The Toronto Raptors will start their much anticipated second round matchup against the Boston Celtics on Thursday. Players on both teams—and throughout the Disney World bubble—rightfully have their minds on much more important things at the moment after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
There is talk of potentially boycotting upcoming playoff games, as players try to figure out how they can push for actual concrete changes in light of the latest case of police brutality in America. All of us, whether it is for work or entertainment, or sometimes both, rely on sports to get us through each day, especially in a global pandemic that has removed many of our day-to-day interactions with other people.
The players who made the choice to travel to the bubble vowed to not be a distraction to what is going on in the world right now, and they’re understandably frustrated at the moment. It is difficult to be feel and see that things are not changing, but the reactions of the players this week is also useful in reminding all of us that as we do continue to enjoy the basketball that is being played, we should also consider what these players are fighting for, and why they’re using their platforms to spread messages that need to be heard by everyone right now. We owe them at least that much.
Now, onto a much less important topic: basketball.
Here’s another edition of our playoff stock watch heading into round two (well, some teams are there, some are slowly getting there).
Fred VanVleet. We’re all familiar with VanVleet’s story by now. He went from undrafted rookie to earning a Finals MVP vote last season while playing a critical part in Toronto’s championship run. VanVleet has taken it to another level this season, establishing himself not just as an NBA starter, but one of the best two-way guards in the entire league. He was Toronto’s best player in its first round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, averaging 21.3 points and 7.8 assists on 52.7/55.9/80.0 shooting in four games. With Kyle Lowry’s status for the start of the series still up in the air, the Raptors will need another strong series from VanVleet in the second round. There’s nobody else I would rather bet on right now.
Nick Nurse. Congrats to Nurse on winning Coach of the Year, and for releasing new merchandise on his website during an off day in Round 1. And to think he once wanted to become an accountant.
Jamal Murray. The Denver Nuggets will need to win two more games to get out of the first round, but Murray has been absolutely amazing in the bubble, scoring 36 points in a Game 1 overtime win, and following a 50-point performance in Game 4 with 42 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in Game 5 to keep his team’s season alive. Murray became the first player since 1983 to have back-to-back 40-point games without a single turnover. Throw in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort’s first-round performance so far for Oklahoma City, and it’s been a very impressive showing from Canadians in the playoffs so far.
The Raptors bench. Anytime you score 100 points in a playoff game, you deserve to be trending up. For the record, Matt Thomas missed three shots in the entire first round.
To be determined
Kyle Lowry’s ankle. The official prognosis heading into Game 1 of the second round is a sprained ankle, and Lowry is listed as day-to-day. The Raptors, like many other teams, have always been coy with their injury updates, so it’s hard to speculate except that Lowry is likely a game-time decision, and if it were up to him, he would be in the starting lineup for Game 1 on Thursday. Depending on the severity of the ankle sprain, it might be wise to see if holding him out for even one game in the Celtics series can help him towards a full recovery. Although given what we know about Lowry and how difficult it is to keep him off the court, it would be a shock if he misses any time.
Kawhi’s decision to join the Clippers. Listen, you have to respect Leonard’s decision to go home and team up with Reggie Jackson. All jokes aside, the Clippers have yet to meet expectations in the first round, struggling to put away the Dallas Mavericks, while Leonard’s teammates have resorted to re-injuring Luka Doncic’s ankle as an in-game strategy. The Clippers could very well win the championship because Leonard is that good. But if they don’t, the clock will already be ticking on the Leonard-Paul George partnership in Los Angeles.
The process. The process appears to be over in Philadelphia. While the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to build around, they spent years losing games, accumulating draft picks and hoarding cap space, only to turn around and fire general manager Sam Hinkie and become a more traditional front office, who have since gone on to squander the foundation that was put in place with several ill-advised moves, including letting Jimmy Butler go in free agency and signing Tobias Harris and Al Horford to what are already immovable contracts. Their first-round sweep to the Boston Celtics ended Brett Brown’s tenure as head coach, and now there are questions not just about who will coach this team, but how this roster can be reconstructed to accommodate their two stars, assuming both will still be in Philadelphia next season.
The Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks have rebounded from a lacklustre performance in the seeding games and a Game 1 loss to Orlando, but even with Giannis Antetokounmpo they no longer feel like the consensus East favourite, a position they held when the regular season was suspended in March. There are still concerns about Mike Budenholzer’s ability to adjust in the playoffs, and the supporting cast. Case in point: through four games against Orlando, Khris Middleton is shooting 31.0 percent from the field including a 1-for-8, two-point performance in Game 2. The East feels wide open right now, and is officially a four-team race between Toronto, Boston, Miami and Milwaukee to get to the Finals.
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