Posts Tagged ‘Jonas Valanciunas’

Australia is pretty good in routing Lithuania; Valanciunas: ‘I was pretty bad’

RIO DE JANEIRO — Australia (5-1) continued it’s strong run at the Olympics, advancing to the semifinals with a blowout, 90-64 win over Lithuania (3-3). The Boomers have become the clear favorite to reach the gold medal game from the side of the bracket opposite the United States, and need one win in their next two games to earn their first Olympic medal.

“It’s a hard and long road to go,” Patty Mills said afterward. “I can tell you this is one hell of a group that I’m very happy and proud to be a part of.”

Matthew Dellavedova started Wednesday’s game with two 3-pointers and Australia never trailed. It led by nine at the end of the first quarter and by 18 at the half. Mills led all scorers with 24 points, hitting five of his 11 3s. The guards’ aggressiveness opened up things for everybody else and the Aussie offense, which ranked second through pool play, just kept clicking.

“We lead the tournament by far in assist-to-field-goal percentage,” Australia Andrej Lemanis said. “I think that reflects that fact that we play together as a group and we’re all prepared to do what’s in the best interest of the team.”

This is the fourth time that Australia has reached the Olympic semifinals. But on the previous three occasions (1988, 1996 and 2000), it finished fourth. On Friday, it will face the winner of Wednesday night’s quarterfinal game between Croatia and Serbia. It should be the favorite in the semis and certainly has a shot (especially with how poorly the U.S. has been on defense) to win the gold medal.

“We believe,” Andrew Bogut said. “I’ve been on teams where you say all that, but there’s that doubt still there. We believe we can beat teams. We come in with that mind set and a resilient group that plays hard.”

Lithuania’s Olympics started with three straight wins and ended with three straight losses. It hurt itself with 13 first-half turnovers on Wednesday.

“Everything slipped away,” Jonas Valanciunas said afterward. “We didn’t come away with the same energy, same focus. We were not playing basketball. We were just trying to, I don’t know, score, whatever. We were not enjoying basketball.”

Valanciunas was maybe the most disappointing NBA player in the tournament. He averaged just 6.7 points on 39 percent shooting over Lithuania’s six games. He scored just five points on 2-for-5 shooting in the quarterfinal.

“He and [point guard Mantas] Kalnietis were our focuses,” Australia assistant coach Luc Longley said. “We managed to get a lot of pressure on the ball early and a lot of Valanciunas’ looks come off Kalnietis. If he’s not rolling, it’s hard for Valanciunas to get rolling.”

Lithuania’s lack of perimeter shooting (it ranked last in 3-point percentage among teams that advanced to the quarterfinals) gave Valanciunas less space to operate, and he just never got going offensively.

“I was pretty bad,” he admitted. “I got to do something with my head.”

2016 Olympic quarterfinals preview

RIO DE JANEIRO — The 2016 Olympic basketball tournament is wide open. Eight great teams remain and every one of them has a chance at a medal.

The United States is the only undefeated team among them and carries a 50-game winning streak in international tournaments into the quarterfinals. But, it has looked vulnerable over its last three games, allowing Australia, Serbia and France to score more than 110 points per 100 possessions. If it doesn’t get enough offense in any of its next three games, the U.S. can lose.

And every other team can win. The only team in the quarterfinals that doesn’t have a quality win in Rio is Serbia. But Serbia lost to France by one and had a wide-open three to send its game vs. the U.S. to overtime. And, oh yeah, Serbia won silver at the 2014 World Cup, having beat Greece, Brazil and France to get to the final (after, just like this year, picking up no quality wins in pool play).

Here’s a rundown of each of Wednesday’s quarterfinals…

Pace = Possessions per 40 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Stats are from games vs. remaining teams. For full Olympic pace & efficiency stats, go here. (more…)

Group B gets crazy

RIO DE JANEIRO — Group B in the Olympic Men’s Basketball tournament promised to be, with five teams with medal hopes and only four tickets to the quarterfinals, the more interesting of the two groups. And it has already been more interesting that we could have imagined. Through four days of action, every team in Group B has at least one win and one loss.

And on a day where Spain may have righted its ship and two rivals produced an instant classic, Nigeria threw another wrinkle in the standings with an upset of Croatia. And with one more day to go, every team is still alive.

Argentina wins double-OT classic

Andres Nocioni is 36 years old and hasn’t played in the NBA in four years. But put “El Chapu” in an Argentina uniform for the final time (we think), and he can do special things.

