Fri May 24 5:26pm ET
By IAN HARRISON
TORONTO (AP) There's no escaping the reality of what's at stake when the Toronto Raptors host the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night.
The surging Raptors have won three straight, putting them on the brink of the first NBA Finals berth in team history.
The Bucks, who finished as the NBA's top team in the regular season and once led this series 2-0, have no more room for error after their first three-game losing streak all season.
These two teams have spent months trying to stay even-keeled, treating everything as just another game. That's starting to get a lot tougher.
''It's an elimination game,'' Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday. ''It's just a fact.''
Raptors coach Nick Nurse added to that, suggesting the outcome of the series could have franchise-altering implications.
''These are games that now have significance as far as one team's going one direction, and one going the other, possibly,'' Nurse said.
No doubt. Milwaukee starters Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon are all headed for free agency, although the Bucks can match offers for Brogdon. Nikola Mirotic is also a free agent this summer.
The Raptors, meanwhile, have no bigger free agent than two-way star Kawhi Leonard, who can opt out of the final year of his deal. An NBA Finals berth, or better, in Leonard's debut season north of the border would certainly be a boon to Toronto team President Masai Ujiri when free agency opens on June 30.
MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need a win to prolong their hopes of reaching the finals for the first time since 1974. Then a Western Conference team, Milwaukee lost to Boston in seven games. One season later, star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left for the Lakers, and the Bucks haven't played for a ring since.
Toronto won twice in its previous Eastern Conference finals appearance, taking Games 3 and 4 at home against Cleveland in 2016. After that, LeBron James and the Cavs showed their class in Games 5 and 6, outscoring the Raptors by a combined 64 points.
Cleveland swept the Raptors out of the second round in each of the past two seasons, but LeBron's departure from the East and Leonard's arrival in Canada have helped put Toronto in its best position ever.
With his team heading home in need of one more win to set up a finals showdown with Golden State, Nurse knows the Raptors still face a daunting task in Game 6.
''As hard-fought as all these have been, and believe me, they have been, I expect this one to be the hardest fought of them all,'' Nurse said.
Here's what to know before Game 6:
Nurse won't be worrying about how much playing time his stars log on Saturday night.
''It's a whatever-it-takes game,'' he said. ''It's an unlimited-minutes night.''
Budenholzer, on the other hand, said he sees value in keeping Antetokounmpo's minutes below 40.
''You need to be able to produce and perform, including in the fourth quarter, so I don't feel any different about how much we use him,'' Budenholzer said.
Antetokounmpo played 39 minutes in Game 5. He played 45 minutes before fouling out in Toronto's double-overtime win in Game 3, but hasn't topped 39 in any other game this postseason. His regular-season high was 42, in an overtime loss to the Knicks on Dec. 1.
Toronto trailed 16-4 after making its fourth turnover of the game with 7:55 left in the first quarter of Game 5. The Raptors had just two more turnovers the rest of the game, one each in the second and third quarters.
Middleton shot 2 for 9 in Game 5, the second time this series he has taken fewer than 10 shots. MIddleton has had 11 or more attempts in Milwaukee's other 12 postseason games. Budenholzer said he didn't mind the low shot total in Game 5, pointing to Middleton's 10 assists.
''The ball is in his hands, he's making great decisions, he's doing things that are really positive and really impactful,'' Budenholzer said.
Middleton had one 10-assist game in the regular season, against Miami on March 22.
Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (knee) is reportedly looking good in each of his first two practices, according to head coach Mike D'Antoni. "He hasn't missed a rep. Looks good. Shooting the ball extremely well," says D'Antoni. Gordon has been bothered by knee issues throughout this season. Gordon mentioned recently that he feels like his knee issues are finally behind him. He could have some cheap DFS value alongside Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (leg) and forward Zach Collins (shoulder) have been looking good during recent practices, according to head coach Terry Stotts. Nurkic has not played this season after breaking his leg in March of 2019. However, he is not expected to be limited during the restart. Collins suffered a dislocated left shoulder in October and has been sidelined since then. He is expected to immediately slide into the starting power forward spot. Hassan Whiteside should lose some fantasy value and playing time with Nurkic and Collins returning. Both Nurkic and Collins should carry fairly decent DFS value, but Nurkic might only play around 20 minutes.
