PHILADELPHIA—The moment Kawhi Leonard must have felt so terribly alone was easy to spot. He had just spent the third quarter taking matters into his own enveloping hands, and good god what a show. Fourteen points in a little over eight minutes, no misses. The Toronto Raptors were down just seven to start the fourth quarter. They had played like crap — their coach used a more equine epithet — and it wasn’t over.
And with their second-, third- and fourth-best players on the floor — Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol — the Raptors got crushed. An 11-0 Philadelphia run, an 18-point lead, and the road to Joel Embiid’s windmill dunk was paved. All season the Raptors played well without Leonard, as he was rigorously rested for exactly this moment. And without him against the 76ers, they have failed in spectacular fashion.
“It’s not that much fun to watch a team you know is that much better than that, a team that has been playing very well and competing at a super-high level, to play that way,” said head coach Nick Nurse, one day after Toronto’s 116-95 loss in Game 3 of this second-round series, which the Raptors now trail two games to one.
The Raptors are telling themselves they’re better than this, and they should be right. This Raptors team isn’t the one whose ceiling caved in against LeBron, over and over. It’s different.
But it felt the same. The Raptors entered Game 3 with a ruthless defence and high level of habitual force, and both crumbled. The Sixers had 64 points in the first half. Gasol missed two early perimeter shots and never tried one again, which is a frustrating aspect of his game. Lowry passed up shots, too, and missed eight of the 10 he took. The $40-million (U.S.) bench has become a wasteland.
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The numbers are jarring. With Leonard on the court in this series, Toronto has scored 110.7 points per 100 possessions. That would rank 11th in the regular season, or sixth in these playoffs. It’s enough.
But in the 27 minutes with Leonard on the bench, Toronto’s offensive rating is 54.1, and that number went up in Game 3. Scoring 54.1 per 100 is cavemen trying to drive a car. It’s a small sample, but it’s like hockey players playing ball.
“It’s those guys stepping up and making plays,” Nurse said. “I really think that I did go over a lot of those sections in the last two games, and I just … it’s not like we can’t dribble or even get open or find shots. There’s stretches there where it’s one really good offensive sequence after another, but not much to show for it.”
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One thing the playoffs reveal, in a league that takes the regular season less and less seriously, is your true upper capacity. Leonard is showing how good he really is, as is Pascal Siakam. He can’t carry the offence without Kawhi, but he’s here.
But the other Raptors are shrinking, and it suddenly feels like this could be an identity crisis for a team that can quite honestly tell itself it can play for a championship. Lowry has shot .351 from the field, and is 2-of-14 from three, in three games. And he’s passing up shots.
And Gasol — well, when the 34-year-old came from Memphis, sources familiar with him said the place you’d see slippage was at the offensive end: there are those who said he didn’t want to be the focal point of the offence anymore. The Spaniard is wonderfully unselfish, but often now he’s not even looking at the hoop. He has to shoot, unless he wants Embiid to lurk in the paint all night, waiting for Raptors to drive past Philly’s flying, giant defenders on the perimeter.
Maybe Kawhi’s ball dominance — and Siakam’s for that matter — is pulling the other Raptors out of their rhythm. Nurse said it felt like that Thursday night. He also said the out-of-rhythm shots affect transition defence, which affects overall defence, which affects shot confidence, and … yeah. Outside of Kawhi and Siakam, these Raptors delivered a game where they seemed like they were ready to lose. And they still weren’t out of it until that fourth-quarter run.
The sum total of all this is simple. Leonard stands alone. He and Siakam are 70-for-114 from the field, but Siakam is struggling without Leonard. Every other Raptor is 39-for-139. So some U.S. outlets are skipping forward to the lazy takes: Kawhi’s gone in free agency, Toronto are suckers again, same old Raptors. Never mind that it was one game for a team that hasn’t looked like this in a long time. Same old Raptors.
And maybe, somehow, it’s true. Maybe the matchups are just bad enough that the Raptors will allow themselves to be bullied again, and the DNA of past collapses survives in Lowry, or Nurse, or in the gym bags. Maybe blowing a winnable Game 2 is the legacy of this team.
Or maybe this Raptors team can come back with its habitual force and execution, and its veteran players can step into shots and the game with enough confidence and belief. It’s a watershed game for Gasol; it’s even more of one for Lowry. Are these guys good enough? Tough enough? They can be the same old Raptors, or they can prove people wrong. Game 4 is Sunday afternoon.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
Published at Fri, 03 May 2019 22:39:22 +0000