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Lowry’s leadership lifts Raptors to first Finals appearance

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TORONTO — With 3.9 seconds left, he knew.

Kawhi Leonard had grabbed the game-sealing rebound and was at the free throw line with the Toronto Raptors up by four. Leonard was the star that had carried this team though most of these playoffs, but your eyes gravitated to the man standing behind Leonard.

Kyle Lowry was giddy. As Leonard released his first free throw, he was pumping his fists. After the first shot, he had a huge grin as he dapped up Leonard, who remained characteristically stone-faced. As Leonard stepped back to the line for his second free throw, Lowry retreated to the backcourt with his hands on his head. It was a goofy smile, one he just couldn’t control.

Sitting at his locker after his Toronto Raptors advanced to the NBA Finals with a 100-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6, Lowry stumbled trying to explain what that moment felt like.

“That feeling is not,” he started. “You don’t know that feeling … You just don’t know what to say. It’s not a feeling you can describe.”

As he talked, the game ball was in his locker, sitting on top of a pile of gear. He had made sure to grab the final rebound after the buzzer sounded. As he ran off the floor to hug his kids, that ball was stuck to his hip. It was still there as he spoke with TNT’s Ernie Johnson at the trophy presentation.

“I might take it home,” he admitted.

 

The Raptors are going to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Over the five regular seasons prior to this one, the Toronto Raptors had 19 more regular-season wins than any other team in the Eastern Conference. But in regard to postseason success, they had little to show for it.

There was Lowry getting blocked at the buzzer of Game 7 against Brooklyn in 2014. There was the embarrassing, first-round sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards the year after that. They reached the conference finals in 2016, but a 2-2 series wasn’t an “adverse situation” for LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Raptors out of the conference semis in both 2017 and 2018.

Lowry is the only guy on the current roster that’s been here for all the regular-season success and all the postseason frustration. And more often than not, he’s been the face of the latter.

There was another time when Lowry had a ball by his side as he addressed the media after a playoff game. It wasn’t the game ball, but rather the ball he had used in an impromptu, practice-court shooting session after a rough performance against the Miami Heat in 2016, one of the many Game 1 losses that the Raptors have suffered over the years.

Lowry has had a lot of ups and downs over the years, and really, his postseason struggles are probably overstated. In 67 playoff games with the Raptors, he has averaged 17.1 points (on an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 percent) and 6.3 assists. He’s a plus-80 in his Toronto playoff career, even though his team has been outscored by a total of 156 points over those six postseasons.

Whether or not the shots are going in, Lowry’s impact is felt. He makes big plays on both ends of the floor. And he’s made them in a lot of big moments in these 2019 playoffs.

It’s kind of incredible to think about how often this Raptors’ postseason was on the brink of another disappointing finish. In the conference semifinals, they trailed 2-1 and by four points early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 in Philadelphia. They needed four bounces to win Game 7. And in this series, they were just a possession or two from being down 0-3, a deficit that no team in NBA history has ever come back from.

On Saturday, the Raptors trailed by 15 points with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter, in danger of losing their best opportunity to close out this series. Some life had been breathed back into the Bucks, who would have had a Game 7 back in Milwaukee. Prior to Saturday, they were 57-5 in games they led by at least 15 points. The Raptors made some abbreviated runs, but just couldn’t get over the hump.

But then it happened. A 26-3 run that turned that 15-point deficit into an eight-point lead, one that the Raptors would never lose (though they came close). Leonard got it started with eight points and an assist to close the third quarter, but the Raptors kept it going with their star on the bench for the first two and a half minutes of the fourth.

 

Kawhi Leonard was dominant during the Raptors’ 26-3 run in Game 6.

Lowry didn’t score any of the 26 points, but he had four assists on the run, and the last was one every Raptor fan will remember forever. After Leonard missed a three, Fred VanVleet picked up Middleton in transition. But when Middleton tried to go behind his back, Lowry pounced from off of George Hill in the strong-side corner.

He took the ball from Middleton and raced down the floor with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe on his tail. He stopped just inside the free throw line, waited for the two Bucks to pass by and dropped an underhand pass to a trailing Leonard. As Leonard rose for a majestic left-handed dunk, Lowry gave Antetokounmpo a little nudge to help prevent a block.

“I know just to keep running with Kyle,” Leonard said. “If he doesn’t have nothing easy, he’s going to make the right play.”

