Mention of that impressive record saw Nurse acknowledge that the forward appears to move to another level against other contenders as Toronto improved to 21-5 at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“For him, I think it’s interest level. Like all of us, there’s bigger games than others,” Nurse told a news conference of Leonard. “He’s an immense talent. He really is.
“When the stakes go up a little bit, he’s going to play his hand a little harder. I think the juice gets flowing and gets him a little bouncier with the three-ball and a little quicker with the ball in transition.”
However, Leonard insists he approaches every game the same.
“I don’t look at it that way. I try to perform every night,” he said. “If you try to turn it on versus the good teams, it’s very hard to do that.
“You’ve got to do it on a nightly basis, whoever you’re guarding, whoever you’re playing. This [the Sixers] could be a playoff team that we’re going to be playing in the future, but I don’t really see it that way. I just try to go out and play.
“I pride myself on going out there, trying to win games and playing hard every night. That’s what I try to be consistent at. I try to be a leader for my team-mates and set an example.”
A few years ago, Lowry was voted by NBA general managers as one of the smartest players in the NBA. It’s on display every night as he calls out opposing defences, makes plays out of nothing and never misses an angle on either end of the court.
Most teams would kill to have an elite player step in and take charges twice on Philadelphia 76ers giant Joel Embiid as Lowry did in Toronto’s 113-102 win at Scotiabank Arena Wednesday night – providing they don’t get themselves killed.
Lowry has the will and the knack and the Raptors are lucky to have him even on one of his poorest statistical nights of the season as he finished with seven points and four assists and four turnovers on 1-of-7 shooting.
I’ve had people who have been around the NBA for years tell me he might be one of the five smartest people in the league at any level – from owners to trainers. Teammates swear by him as a source of sound counsel on everything from contracts to real estate.
All of which is to say Lowry likely knew what he was doing when he sat down for an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on The Jump as part of the U.S. sports media giant’s ‘Toronto All-Access’ where they enveloped the Raptors in their multi-platform bosom for 24 hours of love.
“It never gets old,” Raptors guard Danny Green said, “when somebody can make the game easier for you.”
Leonard doesn’t just make the game look easy for his teammates; he makes it look easy — period. There is no better example than when, midway through the fourth quarter, Sixers guard Ben Simmons caught the ball at the high post. As he did, one of the NBA’s best passers noticed out of the corner of his eye that Jimmy Butler was seemingly wide open on the wing, waiting to catch the ball for a 3-pointer.
When Simmons tried to slip the ball out to Butler, Leonard was there, getting his enormous right hand on the ball, deflecting it away and controlling it all at once. Then, as the ball bounced back up off the floor, he tapped it over to a streaking Pascal Siakam, who raced down the middle of the lane and slammed the ball through the hoop.
“That’s crazy,” Siakam said later when asked about the play, accompanied by both a smile and a shake of his head. “That’s crazy … that’s something you can’t explain.
“That’s just him. I don’t think anybody else can do that.”
Toronto entered Wednesday with the best record in the East (and the best record in the NBA overall). But the Sixers were on the rise, going 8-2 with Butler in the lineup. Philly may not have had the same fast start as Milwaukee or Toronto, but with the addition of Butler, suddenly they were one star up on the Raps (Leonard and Kyle Lowry) and two on the Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo).
Keeping count of elite players is pointless if one of them is Leonard, who, when healthy, has been nothing short of a top-five player in recent years. The former Spur has been great already this season—coming into the night, he was averaging 25.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, and three assists. But it still seemed like he wasn’t at full speed. He’s missed six games this season and has yet to play in both ends of a back-to-back as the Raps play it safe with his troublesome hamstring.
But Leonard has shown more signs of being that top-five player of late; on Wednesday, he came alive. Kawhi arguably played his best game since joining Toronto, finishing with 36 points in 35 minutes on 24 shots, along with nine boards, five steals, a block, and an assist.
Embiid, an MVP frontrunner and walking double-double, shot just 5-17 from the floor en route to 10 points and 12 rebounds and was a game-worst minus-23 in his 36 minutes of action. Simmons scored eight points, and although he managed 10 rebounds and 11 dimes, he also turned the ball over seven times — bringing his total to 18 turnovers in two games against the Raptors this season.