Memphis Grizzlies guard Justise Winslow has hit the ground running during the NBA restart, according to head coach Taylor Jenkins. Winslow is expected to play both guard and forward for Memphis. His versatility is really going to come out in our style of play, Jenkins said. There is a good chance that Winslow spends a majority of his time at small forward. He should get a bulk of the playing time over Kyle Anderson or Josh Jackson. He'll be an intriguing DFS option because he can do just about everything on a basketball court.
Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. It sounds like he is feeling fine, but will need to self-quarantine for 14 days. He'll need to posts two negative tests before being allowed to enter the bubble in Orlando. It appears Westbrook should have enough time to join the team and is not in danger of missing out on the NBA restart. His fantasy value should remain strong alongside James Harden.
Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (knee) did not practice on Monday after experiencing soreness in his troublesome left knee. He had a little bit of discomfort after a couple of the individual workouts, said head coach Brad Stevens. The Celtics are going to be extremely cautious with Walker down the stretch. Stevens has already mentioned that Walker is going to be under a minutes restriction during the beginning of the restart. Walker is expected to be ready to go for next practice. Fantasy owners should know that his value is going to take a hit with less playing time. The team wants Walker as healthy as possible for the postseason.
Philadelphia 76ers guard Shake Milton has recently been scrimmaging as the starting point guard in practices. "I think he has a huge opportunity to help us accomplish what we believe we can. He's been doing an amazing job running the team," said Joel Embiid. Milton was averaging 17.9 points, 4.4 assists, 3.0 triples, 1.3 steals during the last eight games before the season was suspended. However, those numbers did come when Ben Simmons was unavailable due to injury. Simmons is spending more time at power forward now, so Milton should have fairly reliable fantasy value during the restart.
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons has been operating as the power forward during recent practices. Head coach Brett Brown mentioned that Simmons is working exclusively at power forward now. He is seriously considering moving Shake Milton to the point guard spot during the restart. Simmons would spend more time off-the-ball with his new position, but Brown says Simmons is adjusting well. This position new could result in less assists for Simmons, but could be the best way to utilize Milton's talent.
Philadelphia 76ers center Al Horford might be coming off the bench with the second unit during the restart, according to head coach Brett Brown. Shake Milton has been running point guard, while Ben Simmons is operating next to Joel Embiid in the post during recent practices. Horford was playing off the bench during February, but was re-inserted into the starting five after Simmons got hurt. Horford's fantasy value has taken a regression when he comes off the bench. He won't be as valuable of a DFS option if that is the route the Sixers decide to go.
Philadelphia 76ers forward Glenn Robinson (back) was a full participant during Monday's practice, but received treatment afterwards. He was dealing with a sore upper back, but it's not uncommon for a player to experience soreness while working back into game shape. It doesn't sound like anything that is going to sideline Robinson at all. He's averaging 7.4 points through 18.9 minutes with the Sixers in 12 games this season. Those stats can be taken with a grain of salt because the team was banged up too. He'll probably see a reduced role in the playoffs, so there won't be much DFS value coming from Robinson.
Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac (knee) is going to be out at least two or three more weeks. The team needs a few more weeks to determine if Isaac is ready to return during the restart, according to head coach Steve Clifford. "In terms of will [Isaac] be ready, I dont think well know that for 2-to-3 weeks," said Clifford. Isaac believes he'll get back on the court this season, but players always seem optimistic about their injuries. He'll likely be limited if he does return during the playoffs. Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon should benefit the most until Isaac is back on the court.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo (thumb) was forced to leave Sunday's practice early after suffering an injury. He will undergo thumb surgery and could return at some point during the playoffs. Rondo is likely going to miss around six-to-eight weeks of action. Alex Caruso, Dion Waiters, and J.R. Smith will be asked to step up in the absence of Rondo. The Lakers are confident that Rondo will be able to contribute again this season. It'll be a significant blow to the Lakers if he's unable to play during the postseason. Caruso might end up benefiting the most, but it depends on what Frank Vogel does with his rotations.