It was the highlight of the night, a play only topped on this postseason run by Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater. And it capped what was a remarkable comeback from a tough, resilient team.

The Raptors wouldn’t be here without Leonard, the star that has lifted them. They also wouldn’t be here without Lowry, the tough point guard who has played through an injured left thumb (that seems bound for surgery after The Finals) and spent most of the series guarding a guy – Khris Middleton – seven inches taller than him.

“His natural instincts are to be a leader out there, and he shows it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He does it with his IQ and his great knowledge of the game. He shows it with tremendous toughness as well. That’s his other natural characteristic. He’s blocking out guys twice his size. He’s taking charges every game. He’s just going to fight to win. He’s a hell of a competitor, and that rubs off on guys.”

After five years of playoff frustration, Kyle Lowry finally broke through. And though this postseason isn’t over, an Eastern Conference championship was clearly a time for celebration.

“I’m going to savor the moment,” Lowry said, “but I’m not satisfied. Our goal is to win the NBA championship.”

The Finals start Thursday.

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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George undergoes surgery on left shoulder

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Thunder All-Star Paul George has had a procedure to repair a small labrum tear in his left shoulder.

A Thunder spokesman made the announcement on Tuesday.

George had surgery to repair a partially torn tendon in his right shoulder about a month ago. It was announced at that time that he would have the additional procedure at a later date. Both shoulders hampered him in the final two months of the season. His timetable for recovery remains the same — his status will be evaluated before the start of the upcoming season.

George is a finalist for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards. He ranked second in the league with 28 points per game and led the league with 2.21 steals per contest.

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Five things we learned from Game 5 of The Finals

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Five things we learned from the Golden State Warriors’ 106-105 victory against the Toronto Raptors in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena:

 

1.  Winning for Durant > winning without him

We all should have bosses who care about us the way Bob Myers clearly cares about Kevin Durant. Myers took to the podium late Monday night, after earlier helping Durant to a waiting car as the Golden State Warriors’ star hobbled out of the building in a walking boot and into an uncertain future.

When Myers spoke publicly, he still sounded devastated, tearing up as his voice cracked in the midnight hour for those in the East.

“It’s people, sports is people,” said Myers, the Warriors GM. “I know Kevin takes a lot of [criticism] hits sometimes, but he just wants to play basketball and right now he can’t. Basketball has gotten him through his life. … I don’t know that we can all understand how much it means to him. He just wants to play basketball with his teammates and compete.”

 

Kevin Durant suffered an Achilles injury in Game 5 of The Finals.

Durant’s ability to do that in these Finals ended early in the second quarter, when he lost the ball on a spin move, staggered, then fell into a sitting position, grabbing his lower right leg. Durant had missed Golden State’s last nine playoff games with a right calf strain. His Game 5 injury was termed an Achilles injury, with an MRI set for Tuesday.

Myers self-nominated for any blame that people cared to lay, offering cover to the Warriors’ medical and training staff for their input into the decision to have Durant play in Game 5. But blame is a waste of time. The impact on the Warriors and on The Finals ranked second and third, frankly, to the impact of this mishap on Durant’s short- and longer-term future.

In the moment, his teammates and coaches were pulled in opposite emotional directions, delighted with the outcome but anguished over the circumstances. “I’m so proud of them,” coach Steve Kerr said, “just the amazing heart and grit that they showed, and on the other I’m just devastated for Kevin. So it’s a bizarre feeling that we all have right now. An incredible win and a horrible loss at the same time.”

 

Warriors GM Bob Myers called Kevin Durant’s injury in Game 5 “not fair.”

Stephen Curry also talked about his friend, the situation, Durant’s toughness and having the opportunity yanked away from him like Charlie Brown’s football. But it was left to Klay Thompson, who hit two of the Warriors’ three daggers in the closing minutes that snagged Game 5, to provide the proper perspective.

“We do it for Kevin,” Thompson said, when asked how his team soldiers on. “We do it for ‘K.’ I can tell you this, he wants us to compete at the highest level, and we’ll think of him every time we step on the hardwood.”

This no longer is the conjecture and abstract stuff from the past five weeks, when analysts wondered if Golden State might be “better” without Durant. Every one of the Warriors has shot that theory down, and different does not mean better.

