The inherent risk of the Toronto Raptors’ daring vision took just one playoff game to manifest — at the worst possible time, no less.
With 10 seconds left in Game 1 and the score tied, Orlando Magic guard D.J. Augustin surveyed from the top of the key. Directly in front of him: Kawhi Leonard. Slightly to his left: Marc Gasol. As the veteran point guard probed and used a soft screen from Nikola Vucevic, the Raptors’ formidable defensive duo momentarily lost its wits.
Leonard followed Vucevic. A beat later, Gasol followed Vucevic, too. Another moment later, Augustin stepped into a wide-open three-pointer to give Orlando the win. Gasol and Leonard looked at each other after the ball swished through. Their simultaneous shrugged shoulders and upward palms shouted, “What were you doing?”
Blown assignments in big moments happen, but this one was remarkable because it featured two defensive players of the year renowned for their high IQ, well-honed instincts and years of deep playoff runs. This wasn’t a failure of knowledge or physical ability but of chemistry and cohesion. Entering the playoffs, the Raptors’ two high-profile hired guns had played together in just 19 games since Gasol arrived by trade in February.
Together, Leonard and Gasol are emblematic of both the Raptors’ ambition and their newness. Despite winning a franchise-record 59 games last season, Toronto fired coach of the year Dwane Casey, traded away beloved all-star guard DeMar DeRozan and replaced four members of its starting five. Those changes, highlighted by Leonard’s arrival in a blockbuster trade in July, ushered in a new life cycle for a franchise that spent its first 20 years fighting for respect and the past five in the shadow of LeBron James. Loaded like never before, Toronto is still figuring itself out.
“We want to win the title this year,” Raptors General Manager Bobby Webster said by telephone on the eve of the playoffs. “We’ve put a lot of the pieces in place to be prepared for that. As an organization, when you first get to the playoffs, everyone is happy to be there. You go a couple of times, and now the expectation is to make it every year. Then you get close [by making the 2016 East finals], and the expectation becomes to compete for a title. That’s just where our organization is.”
If the opening loss to Orlando revealed the speed bumps that can arise during a full-throttle retooling effort, Game 2 served as proof of concept for a team searching for its first NBA Finals appearance. Despite early foul trouble, Leonard delivered one of the most dominant playoff performances in Raptors history, pouring in 37 points on 15-for-22 shooting to key a 111-82 blowout victory.
The 27-year-old forward’s effortless scoring contrasted sharply with DeRozan’s pained and panicky work in years past, and his even-keeled demeanor is a helpful base for an organization that has struggled to keep its composure during pressure-packed moments. After all-star point guard Kyle Lowry triggered painful memories of playoff letdowns with a scoreless Game 1, for example, Leonard didn’t blink.
“[Lowry] played well in [Game 2],” Leonard said of his teammate’s 22 points and seven assists. “He made shots. That’s [the only thing] he didn’t do in Game 1. He made shots and led us in intensity. He did a great job of bouncing back. He’s a pro. That’s what pros do.”
What makes the Raptors so fascinating — and so tricky to forecast — is that Leonard serves as their primary stabilizing force and their chief destabilizer. The 2014 Finals MVP brings championship credentials and steely nerves, but he also has required significant accommodations. With his free agency looming this summer and a quadriceps injury that cost him all but nine games last year, the Raptors agreed to a careful “load management” program for their superstar.
As a result, Leonard played in just 60 games, down more than 10 games from his two all-star seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, and logged more than 40 minutes just four times this year. (By comparison, Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal did so 22 times this season.) To help prepare Leonard for the intensity of the playoffs, Toronto elected to play him in its final five regular season games even though its seed was effectively determined.
“We had to remind ourselves of the big picture, which is the playoffs and Kawhi’s health,” Webster said. “He’s been ramping up with the playoffs in mind. There’s no flipping a switch.”
The conservative strategy inspired some grumbles from fans and media observers, but it achieved its primary goal: Leonard, who averaged career highs of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds to go with 3.3 assists per game, is ready for May and June.
“[Leonard] is able to play as many [minutes] as he wants,” first-year coach Nick Nurse said after Game 2. “He can handle as many [minutes] as the game calls for. He looks a little bouncier out there.”
Leonard’s load management created opportunities for the likes of Pascal Siakam, a third-year forward who thrilled Toronto’s brass with his night-to-night consistency and emerged as a most improved player candidate. More than anything, though, it enabled Nurse to put his stamp on the team.
The hoops lifer, whose unorthodox background includes stops in the English professional ranks and the minor leagues in Iowa, is accustomed to improvising his lineups and strategies. Toronto posted a stellar 17-5 record in games that Leonard missed, a testament to its depth and Nurse’s command. The Raptors also ranked in the top five in clutch situations, an impressive feat given its many new faces and the coaching change.
Between their steady play and Leonard’s reticence with the media, the Raptors have largely avoided the free agency scrutiny generated by superstars such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. That has been helpful because President Masai Ujiri and Webster are set for a busy summer. In addition to Leonard, who is reportedly a top target of the Los Angeles Clippers, Gasol and sharpshooting guard Danny Green could be free agents. Lowry and big man Serge Ibaka, meanwhile, have one more year remaining on their current deals.
Toronto’s bold title-chasing gambits therefore have a boom-or-bust feel, and the chatter around its key pieces could pick up as the playoffs unfold.
“[Leonard’s free agency] hasn’t been a distraction, and I don’t think it will be a distraction,” Webster said. “When these guys say they will make the decision in the summer, it’s completely truthful and you want to respect it. [Our players] have incredible laser focus, and thinking about your next job and letting your mind wander doesn’t do you a lot of good.”
Despite the longer-term questions, the Raptors’ immediate outlook is extraordinarily promising. They ranked second in wins, third in point differential, sixth in offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive efficiency during the regular season. Their roster includes a top-10 centerpiece, multiple supporting stars and impressive lineup flexibility.
James’s move out of the Eastern Conference is no trivial matter, either. Since 2016, the Raptors lost all three of their series against his Cleveland Cavaliers but won all four of their other series. Toronto’s boogeyman is out of the playoffs altogether this season, with James’s Los Angeles Lakers having failed to qualify for the postseason.
To cast Toronto as the East favorite would be overly generous, given the rise of MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo and the consistent excellence of the Milwaukee Bucks. Yet the major developments from the past 12 months — James’s departure from the East, Nurse’s hiring, Leonard’s arrival and the Raptors’ health — have broken perfectly. For once, Toronto enters the playoffs on its own terms.
“There was more relief felt on July 2 than there is now,” Webster said, referencing the date that James signed with the Lakers. “I don’t think [the LeBron factor] is weighing on anybody’s psyche. I’m not sure we’ve talked about that internally for months. We’re meshing and jelling really well right now. There’s not a ton of focus on the past.”