Those two — the faces of “The Process” — remain the two critical pieces for Philadelphia’s future and its present, which, Wednesday’s loss aside, hasn’t looked this promising since Allen Iverson donned a 76ers jersey.
The NBA hasn’t felt this unpredictable in years — especially in the East, where LeBron James ruled to the tune of eight consecutive Finals appearances.
With James in Los Angeles on a young team building for the (very near) future, Boston failing to come out of the gates as expected, the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors looking as vulnerable as ever — soon to be tasked with incorporating DeMarcus Cousins into the lineup — and the Houston Rockets falling off the face of the Earth through the first quarter of the season, the window to contend is more open than ever before.
But it can just as quickly be shut again, which puts some urgency into this season for teams like the Raptors and 76ers.
“Normally we’d throw Kawhi on Butler like we did when he was playing for Minnesota,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of how his team was looking to guard the 76ers’ two stars before the game. “Now we’ve gotta pick and choose.”
As it turns out, Nurse chose Simmons.
Though he alluded to a more balanced approach for slowing down the 76ers point guard, it was a steady dose of Leonard guarding Simmons once again that is likely to give the latter Leonard-inspired nightmares after another poor performance in Toronto. Simmons finished with only eight points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and seven turnovers in yet another loss to the Raptors, 113-102, Wednesday night.
Butler, on the other hand, was feasting.
With mostly Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby guarding him throughout the evening, Butler went off for 38 points on 15-of-27 shooting, including a 4-for-7 mark from deep to go along with 10 boards.
Therefore, it’s a good thing Leonard was every bit as good offensively as Butler, finishing with a monstrous line of his own in scoring 36 points on 13-for-24 shooting, including a scorching 5-for-6 from behind the arc while stuffing the rest of the stat sheet with nine rebounds, five steals and a blocked shot.
The Raptors roared past Philly 129-112 on Oct. 30 in Toronto, but less than two weeks later the Sixers upped the ante, acquiring Butler from Minnesota in a deal that drastically altered the Eastern Conference landscape.
Different team perhaps, but it was the same result for the Raptors, who beat Philly for the 13th consecutive time at home.
“It’s hard, I’m trying to figure it out, and my place too on the floor,” Embiid said on the difference between the two games. “I have got to do a better job, it’s on me.”
The Sixers led for most of the first half, largely because of the Raptors’ horrible 3-for-12 shooting from three-point range.
They finally found some energy in the third quarter and took a 78-77 lead into the fourth. A 9-0 run by the Raptors’ bench put Toronto up by nine points over its Eastern Conference rival, and when Valanciunas took a short pass from C.J. Miles and threw down a huge dunk, it put the Raptors up by 11 with 7:53 to play.
“It was our second unit,” Leonard said. “They made stops, got rebounds, went on the offensive end and made shots. They did a great job of doing that.”
The Raptors beat the Sixers 28-12 on fast break points, and their bench outscored Philadelphia’s 41-18.
Jimmy is starting to look very comfortable out there with his new teammates as he seems like he is getting along with the guys on and off the court. Butler was on fire tonight, shooting 55 percent from the field, and scoring at ease when the team needed it. He also was looking to get his teammates involved, also telling T.J. Mconnell and Landry Shamet to shoot the ball when open.
We are seeing a whole different player and teammate in his time in Philadelphia so far. It seems like he cares about the other players on the team, which as everyone saw in Minnesota that seemed like the total opposite.
The story for the majority of the game was the duel between Kawhi Leonard and the Sixers’ Jimmy Butler. In their first meeting this season (with Butler was in Minnesota), Kawhi definitely owned the matchup. This time out, with Butler mostly seeing other Raptors defenders, we can call it something closer to a draw. Butler had 38 points on 15-of-27 shooting, to go with ten rebounds; Leonard meanwhile had 36 points on 13-of-24 shooting and nine rebounds, to go with five steals (and no fouls). Unfortunately for Butler, Kawhi once again totally annihilated Ben Simmons — the Sixers star almost had a quiet near-triple-double with eight points, ten rebounds, and 11 assists, but took a mere four shots and contributed seven of the Sixers’ 21 turnovers.
“He certainly gives them one of the elite wing defenders in the league … when you don’t have one of those, you run into some really good teams and you have a hard time defending them.”
On Wednesday Butler spent time guarding Kawhi Leonard, but also showed his versatility in spending some time on point guard Kyle Lowry. Butler’s combination of strength and foot speed allows him to defend most positions.
