Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors Are Unifying at the Right Time

Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors Are Unifying at the Right Time
TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 7: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on May 7, 2019 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

As the Toronto Raptors racked up 58 wins during the regular season and added several more through the first few weeks of the playoffs, they couldn’t quite shake their dual nature.

Kawhi Leonard worked effectively in isolation, but the rest of the roster played with a different pace and flow when he hit the bench or took nights off. The Raptors were effectively split, almost as if they had two different personas.

In Tuesday’s 125-89 obliteration of the Philadelphia 76ers, which opened up a 3-2 series lead, they fused those disparate halves and created one hell of a whole.

Take Leonard’s dunk on the entire Sixers roster at the end of the first half as an example. It concluded with Toronto’s singular superstar leveraging his power and skill, but it started with a collective effort to clear his path.

Pascal Siakam sets the initial high screen, but there’s Kyle Lowry looping around from behind to pin Joel Embiid to the paint. And then, as Leonard elevates, Marc Gasol gets in a slick little two-hand shove to the back of Tobias Harris, removing one last obstruction. If you really want to get into the Kumbaya spirit, Danny Green is in the corner, his deadly stroke preventing JJ Redick from even thinking about helping.

Five players worked in synergy on that set, a perfect microcosm of the balanced, tied-together effort Toronto put forth to take control of these Eastern Conference semifinals.

That dunk, by the way, was only Leonard’s third field goal of the first half. He missed six of his first nine shots and finished just 7-of-16 from the field, bricking all four of his three-point attempts. He finished with 21 points, but that counts as an off night for a guy who entered Tuesday shooting 58.7 percent in the postseason.

No matter, as Siakam led the way with 25 points. Lowry and Green contributed 19 and 17 points, respectively, as Green finally heated up with five made treys in seven attempts. Gasol and Serge Ibaka joined the double-figure brigade, as well.

It was all hands on deck.

Regression from Leonard felt inevitable. Nobody sustains the kind of run he’s been on. So when he finally logged his first field goal of the game, a transition dunk with 34.7 seconds left in the first quarter, it was encouraging that the bucket was also the product of Toronto’s supporting cast.

Fred VanVleet stoned Jimmy Butler on an attempted post up, then snatched the ball from Embiid after Butler gave up and kicked it out. A hit-ahead pass to Norman Powell led to the Leonard jam.

Again, this wasn’t Leonard pounding the dribble, working his way to within 15 feet and drilling contested pull-ups as his teammates watched. It was synergy. It was symbiosis. It was a star shining because of his team rather than glimmering in isolation.

If you’re not into the broader idea of Toronto achieving some kind of cosmic unification at just the right time, fine. You can make this into one of those “the other guys finally stepped up” angles. Everyone trots those out whenever a superstar’s running mates pick up some slack. But if that’s as far as you want to extend the analysis, and you’re not willing to buy the idea that Toronto is on the cusp of reaching a new level, you’re overlooking important context.

As good as Toronto was during the year, and as dominant as Leonard looked leading into Game 5, it was always going to take time (and perhaps the pressure of a competitive series) for this collection of talent to come together.

Leonard didn’t choose to be a Raptor. He was added via trade, effectively a mercenary uncommitted to staying beyond this season. Add to that another new starter in Danny Green and a disgruntled Kyle Lowry who sulked through long stretches after DeMar DeRozan’s departure. Then throw in a vastly improved version of Siakam whose growth necessitated a larger role, Gasol’s midseason arrival and, oh yeah, a new head coach in Nick Nurse.

Of course these guys looked disjointed at times. How could they not?

So now, in the wake of a particularly connected Game 5, isn’t it reasonable to assume we’re seeing a new normal? It’s not like the role-player contributions were wildly out of character.

Lowry barreled into defenders, stripped rebounds from bigs and generally wrought havoc on the margins, just like always. Green drilled threes. Siakam materialized all over the court and burned the paint off the floor with his transition speed. Gasol made smart passes and played positional defense.

The only real difference was the confidence with which Leonard’s support staff stepped into open shots and looked for their own offense when opportunities arose. Maybe taking the next step for the Raptors was really about everyone else pausing in their admiration of Leonard’s obvious brilliance to remember that, hey, they’re pretty good at what they do, too!

When Leonard turns in plays like this, it’s easy to understand why some of his teammates might spend a little too much time admiring instead of self-actualizing:

Yes, the Sixers came unglued in a hurry on Tuesday. Embiid was clearly hampered by illness (and probably sore knees, judging by his total lack of lift). But that’s just another endorsement of the idea that Toronto is becoming something greater. Embiid has been hobbled all series, and Philadelphia has suffered lapses and bouts of ineffectual play throughout. Yet both teams had won twice heading into Game 5.

Things were, by definition, even.

On Tuesday, the unified Raptors made it impossible to imagine the Sixers surviving. It was a good-to-great transformation.

The split-personality Raptors were darn good. The newly unified ones are great—more than capable of giving a fearsome Milwaukee Bucks team (currently in possession of a stranglehold 3-1 lead over the Boston Celtics) a real run.

The Raptors are coming together, which means anyone in their way is at serious risk of being torn apart.


Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Tuesday, May 7.

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