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Column: Raptors one-and-done gamble on verge of paying off

Fri May 24 6:05pm ET
By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Columnist

Players: DeMar DeRozan, Kawhi Leonard

This is what the Toronto Raptors had in mind all along.

When they went all-in with the trade for Kawhi Leonard, they knew his time in the Great North was likely to be short.

But this one-and-done gamble will certainly be worth it if Leonard can lift his team to five more wins.

Don't bet against him.

Leonard is playing better than anyone on the planet at the moment, essentially taking the Raptors on his sturdy shoulders and carrying them to the brink of the first trip to the NBA Finals in franchise history.

After falling behind 0-2 against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, Team Kawhi has won three straight to set up a possible clinching game at home on Saturday night.

''I'm in the moment right now,'' Leonard said after another dazzling performance in Game 5.

Indeed, these are the moments he lives for, essentially treating the regular season as a six-month tuneup for the games that really matter. When he captured his first title with the San Antonio Spurs back in 2014, he was MVP of the NBA Finals against Miami's Big Three of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

Of course, Leonard had a nasty falling-out with Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, forcing a trade that landed him in Toronto last summer.

Now, after navigating a regular season in which his workload was tightly monitored, a tactic that some critics felt was the Raptors' way of trying to keep Leonard happy and boost their chances of re-signing him this summer, he has fought through a nagging leg injury to give his new team the sort of playoff bravado it never had before.

When the Raptors lost their very first game of the postseason at home to lowly Orlando, Leonard wouldn't let them fold.

When the Raptors fell behind the swaggering young 76ers in the second round, Leonard wouldn't let them fold.

When the Raptors dropped the first two games in Milwaukee, Leonard wouldn't let them fold.

Through 17 games this postseason, he is averaging 31.4 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting just over 51 percent from the field. Leonard already hit a series-winning shot for the ages in Game 7 against Philadelphia, the one that bounced around the rim four times before dropping through, but that now seems like just a prelude to even bigger things.

The Bucks had no answer for Leonard in their latest setback, watching helplessly as he scored 35 points, dished out nine assists, snatched seven rebounds and forced a couple of steals - all while turning the ball over just a single time in Toronto's 105-99 victory.

''He gets stronger as the fourth (quarter) wears on,'' Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. ''He wants the ball, and he wants to make the plays, and he seems to be making the right play for the most part. You're almost shocked when he pulls up at 15 feet and it doesn't go in.''

More important, Leonard is making everyone around him better.

''He's playing at both ends,'' Nurse said. ''It really gives the rest of the guys a lot of confidence when you've got a guy playing like that.''

Leonard arrived in Toronto looking to put some salve on his reputation after that ugly divorce in San Antonio.

He sparred with coaches, teammates and the medical staff over a quadriceps injury, seeking out a second opinion from his own doctors after the Spurs cleared him to return to the court. His fate was essentially sealed after reports of a players-only meeting in the final weeks of the regular season turned tense and emotional, but failed to change his mind.

Leonard didn't play again for the Spurs.

Reeling from another postseason flop, Raptors President Masai Ujiri decided to make the boldest move in the franchise's nearly quarter-century of existence. Even though they posted the best record in the Eastern Conference last season with a franchise-record 59 victories, none of it mattered when they were swept out of the playoffs in the second round by King James and the Cavaliers.

Leonard had only one year left on his contract and was sure to test free agency. But Toronto couldn't stand pat any longer, handing over popular leading scorer DeMar DeRozan and a first-round pick to the Spurs.

It was a steep price to pay for what may be only ''One Dance'' (sorry about that, Drake).

In the end, no matter where Leonard ends up next season, it might go down as one of the NBA's greatest bargains.

Leonard has reclaimed his rightful place as one of the league's best players, guaranteeing himself a massive payday.

The Raptors have their best shot ever at that elusive ring, needing one more win to earn a spot in the finals against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

''It's a great opportunity,'' he said. ''Just come in, have fun, try to execute the best I can and play confident, and whatever happens after that is what happens. I know that I put the work in. I can live with the results because I'm having fun and I'm putting my all out on the floor.''

