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76ers’ crown jewel shines in Game 4



BROOKLYN  There were 256 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team this season. For only one of the 256 could you say the following: His team was at least five points per 100 possessions better offensively and at least five points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor than they were with him off the floor.

That player was Joel Embiid.

The additions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris this season have given the Sixers a ridiculously talented starting lineup. And with Embiid missing Game 3 of their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, the rest of that lineup took care of business.

But Embiid remains the Sixers’ “crown jewel,” as head coach Brett Brown has called him. He’s a matchup problem for every team in the league and the difference maker for the Sixers on both ends of the floor.

In Game 4 on Saturday, the Nets just couldn’t match up, Embiid was the difference, and the Sixers came away with a 112-108 victory to take a 3-1 series lead.

Embiid’s line: 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks and two steals in less than 32 minutes. He was the fulcrum on both ends of the floor.


The 76ers lead 3-1 after their road comeback over the Nets in Game 4.

The Nets were one of five teams that took more than 40 percent of their shots from 3-point range this season. But they also led the league with 30.9 points per game scored on drives. The Nets’ biggest offensive weapons in this series have been Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, guards who can attack the rim by exploiting the Sixers’ lack of quickness on the perimeter.

Brooklyn was successful at the rim against Embiid on a few occasions, with both LeVert and Dinwiddie scoring over him. He also had a close-up look at a Jarrett Allen dunk when LeVert drove at him and dished off. But while the Philadelphia defense did bend at times, it never broke when Embiid was on the floor. And when Jared Dudley was ejected for shoving Embiid early in the third quarter, Brooklyn lost the only player who could possibly play center and make Embiid pay for hanging near the rim.

“I know these guys are going to go at me, because they want me to retaliate,” Embiid said about the skirmish that started when he hit Allen with what was deemed a flagrant foul. “So I got to be the mature one on the court and just stay cool and don’t react. I could have reacted, but I felt like my team needed me more than they did Jared Dudley. I just got to stay cool and mature and do my job.”

On defense, his job was to help the Sixers get stops. And with Embiid on the floor, Brooklyn scored just 62 points on 71 possessions. With him off the floor, the Nets scored 46 points on just 33 possessions.

On the other end, Brooklyn just couldn’t deal with Embiid in the paint. When they tried to front him in the post, the Sixers flashed a man to the foul line and got the ball to Embiid with high-low action. When he was doubled in the post, he found the open man, often Ben Simmons cutting to the rim after the Nets sent help off him.

When Embiid caught the ball on the perimeter, he didn’t settle, instead backing down into the post where he could score more easily or draw an extra defender (or two). In this series, Embiid has shot 22-for-35 (63 percent) in the paint and 3-for-14 (21 percent) outside it. 

“I’m just trying to live in the paint,” he said. “They’re going to have to double-team me. I figured that. They’re going to have to send two or three guys. If they’re going to guard me in single coverage, I’m going to dominate. And then I’m also going to make the right pass. That’s my job. We found it.”


Joel Embiid goes off for 31 points in Game 4.

With the Sixers down one with 25 seconds left in the game, the Sixers looked to Embiid, with Allen fronting him in the post. Joe Harris crashed from the weak side and knocked the ball out of Embiid’s hands, but Embiid beat Traveon Graham to the ball and, with one hand, got the ball to an open Mike Scott (Harris’ man) in the corner for what turned out to be the game-winning 3-pointer with 18.6 seconds left.

The goal in NBA offense is to find an advantage and use it to exploit the defense and get an open shot. Embiid is that advantage for the Sixers whenever he walks on the floor. And with him on the floor on Saturday, the Sixers scored 80 points on 69 possessions. With him off the floor, they scored just 32 points on 35 possessions.

“He was dominant,” Brown said. “There were times you can see that it’s still raw, and there are some decisions that he probably would like to have over again. But given the volume of playing time lately that he hasn’t had, it’s just a dominant performance. What more can you say?”

Embiid remains the most important piece to the Sixers’ puzzle. Really, when it comes to competing with the best teams in the league, he is the puzzle.

The question is just how much they’re going to have him going forward. For every game in this series, Brown hasn’t known until shortly before tip-off whether or not he’s going to have his most important player. Embiid was clearly hobbled in Game 1, better in Game 2, absent in Game 3, and dominant in Game 4.

