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Toronto's LeBron obsession, the next step for OKC and Washington, Dirk's training methods and more

More of the same for the Raptors.They opened their second-round series Tuesday at home against the one-dimensional Cavaliers and exhausted star LeBron James, and what happened? The Raptors wasted a 10-point lead down the stretch, missed their final 11 shots of the fourth quarter and lost 113-112 in overtime.

“We definitely stole one,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. “We didn’t play our best game – and they know that.” Lue was referring to his own players, but he also could have been talking about his opponents. The Raptors must overcome a kind of “inferiority complex” in order to beat LeBron. 

They’ve now lost 9 of 11 playoff games to LeBron’s Cavaliers over three years. After being swept in the second round by Cleveland last season, Raptors president Masai Ujiri demanded that his team change its point of view. His players responded with less isolation basketball and more passing; the Raptors also developed a deep young bench that enabled them to earn the number 1 seed in the East. They looked like they were simply expressing the newer, more promising version of themselves while assisting on 10 of 13 baskets in the first quarter of Game 1 and seizing a 33-19 lead.

Cleveland appeared to be tired and inefficient while barely surviving Game 7 against Indiana two days earlier. But there is something about Toronto’s insecurity that inspires LeBron’s Cavs. It brings out a sense of cruelty in them. It’s as if they love to see Toronto suffer. The Raptors refused to widen their lead Tuesday, and the longer their guests were invited to stay around, the more inspired they were to steal something of great value from their naïve hosts.

Isn’t LeBron supposed to be vulnerable this year? In the previous round, LeBron had led his team with 41.2 minutes, 34.4 points, 10 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks. His teammate Kevin Love, who was an All-Star for the fifth time this year, contributed only 11.4 points per game against Indiana. No other Cavalier was scoring in double-figures. Which is why this is supposed to be the year to stop LeBron – to prevent him from reaching an eighth straight NBA Finals – because you have to worry about him, alone, and no one else. 

But the Raptors can’t see it that way. In this series they are trying to overcome (1) LeBron and (2) themselves. 

There was a clear sense in watching them Tuesday that they still don’t have faith in their mission. It is one of those things they won’t believe until they actually win four playoff games and advance to the next round while leaving LeBron behind. And so it is going to be a painful series for them. These games against Cleveland are going to be far more agonizing than they need to be, because along the way the Raptors will need to earn belief in themselves at the expense of the league’s most ruthless star. LeBron, who used to be known for being too nice, takes great pride in inflicting pain upon his opponents now.

The pressure is only going to build in the days to come: Game 5 figures to be much harder for the Raptors than Game 1. Will they continue to believe in the ball-sharing methods that earned them 59 wins during the regular season? Or will DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry revert to their old, hopeless style of dribbling to create their own shots? Will coach Dwane Casey shorten his bench? These are the traps that may face the Raptors if they don’t learn to make sense of their LeBron obsession. When you stay up late worrying about a bully and overthinking your responses, it becomes easy to create your own doom.

There are so many ways of looking at the playoffs – in terms of statistics or individual matchups. Psychology provides another point of view. And in this series, it may be most important of all.

How will the Thunder and Wizards carry on?After Washington suffered through an up-and-down regular season of 43 wins, and then a first-round loss in six games to the Raptors, All-Star point guard John Wall addressed the needs of his team. “I think it’s pretty obvious, I don’t need to point it out,” he said, but then he did so anyway. “The way the league is going, you need athletic bigs, you need scoring off the bench, you need all of those types of things. We don’t really have an athletic big.”

Wall tried to point out that centers Marcin Gortat (who is 34) and Ian Mahinmi (31) use fundamental play to overcome what they lack in athleticism. This is true, and it’s also true that the Wizards’ bench could not compete with the depth of Toronto. 

But in the bigger picture, doesn’t the future of his team revolve around Wall? He watched his teammates appear to enjoy his midseason absence and play surprisingly well while he recovered from a knee injury. Surely there was a constructive lesson in their play that he could apply to himself. At age 27, wouldn’t it be nice to hear him talk about the improvements he needs to make in his own game? 

The same kind of leadership may also be lacking in Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook took 82 shots as a point guard over the Thunder’s final two games, including their season-ending loss at Utah. This was a deeply-talented team that did not realize its potential. As the best player and point guard, shouldn’t the responsibility fall mainly upon Westbrook?

It is easy to sympathize with stars like Westbrook and Wall, who can be overwhelmed with second-guessing from traditional and social media alike. That’s why it would be all the more powerful to hear them take responsibility and publicly demand more of themselves at the end of a disappointing season. Wouldn’t that create a strong example for their teammates looking ahead to next year?

Steph Curry returns. It says much about his own high standard that it’s becoming harder to be dazzled by Curry. Playing in his first game back from a knee injury that sidelined him for six weeks, Curry came off the bench to score 28 points as the Warriors won 121-116 to seize a 2-0 lead over the Pelicans. 

Two years ago I was in Portland when Curry was making a similar comeback. He wound up with 40 points and a variety of sensational plays that only he could have made. (And back then he didn’t have Kevin Durant helping him out.) While other injured players worry about establishing a rhythm, Curry picks up where he left off, with the unusual confidence to swish long jumpers that no one else would attempt. He was sinking a smooth 3 just 11 seconds into his return. The amazing is simply normal for him. 

This is why I wonder how much of a chance Houston might actually have in an eventual conference final against Golden State. The Rockets were the best team all year and James Harden is certainly the league’s MVP. But those degrees were earned while the Warriors were dealing with injuries and boredom in their pursuit of a third championship and fourth straight NBA Finals. Now that the games really matter, are the defending champs going to instantly reclaim their standing as the team to beat? Their talent is undeniable - so long as their four stars are healthy. 

Dirk loves to laugh. His latest joke was inspired by Indiana’s young star Victor Oladipo, who moments after losing Game 7 Sunday in Cleveland reached out to his trainer to begin preparing for next season:
That exchange inspired Dirk Nowitzki – who is 14 years older than Oladipo – to reach out to his own trainer in Dallas. The result was different:
Dirk’s trainer, Mike Procopio, is Director of Player Development for the Mavericks. He makes a couple of appearances in my new book, The Soul of Basketball, first as a basketball consigliere who offers strategy advice before every Lakers game to Kobe Bryant. Later, Procopio reappears on the court with Dirk during a 2016 visit to Boston while trying to help the Mavericks star recover from an injury. I can assure you that the sarcasm of Procopio’s texts is consistent with his approach to Dirk on the court.

“I want you to get on your knees and fucking beg like the worm that you are,” Procopio says as he passes the ball to Dirk.  

“I was with a mob guy,” continues Procopio, whose sharp accent reveals that he is originally from Boston. “He was talking about breaking your legs. He said he thought we broke your legs five years ago the way you’re walking.”

“If you didn’t have a sense of humor, you’d be fucked,” says Dirk, breathing hard during the workout.

“We tend to not like people on our roster who know exactly where they were when Kennedy got shot,” Procopio replies.

At this particular time, Dirk is on the verge of scoring 30,000 NBA points. But the achievement becomes another opportunity to give him a hard time. Procopio jokes that Dirk would have amounted to little if he had played In Boston rather than in Dallas

“You think I get to 30,000 by luck?” Dirk asks.

“Yeah, because here you’d be at 1,800,” Procopio answers. “Dude, you’d be running pick-and-pops with Stephon Marbury in China if you’d played here.”

And the whole time Dirk is laughing along at the jokes. Not many stars would. His humility gives him strength.

To buy my book The Soul of Basketball, please visit https://www.ianthomsen.com/purchase-soul-of-basketball.html