him, teammates and coaches included. But he’s learned to focus his fire and now, he’s just a pain in the *** for his opponent. Watch him closely on any given night and you’ll wonder if the Raptors could have won 20 games without him.

“He’s a hell of a player,” DeRozan said. “The dog in him makes you want to bring your A-game every single night, because you know he’s going to lay it out there with you.”

Lowry has been the most consistent force in what has been an up-and-down series for both teams. And a myriad of injuries hasn’t put any kind of a dent in his relentlessness.

“He’s never going to stop playing,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said.

Against the most expensive roster in NBA history, featuring several players with much more playoff experience, Kyle Lowry has made it clear that he’s the best player in the series, the real superstar of his team. He has them one win from the conference semifinals and he’s not going to stop until they get there.


VIDEO: DeRozan, Lowry discuss Game 5 victory