Kawhi show helps Raptors survive Duranto

19 mins read

The Toronto Raptors won’t face many challenges tougher than this.

An MVP caliber player having an MVP game, raining shots from all over the court despite being well defended and doing it for what was certainly not the first time on Toronto’s home court.

Kevin Durant was sensational, putting up a second half performance for the ages including 18 points in the third quarter that included an unconscionable pull-up three from the logo that cut the Raptors lead to eight heading into the fourth quarter.

 

If that wasn’t enough, he hit back-to-back triples with under a minute remaining to send the game into overtime after Kyle Lowry appeared to seal the victory with a corner three that put the Raptors up six. All told, Kevin Durant finished with 51 points on just 31 shots, added 11 rebounds and six assists, and yet, it wasn’t enough.

It seems hard to imagine that the Raptors survived a haymaker like that, but of course, the difference now is that they have their own superstar worthy of the title fight. Kawhi Leonard was magnificent, scoring 37 points on 24 shots and added eight rebounds, three assists and stellar on-ball defense throughout. He brought out the entire repertoire in this one, leaving Durant, Klay Thompson or whoever else that guarded him helpless.

It was an old-fashioned duel between two of the league’s brightest stars, Durant the reigning and two-time Finals MVP going back and forth with Leonard, who most certainly reminded everyone watching on this night that he can and will do everything in his power to wrestle back that crown he once wore in 2014.

And you know everyone was watching. A TNT Thursday night with the Raptors on top of the league hosting the defending champions brought out the best in both teams, the home team coming away with the victory in an overtime classic, 131-128.

For all the talk pre-game that this was just another game, the way the Raptors came out to start suggested Kyle Lowry was merely playing dumb with the media when asked about the significance of the game before tip-off (shocker!). Should have seen it coming the second Nick Nurse walked out onto the court looking like this:

We saw him rock the red velvet against Dallas and you can most certainly add this to the win column in the wardrobe category.

The game began with, for all intents and purposes, an education on the weapons the Raptors possess this season — in case the Warriors hadn’t seen enough of it on film the last couple of days — and the biggest one being Leonard. It was evident right from the tip that the 27-year-old was determined to put on a clinic with all eyes squarely on him.

Toronto’s crowd sensed the moment, too, cheering briefly when Leonard received his first touch matched up against Durant. The fans didn’t necessarily get what they hoped for in that moment as Serge Ibaka stepped out to set a screen and create a mismatch. Despite Damion Jones doing well to force Leonard into a tough spot, Toronto’s No. 2 used a neat bit of footwork to create separation and drain the fadeaway.

 

You could get the feeling right then and there that he was up for this one. The Raptors also did well to free up Kawhi with their ball screens and secondary screens, something Nurse will likely do more of after experiencing success with it in consecutive games.

“We figured out last night in Memphis that ball screens was getting Kawhi open. The post-ups were tough, the isos were tough, but the high angle ball screens [were working],” Nurse said at shootaround.

The rest of the offense was clicking early, too. Lowry collected five assists during Toronto’s opening 32-14 salvo with his two favorite options Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka scoring with ease. Siakam was consistently ahead of the pack on leak-outs after good contests on the perimeter, while the Lowry-Ibaka pick-and-roll continues to bear all kinds of fruit.

 

After the Warriors’ timeout, though, they came out with a strong reminder of their championship grit, not laying down but instead forcing the Raptors into their own timeout with a 9-0 run of their own. The Raptors’ starters played almost the first nine minutes — Nurse likely looking to ride the hot hand and provide a struggling bench with as much of a cushion as possible — and the bench was able to play to a draw and maintain a 13-point lead heading into the second quarter. Durant did signal his intent towards the end of the quarter, though, scoring six of the final eight Warriors points.

“I just think I have to do what’s required at this point,” Durant said after the game when asked about needing to do more with the Warriors current state of injuries. “There’s going to be some games where we have a great team game going, where we can beat teams with the flow of our offense, from moving, moving our bodies and moving the ball. And, there’s going to be some games where I need to go get buckets and tonight we were down early, we were down big and I tried to be aggressive and go get a bucket.”

The Raptors opened the second quarter with a Kawhi-plus-bench lineup featuring Jonas Valanciunas, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet and that unit was able to push the lead back up to 16 before C.J. Miles checked in for Wright. Mr. PJs proved very quickly that if these two teams are to battle in June and the Raptors roster is healthy, he will not have a role to play. The saying goes that your position is the one you can defend, and there just won’t be anyone for Miles to guard in the Warriors playoff rotations assuming they have all their options available.

One of the things I debated coming into this season was how the minutes battle would shake out between Norman Powell and Miles. My thinking was that on nights where the Raptors are desperate for outside shooting and are able to hold their own on the other end of the floor, Miles would be the go-to, and Powell the option vice versa. Golden State, though, is a team against whom you better be able to defend first as any weakness will be picked apart. Assuming Powell is healthy for that game at Oracle Arena on Dec. 12, it will be interesting to see how things shake out there.