There’s no doubt losing Durant for what’s left of the series leaves Golden State’s cupboard more bare basketball options-wise. Kerr and Toronto’s Nick Nurse have talked repeatedly about all the ways in which the Warriors benefit from Durant’s presence, whether he’s shooting over the Raptors’ defense or simply exerting gravity to open space for his teammates.

 

Klay Thompson was sad to see his teammate, Kevin Durant, suffer an injury.

But now, there’s a focal point for the Warriors’ emotions. It’s not the muddle of will-he-or-won’t-he, and how-much-will-he-have. Now the Warriors can distill the jumble of exhilaration and depression that washed over them Monday into a goal and an inspiration.

“It’s going to be a rough go in terms of just trying to recalibrate,” Curry said. “Until this point it’s been about our hope that he could play and our hope to stay alive in this series.”

But the emotional roller coaster Curry spoke of is on a straightaway now, maximum speed to the end. One game at home, (possibly) one more on the road, without the guy who gave them 11 points in 12 minutes Monday but with a fresh fire, and a better chance than they had at tipoff of Game 5.

Ask yourself this: Does this make the defending champions less dangerous? Or more dangerous?

 

2. Timeouts cut both ways

Through three preliminary rounds and four Finals games, Nurse was introducing himself to the NBA’s casual community in impressive ways. His unaffected personality makes him easy to like — “Enjoy the game,” he tells reporters as he wraps up each pregame media session — and his adjustments against each opponent so far makes him easy to respect.

Nick Nurse opted to call two timeouts late in Game 5 of The Finals.

Nurse has been demonstrating a willingness for weeks now to try things without sweating the reaction of the basketball intelligentsia. His decision to throw a box-and-one defense at Curry raised eyebrows and triggered smirks from those who consider the tactic a relic best reserved for college or high school games. But Nurse shrugged and partied on as the Raptors moved within three minutes and five seconds of hugging the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Then, uh oh.

Toronto — more precisely, Kawhi Leonard — had just scored 10 unanswered points to thrust the Raptors into a 103-97 lead. The crowd at Scotiabank and the tens of thousands more outside at “Jurassic Park” could taste the franchise’s first NBA title.

But when Nurse called not one but two timeouts at 3:05, he doused some of that enthusiasm, snuffed his team’s moment and gave the Warriors a chance to gather. By current NBA rules, he was going to lose those two timeouts at the 3-minute mark. But he didn’t have to use them.

“We just came across [mid-court] and just decided to give those guys a rest,” Nurse said. “[We] just thought we could use the extra energy push.”

While his guys were resting, though, so were Kerr’s. As Draymond Green said, “We had a … chance to gain our composure.”

 

What are the key takeaways from Game 5 of The Finals?

The Warriors scored the next nine points, and Toronto’s only counter was a Kyle Lowry bucket on which DeMarcus Cousin’s goaltended. There’s no way to know if all of that happens without Nurse’s timeout calls, but his double-stack when he could have put pressure on Kerr to burn his final one did get in the way of the Raptors’ run, something coaches are loathe to do.

(By the way, can we all calm down about the Toronto fans momentarily cheering Durant’s injury? It was a reflexive response, seeing an opposing player they respect and fear perhaps headed back to the sideline for The Finals after aggravating a calf injury that no one considered career-altering. From their seats, that’s about all those locals knew. 

The fans needed to shift gears in that moment, same as Warriors fans had to adjust on the fly when Kyrie Irving blew out his knee in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals. Once they did, there was applause in the building and even a chant of “KD! KD!” Nobody was delighting in Durant’s pain or suffering, nobody was wishing him the worst.)

 

3. Who wins Bill Russell Finals MVP?

Leonard was in the midst of his personal 10-0 push when the time came for selected media members to submit their Finals MVP ballots. It was a simple piece of paper, with room for one name only, and the obvious choice — assuming the Raptors closed out the victory — was Leonard.

 

Kawhi Leonard has been a standout performer throughout The Finals.

The laconic forward had been terrific through the Finals’ first four games. He was finally cutting loose in Game 5, too. And yet, Leonard had an inefficient, unreliable game Monday. Until his late spark, he missed 13 of his 18 shots and was stuck on 16 points. He wound up shooting 9-of-24, 2-of-7 on 3-pointers, and had five turnovers to go with his 26 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.

