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Successful season

For a while there, it looked as if the grand Kawhi Leonard experiment wound wind up an abject failure. Notwithstanding the strides they had made since trading for him in the offseason, they didn’t risk letting go of erstwhile top dog DeMar DeRozan just so they could again be eliminated early. They were angling for the first-ever opportunity to vie for the Larry O’Brien Trophy and, in the process, turn him into much more than a one-year rental. In their progress, they figured his fruitful experience in the driver’s seat would entice him to stay on and keep doing the job for the foreseeable future. And, certainly, losing Games One and Two of the East Finals wasn’t the way to convince him.

He is Brooks Koepka

Wikipedia has a good many uses, never mind its susceptibility to inaccuracy given its crowd-sourcing predilections. Creditably, its contributory nature likewise lends itself to speedy corrections in line with its mandate as a purveyor of facts. Edits to entries, particularly new ones, are frequent and constant in the name of truth. That said, the mistakes, intended or not, last long enough for social media hounds to preserve for posterity; in this regard, the targets are mostly those with a humorous bent, and the goal is to generate laughs.

Dysfunction

The Lakers haven’t had a good year. In fact, they’ve arguably gone through one of the worst seasons in their storied history -- a development made even more shocking in light of the promise it had at the beginning. To be sure, much of their travails can be traced to sheer bad luck; their campaign for their first playoff stint in six years was beset by a rash of injuries to key players, prized recruit LeBron James included. On the other hand, even more is attributable to self-inflicted wounds that showcase their capacity to be their own worst enemies.

Raptors defense

In crucial moments the other day, the Raptors appeared to be finding ways not to win. Down zero to two and with their backs against the wall in the Eastern Conference Finals, they came up with a crucial adjustment that allowed them to battle the otherwise-superior Bucks to a standstill until crunchtime of Game Three: They solved the problem that was Giannis Antetokounmpo by slotting top defender Kawhi Leonard on the presumptive Most Valuable Player along with a consistent blitz, and it worked. Unfortunately, their own offense continued to sputter, and especially with the outcome of the match on the line in regulation.

Superb golf

No matter what can and will be said of Brooks Koepka’s sputtering finish to his round yesterday, there’s no doubt about one thing: He wound up on top of the PGA Championship all the same. His retention of the Wanamaker Trophy was deemed even by his critics as a foregone conclusion, so far ahead was he of his closest competitors. Indeed, the seven strokes the rest of the field spotted him entering the final 18 was the most in major tournament history, and it was but logical to crown him early in light of his de facto status as the best of the best in the best.

It’s all over but…

It’s all over but the shouting. The Blazers tried as well as they could to protect home court and, in the process, bring down their deficit in the Western Conference Finals to a single game, but their effort at the Moda Center yesterday ultimately left much to be desired. As in Game Two, they greeted the opening tip with purpose and kept the pedal to the metal in the first half. And, as in Game Two, they then saw fit to coast on a seemingly comfortable lead -- a no-no given the relentless nature of the Warriors. They played not to lose when they should have kept playing to win, a recipe for disaster against the defending champions.

Raptors rotation

If there ever was any game the Toronto Raptors could best steal at the Fiserv Forum, yesterday’s appeared to be it. They headed into the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals with significant momentum borne of a dramatic victory in the rubber match of their semifinal-round series against the Sixers. The monumental shot that set up their date with the regular-season-leading Bucks looked to have been a gift from the hoops gods, coming right at the buzzer and bouncing four times before finding the bottom of the net. And it was so defining for a franchise usually snakebitten this time of the year that Kawhi Leonard, its creator, could not but be feted in the aftermath as a savior destined to lead them to ultimate success.

Lottery shockers

Predictability wasn’t exactly the calling card of the National Basketball Association yesterday. True, the Warriors proved true to form and ran roughshod over the Blazers. Having had to endure a quick turnaround from a semifinal-round-series do-or-die affair to Game One of the conference finals, the latter looked too physically and emotionally drained to compete with consistency against the defending champions. Then again, perhaps some semblance of order was, well, in order following a draft lottery that shook probabilities and had oddsmakers scrambling in reaction.

The Process

It didn’t take long for the criticisms to rain on Sixers head coach Brett Brown. In fact, social media was flooded with second-guessing as soon as Game Seven of their semifinal-round series became history. Certainly, the heartbreak that Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce prayer of a buzzer beater that sent them packing the other day served to rub salt on open wounds. Yet, if naysayers had any ground to stand on, it was precisely because the set-to had to be settled at the very last moment of the very last play. They forced the hosts to rely on inefficient isolation sets, and, still, they couldn’t get the job done, a reflection on lack of both planning and execution.

