It’s ‘Welcome Toronto’ night!
Coming off a lopsided victory over the embarrassing Celtics, Toronto waltzed into this game with a boatload of confidence. On the other side, in walked the owners of the longest winning streak in the NBA — the Portland Trail Blazers — who were victorious in five-straight previous games. Giving credit where credit is due, those five games were no slouch at all. In fact, they were extremely impressive victories. In that stretch of games, Portland defeated the Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and the Boston Celtics (the fifth win was Cleveland but they don’t really… you know — like, count). Portland’s last loss came against the Oklahoma City Thunder three whole weeks ago in early February. Fun enough, as a team, Toronto was nearly just as hot entering this game — winning eight of their last 10 contests. So there it was, two wildly entertaining teams — both of whom were holding tons of momentum (and starpower) playing in a nationally-televised game.
As a spectator, what more could you ask for?
Early on, Toronto opted to start Marc Gasol as the ‘five’ over the incumbent, Serge Ibaka. The reasoning was clear as day as Portland rosters a behemoth by the name of Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic, being one of the bigger (and more talented) bodies in the NBA would’ve kindly eaten Ibaka alive fresh out the gates. Lucky for Toronto, they also employ a large man. That large man happens to be a former Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA superstar. This was the 16th (!!!) different starting lineup Nick Nurse employed this season. The game began as Toronto quickly fell behind early in the first frame, then abruptly turned the energy up and regained control of the quarter. The Raptors led by a comfortable seven points by the end of the 1st, ultimately going back-and-forth with Portland for the rest of the half.
One of the biggest takeaways from the first 24 minutes was the ever-growing magnetism between Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. It wasn’t a secret that Lowry was undoubtedly declining as a scorer over the past couple seasons. Now, being one of the highest IQ frontcourt players in the association, the acclimation process for Marc Gasol was never a worry for him, nor the organization. In the grand scheme of things, this will be huge for Toronto down the stretch.
With the purest of basketball minds in Lowry and Gasol, it was simply a matter of time.
The Lowry-Gasol chemistry is incredible. Gasol has rejuvenated Lowry as a scorer with his passing and screening
— William Lou (@william_lou) March 2, 2019
In the second half, Gasol continued to dominate Jusuf Nurkic all over the court — frustrating him with picture-perfect PnR and PnP sets. Gasol also ran the designated high-post actions to perfection, easily finding a cutting Raptor or mixing it up and attacking the rim. If that wasn’t enough, Nurkic became a foul machine as Gasol — to put it kindly — dog-walked him throughout the duration of the game.
Fast forward to when it got crazy.
Just a single day after Toronto practiced their “game-winning shots” as Nurse put it, Kawhi hit the biggest shot (so far) of his Raptors career, sinking Portland with a buzzer-beating fadeaway jump shot. In what was a simple, perfectly-executed play drawn by Nick Nurse, Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry were both isolated from the rest of the Raptor players on the right-elbow. With Damian Lillard stuck to him, Lowry came across Leonard’s right-hand side to screen Maurice Harkless. The possible threat of Lowry also being the option on this play gave Portland two primary options.
- Harkless and Lillard stay on their defensive assignments, fight through the screens and hope for interior help if need-be.
- Harkless and Lillard execute a seamless defensive switch, with Lillard now guarding Leonard and Harkless rotating to defend Lowry at the top of the key.
Portland chose option two.
KAWHI NOT? pic.twitter.com/3GuOEl1b3K
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) March 2, 2019
The key to this play was Lowry essentially gluing himself to Lillard pre-screen, forcing the defenders to make a quick decision. You can see in the clip above, Harkless badly wanted to engage in help-defense on Leonard, but he was fully aware of Lowry patiently waiting at the top of the circle. The decision to drive to the exact end-location he did on the court (baseline, 13-15 feet) was impeccable from Kawhi. Ultimately, Lillard assumed defensive responsibility of guarding Leonard one-on-one. Kawhi responded by instantly attacking the rim, gathering his balance, while smoothly gliding back with a picturesque fadeaway shot.
Both the spacing and execution were nearly perfect, leading to the ultimate desired result for Toronto. Oh, and if you didn’t catch it — Leonard’s reaction to the game-winner was awesome to watch, too. Despite Kawhi getting most of the praise (deservedly so), other Raptors had massive contributions to the game as well. Late in the game, with a minute and 27 seconds remaining, Lowry drove past Harkless, went directly into Jusuf Nurkic and nailed a tough floater while absorbing tons of contact. Soon after that, Danny Green received a pass from Kawhi Leonard and tied the game at 113-113 with a rainbow three-point shot. All in all, Leonard finished with 38 points while Lowry put up 19 and 10 assists as the Raptors won for the ninth time in 10 games. Gasol also recorded 19 points, while adding eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block. ‘Big Spain’ was also a team-high +23 on the court and shot a stellar 9-13 (69%) from the field. On the other side, CJ McCollum torched Toronto with a 35/5/4 line on 12 of 20 shooting from the field, 7 of 11 from beyond the arc. Lillard finished with 24/8/6 with four other Blazers in double figures.
Not going to lie, the absolute best part from all of this may have been Leonard’s post-game comments regarding his overall view on the game:
Kawhi Leonard: "There’s 82 games and for me these are just practices and playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up."
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) March 2, 2019
Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.
Scheduled for Sunday at 6:00pm ET, Toronto’s next game comes against the Dwane Casey-led Pistons in Little Caesars Arena, downtown Detroit. Back in mid-November, Toronto suffered a crushing defeat to Detroit, losing 106-104 on a Reggie Bullock game-winner. This was Dwane Casey’s first-ever return to Toronto and it could not have been a more enjoyable one, both personally and professionally. The Raptors will look to exact retribution in the Motor City as this win moves them to 46-17 on the season, currently 2.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
With less than two months away till the NBA playoffs, it’s probably a good time to take a look at how the team has been doing. Before the season began, the Raptors were in the top five but definitely not top three but as the season progressed, their odds to win the championship kept getting shorter and shorter. As can be seen, they’re now behind the Golden State Warriors. Keep the page bookmarked to see what Toronto’s odds are like as the playoffs get closer.