Player Notes
T.J. Warren Jun 20 5:40pm ET

The Phoenix Suns have traded T.J. Warren and the 32nd pick in this year's NBA Draft to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for cash considerations. In Warren, the Pacers add a young player who averaged 18 points per game last year while shooting 42.8 percent on 4.2 three-point attempts per game. Warren can be a solid role player for the Pacers, and with rumors swirling that Bojan Bogdanovic might not be back in a Pacers uniform next year, Warren can slide into the starting lineup if necessary to provide the team with a solid wing option. His fantasy value should be on the rise, as he's now looking at a solid role on a good team instead of an uncertain role on a Suns team that seems to be in flux right now.

Grayson Allen Jun 19 3:40pm ET

The Memphis Grizzlies have finally traded their long-time point guard, Mike Conley, sending him to Utah in exchange for Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a pair of first round picks. Allen is the big headliner of the deal for the Grizzlies, as the other two players are likely to play smaller roles or, in Korver's case, possibly no role in Memphis. But Allen, a first round pick last year, was a strong college player at Duke, and while he struggled from deep last year, shooting just 32.3 percent from three on 2.6 attempts per game, he was a strong shooter coming into the league. Memphis will hope he regains that, and as the team enters a full rebuild, Allen should get plenty of run off the bench to prove it. He's a rising fantasy option, though that's mostly because he had virtually no value on a Jazz team that was looking to win now.

Mike Conley Jun 19 3:30pm ET

On Wednesday, the Utah Jazz acquired point guard Mike Conley from the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a pair of first round draft picks. While Conley's never made an All-Star team, he's been an excellent point guard for Memphis for years and is coming off a 2018-19 season in which averaged a career-high 21.1 points per game for the Grizzlies while adding in 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals, and 3.4 rebounds. Conley will slide into the starting role occupied by Ricky Rubio last year, and while his scoring could take a step back as he won't need to be the primary scoring option on a team that has Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz are set up great for Conley to put up his best season in terms of assists. Less need to be the team's main scorer can also allow Conley to refocus on defense and gives him the potential to get his steals average back up around two per game. All in all, Conley's in a good spot, even if his scoring drops by a few points per game back to the high teens.

Brandon Ingram Jun 18 9:00am ET

The New Orleans Pelicans agreed to a deal which nets them forward Brandon Ingram, guard Lonzo Ball and swingman Josh Hart, as well as three first-round draft picks, while the Los Angeles Lakers nab power forward/center Anthony Davis. One of the picks the Pels receive will be the No. 4 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft, too. Ingram (arm) had thoracic outlet decompression surgery on his right arm in March, and the timetable called for a recovery in the neighborhood of June or July. In his final six games of the regular season he rolled up 27.8 points per game while snagging 7.5 boards per contest. If he can manage that type of production in the Crescent City over a much larger span, watch out. The Lakers might regret letting him get away. He is a budding fantasy superstar as long as he can stay healthy.

Josh Hart Jun 18 9:00am ET

The Los Angeles Lakers agreed to trade swingman Josh Hart, forward Brandon Ingram and guard Lonzo Ball, as well as three first-round draft picks, to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday in exchange for power forward/center Anthony Davis. The Pelicans made quite the haul here. Hart (knee) is coming off of surgery in March for a torn right patellar tendon, and he joins a rather crowded backcourt in NOLA with Ball, Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore on the roster for now. The Pelicans might not be done molding their roster, but as it stands right now, Hart's fantasy outlook might actually be a little worse than it was in L.A.

