Raptors’ Masai Ujiri makes two bold proclamations before NBA Finals


Raptors’ Masai Ujiri makes two bold proclamations before NBA Finals

Masai Ujiri is a bold man.

The Toronto Raptors president built a sizable chunk of his Eastern Conference champion roster through trades, acquiring pivotal pieces Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka over the years. Thanks in big part to those (and other) big moves, his Raptors will square off with the Warriors in the NBA Finals beginning Thursday in Toronto.

With the Scotiabank Arena crowd cheering him on after Toronto's Eastern Conference finals-deciding win Saturday night, Ujiri made a couple of audacious proclamations in a postgame interview with TNT's Ernie Johnson.

"We came all this way to compete, and we want to win in Toronto -- and we will win in Toronto," Ujiri said to roars from Raptors fans when Johnson asked for his thoughts on a matchup with the Warriors. 

How does he look back on the Leonard trade? 

"He's been unbelievable," Ujiri said to loud approval from the home crowd. "He's the best player in the league, and we're happy he's in Toronto." 

It's hard to blame Ujiri for being confident, nor should it be too much of a surprise. 

[RELATED: How Warriors, Raptors stack up ahead of NBA Finals matchup]

For one, the Raptors rattled off four straight wins against likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the NBA's top seed in the Bucks. For another, Leonard is operating at the peak of his powers, averaging 31.2 points per game in the postseason.

On top of that, Toronto had just won the biggest game in franchise history, as the Raptors clinched their first-ever Finals appearance in 24 years as an NBA franchise. Plus, Ujiri once told a Toronto crowd "f--- Brooklyn" ahead of a first-round series with the Nets in 2014 and said a year later that "he ain't taking that back." 

The Warriors are pursuing their fourth NBA title in five years, and don't need the bulletin-board material that the sixth-seeded Nets needed to upset the third-seeded Raptors five years ago. But five days before the Finals begin, it's nice to already see a strong dose of personality. 

Warriors’ still-mounting injuries a big blow to young players’ development

Warriors’ still-mounting injuries a big blow to young players’ development

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the waning moments of the Warriors' latest loss Friday night, their bench resembled the front row of a fashion show more than a functioning NBA roster.

Toward the end of the bench, All-Star guard Stephen Curry sat in a black suit jacket, covering a massive cast protecting his broken left hand. To Curry's left, center Kevon Looney sat in a gray suit, his immediate future in peril as he continues to seek answers about an injured hamstring.

That type of visual has become commonplace over the last month.

Over that stretch, 11 Warriors players have been sidelined with injuries, crippling a roster that seemed armed with an outside shot of making the playoffs on opening night just three weeks ago.

The latest blow came Saturday morning, when an MRI confirmed that D'Angelo Russell had suffered a sprained thumb, sidelining him for at least two weeks. Over his previous six games, the guard had averaged 29.7 points on 48 percent shooting from the field, including a 52-point, nine-rebound performance against Minnesota, so his absence will be felt.

That's because the Warriors are in roster transition, marked by their youthful core.

When Jordan Poole and Eric Paschall were drafted in June, the expectation was that the rookies would be brought along slowly, learning behind Golden State's battered All-Star cast. The myriad injuries changed that, though, forcing both into more minutes than initially anticipated.

While Paschall has flourished in that spot (15.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 30.8 minutes per game), Poole has struggled. Since Curry's injury in the fourth game of the season, Poole has shot 29 percent from the field, and he has hit just five of his last 28 shots over his last two contests.

The trickle-down effect started on the eve of training camp, when Warriors general manager Bob Myers announced that center Willie Cauley-Stein would miss most of October with a foot strain. Two days later, rookie Alen Smailagic rolled his ankle and Looney strained his hamstring in the same controlled scrimmage.

Last month, Curry broke his hand, sidelining the guard until at least February. Two nights later, forward Draymond Green tore a ligament in his left index finger. On Monday, two-way guard Damion Lee fractured his hand.

Amid all those injuries, Warriors coach Steve Kerr trotted out his ninth starting lineup of the season Friday, with two-way guard Ky Bowman at the point. For a moment, it worked.

Midway through the third quarter, Bowman intercepted a pass, ran cross court and dunked over Grant Williams, cutting the Celtics' lead to three. Two minutes later, Alec Burk stripped Boston guard Brandon Wanamaker, setting up a fast-break layup that gave Golden State a brief 82-80 lead before the Celtics rallied and held on in the fourth quarter.

The Warriors' current reality is much different than their immediate past. After winning 78 percent of their games over five years, they now find themselves with a roster that lost Kevin Durant to free agency, while Curry and Klay Thompson's rehabs are expected to last until at least February. Their 2-11 record is the NBA's worst.

[RELATED: How die-hard Warriors fans can stay optimistic]

Minutes after the final buzzer Friday, there were reminders of potential hopes lost. Curry's hand swelled out of his cast as he walked near a team official. In the locker room, Paschall sported an ice pack on his right hand, and Poole reconciled an ankle injury that he said wouldn't affect him.

As the Warriors packed for another road trip, potentially with just eight healthy bodies for the foreseeable future, another reminder that the team's development is coming at a hefty price was evident.

Warriors' D'Angelo Russell out at least two weeks with right thumb sprain


Warriors' D'Angelo Russell out at least two weeks with right thumb sprain

Add another one to the list.

After leaving Friday night’s loss to the Celtics with a thumb injury, an MRI has confirmed a right thumb sprain for All-Star guard D'Angelo Russell.

Russell will not travel with the team on the upcoming four-game road trip and will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

Golden State’s already lengthy injury report adds another name, as the team now stands with just nine healthy players as the team embarks for New Orleans on Saturday to kick off the trip.