Kawhi Leonard is the phantom limb of the 2019-20 Toronto Raptors, that missing part that somehow, some way, still seems very much present and accounted for.
He’s gone, of course, becoming the only Finals MVP to leave his team for another immediately after winning the award. The Clippers signed him in free agency to team with Paul George for what they think will be their best chance ever to reach The Finals and win an NBA championship.
The Raptors did just that with Leonard last year and believe they can do it again without him.
The most generous interpretation of where Toronto is now, without Leonard, goes like this: Having one of the league’s elite two-way players for even one season helped mold the Raptors into the steely contender they are. Leonard, a notorious man of few words publicly, left a far greater impression on the teammates and coaches he eventually left behind last July.
“Listen, Kawhi was a great pro in a lot of facets,” said coach Nick Nurse, whose team can clinch the Atlantic Division title tonight with a victory over East rival Boston (TNT, 9 p.m. ET). “I think he understood the workday, he took care of his body, he did everything he needed to do skill-wise, he was locked in as a teammate and a coachable guy.
“I was always super impressed with his eye contact. (He) seemingly was always there, in every meeting, film session, timeout, halftime, you know, he was nodding along with what you were saying. And that for a youngish coach is good, right, it helps you.”
The players picked up on that and more.
“His demeanor, his defensive mindset, jeez, what else?” Nurse said. “A lot of things, the way he handled the ups and downs, he didn’t show much emotion. I think there’s a lot there to learn from, and hopefully sticks with some of our younger guys.”
Learning in the presence of greatness can be a wonderful thing, as the Raptors showed in snagging the Larry O’Brien Trophy and putting past playoff disappointments behind them. There’s no denying Leonard’s impact, and it lingers in the likes of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby.
But much of the learning was going on in real time last year — Toronto went 17-5 in games their All-Star wing didn’t play, mostly due to his “load management” nights off — and it has proven to be awfully sticky in this extended season.
A case can be made that Toronto is better post-Leonard than it was with him. Including their 3-0 start in Orlando, the Raptors have won seven straight dating back to March and are 24-4 since mid-January. At 49-18, they’re locked into second place in the East, waiting for the Nets and the Magic to sort out the bottom of the bracket for their first-round matchup.
Offensively, Toronto has dipped by some measures, from fifth in offensive rating (112.6) in 2018-19 to 12th (111.0). But remember, they lost 26.6 points per game when Leonard headed West, and another 10.3 when Danny Green took his “3-and-D” to the Lakers.
So far, though, the Raptors have shouldered the shortfall by committee. Kyle Lowry, Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell have upped their involvement by a combined 26.2 points and 19.5 shots, spreading around Leonard’s 18.8 per game. Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and rookie Terence Davis, with 12.1 additional points between them, have more than covered Green’s share.
Lowry and Siakam are doing what stars are supposed to do: stepping into any void they can. Powell is back on track to the promise he showed in the 2017 postseason, a key to the second unit and a legit Most Improved Player candidate if the ballots went deeper than three.
But VanVleet has made the biggest strides overall, and not just in scoring (plus-6.9 points from a year ago). His minutes and usage are both up, with the ball and the decision-making in his hands more. Undrafted in 2016 out of Wichita State, you only have to go three deep with that draft class before you start second-guessing players (Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn) considered more NBA-worthy than the native of Rockford, Ill.
“It’s deceiving because you’re kind of seeing him bring the ball up the floor, running up the floor or whatever, and you think, ‘Well, he’s not that athletic or fast or quick or anything,’” Nurse said recently. “But his side-to-side athleticism is outstanding. That’s why he can get into the ball, and he can kind of uses his torso to stay in front of people and that kind of stuff. He’s just got great IQ. He anticipates. He’s a step ahead sometimes.”
It’s inevitable that VanVleet’s defense would get discussed, because that’s pretty much Topic A for every member of this season’s Toronto team. If there’s one area really lingering from Leonard’s 106-game stay, it’s that side of the ball. The Raptors have been so committed, so tenacious, the whole league might want to start spelling it “defence.”
“It’s a matter of will,” Gasol said. “It’s a matter of continuous effort. It’s not one effort that’s going to stop the play. It’s not two, it’s not three. We’ll continue to make efforts and make it as tough as possible for the other team and continuing possessions with rebounding.
“And I think, in our locker room, if you don’t have the will or the discipline to play defense, it is going to be really hard for you to see the floor, and that gives the coaches a lot of credit, right?”
The Raptors rank second in defensive rating (104.5), behind only Milwaukee’s 102.1. But they’re more aggressive out to the 3-point line than the Bucks, who pack the paint and essentially dare opponents to hit their 3s. Milwaukee gives up the most 3-point attempts in the league and ranks 17th in defensive percentage (.356) on 3s. The Raptors give up the second-most but are the best (.334) at forcing misses.
But wait, there’s more: They rank second in defensive field-goal percentage, up from fifth last season; second in steals and turnovers forced, up from ninth and 10th, respectively; and first in shots and points allowed, up from 16th and ninth, respectively.
“Before a pass is ever made,” Nurse said, “you’ve got to have some desire, you have to have some readiness, you got to have some anticipation, you’ve got to have some IQ. We’ve got a bunch of guys that are locked in on that. They pay attention to the game plans, they’re basketball guys, they watch the other teams, they study them, they like stopping them. It’s kind of an interesting thing that they’ve got going.”
It’s a pride thing now, with peer pressure and expectations taking over beyond any coach’s pleas.
“What is your character like?” VanVleet explained. “Do you have defensive-minded guys? Do you have guys who are [ticked] off when they get scored on? That’s kind of the beginning of it, and then it gets to the point once you’ve got enough of that, you look bad when you don’t play defense. Like you stick out like a sore thumb.
“So when guys are watching the game you can tell when a guy’s not on the same page as everybody else. It looks bad and guys feel that, and you don’t want to be that guy ever on the court.”
That’s championship-level thinking, a level the Raptors reached with Leonard and have built on ever since. Now they are poised to become the first NBA champion to lose its Finals MVP and still repeat.
“It’s great bar talk,” Gasol said of the Raptors’ lofty ambitions. “We are not easy to beat, and we believe in ourselves. You go out there and you compete, and you can beat anybody. It doesn’t take a genius to know we have a lot of pieces and so I don’t need somebody to tell me we can win it.”
(Pssst. They can, though.)
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