Another player for whom this game was a struggle was Jonas Valanciunas. He started the game well offensively, finishing with consistency at the rim matched up against Kevon Looney, but was taken to the cleaners on the glass. The biggest asset the Lithuanian provides on the defensive end is his ability to close out possessions with the board. Looney finished the game with six on the offensive end, a decent chunk matched up against Valanciunas, and when that wasn’t happening, Jonas Jerebko was stretching him out to the perimeter and making him look silly.

 

Now, on a night when Durant is playing the way he is, you’re probably more accepting of that as an end result, but 20 points on 13 shots for Jerebko is beyond the threshold.

Completing the hat trick of bad performances on the night was Fred VanVleet. After playing perhaps his best game against the Grizzlies, this was a significant step back. There were a couple of nice pick-and-rolls with Valanciunas, but the bulk of his execution in PnR settings was poor. It feels strange to say this about someone as intelligent as VanVleet, but he may also be someone who faces limited minutes in a potential playoff series against the Warriors. There is a distinct disadvantage for him going up against these Warriors due to his size, and Golden State caused enough of those problems for Lowry by putting Andre Iguodala on him later in the game. It’s hard to imagine him playing this poorly again, but the situations that caused difficulty for him aren’t going to change. He’s got a lot to figure out in these types of matchups, which, granted, there are few.

The third quarter started out as you might expect for the Raptors, the starters pushing the lead back up to 17 as Leonard continued to impress while Ibaka and Siakam fed off Lowry. Siakam’s shooting stroke looks much improved from last season, and the results are impressive thus far. He shot 3-for-4 from downtown to improve from 25 percent last season to 36.6 percent so far this season and was 7-for-8 at the free-throw line which puts him at 78.4 percent after converting on 69.4 percent of his attempts last season. It all added up to a career-high 26 points, although he’ll be disappointed to have only tallied two rebounds all night despite switching out onto the perimeter a ton.

Toronto opened the fourth quarter with Leonard on the floor while Golden State played without Durant, but the Warriors somehow won those minutes and cut the lead down to just three. The bench has been nowhere near good enough this season to which Nurse made some interesting comments at shootaround.

“I’ll take some onus on it, I’ve jumbled up that group a lot and I’ll continue to do it,” Nurse said. “They’ve got to find a better rhythm offensively and to me that means they’ve got to pass the ball a little bit more, they need to let the offense score instead of individually trying to score, and, forget all that, man, they aren’t creating enough out of their defense and they know it. They’ve got to buckle down here and with them more than anything we’ll get three of four guys playing and one guy breaking down or three guys playing and two guys not. The defense has to be a five-man together thing if it’s gonna be good.”

At least they’ve still got another 59 games to keep trying.

Danny Green deserves special mention too, hitting timely shots as always and playing good defense for the most part. We’ve seen him hit a game-winner, but his moment recognition to hit the shot that pushes a lead back up to five or six or cut a deficit in half is invaluable.

 

Frankly, and I don’t mean to be overly critical here, but Lowry needs to be a bit more aggressive in recognizing his own shot opportunities, an indication of how tiny the margins are against a team like the Warriors. He needs to understand the importance of his offense and not just making shots but taking them. He has the ability to bend defenses with his spacing, but his reluctance to shoot on a couple of occasions late was glaring. He seemed visibly upset after the game, too.

“Passed up a shot, shouldn’t have passed it up,” Lowry said. “Could’ve been over a little bit [earlier]. Learn from it and move on.”

Despite Miles’ lack of playing time, Lowry made special mention of the leadership the vet provided by encouraging Lowry to shoot the ball at the next timeout. Another one for next time. Full credit to him for coming out to start the overtime with plenty of energy (as much can be expected in overtime, anyway), and providing three assists in the frame to help seal the victory.

Ultimately, the difference was Leonard, a superstar tier player who was clearly psyched to play this game against the defending champs and those around him took notice as well.

“He seemed [to have] a little bit more pep in his step. A little bit more elevation on those pull-up jumpers. He had been short on some of those and kind of flat-footed, I thought,” Nick Nurse said after the game. “Right from the beginning, he looked like he had a little bit more juice going tonight … I still thought it was some rust, like I have said three or four times in here some of those 9-for-22’s are going to turn into 16-for-22’s it looks like, to me and I don’t know what his numbers were tonight but I felt like he had a better game.

“You know what, he [Leonard] should have had, like, six more assists, because he kicked a bunch of them out and we didn’t make a darn one of them in the second half. Danny made one. We were getting look after look after look and they were sending everybody at them and we didn’t make enough of them. But we will.”

The Raptors, now 19-4, have shown early and often they have everything it takes to go back and forth with the best of them. As the schedule beefs up big time over the course of the next three weeks, make or miss, they’ve got to keep taking their shots.

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