Leader Kawhi

Considering how closely the Raptors and Sixers battled throughout their semifinal-round series, it was fittingly settled on a last-second shot in its last game by its most active player yesterday. Indeed, by the time Kawhi Leonard let go of his twisting corner fadeaway over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid just before the final buzzer sounded, he had already played a whopping 278 minutes through seven grueling matches. He looked tired for the duration of the contest, reflecting his extremely high mid-30s usage rate, and his final stab at the rim was short, just like many of his 38 other attempts. That said, it was straight and, more importantly, soft, managing to draw front iron and bounce around before going in, spectacularly securing for the hosts a seat in the conference finals.

Winning culture

Not a few quarters pegged the Warriors to be goners the moment Kevin Durant was confirmed to have been injured and unable to return in Game Five of their semifinal-round series against the Rockets. Already with a history of calf strains, the former league Most Valuable Player appeared to have suffered from one anew shortly after he scored on a jumper with 2:11 left to play in the third quarter. He clutched his right leg as he was running back on defense, compelling him to leave the court -- and, evidently, for good after he was examined and ruled ineligible to return. They were then just up by three points and legitimately wondering how they could cope without their most indispensable performer.

Collective weaknesses

Brad Stevens is no stranger to losing in the National Basketball Association. After he was pried from Butler in 2013, he won only 25 games in his first year as the Celtics’ head coach. He still had more setbacks than victories in his second year, but somehow snuck into the playoffs, where he promptly got swept in the first round. He did better in 2016, winning two postseason games, and then took the green and white to the conference finals the next two years. Given his track record, it’s fair to argue that he’s no stranger to adversity.

Stifling defense

Kawhi Leonard was decidedly mortal yesterday. Compared to the insane numbers he had been putting up throughout the playoffs, his stats in Game Five of the Raptors’ semifinal-round series were far more modest: He had 21 (on seven-of-16 shooting from the field), 13, and four in 36 minutes of play. In part, it was due to a conscious decision by head coach Nick Nurse to add more variation to an offense that had hitherto been focused on him. In larger measure, it was simply because he missed shots he had been making even in the face of tight coverage.

The better team

The Celtics remained defiant in the aftermath of a second straight embarrassing loss at the TD Center yesterday. It was actually their third consecutive setback against the Bucks, as clear an indication as any of their overmatched position in the semifinal-round series. Don’t tell them that, though; to a man, they believe they continue to have the capacity to advance to the conference finals. For one thing, they’re convinced their talent base is superior; they ran roughshod over the Pacers in the first round, and then claimed Game One by 22 versus the owners of the league’s best regular-season slate.

Warriors go for win

The Warriors remained supremely confident of their chances heading into Game Four of their semifinal-round series against the Rockets. It didn’t matter that they lost their immediate past match in overtime, and that their rivals limited them to 44.2% shooting en route. As far as they’re concerned, they’re primed to win today, thus claiming the split they need to consider their trip to Houston a success; they’ll be having a commanding lead in the best-of-seven affair, with the next contest providing an opportunity to move on to the next postseason challenge.

Battle of attrition

That Game Three of the Blazers-Nuggets semifinal-round series came to within a free throw of forcing a league-record fifth overtime underscored the resolve of the protagonists. It wasn’t just that they wanted to win; more tellingly, it was that they refused to lose. To a man, they toiled as if there were no other games left to negotiate in the postseason. Even the coaches hung tough; hardly any substitutions outside of last-shot settings -- or, in the case of the most impactful one, of an unavoidable circumstance -- were made. The players that forced extended action after extended action were going to decide the outcome.

Homecourt advantage

Considering the outstanding play of four-time All-Star Damian Lillard, fans can be forgiven for forgetting that the Blazers are no one-man team. True, he was the single biggest reason the Blazers upended the Thunder in the first round; he thoroughly outplayed former league Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook throughout the five-game series. That said, the capacity of the conference third seeds to go deep in the postseason depends as much on the rest of their roster as on its acknowledged leader. In their current set-to against the Nuggets, for instance, the conscious effort to send multiple defenders his way compels the rest of the black and red to step up.