On Saturday afternoon, Nocioni played more than 47 minutes and scored 37 points (the high for the Olympics thus far) in Argentina’s 111-107, double-overtime victory over Brazil. The atmosphere, with the two South American rivals facing off in Brazil’s gym, was incredible. The stakes were high and the game delivered the goods.

“No matter what sport or whatever’s going on, if it’s Brazil against Argentina, it’s going to be a battle,” incoming Spurs rookie Patricio Garino (who had several key steals) said afterward. “The atmosphere was unbelievable. Playing in this kind of setting is going to be memories for life.”

Facundu Campazzo added 33 points and 11 assists for Argentina, but the biggest play of the game was an offensive rebound from the 5-11 point guard off a Manu Ginobili miss in the final seconds of regulation. With Argentina down three, Campazzo found Nocioni, whose step-back three tied the game with 3.9 seconds left.

Brazil couldn’t get a good shot off at the end of regulation, and Ginobili’s runner to win was off the mark at the end of the first overtime. Campazzo started the second OT off with two threes and Argentina withstood a big flurry from Leandro Barbosa to pull out the win, with Ginobili securing the game with another critical offensive rebound in the final seconds.

“What we did today was big, everybody, because we fight, we play hard, and we try to compete,” Nocioni said. “We lost control of the game sometimes, but always, we try to keep going, keep going.”

Nene (24 points, 11 rebounds) had a big game for Brazil, but the hosts are facing a disappointing scenario if they don’t qualify for the quarterfinals. They looked to be in good shape after beating Spain in their second game, but have come up just short in each of their other three, having lost them by a total of just 14 points.

Twelve years after they won it all in Athens, Argentina’s golden generation (with some help from a 25-year-old point guard) is still alive and will be in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. No matter what happens from now on, it’s already been a fun last ride … if it has indeed the last ride.

“It was the last ride four years ago,” Nocioni said with a laugh. “Maybe, you never know, maybe we’re coming back in Tokyo.”

Spain looks strong again

After losing to Croatia and Brazil and struggling to pull away against Nigeria, Spain (2-2) played its best game on Saturday night, thumping previously unbeaten Lithuania 109-59. Because they don’t have the tiebreaker vs. Brazil, Spain’s elimination games began Saturday. And they got the first one they needed to stay alive.

“We had two finals,” Ricky Rubio said afterward. “Today we came to play, and Monday, it’s another final.”

Pau Gasol (23 points, five rebounds, five assists, two blocks, 5-for-5 from 3-point range) dominated his matchup with Jonas Valanciunas (0-for-6). Rubio (3-for-4 from 3-point range) finally hit a few jumpers and kept Lithuania on its heels defensively. And Nikola Mirotic (17 points, 8-for-11 shooting) was strong inside and out.

Spain is missing Marc Gasol, but still could be the second best team in the tournament when it’s all said and done. Of course, it could also be going home early if it doesn’t beat Argentina on Monday.

“We were trying to find our DNA out there [in the first two games], and I think we found it [Saturday],” Rubio said. “We haven’t done anything special yet, but I think we’re on the right track.”

Nigeria stays alive

Nigeria was, seemingly, the one team in Group B that didn’t have a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals. But suddenly, it’s still alive with a stunning, 90-76 victory over Croatia in Saturday’s late game. The 3-point shooting tells the story. Nigeria was 17-for-36 from beyond the arc, while Croatia was 6-for-28.

Croatia has quality wins over Spain and Brazil and could have clinched a spot in the quarterfinals with a win Saturday. But it’s future is now in some doubt.

Bottom line from Group B: Argentina (3-1) and Lithuania (3-1) are in the quarterfinals, while Spain (2-2) and Croatia (2-2) control their own destiny. Brazil (1-3) and Nigeria (1-3) need help.

Big games Monday

And here’s a rundown of Monday’s slate …

  • Brazil (1-3) vs. Nigeria (1-3) – 1:15 p.m. ET – The winner of this game is still alive, while the loser is eliminated. A Brazil win also means that Croatia clinches a spot in the quarterfinals.
  • Argentina (3-1) vs. Spain (2-2) – 6 p.m. ET – If Brazil wins the first game, Spain needs to win to stay alive, because it will have lost to the two teams (Brazil and Croatia) it could possibly be tied with at 2-3.
  • Croatia (2-2) vs. Lithuania (3-1) – 9:30 p.m. ET – Lithuania clinches the top seed in Group B with a win. Croatia needs to win to stay alive if Nigeria wins the first game.