Lonzo Ball Jun 18 9:00am ET

The Los Angeles Lakers agreed to trade guard Lonzo Ball, forward Brandon Ingram and swingman Josh Hart along with three first-round draft picks to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday in exchange for superstar power forward/center Anthony Davis. The Pelicans did well to acquire Ball, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft, as well as the No. 4 overall pick in the upcoming draft, and two more first-rounders. The Lakers will likely be glad to be rid of the baggage that is Lonzo's dad, LaVar Ball, but they are still losing a potential superstar in his own right if he develops as many expect. Ball spent a good chunk of the 2018-19 season on the injured list, but when he was healthy he was good for 9.9 points, 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. He'll be one of the primary scoring options in New Orleans, and therefore his fantasy outlook for the new season is quite bright.

Anthony Davis Jun 18 9:00am ET

The New Orleans Pelicans have agreed to trade power forward/center Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday in exchange for swingman Lonzo Ball, forward Brandon Ingram and guard Josh Hart, as well as three first-round picks, including the No. 4 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft, according to sources. Davis gets his wish and will now play in La La Land next to aging, but still potent, superstar LeBron James. Will it be a match made in heaven? We'll see. But Davis might be rejuvenated playing for what he and Laker Nation hope will be a powerhouse for years to come. He remains a first-round fantasy talent regardless of the jersey he is wearing as long as he can stay healthy.

Kawhi Leonard Jun 14 6:10am ET

Toronto Raptors shooting guard/small forward Kawhi Leonard took home the Finals MVP in the 114-110 series-ending win over the Warriors on Thursday. Leonard recorded 22 points and added six rebounds with three assists and two steals with a block in 41 minutes of action. Leonard put up a legendary performance this postseason and hushed up any doubters after a bizarre season last year with the Spurs. The Raptors are hoping to retain their franchise cornerstone for next season, but either way, what we saw this offseason was truly remarkable from the Claw. In the words of Mark Jackson, "Mama, there goes that man!"

Kyle Lowry Jun 14 6:00am ET

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry came out on fire on Thursday recording eight points in the game's first three possessions for his club and finished the night with a huge line to secure the NBA Championship. Lowry finished the night with 26 points and added 10 assists with seven rebounds and three steals across 42 minutes of action. Lowry bounced back after a couple of rough games and hushed any doubters after averaging a solid 16.2 points, 7.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds over the entire series. Lowry is on the books for next season and the 33-year-old will look to continue filling up box scores.

Serge Ibaka Jun 14 5:50am ET

Toronto Raptors power forward/center Serge Ibaka pumped in 15 points to help secure his club's first NBA title on Thursday. Ibaka brought the energy once again off the bench and the veteran averaged 16.7 points on a sizzling 67% shooting over the series' final three games. Marc Gasol struggled offensively in this one going 0-for-5 from the floor for three points but added nine rebounds. Ibaka is locked in for next season with the Raptors and depending on what happens with Marc Gasol, Ibaka again should be mid to late-round player in most formats next season.

Fred VanVleet Jun 14 5:50am ET

Toronto Raptors guard Fred Vanvleet poured in 22 points and provided elite defense throughout the night on Stephen Curry to help secure the Raptors' first NBA Championship. VanVleet stepped things up massively since Game 4 versus the Bucks as he averaged 14.7 points over the last nine games and was a major difference maker in these finals. VanVleet could see an even larger role if the Raptors do not resign Danny Green for next season. Keep an eye on the Raptors this offseason as there are many question marks regarding their roster.

Pascal Siakam Jun 14 5:40am ET

Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam came out firing in Game 6 when he connected on two triples in the game's first four minutes and finished the night with 26 points. Siakam finished the with a double-double as he added 10 rebounds with three assists and a steal with a block in 46 minutes of action. Siakam came into the game missing 12 threes in a row but showed much more confidence on his catch-and-shoot threes in this one. Siakam was a fantasy stud this season and depending what happens with Kawhi Leonard this offseason, we could Siakam as a top-30 player next season.

Stephen Curry Jun 14 5:30am ET

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry provided just 21 points on a rough 6-for-17 shooting in the Game 6 loss to the Raptors in his club's last game at the Oracle on Thursday. Curry came into the game averaging 32.4 points in the series' first five games, but the Raptors did all they could to force the sniper into tough shots. The Raptors went back to the box-and-one defense after the Warriors lost Klay Thompson (knee) for the night. With a lot of questions surrounding the Warriors this offseason, and some players looking to miss large chunks of next season, Curry has been catapulted to a top-3 player in next year's drafts.