More ready

The Bucks rightly approached Game Two of their conference semifinal-round set-to against the Celtics with confidence. It didn’t matter that they were routed in the opener, with Al Horford, in particular, looking every bit like kryptonite to the Superman that was Giannis Antetokounmpo. As far as they were concerned, they remained the series favorites for reasons beyond their reliance on the leading Most Valuable Player candidate. Above all else, they boasted of cohesion that propelled an inside-out system and made them better as a collective -- and ultimately superior to their opponents.

Sixers even series

Game One of the semifinal-round affair between the Raptors and the Sixers proved quite a shocker to not a few pundits. It wasn’t simply that the hosts finally stopped a disturbing streak of losses in series openers. It was how they did so, banking on seminal performances from prospective franchise cornerstone Kawhi Leonard and breakout performer Pascal Siakam to hold supposedly solid rivals in abeyance. Essentially, they got the shots they wanted at the times they desired; they just couldn’t be stopped.

Whistles game

Game One of the conference semifinals-round series between the Warriors and the Rockets looked to be the most anticipated contest so far through the 2019 National Basketball Association Playoffs, and not simply because of their shared history. This time last year, their best-of-seven battle for the right to represent the West in the Finals went the distance, and not a few quarters figured the rematch would be just as hotly contested. Even the protagonists themselves viewed the affair as inevitably protracted, hence their desire to hit the ground running and come up with the first strike.

Unique Durant

Kevin Durant no longer needs any audition to prove his worth heading into free agency. When he is officially free from his contract with the Warriors in July, he will be fielding offers from the rest of the National Basketball Association. Indeed, he’s that good; outside of -- and, arguably, even more than that of -- the on-the-decline LeBron James, he has the game that would suit any type of system. He certainly made the two-time defending champions even better with his presence; not for nothing was he named Most Valuable Player in their last two Finals appearances.

A bad shot

A bad shot was how Paul George characterized Damian Lillard’s three-point buzzer beater that booted the Thunder out of the 2019 National Basketball Association Playoffs. He actually doubled down in his post-mortem, referring to it as “a bad, bad shot.” And had Game Five of their first-round series operated in a vacuum, he may well have been right; after all, it was taken from 37 feet out and reasonably contested despite separation efforts through a “pound dribble,” sidestep, and timely gather.

Confident Raptors

The Raptors advanced to the second round of the playoffs yesterday, but it wasn’t a big deal to them. In fact, it looked much like the same old, same old; they claimed their fourth straight game to book a seat in the conference semifinals for the fourth consecutive year. Significantly, the manner in which they did so was nothing short of dominant; after seeing the Magic score 104 points in a close loss to open their 2019 postseason campaign, they stamped their class on both ends of the court to norm 107.8 while limiting their opponents to 89 the rest of the way.

Looking forward

The Pistons did all they could against the Bucks yesterday. Down zero to three and facing the very real prospect of a third consecutive postseason elimination without a single win to show for their efforts, they resolved to hit the ground running, and did. They put up a double-digit lead not even halfway through the first period, relying on their trademark physicality and determination to overcome a decided talent gap. And they played with purpose from then on; they challenged every shot, went for every 50-50 ball, and took every risk they could -- all while sticking to set patterns.

Leadership

Heading into the playoffs, the Celtics were regarded with wariness. After going through a rough regular season that had them stumbling to the fourth seed in a conference they were supposed to lord over, they faced no small measure of uncertainty. Six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving struggled to assert his leadership over his younger teammates. Fellow Big Three members Al Horford and Gordon Hayward battled with consistency. Even head coach Brad Stevens faced pushback for seemingly poor decision-making in the crunch. The roller-coaster ride led to the green and white openly wondering where all the fun went and why it appeared to have been replaced with listless play.

A lost opportunity

“Frustration” was how DeMar DeRozan described what made him throw the ball near referee Scott Foster a little more than halfway through the final quarter of the Spurs’ homestand yesterday. He had just been called for an offensive foul, his third personal in a span of 52 seconds and fourth overall, and he needed to vent after drawing what he believed to be the short end of the stick. No doubt, his emotions were likewise fired up by a double-digit deficit they incurred off an atrocious showing after the half. Unfortunately, he flung the rock a little too forcefully for comfort, leading to his ejection.

Kings coach

Luke Walton spent exactly one day to find a new job. He was fired -- couched in “mutually agreed to part ways” terms -- by the Lakers on Friday following an unprecedented sixth straight season out of the playoffs. He sat for a meeting with fellow purple-and-gold alumnus Vlade Divac on Saturday to discuss terms of his hiring as the Kings’ new head coach. After resting on the Sabbath, they then formally announced their partnership, signaling a new era for the franchise that still has to find its competitive footing since erstwhile Warriors co-owner Vivek Ranadivé took the reins in 2013.

