Vocal: Leonard picked up his first technical in 422 career games after Tony Brothers missed an obvious call where Justise Winslow hacked Leonard across the arms as he went up for a layup. Leonard then took the podium after the game and rightfully defended himself from Gregg Popovich’s out-of-nowhere criticism of his leadership.
5. The Raptors have emerged as the class of the Eastern Conference this season. Technically, based on regular-season records, the Raptors were also the best team in the East last year. But there’s a different feel around the organization this season, with two-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard on the roster. And there’s also a different feel because LeBron James is not playing in the Eastern Conference anymore. James’ Cavaliers had eliminated the Raptors in the playoffs in each of the past three seasons.
Toronto owns the league’s best record at 17-4, and has now won five straight.
“They’re playing with a lot of confidence, you can tell,” Wade said of the Raptors. “It’s obviously led by Kawhi, unbelievable player on both ends of the floor. But they got a lot of guys around him that make them special, makes them a really good, deep team. Kyle Lowry, he does all the little things that everyone doesn’t always see. Then the role players are playing their roles to a tee. That’s why this team is so good. Definitely a tough team to beat at home with the confidence they play with, the speed they play with.”
Wade not only scored the most points by a reserve this NBA season but he also broke the franchise record for points off the bench. Fox Sports Sun also noted it was his 219th game with 30 points or more as a Heat player. His stroke was effortless from 3-point range, where he went 4-7, in a highly efficient night in which he went 13-22 overall from the field. He scored from just about everywhere from the field and it was a vintage performance to remember in the Heat legend’s final season.
Miami also wouldn’t have had a chance in this game if it wasn’t for the herculean effort that second-year big man Bam Adebayo gave tonight, with a career-high 21 rebounds as well as 16 points in another game in which Hassan Whiteside (two points, five rebounds in 12 minutes) watched the fourth quarter from the bench.
Toronto improved their NBA-best record to 17-4 with contributions from all of their key players, led by superstar Kawhi Leonard. Miami somehow went the entire first half without committing a turnover, their first time ever in franchise history, but it didn’t make a difference as the far superior team had their way with the Heat’s defense and were up 63-54 by halftime.
Two big runs when play resumed boosted the lead to 26 points but Erik Spoelstra found a tight rotation that worked with reserves Wade, Adebayo, Kelly Olynyk and Justise Winslow putting in valuable minutes and helping to cut the lead significantly by the end of the quarter.
A Wade 3-pointer cut the lead down to eight points in the fourth quarter twice, but Fred VanVleet responded both times with baskets of his own and the Raptors iced the game with a 7-0 run in 90 seconds.
The Raptors led by as many as 26 points, and the Heat made a second-half push to pull within eight with 6:43 to play. But that’s the closet Miami got.
There’s not much that goes right in a 10-point loss, but there were a few things that went right for the Heat on Sunday.
No. 1 was Dwyane Wade. The 36-year-old turned in his best performance of the season, finishing with a season-high 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting from the field and 4-of-7 shooting from three-point range. It marked the most points scored by a Heat bench player in a single game in franchise history.
Wade led a Heat bench that combined for 71 points. Reserve big man Bam Adebayo contributed to those numbers with 16 points and a career-high 21 rebounds.
No. 2 Miami, which entered averaging the fourth-most turnovers in the league at 16.4 per game, finished with a season-low seven turnovers. The Heat played a turnover-free first half, marking the first time in franchise history that Miami has finished with zero turnovers in a single half.
But all of that wasn’t enough to overcome the Raptors’ dominance. Toronto had very little trouble against Miami’s defense, scoring 125 on 52.2 percent shooting.
Kawhi Leonard played his usual role of leading man for the Raptors, finishing with 29 points and 10 rebounds..
Without guards Goran Dragic (right knee), Tyler Johnson (strained right hamstring) and Dion Waiters (left ankle surgery), the Heat struggled to find efficient offense. Miami shot 41.1 percent from the field.