Maybe things are trending in the right direction. And maybe Embiid’s status will remain a question from here on out.

The Sixers’ ability to compete for an Eastern Conference championship hangs in the balance.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for 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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With Kawhi less than 100 percent, Raptors’ bench shines in Game 4



TORONTO — It’s not clear what the injury is, and there has been no word from the Toronto Raptors. But Kawhi Leonard is most certainly dealing with some sort of leg ailment in these Eastern Conference finals. The most clear indication of that was a pronounced limp after he dunked on Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Raptors’ second possession of the third quarter Tuesday night.

Given how much the Raptors have depended on their star in this postseason, a hobbled Leonard, coming off a career-high 52 minutes in Game 3, would seemingly be a harbinger of doom. But the Raptors of Game 4 were not the Raptors of the conference semifinals, when contributions from the Toronto supporting cast were few and far between.

Those Raptors, in the second half of a desperate Game 4 win in Philadelphia, basically went six deep. Those Raptors had just seven guys see the floor in all of Game 7, with Norman Powell getting DNP’d with the season on the line.

The Raptors that won this Game 4 by a score of 120-102 were carried by their bench. With Leonard limited and the team desperate to avoid a 3-1 hole in the series, Powell (18), Fred VanVleet (13) and Serge Ibaka (17) combined for 48 points and we’re heading back to Milwaukee for a pivotal Game 5 on Thursday.

At this time of year, you take the wins any way you can get them. But a comfortable victory that comes with good execution and effort on both ends of the floor is nice, no? And it’s obviously a lot more reassuring to know that you have eight guys, instead of five or six, that you can count on to make plays and shoot with confidence when the call comes their way.


Full highlights: Kyle Lowry led the way with 25 points as Toronto handed Milwaukee its second straight loss.

“It’s just a different series,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of the fluctuation play of his bench. “And it’s been really interesting for me to see how things change so much from series to series.”

From game to game, really. VanVleet gave the Raptors important minutes when Kyle Lowry fouled out of Game 3, and he did hit a big shot late in the fourth quarter of that overtime victor. But he still entered Game 4 having shot a brutal 6-for-42 (including 3-for-24 from 3-point range) over the last nine games.

On Tuesday, VanVleet drained a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer just eight seconds after checking in for the first time. He would go on to shoot 5-for-6, connecting on all three of his shots from beyond the arc, including a bank shot from the right wing when everything seemed to be going right for the Raptors early in the fourth quarter. He added six assists on a night that the Raptors had 32 assists on their 41 buckets, their second highest rate of the postseason.

Early in that Philadelphia series, Toronto was better offensively when they didn’t move the ball, because Leonard was so efficient shooting off the dribble and his teammates weren’t shooting with any confidence. But the way the offense looked on Tuesday, with everybody getting touches, is likely more sustainable, even against the league’s No. 1 defense. And despite the injury (and fatigue), Leonard was still able to get into the paint. He had a team-high 14 drives in Game 4, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

“The great thing about having him on your team is he still gets all the attention,” Lowry said of Leonard. “We fed off of that — drive, kick, swing. He gets in the lane, kick out. That’s the benefit of having a superstar like him on the team.”

But while the Raptors were still feeding off Leonard, they knew they needed to support him more than they had been. In fact, they didn’t run a single action for Leonard until their 12th possession of the game. And while the other starters did their part — Lowry finished with a team-high 25 points and Marc Gasol drained three 3-pointers (making him 7-for-14 from beyond the arc over the last two games) — it was the bench that really turned things up.

Powell, the guy who played just four total minutes in Games 4 and 7 against Philadelphia, has emerged as a difference maker in this series. He has totaled 51 points over the last three games, shooting 5-for-10 on corner threes and providing some much-needed juice off the dribble.

“There’s some speed we need there with Norman,” Nurse said. “There’s some athleticism we need there with Serge. And there’s some ball handling and running the club with Fred that we need.

“It’s really them playing up to their capabilities.”

Ibaka grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes, and also hit what was probably the biggest shot of the night. With about three minutes left to go in the second quarter, the Raptors had gone through five straight scoreless possessions and the Bucks had cut what was a 10-point deficit down to four. Ibaka set a ball screen screen for Kyle Lowry and then popped out for a 20-foot jumper from the right side of the key. He drained it and Milwaukee never got that close again.

