NBA

Stumbling San Antonio Spurs in need of Kawhi Leonard to keep playoff streak alive

Jay Asser 11/03/2018
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Kawhi Leonard has played in just nine games this season.

If Kawhi Leonard is coming back this season, his return can’t come soon enough for the San Antonio Spurs, who are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.

San Antonio received encouraging news of Leonard reportedly being available to play as early as Thursday against the New Orleans Pelicans, barring a setback.

The two-time Defensive Player of the Year has only been on the court for only nine games, with the Spurs being without their best player and franchise cornerstone for nearly the entire season.

And San Antonio are desperate to get him back for a critical stretch run.

After keeping the machine humming as the third-best team in the Western Conference for most of the season, the Spurs have started to tumble in the standings.

A 104-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday dropped them to 37-29, which places them seventh in the standings and just one game from 10th.

San Antonio are just 3-10 over the past 13 games and their schedule to close out the season does them no favours, with match-ups remaining against Houston (twice), New Orleans (twice), Golden State, Washington (twice), Oklahoma City and Portland.

The only bottom-feeders the Spurs will play from here on out are Orlando on Tuesday and Sacramento in their penultimate game on April 9.

The tough finish, combined with the fact there are 10 teams battling for eight spots in the West, means it’s conceivable San Antonio could miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997 – easily the longest such streak in the league.

Leonard, if he’s healthy, could change the whole equation.

Though the Spurs are just 5-4 this season when the forward plays, his presence gives them a singular talent to lean on that is otherwise missing from the lineup.

Knowing head coach Gregg Popovich and the culture San Antonio have cultivated over the years, there’s every chance the Spurs won’t go down easy – regardless of whether or not Leonard plays.

“You’ve got no choice. You can’t give in,” LaMarcus Aldridge said after the Thunder loss. “If you give in, that shows your character. I don’t think anyone of this team is a quitter.”

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NBA

Toronto Raptors have nothing left to prove before playoffs after ending Houston Rockets' win streak

Jay Asser 10/03/2018
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Raptors guard Kyle Lowry scored 30 points on Houston.

Whatever was left to prove for a team sitting first in its conference, the Toronto Raptors delivered on to validate their status as contenders.

Toronto did what no team had done since late January and beat the Houston Rockets 108-105 at the Air Canada Centre on Friday, putting an end to the Western Conference leaders’ 17-game winning streak.

Though the Raptors were already sitting atop the East and in possession of the third-best record in the league, the clash with Houston felt like a litmus test for the team’s ceiling this season.

And Toronto passed with flying colours – a statement that they’re not only capable of reaching the NBA Finals, but of making it a competitive series, especially if they meet the Rockets who they’ve defeated twice already.

James Harden and Chris Paul have arguably been the best backcourt in the league this season, but the Raptors’ own talented duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan evened the playing field on Friday.

Lowry and DeRozan combined for 53 points to Harden and Paul’s 54, while the Raptors beat the Rockets at their own game by taking and making more 3-pointers.

“I think the biggest, too, is they’re playing a lot freer and without as much thought, and that shows a lot with the way DeMar is playing,” said Paul, via the Toronto Star. “He’s shooting a lot more threes now, he’s just hooping. And that’s the same we say for us. And they actually look like they have fun playing together.”

Toronto’s reserves, meanwhile, outscored Houston’s second unit 28-22 to once again win the bench battle.

The Raptors’ bench has been a significant reason for their success as they lead the league in defensive rating at 100.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, net rating at 9.4 and average plus-minus at plus-4.1.

“We’ve done it against Cleveland, Boston, the second half of Golden State, and now Houston,” said back-up guard Fred VanVleet, who scored 11 points against the Rockets.

“But this was the difference in terms of, like, crunch time, fourth quarter, the game’s on the line, [head coach Dwane Casey] is over there, he’s thinking about subbing, but he ends up leaving us in there for a little bit longer, and we kind of pay him back.”

It will be difficult to trust Toronto until they prove it in the playoffs – a setting they’ve mightily struggled in – but it’s fair to think this is the year they finally have it figured out.

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NBA

Andrew Wiggins and Minnesota Timberwolves facing revealing stretch to close out season

Jay Asser 9/03/2018
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Andrew Wiggins is carrying a greater burden with Jimmy Butler injured.

It’s getting to be gut-check time for the Minnesota Timberwolves – for this season and beyond.

Losers of three straight and with a grueling schedule on the way, Minnesota are staring at the possibility of missing the playoffs after raising expectations ahead of the season.

At the same time, the pressure continues to mount on Andrew Wiggins and his potential for growth as he takes on more responsibility with Jimmy Butler out with a knee injury.

As a whole, Wiggins has raised his play since Butler went down on February 23, averaging 21.2 points, 44.1 per cent shooting and 38.5 per cent on 3-pointers.

But he slipped back into more of a passive role in the 117-109 loss to the Boston Celtics on Thursday, when he took more than enough shots (21), but settled too often for contested pull-up jumpers.

Though he’s only 23, Wiggins is deep into his fourth season and has yet to show he can be much more than a volume scorer. With Butler out and the Timberwolves in desperate need for Wiggins to step up, it feels like a crucial time for the swingman to start showing he can evolve.

“Andrew is one hell of a talent,” teammate Taj Gibson told the Pioneer Press ahead of the Celtics game. “Every day in practice he surprises me. I think the sky is the limit for him, really.

“But I think at times he just has to want to take over the game, because the more and more that we’re going deeper and the game is getting more and more crazier, teams are going to try to take him away, and we need him, (Karl-Anthony Towns), almost everybody to try to do their hardest, their best.”

The other end of the floor is likely the bigger concern for Wiggins.

Despite possessing elite athleticism, length and range, he’s been an underwhelming defender for his entire career.

And with just two games separating them from ninth in the West and a murderer’s row of opponents on the way – Golden State, Washington, San Antonio, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers – Minnesota need Wiggins to be a two-way force now more than ever.

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