Playoffs 2019 East Finals: Bucks (1) vs. Raptors (2)
Leonard's improved playmaking has Raptors on cusp of Finals
Toronto's star carried team in Game 5 with best passing performance of career
MILWAUKEE — At some point in the regular season, Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse had a feeling that his team’s best player would be even better in the playoffs.
“He seemed to cruise to 30 points a lot of nights,” Nurse said of Kawhi Leonard. “Thirty is a lot in this league, and that’s why I kept saying, ‘Geez, it just feels like there’s another gear here with this guy that we’re going to see.’ ”
Leonard acknowledged as much in early March. “There’s 82 games and for me, these are just practices,” he said, “and playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.”
Nurse’s reaction when he heard that? “Now we’re talking.”
Indeed, Leonard has taken things to another level in this postseason, playing big minutes, making huge shots, and defending at an elite level. But Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals brought something new.
Leonard scored 35 points in the biggest win in Toronto Raptors franchise history, a 105-99 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks that gave the two-seed a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 in Toronto on Saturday.
That wasn’t the new part. This was Leonard’s seventh game of 35 or more points in this postseason. And you might recall a couple of big fourth-quarter shots over a seven-footer in the last series.
Leonard also played smothering defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo. That wasn’t new either. Since Game 3, Leonard, with plenty of help from his teammates, has made the presumed Kia MVP look somewhat mortal.
The new part was the nine in the assists column. In 570 career games (regular season and playoffs combined) prior to Thursday, Leonard had never recorded nine assists. That he did it in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on the road and against the league’s No. 1 defense says a lot about Leonard as a big-game star.
That, given his star status, he had never had nine assists before just as much about his history as a playmaker. Leonard may be the most complete player in the game right now, but his passing can still get better. It doesn’t come naturally to him.
In regard to making his teammates better, Leonard is certainly not LeBron James. And you can even say that Antetokounmpo, still emerging as a superstar himself, has been better at reading the defense and finding open shooters. In the regular season, Leonard recorded assists on just 12.2 percent of his possessions, the fifth-lowest rate among 35 players with a usage rate of 25 percent or higher. And his assist rate has actually been lower (11.7 percent) in the playoffs.
He seemed to cruise to 30 points a lot of nights. Thirty is a lot in this league, and that’s why I kept saying, ‘Geez, it just feels like there’s another gear here with this guy that we’re going to see.’ “
Raptors coach Nick Nurse
But over the last two series, Leonard has been the focus of the Philadelphia and Milwaukee defenses. At times, he has tried to score through multiple defenders. Given that his teammates weren’t willing or able to do much offensively themselves — and because he was scoring so efficiently — he was probably right to force things.
Leonard forced little on Thursday. He drove into the teeth of the Bucks’ defense, saw where the help was coming from, and made the right play.
“We keep stressing that in this series and in the last series, too,” Nurse said. “When you’ve drawn two, you’ve done your job. You’ve got to find the guy who’s open.”
On the 22 possessions in which Leonard drove, the Raptors scored 29 points — 10 from Leonard himself and 19 from his teammates.
“Pretty much try to stay with a consistent mindset throughout the whole game,” Leonard said of his performance. “Just trying to read the defense throughout the entire game, see what’s working.”
It was all working, whether it was Leonard calling his own number or making plays for others. And it certainly helps that the others have seemingly found their mojo. Fred VanVleet, who shot 6-for-42 over a nine-game stretch from Game 2 of the conference semis through Game 3 of this series, is a 63 percent shooter (10-for-12 from 3-point range) when he has more than one child.
All of Leonard’s nine assists in Game 5 were on 3-pointers — meaning he accounted for 62 (59 percent) of the Raptors’ 105 points via his own points and assists — and four of them were to the dad who hasn’t slept much since Fred Jr. was born on Monday.
“Any time he chooses to get the rest of us involved,” VanVleet said of Leonard, “it’s going to bode well for our offense. The rest of us just got to be ready to step up and knock them down.”
VanVleet had both the biggest shot of the night — a 3-pointer from the right wing off a Leonard kick-out that broke a 93-93 tie with 2:19 to go — and the quote of the night when asked about his formula for success: “Zero sleep, have a lot of babies, and go out there and let loose.”
The Raptors’ offense has been the biggest key to this series, because Toronto’s defense — when it has been set — has been tremendous. It has kept Antetokounmpo from getting all the way to the basket while being able to recover out to and contest the Bucks’ shooters.
While the Raptors scored 1.32 points per possession when Leonard drove in Game 5, the Bucks scored at a rate less than half of that (0.57, 12 points on 21 possessions) when Antetokounmpo drove.
“We’ve got to play good offense,” Nurse said, “not turn it over and score the basketball, because if you don’t, they’re getting what they want, which is downhill basketball in a hurry. If we can score it, if we can take care of it, we can get our defense set up, for the most part we get down and guard them and make the shots a lot tougher.”
Just six days ago, the Raptors were a possession away from falling into an 0-3 hole, one that no team in NBA history has ever come back from. Now, they’ve won three straight games against the team that hadn’t lost three straight all season. After scoring less than a point per possession over the first two games of this series, the Raptors have scored 110.3 per 100 over the last three.
The defense feeds off of the offense. And the offense feeds off of the star that keeps taking things to a new level.
“I’m not afraid of the moment,” Leonard said. “I enjoy it.”
The Kawhi Leonard that we saw in Games 1-4 against Philadelphia (when he averaged 38.0 points on 62 percent shooting) was a preposterously efficient scorer, good enough to keep his team even in the second round. The Kawhi Leonard that we saw on Thursday has his team playing even better … and just one win from the NBA Finals.
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