The points from the bench were nice, but just as important was getting stops on the other end of the floor.

“First of all,” Nurse said, “I want them to come in and hold their own defensively and execute the defensive schemes, and I didn’t see many problems there. They were able to guard a bunch of different people.”

Playing well on both ends of the floor, the reserves pushed the game in the right direction. Powell was a plus-29 in 32 minutes, VanVleet a plus-25 in 25, and Ibaka a plus-24 in 24. Those are the three best single-game plus-minus marks in this round of the playoffs.

The trio was playing so well that, with his team up 13, Nurse dared to begin the fourth quarter with Leonard, Lowry and Pascal Siakam all on the bench. And instead of the lead shrinking, it grew to 20 points before a pair of Khris Middleton buckets forced Nurse to call timeout with 7:23 to go.

After playing 52 minutes in Game 3, Leonard played 34 on Tuesday. Siakam went from 51 minutes in Game 3 to just 23 in Game 4. And the pair combined for just 26 of the Raptors’ 120 points.

The Bucks are betting that the Raptors can’t pull off another performance like this.

“We want the other guys to take shots,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to keep being aggressive defensively on Kawhi, try to limit his shots. But at the end of the day, if guys come off the bench they knock down shots, we’ve got to live with it. We’re doing our job.”

The Raptors, meanwhile, hope this is just the beginning.

“The biggest part is for our team to see how much success we can have when we play that way,” VanVleet said. “It’s not about me as an individual. Those same shots, if they go in, great, if they don’t, we gotta keep taking them. I think that just trying to build on what we did as a team offensively, is the biggest part. Individually, that stuff comes and goes.”

It’s now a three-game series to see who’s going to The Finals. The Bucks have two of the remaining three games at home, but the Raptors have led for 61 percent of the minutes over the first four. And they now have some life off of what looked like a very shallow bench just 10 days ago. In addition to more firepower, a deeper bench creates more versatility.

“One minute you say, oh, man, our big lineup is the answer,” Nurse said. “Then maybe a couple, seven days later, it’s not. It’s the smaller lineup or some faster guys out there that’s the answer. That’s been interesting to see.

“But each game is its own entity … Let’s see if those guys can bring that same pop and focus, determination on the road.”

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for 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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Raptors take advantage of Bucks’ defensive lapses in Game 4



TORONTO — Mike Budenholzer wasted no time in identifying the Milwaukee Bucks’ fatal flaw Tuesday night in their Game 4 loss to Toronto, a defeat that essentially cut the Eastern Conference finals now to a best-of-three mini-series. 

“I think this is probably the first night defensively where I don’t feel like we were close to where you need to be to give ourselves a chance,” Budenholzer said. 

He didn’t specify whether he meant against this particular opponent, so far in the 2019 postseason or across the expanse of the 95 games the Bucks have played since late October. 

So let’s just say they were shoddy and haphazard enough in falling 120-102 at Scotiabank Arena to have undermined all three. 

Limiting this to the playoffs, the Bucks’ work defensively ranked as their low point in 13 games against Toronto, Boston or Detroit. Their 125.0 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was their worst by a wide margin; it was 110.9 when they lost to the Celtics in Game 1 of the conference semifinals. 

Their three previous efforts against Toronto in this series were 101.0 in Game 2, 98.3 in Game 3 and 98.0 in the opener.


Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred Van Vleet stepped up as the Raptors finished with a 48-23 advantage in bench scoring.

Not to go decimal-point crazy here, but Milwaukee’s defensive rebounding percentage (68.8 percent) also was their playoff worst. They’d been far more conscientious on the boards in Games 1 (78.3), 2 (83.0) and 3 (78.5). 

Meanwhile, the Raptors looked awfully prosperous at the Bucks’ expense. It was Toronto’s second-best night of the postseason in offensive rating, in offensive rebound percentage and in assist percentage (78.0). 

None of the above is supposed to happen against the NBA’s top-ranked defense overall in 2018-19. 

“A little bit of everything,” was how forward Nikola Mirotic explained the Game 4 unraveling. “Rotation. Defensive transition as well — we didn’t show the crowd as we usually do. They beat us on the boards tonight.” 

Said backup guard George Hill: “They’re getting a lot of open looks. They’re driving the ball hard. They’re moving the ball very well. We’ve just got to match their energy and match that style of play.” 

