It’s no secret everything has to go through Leonard’s hands, given his unique ability to either create his own shot or force teams to send an extra defender that frees up a shooter.
The Raptors can’t afford to watch Leonard in those isolation sets, one of those basketball inevitabilities when a superstar is operating on offence and all eyes are focused on him.
When the Raptors were getting their hearts ripped by LeBron James, the King had the luxury of finding shooters on the perimeter who were more than capable of knocking down those looks.
Whether it’s playing off Leonard better and with greater confidence, or the star forward and Lowry finding that much-needed rhythm, there are issues the Raptors must iron out.
With a proven head coach such as Dwane Casey released and the face of a franchise in DeMar DeRozan sent packing, the Raptors have signaled that they are all-in this season — NBA Finals appearance or bust — so to speak.
After missing the last two contests with a sore hip, Miles put forth arguably his best performance of the season, finishing with 13 points on five-of-seven shooting from the floor and, most importantly, three-of-four from beyond the arc — albeit against one of the league’s worst defences.
“It felt good, you know?” said Miles after the win Thursday. “That’s the biggest thing. Just to go out there and play and trust in your work and trust in what you do everyday, everything else will take care of itself.”
Whether Miles is able to go out there every day and actually play though is a different story.
The veteran shooting guard has struggled through injuries and is battling for minutes, having recently lost his spot in Nick Nurse’s rotation to emerging fourth-year guard Norman Powell.
Dubbed “C.J. Kilometers” after his move north of the border, Miles has failed to find his rhythm in his second season with the Raptors. He’s averaging just 5.0 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.6 assists in only 14.3 minutes per game and, maybe most troubling of all, the 31-year-old is connecting on barely 31 per cent of his shots from the floor — the worst field-goal percentage of his 14-year NBA career.
Knowing what the Raptors’ shooters have accomplished in the past makes their struggles this season that much more infuriating.
But this year they’ve been middle of the pack from the corners, ranking just 19th in left corner threes and a more respectable 10th from the right corner. Overall, however, there’s no question they’ve been struggling. From everywhere else beyond the arc they’re 28th.
Danny Green is the only Raptor shooting above 40 per cent from beyond the arc, and a number of important long-range shooters are struggling mightily — after a scorching start, Kyle Lowry is now hitting just 31 per cent of his threes, Fred VanVleet is shooting 36 per cent (but it feels even lower), and, infamously, CJ Miles is at a career-worst 28 per cent.
While some fans are looking to the trade market to remedy the issue, it’s not nescessarily the only solution.
Did those players just become bad shooters, or can it be turned around? There aren’t a ton of realistic trade targets for the Raptors — Miami’s Wayne Ellington has been floated as one option — who, with precious few trade assets may be better off addressing things internally.
There have been signs of improvement as of late. Leonard is shooting 43 per cent from deep over his last five games as his game continues to return to form. Norman Powell can’t be relied upon as a three-point threat, but has shown flashes since returning from injury — including five games with two or more threes. OG Anunoby is shooting 40 per cent from deep since Christmas.
Last night in Boston, Marc Gasol had 11 rebounds on a smaller Celtics team. He had success dominating the boards where he had his chances. Gasol understood the team he was facing and put up double digits in the rebounds category.
For tonight, Gasol needs to have that same mindset against this Raptors team which is very similar to the Celtics. The Raptors, especially without Jonas Valencuianis, play very small with Serge Ibaka in their center role. If the Grizzlies can attack this, they can have success tonight. Even as they do not rebound the ball among the best in the league, it is mostly match-up dependent for success in the paint. This is another chance for Memphis to slow the game down and bring back the style of bully-ball.
This will include Jaren Jackson Jr. as well. As the more traditional low post scorer on the Grizzlies, Jackson will have to exploit his physicality to score on smaller defenders. You saw just last night the success he had scoring 23 points. 16 of those points came from two-point baskets. He really has a chance to succeed again tonight against Toronto, especially with those young legs not needing many days off.
The relative calm isn’t just a matter of James’s Lakers biding their time, as three East contenders all got their work done early. In July, the Toronto Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard, the best player in their franchise’s history. In November, the Philadelphia 76ers landed all-star wing Jimmy Butler, solidifying a big three with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Last month, the Milwaukee Bucks traded for veteran guard George Hill, fortifying their playoff rotation and dumping $18 million of future salary before core pieces Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez hit free agency this summer.