If two teams are tied, the tiebreaker is head-to-head. So Brazil and Croatia both have the tiebreaker over Spain.

If multiple teams are tied, the tiebreaker goes to the team with the best record in games between those teams. If that’s even — say Croatia, Nigeria and Spain all tie at 2-3 — it comes down to point differential in games between those teams. In the aforementioned scenario, Spain (plus-7) would finish third, Nigeria (plus-5) would finish fourth, and Croatia (minus-12) would be eliminated.

If Spain beat Argentina and Croatia beat Lithuania, we would have a four-way tie at 3-2 for first place. Stay tuned …

Group A wraps Sunday

Group A is much more easier to figure out. The U.S. needs to beat France (1:15 ET) to clinch first place, because a loss could produce (if Australia beats Venezuela) a three-way tie between Australia, France and the U.S. In that case, point differential in the games between the three teams (who would all be 1-1 within the group) would determine the seeds. Australia beat France by 21, while the U.S. only beat Australia by 10, so a France win on Sunday would put Australia in first place and drop the U.S. to second (or third if it lost by 16 or more).

If the U.S. beats France, Australia is second (no matter its result) and France is third. Venezuela, meanwhile, can stay alive with a win over Australia (6 p.m. ET), but Serbia would take fourth (and eliminate Venezuela) with a win over China in the late game (9:30 p.m. ET).

Cavs could trap more in Game 5


VIDEO: Inside The NBA: Raptors-Cavaliers Game 5 Preview

HANG TIME, N.J. — The last time the Toronto Raptors’ offense had to worry about rim protection was early in the second quarter of Game 3 of the conference semifinals, right before the Miami Heat lost Hassan Whiteside to a knee injury.

After that, the Heat played the following players at “center”: Udonis Haslem (35 years old and ground-bound), Amar’e Stoudemire (one of the worst defensive big men of the last 10 years), Justise Winslow (a 6-foot-7 small forward), Luol Deng (another tweener forward) and Josh McRoberts (who blocked seven shots in the regular season).

The Raptors haven’t had to worry about rim protection in the conference finals, either. Their guards have taken the ball at Cleveland Cavaliers big men Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye with little respect for their ability to block shots.

On the Raptors’ first possession of the third quarter of Game 4 on Monday, DeMar DeRozan drove right at Thompson and shot a 10-foot floater right in Thompson’s face, almost as if he wasn’t there at all. Love has been similarly invisible defensively.

But the key to the Raptors’ attacks has been the cushion that the Cleveland bigs have provided. It’s easier to put Love and Thompson on their heels when you have a running start.

So late in Game 4, the Cavs started defending pick-and-rolls differently, bringing their bigs out and trapping the Toronto guards in order to: 1. take the ball out of their hands and 2. keep them from attacking the basket with a running start.

The Raptors aren’t the Spurs or Warriors in regard to their ability to take advantage of traps and the ensuing 4-on-3 situations. And the Cavs’ first hard trap was a resounding success…

They trapped Kyle Lowry

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… putting the ball in the hands of Bismack Biyombo, with a 4-on-3…

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Biyombo hesitated before passing the ball to Patrick Patterson, who passed it back. Biyombo then tried to dribble his way to the basket, but the shot clock ran out before he got there.

Other Cleveland traps weren’t so successful. In fact, two of them (one and two) resulted in three-point plays from Lowry on the weak side of the floor, because the Cavs’ defense sprung leaks after the trap. And later, the Raptors started running guard/guard pick-and-rolls to get the one-on-one matchups they wanted.

Still, we can anticipate more trapping in Game 5 on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), which, at times, will put the ball in the hands of Biyombo — who’s not exactly Boris Diaw or Draymond Green when it comes to pick-and-roll playmaking — far from the basket.

The Raptors can adjust by using Patterson or James Johnson – guys who can put the ball on the floor – as screeners. Interestingly, when asked Tuesday about Jonas Valanciunas‘ possible return, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that Valanciunas might be a key to how the Raptors handle the traps.

“He’s going to be valuable for us if they’re blitzing,” Casey said, “because he’s an excellent passer and can make plays from the top of the key.”

