Sloppy Raptors beat Atlanta Hawks because Kawhi

It seemed early that Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard viewed this game in just the same way as every Raptors’ fan on the couch: finally, a chance to build some chemistry. Even before the game started, the team tried to connect the two, as they were introduced back-to-back for the first time this year. It was clear that the two would look to involve the other. They haven’t played in the same Raptors’ game since December 2, and they haven’t been on the same page for longer than that.

For the majority of the Raptors’ season, it has seemed as though Toronto is two different teams depending on whether Lowry or Leonard is in the driver’s seat. With Lowry, the Raptors run a lot of high pick-and-rolls, ping the ball around the court, and hunt wide-open shots. When Leonard has the ball, the Raptors grind into isolation and post-up mode. It speaks to Leonard’s virtually unmatched ability with the ball that the Raptors are almost equally as successful playing both ways.

Against Atlanta, it was clear that Leonard would actively try to get with the program and adapt his game to suit the rest of the team’s preferred style. Leonard threw two Lowryian outlet passes in just the first quarter, one to Lowry himself. On one ill-fated possession in the first quarter, Lowry and Leonard passed the ball back and forth, back and forth, until the shot clock ran out. They were trying hard to work together, but they just weren’t playing winning basketball. Passivity doesn’t look good on either of them.

When Leonard did choose to attack on zero-pass possessions, it was basically the only time that the Raptors’ offence found success. Early on, the Raptors were only keeping their heads above water because of Leonard’s drives and midrange pullups;  they could have easily pulled away if they reverted to isolation ball. The Raptors chose to force chemistry, and they paid the price when it didn’t work.

For the majority of the game, the Raptors weren’t taking the Hawks seriously on the defensive end. For every possession during which they played stellar defence and forced impossible shots, the Raptors coasted through three during which they refused to rotate and close out on open corner shooters. The Hawks made seven triples in the first half, four of them from the corners.

The Raptors gave up innumerable offensive rebounds, many of which were because the Raptors simply refused to block anyone out. Eight of the Hawk’s 13 offensive rebounds took place in the first half. John Collins and Dwayne Dedmon threw down at least three alley-oops between them because Toronto’s pick-and-roll defence was complacent and passive. When Hawks’ dribblers blew past loose Toronto perimeter defence, there was little help at the rim beyond a few instances of exceptional Ibaka blocks.

Basically, there were problems.

Leonard still provided some bright spots. He and Lowry combined for three triples that were assisted by the other (and six triples total). One unselfish play saw Leonard dish the ball in transition to a wide-open OG Anunoby, who drove for a two-handed slam. Leonard finished with six assists, which tied Lowry for the team-high. When Leonard touched the ball, good things happened. However, when Leonard didn’t touch the ball on offensive possessions, it felt like the automatic result was a turnover or forced shot. Fred Van Vleet in particular hijacked a few possessions instead of finding the hot hand.

As in many of Toronto’s sloppier games – that still ended up in wins – it was a zone defence that breathed life back into Toronto. Midway through the third quarter, a zone flummoxed Atlanta’s offence. The corresponding Hawks’ turnovers allowed Leonard and Lowry to begin to take over the game, as each hit triples to help Toronto fight back into the game.

When Leonard began to score in the post and distribute for others – even dishing to a cutting Siakam for a wide-open dunk – the Raptors finally took their biggest lead since the first quarter. However, they still couldn’t put the Hawks away.

Even after the Raptors extended their lead in the final quarter behind a Siakam spin move and multiple Anunoby steals creating easy offence the other way, the Hawks continued to claw back. More easy layups in the half-court and open court for the Hawks kept the Raptors from pulling away, as Jeremy Lin and Trae Young devoured the lax defence.

When the Raptors realized that they couldn’t win if the Hawks scored on every possession, it was fortunately defence that won the game. Anunoby dug in and played several possessions brilliantly on the defensive end. He’s stronger than he appears. In general, he had a stellar game, finishing with two made triples and 14 points on only six shots. He was overshadowed.

Leonard’s fourth quarter was masterful on both ends, collecting steals in bunches. He read opponents’ passes so well that it seemed like they were meant for him. On offence, he hit a variety of midrange pull-ups, drove for layups, and even created for others out of the post.

It was an ugly game for Toronto, and it shouldn’t have been close, but Leonard won it. He finished the game with 31 points (on 18 shots), 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 6 steals, 1 block, and only 1 turnover. He finished a +10 in a 3-point win. (That Lowry finished a -4 speaks to the fact that he and Leonard weren’t on the same page).

It was fittingly Leonard’s defence that sealed the game for the Raptors. He simply took the ball from a Hapless Hawk handler, and in the ensuing chaos, the Raptors passed Ibaka into an uncontested dunk. Leonard followed up the play by blocking a Trae Young layup with only seconds left on the clock.

Vince Carter almost made a half-court heave to tie the game at the buzzer in what may well end up as his final game played in Toronto. I’ve never found myself hoping for Carter to make a shot against the Raptors until this game. His return added plenty of fun to what was otherwise a difficult-to-watch game.

The Raptors didn’t accomplish their obvious goal of getting Leonard and Lowry on the same page. They shot a poor 10-for-32 from deep, and they played horrific defence for the majority of the game. They still won. Leonard is too good for anything else to have happened.

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