“He’s gotta go out there and destroy some people”.
Those were the words of Raptor’s head coach Nick Nurse, just hours before last night’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets. Spoke in an effort to light a fire under his star player Leonard and bust him out of his recent offensive funk — but Kawhi wasn’t the only Raptor who heard him.
In a game where their opposition refused to lay down, nailing a ridiculous 20 shots from beyond the arc, on 41 attempts, the Toronto Raptors collectively dug deep and pulled out a 127-125 win in front of their home crowd on Tuesday evening. Kawhi Leonard answered Nurse’s call, dropping a smooth 30 points, a regular season career-high 8 assists and the game winning shot. Serge and Kyle were stroking their open looks, and Marc Gasol caused Raptors fans to temporarily lose their minds (we’ll get to that later).
With the hot topic of conversation in Toronto hoops circles being centred on new addition Marc Gasol, questions lingered whether the former DPOY would slide into the starting lineup in his second game for the Dinos. Nurse elected to stand by his usual 5 starters, brining Gasol of the bench of the second consecutive contest since his acquisition.
The Brooklyn Nets began the game with a gut punch to the Raptors — crisp ball movement, feisty defence and a 3 point stroke that would not cool down. Toronto countered by daring Brooklyn to beat them from beyond the arc, and the Nets were happy to oblige. Nailing 7 of their 3’s in the opening frame, the Nets took advantage of the Raptor’s sloppy coverage and slow rotation as marksmen Joe Harris and Allen Crabbe alongside lead guard D’angelo Russell torched Toronto early. The Nets interior D was nearly as sloppy on the other end though, as some slick inside passing from the Raps help to keep the deficit within single digits after 12 minutes.
Gasol entered the game towards the end of the first quarter and we saw some interesting things from his time on the court with the bench. Namely an unexpected spark of chemistry between the big Spaniard and Patrick McCaw, who was reaping the benefits of minutes opened up by FVV’s injury. The second frame began in a flurry of offense led by Pat McCaw, as he nailed a three to open the quarter, drove to the bucket for a lay-in the very next possession and capped it all off with a silky smooth give and go with his new best friend Marc.
Just before the 6 minute mark of the 2nd quarter Nurse did a platoon swap, putting all 4 starters minus Ibaka on the court to play with Gasol. After a few minutes of seeing Lowry/Green/Leonard/Siakam/Gasol share the floor, it was quite clear that this was one of, if not the most effective line-ups on both sides of the ball that Toronto could field. The only problem? Brooklyn could not miss. With 3 minutes remaining in the 1st half, the Nets were 11/21 from three and did not look remotely scared of the Toronto Raptors. As Ibaka re-entered the game in place of Marc Gasol, he had an immediate defensive impact, meeting fellow shot blocker Jarret Allen at the rim as he promptly challenged his dunk attempt, stole his lunch money and swatted the ball to Danny Green who took care of the rest:
Joe Harris of course, forgetting that the 3 point contest isn’t until next weekend, struck back with his 7th three of the first half, giving his team a 5 point advantage over Toronto at the break.
Following some back and forth possessions to kick off the second half, and Brooklyn’s three point assault that refused to stop coming, it was clear that the Nets were not going away in this one. Brooklyn found themselves up 5 after a nasty ball fake and lay in by Russell, as he blew past Kyle on his way to the cup. That woke the Pitbull up. On a night where dominance had yet to be established for either team, we saw a fire lit under Lowry that pushed him to temporarily shoulder the load when his team badly needed a swift kick in the rear end.
Lowry went on his own mini-run, nailing a three at the top of the key and slashing to the cup the next possession, driving right into the body of Jarrett Allen for what he thought should have been an And-1.
To cap off the quarter, OG Anunoby stepped up huge for Toronto. Putting back a McCaw miss, then stripping Levert of the ball to get one more quick bucket before the buzzer sounded.
With both side’s knotted up at 94, the basketball gods were just begging for someone to step up a seize control of this game — enter Marc Gasol. Nick Nurse ran out the same look he showed at the beginning of the 2nd quarter, with Gasol anchoring the bench unit — by the way he played, I’d wager a guess that he doesn’t want to ride the pine much longer (ever again) from here on out.
Gasol may be 34, a step slower than previous years, and less intimidating that he was at the 2015 trade deadline, but he is still one hell of a basketball player. Gasol strung off a goddy sequence of hook shots, shimmys, the most natural 3 I’ve ever seen a 7 foot Raptor stroke (sorry JV), interrupted by a filthy no-look dime to McCaw, and a couple savvy defensive plays to open the 4th quarter.
It was the Marc Gasol show at the Scotiabank Center as he sent the crowd, his teammates and even his coach – who almost physically checked himself into the game at one point while screaming for his team to feed Gasol in the low post – into an absolute frenzy. Oh, and the internet thought it was pretty neat too.
But alas, even after amassing a 8 point lead, the narrative of the game persisted as the Nets kept shooting and kept sinking em, setting up one hell of a finish. Following a cold-blooded three from Russel with 50 seconds remaining, the Raps took a timeout in what looked to be an uphill battle against a Nets team that was not accepting defeat.
Kenny Atkinson, who typically receives praise for the job he’s done with this young Nets team, made a peculiar decision in electing to go with a zone defence with his team up three. Toronto made him pay for his mistake. Kawhi motioned forward from the top of the key with the basketball as if he were about to initiate an isolation, collapsing the top of the Net’s zone onto himself and immediately kicked it to Danny Green for a wide open three and his 8th assist of the game — bucket and book it.
Then Joe Harris made another mistake – he shot a 2. A wide open go-ahead jumper from the free-throw line that we all expected him to nail, bounced off the front rim, leaving Toronto with an opportunity to win the game.
Lowry calmly dribbled the ball up the court, waited for his teammates to get set, bounced the ball to Leonard at the elbow, he dribbled twice to his right, faded away and kissed it off the glass for a two point lead with 4.2 seconds remaining. He didn’t call bank, but he sure as hell called game.
Green closed out a winning effort with superb defensive possession on D’angelo Russell, forcing him into a tough corner three that, let’s be honest, we all thought might have been destined for the bottom of the net.
Nick Nurse still has plenty to figure out with this talented group of players. They clearly have the capability to put a championship caliber product on the floor, but the importance of finding the right lineups and having situational strategy ready for playoff basketball grows stronger with each passing game. Leonard, Gasol and Co. may not have destroyed anyone on this night, but they showed us that they have all of the tools to do so. That, in itself, should give Raptors faithful a reason to smile — maybe even breathe, as we head into All-Star weekend.