Though it seemed like Love forgot to pack his offense for the trip to Toronto after Game 2, the bigger difference between the Cavs’ two wins and the Raptors’ two wins has been on Toronto’s end of the floor, where the Raptors scored 118 points per 100 possessions in Games 3 and 4 after scoring only 91 in Games 1 and 2.

Game 5 may depend on the Cavs’ ability to get the ball out of the hands of Lowry and DeRozan without springing a leak elsewhere. The guards’ willingness to move the ball quickly will be a key for the Raptors, who could use their three-guard lineup for more minutes. That will ensure that there’s always another ball-handler on the weak side to take advantage of the post-trap, defensive rotations.

As always, it’s about adjustments and execution.

Morning shootaround — May 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Warriors gear up for crucial Game 4 | Beal expects max deal this summer | Love (foot) should be OK for Game 5 | Valanciunas ready to help out in series

No. 1: Green drama least of Warriors’ concerns as Game 4 nears  The Golden State Warriors dodged a major bullet yesterday when they found out that All-Star forward Draymond Green would not be suspended for the kick he delivered to the groin of Oklahoma City Thunder Steven Adams in Game 3. All that remains now is simple — avoid their first two-game losing streak in 95 games (playoffs and regular season) in Game 4 tonight (9 ET, TNT). The San Jose Mercury News‘ Tim Kawakami has more on the vast challenge staring the Warriors in their collective faces:

Draymond Green will play Tuesday, get booed with an enthusiasm previously unknown to mankind, and somewhere in there the Warriors will try to save their season, too.

That is just about as much noise, emotion and drama as any two teams could bear, and it’s all packed into Game 4 at Chesapeake Arena.

Will somebody break under this titanic pressure? Can the Warriors use all this nervous energy to spin this series around?

Will Stephen Curry rise above everything and pluck the Warriors from danger precisely when it is most necessary?

How are they going to deal with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and an Oklahoma City group that keeps playing better and better?

“They’re a real good team,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said Monday of the Thunder.

“I think we’re facing a different animal as far as KD and Westbrook.”

What can the Warriors do? Well, in the Cleveland series, Kerr put super-sub Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for center Andrew Bogut in Game 4 and the small-ball Warriors proceeded to run the Cavaliers off the court the next three games.

I would expect that Iguodala, at the very least, will play a larger and larger role (and Harrison Barnes possibly a smaller one) as the series moves along, and Kerr wouldn’t comment when I asked if he might start Iguodala again.

But the Warriors’ “Death Lineup” was demolished by various Thunder units in Game 3, so it will take more than just a lineup switch for the Warriors.

It will take Green bouncing back from his horrible Game 3; if anybody can absorb the rage of 18,000 fans and use it as fuel, it’s Green, but this is now at an emotional apex.

It will take Klay Thompson and Livingston feeling steadier with the ball and calmer on defense.

It will take Kerr and his staff coming up with a few tweaks that help the Warriors find their offensive rhythm and make it tougher on Durant and Westbrook — without anything backfiring on the Warriors.

But mostly, I think it will take Curry, the league’s first unanimous MVP, to play like he deserved every one of those votes and more.

On Monday, a day after looking particularly off-rhythm shooting in Game 3, Curry had that serene look I’ve seen a few times before, usually right before something large is about to happen.

Curry doesn’t want to try to do too much, which was part of the problem Sunday; but he also realizes that the entire team looks to him in the toughest moments.

“Somebody’s just got to take control of the situation,” Curry said of the Game 3 unraveling. “I think individually we’re so competitive in that moment that we wanted to do something about it, we didn’t allow ourselves to work together.

“We make tough shots all the time; we might be talking about this had a couple of them gone in.”

Valanciunas to return in Game 4

TORONTO — Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas is on the active list and will make his return from an ankle injury in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday. He will come off the bench for the Raptors, who are looking to tie the series at two games apiece.

Valanciunas originally injured his ankle in the third quarter of Game 3 of the conference semifinals. He has missed the last seven games, with Toronto using Bismack Biyombo in the starting lineup and different combinations on the frontline behind him.

Biyombo has been a bit of a revelation and was a huge factor in the Raptors’ Game 3 victory on Saturday, grabbing 26 rebounds, blocking four shots, and helping limit the Cleveland Cavaliers to just 20 points in the paint.