On both team’s performances, Raptors coach Nick Nurse tipped his cap to the effort of the Heat, while also acknowledging his team’s apparent struggle with putting games away — while admitting he’s not “super worried about it” just yet. “[The Heat have] got some shot-makers and they’re going to play hard all the time,” said Nurse. “And I don’t know, it seems like Groundhog Day for us. We get up and then let it get back inside 10 and starting playing again. It seems like that’s who we are right now.”
Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ emotive leader, didn’t score much tonight, but once again dictated tempo and made sure everyone got a chance to do their thing. Lowry would finish with 12 points and ten assists, and was certainly not about to let things get out of hand. Look no further than Jonas Valanciunas’ production, at a solid 17 points and ten boards in just 24 minutes, with a few Lowry-led alley-oops, to see just one example of what Kyle does to settle the Raptors. For their parts, Wright and VanVleet did indeed have their moments too — the former got to bomb a couple 3s on his idol Wade, and the latter got to express his whole game — a three, a tough finish at the rim, stout defense — to help secure the victory.
The Heat got production from their usual sources — Josh Richardson had 19 points and five rebounds, Bam Adebayo went off for a monster 16-and-21 — but the story was the ageless (and annoying) wonder Wade. The Heat’s long-time leader had a truly vintage performance, and seemed to make every big play for Miami. In his way, Wade’s confidence is infectious, imbuing the Heat with their tough-minded attitude. You’d have to admire it, if it wasn’t so tiresome to watch when it happens against these Raptors.
“It was awesome, man,” said Lowry of Wade’s game. “He’s a Hall of Famer, future Hall of Famer rather, one of the greatest competitors out there. Champion. So it was honour for me to still be able to play against him for one last season for him.”
Still, try as Wade and the Heat might, the Raptors remain the better team. By the time Lowry was bombing in a three from the mid-court logo, or Kawhi was stripping Wade’s latest offensive effort literally right out of his hands, or Siakam was flying down the lane for yet another layup, Miami just did not have the talent to punch back. They can hang around all they like, but the fact remains: an NBA game eventually ends.
Chalk this one up as another W for the now 17-4 Raptors. They were tested by the Heat, and passed with flying colours.
Delon Wright, who was already a huge fan of Wade’s before his older brother Dorell joined the Heat and became both Wade’s teammate and best friend, was Wade’s primary defender on a few of his season-high 35 points.
“This is probably the first time really since I played some with him in the summer that we (went at each other),” Wright admitted. “It was good though. It kind of brings the competitiveness out in you when someone is coming at you.”
Wade went right at Wright on his first two possessions scoring on one and then after his initial shot on the second missed, picking up his own rebound and scoring again.
Wright got some payback with a pair of threes with Wade in coverage so it wasn’t totally one-sided.
Kawhi Leonard led all Raptors scorers with 29 points and picked up the first regular season technical of his career.
Leonard said a series of hard fouls that went uncalled against him and eventually led to him getting what he termed a “definitely” earned technical.
“It was just kind of getting out of hand with some of the calls out there,” Leonard said. “You work so hard in this game to try and win a game or score the basketball and when you don’t get your calls, it’s very difficult when someone blatantly fouls you.”
A good leader, you say? Why, the timing of that completely unprompted remark must have been purely coincidental from Nurse and the Raptors.
“Obviously he’s got a little bit of a reserved personality,” Nurse said. “He is a little bit more gregarious than everybody thinks. He’s pretty funny and the guys really enjoy him, I really enjoy talking to him, et cetera. He’s got a good personality. He just did a few little things in training camp as far as getting some guys to go to the gym with him early, he opened up one of his shooting times pre-game to let another guy that didn’t feel he was getting enough time come shoot with me. Just some little, I think, neat things that say a lot about a guy. He does it quietly, but they’re leadership things to me.”
Even Leonard got in on the barbs, at least if you were reading between the lines.
“I heard about it,” Leonard said of Popovich’s comment, adding that he very much tries to lead by action, although he is not above pointing things out on the floor verbally in real time. “It’s just funny to me because I don’t know if he’s talking about last year or not, but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead. Other than that, it doesn’t matter. I’m here with the Raptors.”