Redemption, drama

The final round of the Masters was shaping up to be like no other long before the first sets of hopefuls teed off at 7:30 yesterday morning. The sun had been out for a mere half hour, and yet Augusta National was packed with fans hoping to catch breathtaking action courtesy of first-ever threesomes dispatched on both the first and 10th holes. Organizers changed the schedule in a race against time, what with thunderstorms slated to hit the course in the afternoon -- and players had to adjust accordingly, some more than others. Tiger Woods, for instance, had to wake up much earlier than usual to account for the longer prepping his brittle body required.

Nets stun Sixers

The Sixers believe this to be their year. With their lineup at its strongest since they drafted Joel Embiid third overall in 2014 and LeBron James no longer looming large over the East, they figure they have ample reason to cast moist eyes on the Larry O’Brien Trophy. “It’s been a long six years for all of us, but at the end of all this, we’ve assembled an enormous amount of talent, and we’re really excited to be on the eve of the playoffs with a team that we think can make a deep playoff run,” ESPN quoted franchise owner Josh Harris as saying right before tipoff of their homestand against the Nets yesterday.

Betrayal

Hoops circles are still “shook” over Magic Johnson’s abrupt resignation as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations the other day. Nobody, not even franchise owner Jeanie Buss (whom he referred to repeatedly in his impromptu press conference as his “sister”), knew that he was going to abandon the position he had occupied since February 2017. From his vantage point, he needed to hang up his suit and tie in order to “be Magic Johnson again;” he felt the National Basketball Association provisions governing executives prevented him from expressing his thoughts the way he wanted to, and exactly when he wanted to.

Lakers lose Magic

The Lakers always knew they couldn’t possibly top the high they got on the first day of free agency last July. Armed with purpose and the promise the purple and gold invariably carried in light of their storied past, they managed to secure the commitment of LeBron James, and for the long haul. Widely acknowledged the National Basketball Association’s best player by far, he was supposed to be the first in a series of acquisitions aimed at bringing glory back to Staples Center. Instead, what they wound up doing was fill a roster with disjointed talent, auguring a future full of question marks and engendering trepidation, not hope.

Unpredictable Masters

It’s never easy to predict winners in golf, and it’s infinitely harder at the Masters. Forget about the points system the organized tour has had in place since 1986; only four times in the history of the sport’s preeminent tournament has the designated World Number One managed to claim the coveted Green Jacket. Not coincidentally, Tiger Woods was the last to do so; in 2002, he succeeded in defending his title as the prohibitive favorite. And not coincidentally, his odds are pegged at 12/1, the same as that of current rankings pacesetter Justin Rose.

Playoff tickets

It’s the last week of the regular season, and the top of the pecking order couldn’t be clearer. The Bucks are proud owners of the best record in the National Basketball Association, while the Warriors have clinched the Number One spot in the West. Yesterday’s runaway triumph over the Clippers ensured the standing of the defending champions, holders of a tiebreaker against the second-running Nuggets. For those still angling to claim playoff seedings, however, the outcomes of the games still to be played out remain relevant.

The Masters

As in any other year, talk about the Masters begins long before the start of golf’s preeminent major tournament. The House that Bobby Jones Built is Number One for a reason: It’s a veritable walk down memorable lane. Everything -- from the way members comport themselves while in the Augusta National Golf Club to the way its leadership goes about hosting a competition for an extremely limited field -- is a reminder of a time long past, critical for a gentleman’s sport that, for all intents, claims no small measure of its lure and allure from its capacity to turn back time.

Offseason buildup

Notwithstanding the impression it created, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss’ refusal to reply to a public query on the fate of head coach Luke Walton was more a good reflection of her trust in president Magic Johnson than anything else. “I’m not going to give you the answer to that question,” she said while guesting on the Sports Business Radio Road Show yesterday. Lest her noncommittal remark be construed as a vote of no confidence, however, she took pains to praise the embattled bench tactician for doing his best through a spate of injuries that included a long absence by the lone All-Star LeBron James.

Righting the ship

For reasons grounded on both anecdote and fact, Ted Leonsis has been characterized in sports circles as a patient owner. Setting goals and cutting checks, and then letting his handpicked executives do the nitty gritty without handholding from him, are what he does with and for his franchises. Given his deliberate nature, his decision to finally hand Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld the pink slip yesterday was understandably met with surprise -- and not in light of the end of the National Basketball Association season being just around the corner.