There are two sides to these coins, and the Bucks were quick to credit Toronto’s players for the offensive prowess they showed. The Raptors’ three reserves in coach Nick Nurse’s eight-man rotation — Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet– outscored the four bench guys in Budenholzer’s current rotation, 48-19. 

Having more scorers in rhythm stretched Milwaukee’s defense in ways that the Bucks, reduced to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as a two-headed threat, did not. And missing more than 70 percent of your 3-pointers — the Bucks have bricked 115 of 164 in the series — can fuel the other team’s transition game. 

“I’m not sure a lot of [Toronto’s big shots] were necessarily Kawhi Leonard-centric,” Budenholzer said. 

Said Middleton, who had his finest offensive game of the series with 30 points but was just as culpable as his teammates defensively: “We didn’t really take away one thing from them. For the most part, they got anything they wanted, from the paint to the blocks to the mid-range to the threes.” 

Milwaukee’s defensive formula all season has been to limit the opponents’ success near the rim, challenge them at the arc and limit their trips to the line. Well, the Raptors matched the Bucks in paint scoring with 40 points. They outscored their guests by nine points on 3-pointers, And they shot 27 free throws, making 24. 

All against a defense that had led the NBA in opponents’ field-goal percentage (43.3) and in fewest points allowed on free throws (an average of 15.1 per game). 

It might be natural for foul totals to creep up in the playoffs, when teams get more physical and no one wants to yield easy buckets. It’s understandable, too, that a team playing from behind most of the night can get desperate simply to end the other guys’ possession and get the ball back, which also leads to fouls. 

“There are some that are going to happen, but there also are some fouls we need to be smarter about,” guard Pat Connaughton said. “I mean, try to be better. Get there earlier. We have to be a step quicker. We have to do a few things smarter when it comes to reaching. Just overall be a little bit more mentally tough.” 

Connaughton played fewer than 14 minutes. But he was part of the meltdown too, with the Bucks outscored by 16 in his limited appearance. He and several teammates dismissed the possibility — an ominous one, frankly– that the Raptors have unlocked the Bucks’ defensive code and now can attack them at will. 

But that doesn’t mean there are leaks in need of plugging, pronto. 

“Part of it starts with just making sure we stick to our core values,” Connaughton said. “There were times we had a few breakdowns where they ended up getting layups. We’ve been a great defensive team all year and one of the reasons is because we don’t allow layups. We have each other’s back, we scramble, things of that nature. 

“It seemed like they had a few open layups. They had a few wide-open threes. When we’re at our best, we’re putting pressure on everybody. We’re scrambling. It’s not gonna be perfect [but] our strength is the athleticism and tenacity we play with on the defensive end. Tonight it seemed like they ended up with a few looks that we don’t usually allow.” 

Time and time again, the Raptors stayed patient to keep the ball moving in search of good, better and best shots. The Bucks also got caught chasing the ball, or ganging up two or three defenders on the ball handler until he dropped a little pass to an open mate. 

“And it seemed there were a few times where they found the open guy after we collapsed on defense,” Connaughton said. “When we were able to run him off, they found the next guy. That’s when there wasn’t another [Bucks defender] to go. When we are at our best, we have more communication. We have a better sense of who’s flying at who. We get back in the play.” 

Connaughton spoke as well about Raptors blowing by him and the Bucks’ other on-ball defenders. If it wasn’t Kyle Lowry or VanVleet, it was Leonard slipping away from Middleton to receive a bounce pass for a layup or dunk. 

“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping guys out of the lane so we don’t have to help as much,” Connaughton said. “But when we do have to help, we have to make sure we’re scrambling as well as we have all season. 

“There are plenty of clips throughout the season where we’ve had a guy running someone off the [3-point] line, and then all of a sudden he’s got a contest three passes later when it’s swung on the wing. That’s what we’ve got to get back to.” 

That’s what the Bucks’ season might come down to.

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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: Trail Blazers, Terry Stotts agree to contract extension



Just one day after being eliminated from the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors, the Trail Blazers and coach Terry Stotts have agreed to a multiyear contract extension, according to ESPN sources.

The Portland Trail Blazers and head coach Terry Stotts have agreed to a multiyear contract extension.

The Blazers announced the extension Tuesday but did not disclose terms.

Stotts has led Portland to six straight playoff appearances in his seven seasons at the helm, holding a 325-249 record.

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