Valanciunas has averaged 15.0 points (on 55 percent shooting) and 12.1 rebounds in 10 playoff games. He gives Toronto a low-post presence through which to run its offense, but it’s unclear how mobile he’ll be or if he’ll be able to match up with Cleveland’s five-out second unit when Tristan Thompson goes to the bench.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said that Valanciunas’ role would be limited.

“He brings a post presence, gives them a chance to slow the game down,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “With his presence, it gives a different dynamic to their team outside of just a jump-shooting team and two guards attacking. So it’s a different look for us, but we’ll be ready for it.”

Numbers preview: Cavs-Raptors

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Cleveland Cavaliers have always been the clear favorite in the Eastern Conference. At any point in the season, you would have a hard time finding a neutral party who believed that any other East team could stop the Cavs from getting back to The Finals.

Still, the Cavs were always, at best, the third-best team in the league. They were never nearly as good offensively as the Golden State Warriors or nearly as good defensively as the San Antonio Spurs.

But Cleveland has found a new gear in the postseason. The Cavs’ haven’t been a great defensive team in the playoffs, but they haven’t needed to be, because they’ve scored a ridiculous 117 points per 100 possessions as they’ve swept through the first two rounds.

The Cavs have become the most prolific and the most proficient 3-point shooting team in the postseason. The Atlanta Hawks were the league’s best defensive team since Christmas, but couldn’t stop the Cavs’ onslaught in the conference semifinals.

The Toronto Raptors are seemingly just happy to be in the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. But there are reasons the Raptors won 56 games, including two of the three they played against the Cavs this season. They were a top-five offensive team with a much-improved defense. They’ve escaped the competitive bottom half of the East bracket and they played their most complete game of the postseason in Game 7 against the Miami Heat on Sunday.

The Cavs have the opportunity to be the first team to ever go 12-0 on its way to The Finals. To keep that from happening, the Raptors will have to find a way to slow down Cleveland’s potent offense.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for the Eastern Conference finals, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)

First round: Beat Detroit in four games.
Conf. semis: Beat Atlanta in four games.
Pace: 91.6 (14)
OffRtg: 117.0 (1)
DefRtg: 106.6 (11)
NetRtg: +10.4 (2)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Toronto: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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20160516_cle_offense

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Cavs playoff notes:

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Toronto Raptors (56-26)

First round: Beat Indiana in seven games.
Conf. semis: Beat Miami in seven games.
Pace: 92.0 (12)
OffRtg: 99.4 (11)
DefRtg: 101.5 (6)
NetRtg: -2.1 (9)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Cleveland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

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20160516_tor_offense

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Raptors playoff notes:

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The matchup

Season series: Raptors won 2-1 (Home team won all three games).
Nov. 25 – Raptors 103, Cavs 99
Jan. 4 – Cavs 122, Raptors 100
Feb. 26 – Raptors 99, Cavs 97

Pace: 89.6
CLE OffRtg: 119.7 (1st vs. TOR)
TOR OffRtg: 111.1 (5th vs. CLE)

Matchup notes:

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Blogtable: Will Heat or Raptors win series?

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: MVP favorites for 2016-17? | Lottery-to-playoffs in 2017? | Who wins Raptors-Heat series?


> More likely to win this series: The Heat without Hassan Whiteside, or the Raptors without Jonas Valanciunas?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Assuming Whiteside doesn’t make it back for what’s left of this series, I think his loss is more damaging. I’ll leave the respective net-ratings calculus to Schuhmann and just note how Whiteside’s absence defensively in Game 4 emboldened Toronto players, notably DeMarre Carroll, to attack the lane with abandon. Plant the Heat’s big center down there and those opportunities are gone, Raptors probing elsewhere. Toronto still has Bismack Biyombo as a fairly productive, fairly traditional big and seems comfortable enough at small ball with Patrick Patterson as a surrogate center. The Heat’s crew behind Whiteside – Udonis Haslem, Josh McRoberts, Amar’e Stoudemire – is a little creaky, a little little or both. Now if Whiteside’s “day-to-day” status has him available for Games 6 or 7, ignore all of the above.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.comMy head says the Raptors, but my gut is watching Dwyane Wade as the throwback Flash, so I’ll pick the Heat.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Party in Jurassic Park. The Raptors without Jonas Valancuinas. Not by much, but Toronto has a slight edge. It would be bigger if the Raptors could get consistent production from Kyle Lowry and/or DeMar DeRozan.