He was absolutely correct to pass up the final shot, blitzed as he was by Golden State’s Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Forcing something there would have fed the worst elements of “hero ball.” So instead Leonard got the ball to Fred VanVleet, who seemed to have the best options — shoot or drive.

But VanVleet shoveled the ball to Lowry in the left corner, and the point guard’s attempt barely left his hands before it hit Draymond Green’s fingers.

Certainly, Leonard could use a little more help. Lowry, Danny Green and Norman Powell are shooting a combined 38.8 percent overall. Pascal Siakam is 2-of-15 from the arc in this round and 15-of-72 since Game 1 against Philadelphia.

But if Leonard is going to walk off with the second Finals MVP of his career, he’s going to have to earn it Thursday and/or Sunday. Ballots will be recast both days (barring a blowout for the Warriors in Game 6), and he’s a heavy favorite. But save for the fourth-quarter spurt, Leonard labored against Golden State’s defensive attention.

 

4. This is going Game 7

C’mon, does anyone really believe the Warriors are going to lose all three of their home games in this series? They were 9-3 in The Finals at Oracle Arena through their past four trips (2015-18).

The crowd in Oakland, on top of all that talent, made for one of the most daunting stops in the NBA for road teams. And this was well before the sense of finality that has descended on the outdated and soon-to-be forsaken barn in the East Bay.

 

Oracle Arena will get its final curtain call on Thursday in Game 6.

Until the final few minutes of Game 5, it was possible that Golden State had played its last game at Oracle, though that reality never fully hit home. The players and coaches didn’t dare get their heads around it because once Game 4 was in the books, any sense that they were done at Oracle meant they necessarily would be done in The Finals in Toronto.

Now order has been restored, Toronto up only 3-2, as if each team has controlled its home games.

“The biggest thing, the biggest advantage is being at Oracle Arena one more time,” Curry said, “where our fans can really get behind us, and we’re going to have to will ourselves for another 48 minutes to stay alive.”

Said Draymond Green: “I’ve never seen this group fold. And that stands true still.”

Green, who had 10 points, 10 boards and eight assists while hounding Leonard and thwarting Lowry’s final shot, isn’t done yet. Neither, it turns out, is Cousins, who stepped into the breach when Durant went down and finished with 14 points.

 

An unpredictable 2019 Finals is headed to a Game 6.

Consider the alternative for the Raptors — wringing champagne out of their clothes, finalizing a parade route — the last thing they wanted to do was travel three time zones again, regardless of their success in Games 3 and 4 there.

“Yeah, our goal was to get them back on the plane, get them back to Oakland,” Thompson said.

Frankly, if Toronto could, it might take the loss now and wave everyone on to Game 7 Sunday at Scotiabank. It would save the Raptors the wear and tear of hauling their butts to California and back, and avoid subjecting themselves to whatever indignities, ankle sprains and confidence dings the Warriors and their fans might heap upon them.

 

Clutch shooting from the ‘Splash Bros.’ powered Golden State to a Game 5 win.

“Yeah, we had a chance to win a championship … and we didn’t do it,” VanVleet said. “We didn’t play well enough. We didn’t execute enough down the stretch and that stings a little bit. But there’s a lot more basketball left to play.”

How much is left in either team’s tank at this stage?

It don’t matter,” Draymond Green said. “I hope no one has anything left in the tank [after Game 5] because if you do, you didn’t give enough. But when we step back on our floor for Game 6, that’s all that matters. It’s not like we’re the only team battling. They’re battling as well. Everybody is facing fatigue at this point. … You’ve got to do what you came here to do anyway.”

 

5. Finals change free agency’s course

Certainly it’s possible Durant could still make the biggest splash on the market this summer. And there’s no reason to think one or more suitors wouldn’t be willing to pay him premium bucks next season to rehab and provide hope beginning with the 2020-21 season. Even that, though, could affect what free agents might choose to play with him, if they’d feel as if they’d be sacrificing a year, too.

It’s possible that this mishap keeps Durant with Golden State — he can invoke his player option for next season, earn another $31.5 million and rehab on the dime of the team for whom he sacrificed this week, while taking another run at the market in 2020.

 

Isiah Thomas and Grant Hill explain how a playoff injury can affect a career.

Then again, Durant will turn 31 in September. He has logged big minutes and long seasons and it’s only a guess as to how the most severe of Achilles injuries might affect his future performances.