Boston Celtics center Robert Williams (hip, back) is a fully healthy and ready to play during the Orlando restart, according to head coach Brad Stevens. Williams has only played in 23 games this season due to a left hip bone edema and a back issue. The shutdown was key for Williams to get back to being 100 percent healthy. However, Daniel Theis has locked down the starting center role in Boston. Williams and Enes Kanter will battle it out for backup minutes off the bench. There isn't much DFS value for Williams or Kanter during the restart.
Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker (knee) is likely going to be somewhat restricted at the beginning of the restart, according to head coach Brad Stevens. Walker has been battling knee issues throughout the season, so it's not surprising that the team would bring him along slowly. The hope is that Walker won't be limited at all by the time the postseason begins. His fantasy value is going to obviously be hurt by the restrictions, but hopefully he'll be 100 percent healthy and ready to go for the playoffs.
Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. (knee) has been doing a little bit of on-court work, according to head coach Monty Williams. "[Oubre's] in good shape, but he's not in the type of game shape that he wants to be in," Williams said. The organization has not officially ruled out Oubre for the restart, but he'll likely be limited if he does play at all. Williams has already mentioned that his starters are going to see less playing time during the restart. Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson, and possibly Dario Saric will see boosted fantasy value if Oubre sits out. Bridges is the best DFS option out of the trio without Oubre available.
Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams was reportedly split 50/50 on whether or not to play during the upcoming NBA restart. He decided to let his decision on the restart come down to a team vote. We decided our decision was going to be everybody or nobody, Williams said. The Clippers are excited to have him for the restart since he's their third-highest scorer on the team. He was averaging 18.7 points, 5.7 assists and 1.8 triples before the hiatus. He'll carry fairly decent DFS value into the restart. The Clippers will continue to count on Williams to score off the bench.
Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro (ankle) is reportedly looking 100 percent healthy, according to head coach Erik Spoelstra. He mentioned in early July that he was good to go and the first few practices have confirmed that notion. Herro is back and ready to play, but his fantasy value is going to be shaky. The Heat are crowded at the guard position, so Herro is going to battle for minutes. He'll get his chances on the court, but he probably won't be a reliable DFS option while the Heat are healthy.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Andre Roberson (knee) was able to go through practice on Friday, according to head coach Billy Donovan. "He participated in everything," Donovan said. Roberson has been banged up for quite some time, so it's nice to see him back on the court. It was reported that Roberson was ready to play around mid-June after not playing since the 2017-2018 season. It's unclear where he'll fit into the rotation, but the Thunder might be careful with him right away. Roberson brings elite defense to the table, but his fantasy value could be limited since he might only see minutes in the teens.
Free-agent guard Jamal Crawford has agreed to a deal with the Brooklyn Nets. The 40-year-old guard brings valuable depth to the organization after seven players decided to opt out of the restart. Crawford dropped a 51-point game with the Phoenix Suns during the 2018-2019 season. He clearly still has the ability to shoot the ball, which is great for Brooklyn since the team is thin at guard. Crawford should get plenty of playing time with the second unit. He should carry decent DFS value since the Nets are desperate for someone to shoot outside of Caris Levert.
Washington Wizards center Thomas Bryant has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 and did not travel with the team to Orlando. This is unfortunate news since Bryant mentioned recently he was fully healthy after dealing with a foot issue. There is a decent chance he opts out, but Bryant has not decided yet. Davis Bertans has already decided to sit out due to injury concerns. Moritz Wagner and Anzejs Pasecniks would be asked to play significant minutes if Bryant decides to opt out. Wagner would have the slight edge in terms of fantasy value, but both of them should make an impact.
Brooklyn Nets forward Rodions Kurucs was reportedly starting at power forward during practice on Friday. The team is already down seven players for the upcoming NBA restart. Taurean Prince recently opted out which opened up more playing time for Kurucs going forward. The organization went through it's first 5-on-5 practice on Friday with Kurucs starting. It's unclear who else the team plans to bring in, but Kurucs is expected to have a significant role. He could have sneaky DFS value because of how much playing time he'll receive with the Nets shorthanded.