Shaun Powell, NBA.comIt really doesn’t matter; the winner of that series will only last four more games. But if we must choose, then I’ll go with the Raptors. Because Kyle Lowry can’t be this bad and DeMar DeRozan can’t miss this many shots for much longer, right? Also, Bismack Biyombo can at least provide some defensive presence in the absence of Valenciunas.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comI’m not sure that either team has deserved to win any of the four games we’ve seen so far, so it’s difficult to pick a winner of this series other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, who should be making June 1 dinner reservations for their favorite restaurant in San Francisco. I’ll stick with my pre-series pick of Heat in 6, because the only Raptors I believe in right now are role players, while the Heat player who has managed to rise above the fray is named Dwyane Wade.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The way Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are struggling in this series, it’s impossible for me to go with the Raptors. There’s so much playoff muscle memory in Miami with Dwayne Wade, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng and some of those other veterans. The deeper this series goes, the more I expect those vets to show up and rule the day.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.comIf not for Kyle Lowry’s shooting elbow and DeMar DeRozan’s shooting thumb, I’d be picking the Raptors to exploit their homecourt advantage. As it is, Toronto’s best players are shooting a combined 33.1 percent in the playoffs, while Dwyane Wade has elevated his game throughout this postseason. Wade gives Miami the advantage.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Having just spent the weekend in Miami watching this series up close, I think Miami is poised to win this. Toronto has two superstars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who are struggling with injuries, and neither can find any consistency, particularly DeRozan. Miami, meanwhile, not only has Wade playing like 2006 Wade, but also have a bunch of quasi-stars around Wade in Joe Johnson, Luol Deng and Goran Dragic, who can make big shots and create for their teammates. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has talked about the Heat needing to play with pace, and they seemed to finally hit the mark at the end of Game 4 when they went super-small. So I’m most interested to see if the Heat can continue to play the way they closed out Game 4.

Biyombo critical for Raptors

TORONTO — Sometimes, when you lose a player to injury, you’re left with fewer decisions to make. You just have to roll with what you’ve got.

But Jonas Valanciunas‘ absence in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, as well as Kyle Lowry‘s sixth foul with two minutes left in regulation, gave Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey a big decision to make down the stretch on Monday. And it was about offense vs. defense.

Initially, Casey went with defense, leaving DeMar DeRozan – who had played terribly through three quarters – on the bench. For one defensive possession, a critical stop with the Raptors up two, Casey had a lineup of Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo on the floor.

But after Biyombo grabbed the rebound and the Raptors called a timeout, Casey replaced the center with DeRozan.

“We were trying to create offense,” Casey said Tuesday. “That lineup had been successful for us the game before.”

A DeRozan screen did give Joseph some space for a pull-up jumper to put the Raptors up four. But the Heat smartly went without a timeout, keeping Biyombo on the bench, for the ensuing possession.

They scored, DeRozan kicked the ball into Goran Dragic‘s face, missed a pull-up jumper, and grabbed an offensive rebound tapped back by Patterson. The Raptors took another timeout, and with another offensive possession, they kept DeRozan on the floor.

But after Joseph missed on a drive, there was still plenty of time for the Heat. Once again, they smartly went without a timeout. Dwyane Wade attacked the basket, Biyombo wasn’t there to stop him, and he tied the game with a layup.

Credit Heat coach Erik Spoelstra for not calling timeout those two times and catching Casey with his rim protector off the floor on two crucial defensive possessions. But Casey doubled down in overtime, going with the smaller lineup for all but two seconds in the extra period, where all of the Heat’s first nine points came via drives to the basket or offensive rebounds. Biyombo’s presence was missed, and DeRozan didn’t make up for it on the other end of the floor.

“That was the decision we made,” Casey said. “It didn’t work out.”

Valanciunas’ absence for the remainder of the series means that the Raptors will have to play some minutes with Patterson or Lucas Nogueira at center. But Biyombo can play a few more minutes than he did on Monday, and he could definitely be on the floor down the stretch, when his value on defense is greater than a smaller player’s value on offense.

Casey believes that the first key to protecting the basket is containing the ball on the perimeter. But the Heat aren’t going to stop attacking. Their offense has been ugly for most of the series and they’ve bailed themselves out of some ugly possessions with tough jumpers at times. But they need paint attacks to survive. And those attacks have come more often and more successfully when the Raptors haven’t had a center on the floor.