Maybe he’s still effective at an All-Star level, but a changed player in the way, say, Rudy Gay got stronger and bulkier but less mobile after his Achilles tear. Maybe it’s all a great unknown until Durant actually rehabs and makes it back, wherever he opts to land.

There’s no denying, though, that it adds another huge variable to summer that already had Leonard pondering a relocation, Kyrie Irving presumed to be gone from Boston, Anthony Davis still making unpleasant noise in New Orleans and about 40 percent of NBA players overall in search of new contracts this season.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.



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Report: Grizzlies hiring Bucks’ Jenkins as new coach

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The Memphis Grizzlies have apparently found their next coach.

Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Taylor Jenkins is set to take over in Memphis, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, as the official hiring announcement is expected to come sometime today. 

Over the past two months, the Grizzlies have conducted a wide-ranging search for a coach that included consideration of EuroLeague, NBA and NCAA coaches, Wojnarowski reports. Additionally, the team’s front office met with Jenkins three times, including with team owner Robert Pera last week. 

Jenkins is the third coach to come from Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s staff, joining Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder and Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. Jenkins was a part of Budenholzer’s staff with the Atlanta Hawks from 2013-17 before filling the same role with the Bucks last season. Before that, he was coach of the Austin Toros in the NBA G League and was an assistant for the Toros for four seasons before that. Jenkins also was an intern in the San Antonio Spurs’ basketball operations department during the 2007-08 season.

Snyder and Atkinson were assistants under Budenholzer when he was with the Hawks.

The Grizzlies fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff after the season as the team went 33-49. Memphis had a front-office overhaul in the offseason as general manager Chris Wallace was demoted to scout and promoted Tayshaun Price to vice president of basketball affairs. The Grizzlies have a promising future, starting with the fact they have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 Draft, which will take place on June 20.

 

Should the Grizzlies draft Ja Morant with the No. 2 overall pick?

Prince will help evaluate both professional, college and G League personnel. He will also help align the front office, coaching staff and locker room. He joined the Grizzlies as a special adviser to the general manager in 2017.

Memphis announced those moves in early April after both Bickerstaff and Wallace spoke to reporters following a second straight season outside the playoffs. After a 12-5 start, Memphis plummeted and tied with New Orleans and Dallas in the Western Conference standings.

Bickerstaff was named interim coach in November 2017 after the Grizzlies fired David Fizdale . He was given the job without the interim title last May. Now Memphis is looking for a fourth head coach since choosing not to renew Lionel Hollins’ contract after he led the Grizzlies to their lone Western Conference final appearance in 2013.

The Grizzlies also announced in April that Jason Wexler will be president of the Grizzlies overseeing both basketball and business operations, and Zachary Z. Kleiman replaces John Hollinger as executive vice president of basketball operations with Hollinger moving to an advisory role.

Memphis began last season with Wallace predicting the Grizzlies would be a playoff team.

 

The Grizzlies have a choice to make regarding veteran guard Mike Conley.

The Grizzlies wound up trading away center Marc Gasol at the trade deadline. With other trades and injuries that left nine rotation players benched with injuries for Wednesday night’s season finale in a 132-117 win over Golden State, Memphis tied its own NBA record for most players used in one season — set last season — again at 28.

The Grizzlies kept veteran point guard Mike Conley after a frenzy of speculation about his future before the trade deadline. And Conley, 31, sounded ready at season’s end to consider his best interest about what happens next with Memphis in full-blown rebuilding mode.

“I honestly don’t think that would be the ideal situation,” Conley said in April. “Ideally, I don’t think anybody in my situation would want to go through that again, (since) I don’t know how many years I have left.”

Conley helped his potential value by averaging 24 points and 6.5 assists over his final 16 games. Conley still has two seasons left on the max deal he signed in July 2016.

Jenkins will have young frontcourt star Jaren Jackson Jr. to mold in 2019-20. He showed flashes as the fourth overall draft pick last summer before a deep thigh bruise sidelined him after 58 games. Dillon Brooks also was limited to 18 games by injuries, and Kyle Anderson, signed to a four-year deal last summer, played only 43 games and will have surgery next week on his right shoulder.

Jonas Valanciunas, acquired in the February trade for Marc Gasol, has a $17.6 million player option next season. Last but not least, veteran point guard Mike Conley is 

Information from The Associated Press was also used in this report.

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