[No, DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors are not the most-hated team in sports]
The Raptors, Sixers and Bucks are all hoping this is the year they get over the hump, but all three are unlikely to make bigger splashes than they’ve already made. Among the East’s top-shelf teams, the Indiana Pacers are in the best position to be buyers. All-NBA guard Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner are the organization’s only long-term investments of consequence, and Kevin Pritchard, the team’s president, is armed with more than $55 million worth of expiring contracts as he pursues a second star.
Now Siakam can add a game-winning bucket to his already impressive resume. The clock was down to two seconds when he took off for the layup, driving effortlessly past Suns forward Mikal Bridges and some late help from Ayton. He scored with his non-dominant left hand, and yet it never looked difficult.
“It’s a heck of a luxury to be able to just give it to Pascal and get out of the way,” VanVleet said.
It will go down as a defining moment in Siakam’s young NBA journey — a “huge step in his career,” according to Lowry — in the middle of a breakout season for the young man whose playing days began less than a decade ago. But it was also the cherry on top of another complete game for Siakam, who was eighth in the Eastern Conference’s frontcourt options for next month’s all-star game when the latest returns were released Thursday.
Siakam’s numbers are up across the board this year. He’s averaging 14.9 points, seven rebounds and 2.9 assists in 2018, compared to career averages of 8.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists. But his all-around game has flourished over the Raptors’ last 10 contests — 16.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He has contributed 20 or more points in four of those games, 10-plus rebounds in six of them.
He had a double double Thursday with 12 points and 10 rebounds, along with five assists and two blocks, and was the best player on the court for the Kawhi Leonard-less Raptors, who are still waiting on Kyle Lowry to get back to his old self. Siakam consistently showed off his basketball IQ, popping up in the right place at the right time and making the right pass when the Suns collapsed on him.
Kyle Lowry, who is still working his way back to full health after missing about a month with a back injury, led the Raptors with 24 points and six assists the last time these two teams met in late November, his third highest scoring output of the season. He hasn’t scored 20 points since Dec. 22 against Philadelphia, the lone game he played in the midst of his back issues. Mike Conley leads the Grizzlies with 19.9 points and 6.2 assists per game. The all-star candidate will provide another much-needed measuring stick for where Lowry is at.
Zak: Should Toronto trade Norman Powell now while he is playing well
I think he’s on the table. With his play of late, Norman Powell is approaching equal value on the monster deal he signed 1.5 seasons ago. Even with improvements, it’s hard to consider Powell a significant asset at this time.
If a rebuilding team finds something they like in him, and you’re able to get value in return, yes I’d be willing to negotiate. Sending out any sort of asset to get off his future contract would be foolish.
While he’s often on the floor in crunch time, if for no other reason than his defensive versatility, he’s very rarely an offensive focal point in those situations. Now, as Fred VanVleet joked, he’s shooting 100 per cent, 1-for-1, with a game-winner on his rapidly growing resume.
This was the desired outcome for a Raptors team that’s had mixed results executing down the stretch. One night earlier they squandered a four-point lead with four minutes remaining in Boston. The Celtics scored 17 of the game’s final 21 points, with Toronto’s offence breaking down and Kyrie Irving outduelling Leonard in the final moments.
After the loss, both of Toronto’s all-stars – Leonard and Kyle Lowry – were vocal about the need to mix things up in crunch time.
“[We need to] give Kawhi some help,” Lowry said. “A lot of times we kind of give Kawhi the ball and get out the way. He is that talented a player, but we’ve got to help him. We’ve got to do things differently. We have to pay attention to detail better. A lot of things to work on I think we just got comfortable with Kawhi taking over and making every shot. He is really good and he can do it, but we have to give him some help.”
“That’s what I have to do,” said Leonard. “That’s what I’m here for, that’s what I work for. We just gotta get some movement going rather than just be stationary out there. It’s not just down the stretch at times, it’s throughout the game, sometimes when I do have the ball, there’s not movement, just everybody watching me.”
On Thursday the script was flipped. Leonard was the spectator, watching his teammates close things out from the bench as the Raptors continue to manage his workload on back-to-backs. Of course, had he been available, head coach Nick Nurse almost certainly would have called his number with the game on the line.