For those who wanted the Leonard/Spurs side of the summertime trade to reach the soap operatic levels that the DeMar DeRozan/Raptors side reached early on, this is at least the semblance of a start. The Raptors visit San Antonio on Jan. 3. Should be fun.
However, a key part of Popovich’s statement was when he said Leonard’s leadership skills might start to grow “as he progresses.” The Spurs were the only organization Leonard ever knew for his first seven seasons, and they just happen to be the most structured organization in the entire league. Popovich is the dean of coaches, Tim Duncan had three championships and two MVP awards, and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker had been with the club since the early 2000s. Add the fact that Leonard is understated by nature, and Leonard appeared to be in the perfect situation to let his actions do the talking and follow the leader(s) instead of being one.
“Maybe it’s just him coming into his own, being more mature, being the player he is, being a leader,” said Danny Green, a teammate of Leonard’s for the star’s entire career. “He’s learning the game and a system, and also maybe it’s just being in a new system, actually trying to be a (veteran) here to teach these younger guys, because over there we were the younger guys. There are different roles, different situations. It’s about timing.
“A big part of (leadership) now is speaking up, being vocal,” Green continued. “Obviously he was younger then. He was still coming into his own, figuring out who he was. He’s definitely a lot more vocal now (than he was two years ago) and speaks up, speaks his mind and says his opinion on things. He tells guys what they need to do and where they need to be and (we) kind of follow his lead on a lot of things.”
“He’s, surprisingly, a good leader,” Nurse said. “I’ve seen some great leadership traits from him.”
The statement was purposeful. About 24 hours earlier, San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich was holding his own pre-game availability, and was asked about Patty Mills, the Australian guard currently playing his 10th season in the league, and his eighth with the Spurs. How has Mills grown as a leader? How important has that been after the offseason departures of long-time Spurs like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Leonard?
“Well, I mean, Kawhi was a great player. But he wasn’t a leader or anything,” Popovich said. “Kawhi’s talent will always be missed. But leadership wasn’t his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses. But Patty and Manu filled that role for us last year, and LaMarcus [Aldrige] came a long way in that regard, also.”
It was a curious comment. Popovich was being asked about Mills’ leadership, not Leonard’s. And yet, instead of focusing on the former, he went out of his way to scrutinize the latter.
In turn, Nurse was being asked about Leonard in general — not about his leadership specifically. But he went out of his way to bring it up. Just a few months into their still-growing relationship, Nurse made a point of standing up for his guy.
And he expanded on it, too. Nurse says he started appreciating Leonard’s leadership qualities during training camp. That he enjoyed seeing a different, more personable side of the cold, calculated player he’d watched from afar.
It was the little things. Encouraging others to get to the gym early. Offering to share his pre-game shooting time with teammates who wanted extra work. Keeping things light in the locker room.
“Obviously, he’s got a little bit of a reserved personality. But he’s a little bit more gregarious than everybody thinks. He’s pretty funny and the guys really enjoy him — I really enjoy talking to him,” Nurse said. “He does some little, neat things that I think say a lot about a guy. He does it quietly — but they’re leadership things to me.”
Toronto has made it look easy, for the most part. They have only been man-handled once and that was on the road on the second half of a back-to-back against Milwaukee — one of seven games Leonard has sat out due to ‘load management’ or injury.
Their record could be something really gaudy had they not blown a 19-point lead at home against Detroit, or failed to shut the door on the road against Boston. In other words, these Raptors are a few possessions away from being 19-2. With so much good behind them, it’s hard not to get excited about what lies ahead:
“We’ve dropped a couple of games we should shot of dropped — that Detroit game was one we did not want to drop, the Boston game in overtime — it’s going to happen,” said Danny Green who knows first-hand what championship seasons look like. “No one is going to be perfect, no one goes 82-0, but we have a lot of potential. There’s a long way to go but there are a lot of good pieces here and but the biggest thing is — from our leaders and vets — we have to build some sustainable habits defensively that we can stick to and rely on where we can win games whether we’re shooting well or not.”