Healthy Federer

Roger Federer almost didn’t make the trip to Florida. Still recovering from a disappointing loss in the final of the Indian Wells Masters, he wasn’t quite sure of the value of a stint at the Miami Open. After all, he unceremoniously crashed out in the second round of the tournament last year. After careful consideration, though, he decided to give it a go. No doubt, he factored in the fact that it was slated to be held at the Hard Rock Stadium for the first time. Key Biscayne had been its home since 1987, and the site of his one-and-done appearance following a first-round bye.

Match Play

This time last year, Kevin Kisner didn’t quite get the result he wanted. He had just finished runner-up at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, but the fact that he didn’t get past the 12th hole in the final against two-time major titleholder Bubba Watson gnawed at him. Never mind that he hitherto managed to lead his particular group, which included World Number One Dustin Johnson, and thereafter claim victories against Matt Kuchar, Ian Poulter, and Alex Noren. As far as he was concerned, there was unfinished business at the Austin Country Club.

L2M Report

The Last Two Minute Report has turned four, and still it continues to be a bone of contention for National Basketball Association stakeholders. Conceived by the commissioner’s office as a means to promote regulation transparency and fan engagement, the review process that generates it is automatically triggered when scores are within three points of each other at any instance during the last two minutes -- or, when applicable, overtime -- of a given match. Unfortunately, the rules are so complex and contact between players occurs so often that determination of whether one is legal or not becomes subject and susceptible to bias. It’s why even the application of hindsight gets to be debated.

Woods is still Woods

By all accounts, Tiger Woods had a mediocre round at the Austin Country Club yesterday. Three birdies and three bogeys that included an inexcusable three-putt effort on the 14th hole pretty much summed up his up-and-down run. Even his irons, invariably the best clubs on his bag, were off, leading to head-scratching ball positions on the greens -- or, worse, short of the greens -- even after lengthy discussions with caddie Joe LaCava. And yet the World Number 14 sounded more relieved than downcast in the aftermath, contending that “there’s no scorecard except for whether you won the match or not.”

Bosh retires

As longtime followers of the National Basketball Association know, Chris Bosh was One in many things apart from the number on his jersey. Certainly, he was the first to sacrifice the most for collective pursuits in an era defined by increased player mobility. He gave up top-dog status, robust stat lines, and max salaries with the Raptors to play a supporting role for the Heat. Through two championships out of four straight Finals appearances, he received far less praise than the other members of the famed Big Three. Never mind that his endgame exploits in Game Six of the 2013 title series helped change the career trajectories of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.

Lakers coach

Jason Kidd didn’t even bother hiding his sentiments. Touted as a leading candidate to take the reins in California, his alma mater, he found his name attached to the Lakers in the midst of speculation regarding incumbent head coach Luke Walton’s supposedly imminent firing. And he was delighted. Asked about the possibility on ESPN’s The Jump, he pointed to the Lakers as the best franchise “not just in the [National Basketball Association], but the world,” and to resident All-Star LeBron James as “the best player in the world ... You are always going to say yes.”

NCAA wild finish

There was a lot of hype surrounding the Blue Devils-Knights match yesterday, and for reasons going beyond the presence of Zion Williamson, preemptive Wooden awardee and top pick in the 2019 National Basketball Association rookie draft. University of Central Florida head coach Johnny Dawkins was a star and former assistant under Duke counterpart Mike Krzyzewski, and their March Madness meeting induced plenty more speculation than any other 1-9 encounter would otherwise have.

Mental mistakes

Kyrie Irving was not pleased. He had just seen the Celtics snatch defeat from the throes of victory yet again, and his post-mortem showed his surliness. As he answered query after query on why the green and white proved unable to protect a sizable lead anew, he couldn’t help but issue biting remarks. Not even their game plan against the Hornets’ Kemba Walker was spared; after seeing the All-Star torch them for 18 points in the last eight minutes of a match they led by the same number heading into the same time frame, he noted that they “should have trapped him a little bit more like every other team does in the league.”

Due for upheaval

In the face of the Lakers’ implosion and imminent elimination from the playoffs, not a few quarters have seen fit to look ahead and speculate on the changes that will inevitably be made in the offseason. The roster is due for upheaval, and not simply because it’s littered with player rentals; anybody not named LeBron James is open season for prospective trade partners with star power, the Pelicans included. Off the court, though, one departure already being touted as certain is that of head coach Luke Walton, and for reasons other than the need to feed critics a sacrificial lamb.