Draymond Green Jun 14 5:20am ET

Golden State Warriors power forward/center Draymond Green did all he could on Thursday with his shorthanded club to try and get the win, but it was not enough in the 114-110 loss. Green provided a monster triple-double with 19 rebounds, 11 points and 13 assists with three steals and two blocks. Green struggled on the offensive end for most of this series but this valiant effort will not go unnoticed on this night. If the Warriors lose a superstar or two this offseason, we can easily see Green going back to his top-25 fantasy player status as he regularly filled up box scores with his injury-plagued club this postseason.

DeMarcus Cousins Jun 14 5:20am ET

Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins provided a solid lift off the bench in Game 6 on Thursday when he scored 12 points and added five rebounds across 19 minutes of action. The Warriors opted to go with Kevon Looney as the team's starter in the middle, but Cousins came out aggressively and provided some buckets in crucial moments. The Warriors even opted to a zone defense on some possessions in order to hide Cousins more on the defensive end. It will be an interesting offseason for Cousins who was coming off one serious injury and then injured his quad this postseason.

Andre Iguodala Jun 14 5:20am ET

Golden State Warriors shooting guard/small forward Andre Iguodala was given the opportunity and he took full advantage of it on Thursday in Game 6 versus the Raptors. Iguodala scored 22 points with two boards and added two assists with a block across 32 minutes of action. Iggy had provided just eight points in the previous two games and he stepped things up after Klay Thompson (knee) left the game for good in the third quarter. He is now 35 and is on the books for next season, but we can expect Iggy to once again have restrictions in hopes on conversing himself for the 2019-20 postseason.

Klay Thompson Jun 14 5:10am ET

Golden State Warriors shooting guard/small forward Klay Thompson was putting forth a heroic effort in Game 6 before injuring his knee. Thompson landed awkwardly on his left knee and started exiting to the locker room before returning to shoot his free throws to leave the door open for a possible return. It was later revealed that he would not return to action after scoring 30 points across 32 minutes. Thompson had a massive series and it was a major blow to his club losing him in the series' most crucial game. It was later revealed that he indeed tore his ACL and we wish him a speedy recovery in hopes of a return at some point next season.

Stephen Curry Jun 11 6:00am ET

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry scored 23 of his 31 points in the opening half to help secure the Game 5 win over the Raptors in Toronto on Monday. Curry connected on 10 of 23 shooting from the floor and added eight boards with seven assists and five makes from three. Curry and backcourt teammate Klay Thompson led the charge after Kevin Durant (Achilles) exited the game and will once again be the lead players in Game 6 with the series on the line. Expect another monster night from Curry on Thursday, making him a must play.

Draymond Green Jun 11 5:50am ET

Golden State Warriors power forward/center Draymond Green once again filled up the stat sheet and just missed out on a triple-double in 41 minutes of action on Monday. Green scored 10 points with 10 rebounds and handed out eight dimes with a steal and a block. The Raptors dared him to shoot from downtown and Green made them pay as he nailed two of four from range. Green lost his cool on a couple of occasions in this emotional game and he picked up his sixth technical foul of the postseason, with one more leading to automatic one-game suspension. Green has been solid this postseason and is always a welcome addition to any lineup in DFS.

Kevin Durant Jun 11 5:50am ET

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (Achilles) made a heroic return to action on Monday after missing nine postseason games, only to exit the game with an Achilles injury in the second quarter. In the emotional game, Durant came out on fire, scoring 11 points in the opening frame before the injury occurred. The Warriors sadly believe that he has torn his Achilles and the official results will be released on Tuesday after an MRI. If it is indeed a tear, we can expect the superstar to miss most of the 2019-20 campaign. Stay posted on Tuesday for updates and we wish the best for KD and his recovery.