TORONTO — Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse didn’t believe his team needed another huge performance from Kawhi Leonard to win Game 5 of of his team’s Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Raptors were 17-5 without Leonard in the regular season. Kyle Lowry is an All-Star, Pascal Siakam is the next big thing, and the Raptors’ go eight deep with capable NBA players with postseason experience.
But that 17-5 record without Leonard broke down to 13-0 against non-playoff teams and 4-5 against playoff teams. And in this series, Leonard simply wasn’t getting a lot of help. His 68 points over Games 2 and 3 weren’t enough, and the Raptors needed every bit of his 39 to win Game 4 in Philadelphia on Sunday and essentially keep their season alive. The guy was averaging 38 points on 62 percent shooting, and they were a possession or two from being down 3-1.
So yeah, to have Leonard come back down to earth somewhat and still get a blowout, 125-89 victory on Tuesday to take a 3-2 series lead? It was somewhat comforting, as you might imagine.
“It was good to prove it a little bit in the playoffs,” Nurse said of winning without a superhuman performance from Leonard. “I don’t know if ‘relief’ is the right word, but it’s nice to see other guys pick it up.”
“We needed this type of game where everyone played well,” Lowry added. “I don’t think we had a game like this in a while. We’ve still got another level that I think we can play at offensively and defensively. But it was a good team win. We needed that type of win just for our team.”
Leonard began the game by stripping Ben Simmons on Philly’s first two possessions. He had two spectacular dunks, one over multiple Sixers at the end of the first half and another on Joel Embiid’s head in the third quarter. He scored 21 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out four assists.
But he missed more than half of his shots for just the second time in 10 postseason games, and he did not need to carry his team like he did through the first four games of this series. He was more of a “normal” All-Star than the relentless machine that was shooting a seemingly unsustainable 57 percent from outside the paint prior to Tuesday.
With Leonard missing his first four shots of Game 4, the Raptors were in a little bit of a hole. The Sixers scored on nine straight possessions and led by seven midway through the first quarter. But after the last of those nine straight Philly scores, Lowry took the inbounds pass, pushed the ball up the floor, and drew a foul on Greg Monroe. On the next possession, Lowry stripped Monroe, leading to a fast break where Leonard found Siakam for a corner 3.
Two possessions later, a Lowry/Siakam pick-and-pop resulted in another Siakam 3-pointer that tied the game. Two possessions after that, Siakam tipped out a Leonard miss and Norman Powell fed Fred VanVleet, who had missed 12 straight shots in the series, for a 3 that put the Raptors up four. It was a 12-1 run that gave the Raptors the lead for good, and Leonard was just a cog in the machine, instead of being the entire machine himself.
Leonard shot 7-for-16 and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. But every other Raptors shot with the confidence that he had earlier in the series. Long gone was the hesitancy which plagued them in Game 3. And Nurse believes his team started to find itself in Game 4, when the Raptors got just enough support from Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to even the series.
“I thought I sensed a little bit better rhythm the other night,” Nurse said. “There’s three things: You gotta get your feet ready, you gotta get your hands ready, and you gotta between your ears ready to know you’re going to pull the trigger and know that you’re going to do it. I thought it showed the other night that we were a little bit less hesitant and that again puts you in rhythm.”
Earlier in this series, ball movement wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the Raptors, because Leonard was scoring more efficiently by calling his own number than his teammates were when he was forced to give up the ball. But his off-the-dribble efficiency was bound to regress, and the tide may have turned in regard to his teammates’ ability to support him.
For the first time in this postseason, six different Raptors scored in double figures in Game 5. The seven rotation players not named Leonard shot 14-for-32 (44 percent) from 3-point range.
“I think the version of us you saw tonight is probably the best version and a little bit more balanced,” VanVleet said. “[Leonard] did a great job of spreading it around a little bit. They showed some more bodies, as you would expect for a guy averaging 40. They were sending more bodies at him and he was moving it pretty well. That was good for us.”
The Raptors certainly benefited from another sluggish performance from Embiid, who was still suffering from the illness that slowed him down in Game 4. If possible, he looked even more disengaged on Tuesday, scoring just 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting and turning the ball over eight times. Embiid couldn’t put the ball on the floor without losing control of it, and he didn’t have the energy to get in the post, too often settling for 3-point attempts that the Raptors were happy to have him shoot.
But the Raptors had a lot to do with the Sixers scoring just 73 points on 80 possessions before garbage time set in. They cut off Ben Simmons’ drives to the basket, crowded the Sixers in the paint, and were more active on the perimeter, picking up 12 steals. Some of that improved offensive rhythm was a product of what has been the No. 1-ranked defense in the postseason.
So after Game 5, there was no “Kyle Lowry struggles to score in the playoffs” narrative. There was no wondering if the Sixers were just too big for VanVleet or if Gasol needed to be more aggressive. There was just a return to what the Raptors had been for most of this season, which is a lot more than a one-man show.
“We’re a team,” Siakam said. “All year, that’s what we’ve done. Even times when Kawhi didn’t play, we always came together.
“Kawhi’s an amazing player. And when there’s nights where he’s going the way he’s going, and he’s scoring 40, and shooting fadeaways, and making all those shots, it’s kind of amazing to see. But at the same time, we know we’re a team, and we always have each other’s back. And at the end of the day, we have to keep playing.”
One more win and they’ll keep playing into the conference finals.
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