With either Valanciunas or Biyombo in the game, 22 percent of the Heat’s shots have come in the restricted area, where they’ve shot 61 percent. With neither in the game, 44 percent of the Heat’s shots have come in the restricted area, where they’ve shot 74 percent. They’ve scored more points at the basket in 37 minutes with neither on the floor than they’ve scored in 69 minutes with Biyombo on the floor.

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The Heat were playing small in overtime in Game 4, using Luol Deng at “center.” And you might ask who Biyombo could guard in that scenario. But Miami provided an easy answer: Justise Winslow, who has shot 2-for-21 from outside the restricted area over his last eight games. Biyombo wouldn’t need to chase Winslow away from the basket and, because the Heat don’t have dangerous perimeter shooting elsewhere on the floor, wouldn’t have to stress too much about an unguarded Winslow freeing a teammate up for a jumper with a screen.

The injuries to Valanciunas and Heat center Hassan Whiteside have turned this series into more of a chess match than it was before. DeRozan could certainly make things easier on Casey by making some shots and/or quicker decisions with the ball. But no matter what is happening on offense in Game 5 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, TNT), rim protection should be priority No. 1 for Toronto.

Injuries to Valanciunas, Whiteside loom large for small ball


MIAMI — Following injuries to Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside during Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra joked that the game’s final minutes looked “like a 6’4″ and under game.”

Perhaps we should get used to it. On Sunday, the Heat announced Whiteside would be day-to-day with a sprained MCL in his right knee. Minutes later, the Raptors announced Valanciunas would miss the rest of the series with a high ankle sprain.

While the Raptors hold a 2-1 series lead going into Game 4, the series has been close throughout — the first two games were both decided in overtime, and each of the three games has been decided by six points or less. Each team has had a chance to win each game down the stretch, which is really all you can ask for.

Yet with four games left in this series, the tenor of the series may have changed for good.

Valanciunas sprained his right ankle during the third quarter of Game 3 and missed most of the second half. Valanciunas averaged 19.5 ppg and 13 rpg in Games 1 and 2, and before his injury in Game 3, he had posted 16 points and 12 rebounds in 22 minutes. Immediately following Game 3, Toronto coach Dwane Casey said Valanciunas would be day-to-day for the rest of the series, but an MRI on Sunday changed Valanciunas’s status. The Raptors lost Valanciunas for a month earlier in the season and went 11–6 in his absence.

“It’s a big one for us, because [Valanciunas] was having a great series, great playoffs,” Toronto GM Masai Ujiri said Sunday at practice. “Big, big blow for us, and a big blow for JV. You feel for the kid. I just met with him, and it’s tough on him, tough on his teammates, but this is life in the NBA, and we carry on.”

Whiteside injured his right knee with 10:54 remaining in the second quarter. Whiteside had previously suffered a right knee strain in Game 1 of the series, but through the first two games had averaged 11 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks in just over 39 minutes of action.

“We’re going to list [Whiteside] as day-to-day,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “But where my mind was, where Hassan’s mind was leaving this building last night, that’s probably the best news we could have. So, he’s day-to-day, he’s going to be getting treatment and a lot of rest.”

With Valanciunas out for the remainder of the series, and Whiteside likely to miss time as well, the series will probably go smaller, if not outright small. Toronto will rely on Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola to fill their Valanciunas void, while Miami will look to Josh McRoberts and Udonis Haslem to take minutes in the middle.

“I think you’ll see more hard shows with [Haslem] and [McRoberts], and they’ll show a lot more and switch a lot, because they’re mobile bigs,” said Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, who finished Game 3 with 33 points. “That’s what I think, but who knows? [Game 4] will be a different game. We’re prepared for all situations and all things that could possibly happen.”

According to Miami’s Dwyane Wade, who scored a season high 38 points in Game 3, the change in personnel won’t alter his approach.

“I’m going to be who I am,” Wade said Sunday at Heat practice. “I’m an aggressive guy. I’m a shooting guard in this league. I know how to score the basketball. Some nights it’s going to go in, some nights it’s not. But ain’t no pressure. I’ll play about the same amount of minutes, I’ll get my usage and my touches that I always get. But the style of play — the lobs — that changes. But the load doesn’t change.”

“This is a highly competitive series. It’s 287-285 right now,” said Spoelstra, referencing the aggregate point totals through three games. “There’s a lot of different storylines out there, but I don’t think either team has figured out either team. We’re just trying to figure out ways to get it done.”