Butler’s also a problem on offence (he had a Sixers-high 16 points at the half on 5-for-10 shooting) and Philadelphia already employs a number of tough players to stop, like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and JJ Redick.
So now Nurse has to think about who guards who, instead of just throwing Leonard on Simmons, who he shut down early in the season, all of the time.
“I understand what happened with DeMar,” Ujiri said. “There are two things in this business that are tough. … When a player leaves — and Kawhi [Leonard] left. And then, when a player gets traded. Those two things are tough. And in our position, we have to do them, and we have to deal with them.
“And in a trade, it’s tough to communicate with players in that manner. We have to communicate with agents and can’t go and say, ‘Oh, you’re going to get traded.'”
Lowry has adjusted to the trade well. His average of 10.3 assists is more than four per game better than his career average and nearly three better than his career-best season.
But his loyalty to DeRozan remains steadfast, and his remarks in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on how he views his relationship with Ujiri left a wide berth for interpretation.
“Ah, he’s the president of basketball operations. And that’s it,” Lowry said. “I mean, I come here and I do my job. … He does his job, I do my job. Right? That’s what you do.”
Five months after the trade that brought Leonard to the Raptors, it would appear to be a smart move, with the Raptors atop the NBA with a 20-5 record entering Wednesday.
And Ujiri said that was what the deal was all about.
“We thought, ‘We have to change. We have to be better,'” Ujiri said, referring to the Raptors’ perennial ouster from the playoffs. “We have to be better; we have to win. The game is all about winning and treating people the right way. And honestly … god bless DeMar. What I did wrong was trade him. Yes, that’s what I did wrong if it’s wrong. You know, like, we traded players, but nothing else I did; there’s nothing else.”
Getting and remaining on the NBA’s good list requires bold risk at precarious moments. That’s ultimately how organizations legitimize themselves, particularly those without the advantages held by teams like the Lakers. The Celtics traded away a championship core and consigned themselves to a rebuild with future assets but no guarantee of success. The failure of the Hawks to do so with their 60-win team in 2014-15 has delayed their quest to land on the good list. The 51-win Warriors in 2013-14 fired a head coach held in esteem by their best players in favor of one who’d never coached an NBA game. It was one of many moves that bought Golden State a generation on the good list.
The Raptors made a similarly bold move this past summer by dealing a package highlighted by DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Ujiri broke up a 59-win team that couldn’t overcome LeBron (in an offseason when that problem went to the Western Conference), shopped the face of the franchise out of town for only one guaranteed season with an elite player — and one who played in only nine games last season, expressed zero interest in playing for Toronto and is as inscrutable as any top-10 player in the league with regard to his long-term intentions.
Risk aversion has long been a defining feature of front-office strategy in the NBA. Unconventional decisions that come with great uncertainty of outcome often prompt grumbles of “this better work” from ownership and fans alike. So far, Toronto’s gamble has reaped benefits. The 20-5 Raptors have enjoyed a seamless transition with their new superstar and their new coach, Nick Nurse. Nurse has doubled down on the fluidity injected into the offense by Casey last season. The product couldn’t be more appealing, as exhibited with flow and style in the first half of the Raptors’ win over Golden State on Thursday.
The Raptors are pacing Leonard, sitting him for one of two games of any back-to-back. This is more than just a precautionary measure made in consultation with Leonard; it’s a collective acknowledgement that the Raptors are playing for May and June. Healthy habits will be developed over the course of the season, young players — from whom much will be demanded in the playoffs — will build confidence, and sure, the No. 1 seed carries an advantage in the spring. But Leonard at 100 percent the second weekend in April is the primary objective.
For good reason, too: If risk yields reward and the Raptors win the conference title that has eluded them despite consistent regular-season success, the probability of Leonard’s return to Toronto increases dramatically. But for all the sound acquisitions, the willingness to do well by Lowry and DeRozan at contract time, the stable culture, the savvy management, the roster depth, the well-oiled coaching operation and the increasing Toronto-philia, Leonard is the ultimate test of whether the Raptors can firmly cement a spot on the NBA’s good list.
Admission into that club doesn’t inoculate a franchise from headaches. But those challenges for Toronto can be confronted with a confidence that says to the league, “This is where you want to work.”