They showed why they can allow themselves to think big against the Heat. Most of the ingredients of their early-season success were in plain view against a Heat team missing Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters to injury. Only a super-human effort by the ageless to Dwyane Wade — who scores 35 points off the bench at age 36? — prevented a complete blowout.
The Raptors led by as much as 26 midway through the third quarter before Wade helped Miami cut the lead to eight early in the fourth to cap off a 35-17 run before Toronto pulled away again. A 32-foot three from the claw logo just over mid-court by Kyle Lowry with 4:54 left put Toronto back up 15 and the Heat were done.
But in terms of what they are, how comfortable everyone is, in that regard, the Raptors are probably a little behind the curve.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I think we have a talented team,” point guard Kyle Lowry said after Friday’s win over Washington. “I think our defense is where we can hang our hats, really. I still don’t know where we are, potential-wise, but we’re a defensive-minded team with some real offensive weapons.”
Head coach Nick Nurse has only had his full complement of players healthy for one game this season and that, more than anything, is what has most believing this team still has another gear.
Nurse himself sees things a little differently. He came into the year expecting to have to spend a considerable time getting Kawhi Leonard back up to speed after missing all but nine games a year ago in San Antonio.
Only Leonard showed up in training camp pretty much ready to go. The team has kept the kid gloves on him to this point sitting him out the second game of back-to-backs but that too could change in time.
“If I had to be honest, now that we are here looking back … I didn’t have any preconceived notions that we would be where we are with Kawhi at this point,” Nurse said Saturday. “That was my first thing. I thought it would be a more easing in thing. I didn’t know he would be this ready to play.”
Leonard has been everything and more than the Raptors could have hoped. Even with the organization sitting him out on the back end of back-to-backs Leonard has been a pivotal part of Toronto’s early success with his two-way play. He’s averaging just over 33 minutes a night while contributing 24.4 points 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
After the Raptors defeated the Miami Heat on Sunday, Leonard insisted his leadership takes different forms.
“I lead by example coming into practice every day. Just going hard and coming into these games mentally focused,” said Leonard. “You can’t see things once you’re playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup, or if I see something on the floor, I’m telling guys, ‘Go here, go there,’ just motivating people.
“I’m just trying to lift people’s spirits up, that’s about it. Don’t try to get anybody too down, just lift them up.”
Leonard appears to be back in top form as one of the NBA’s elite two-way stars. He is averaging a team-high 24.7 points a game on 47.5 percent shooting with 8.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals, while the Raptors have the league’s best record at 17-4.
Nurse begged to differ before Sunday’s date with the Heat, commenting on Leonard’s “surprising” leadership since he was acquired for DeMar DeRozan in July.
“He just did a few little things in training camp, as far as getting some guys to go to the gym with him early. He opened up one of his shooting times pre-game to let (in) another guy that didn’t feel he was getting enough time … Just some little, I think, neat things that say a lot about a guy,” Nurse said. “He does it quietly, but they’re leadership things to me.”
Leonard weighed in after leading the Raptors with 29 points in Sunday’s 125-115 win over the Heat. He said he had heard about Popovich’s comments, but hadn’t read them.
“It’s just funny to me because I don’t know if he’s talking about last year or not, but I guess when when you stop playing they forget how you lead,” he said. “Other than that, it doesn’t matter. I’m here with the Raptors and I’m going to focus on this season and not what’s going on on the other side.”
He added that he considers himself a player who leads by example.
“Coming into practice every day, just going hard,” he said. “Coming into these games mentally focused. You can’t see things once you’re playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup or if I see something on the floor. I’m telling guys, ‘Go here, go there.’ Just motivating people, you know what I mean? Just try to lift people’s spirits on the floor. That’s about it, don’t try to get nobody too down and just lift them up.”
Leonard wanted out of San Antonio, the relationship frayed after he missed all but nine games last season with a quadriceps injury. Danny Green, who arrived in the same trade, said last month that his longtime teammate has become more vocal north of the border.
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