49-18; we can now move on from LeBron…thank, jah!
“Obviously, we’ve lost a lot of hours of sleep over the years against this guy,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse of James. “Puts you in every, really, every conceivable combination of pick-and-roll, big-small, small-big, 2-3, 2-4, 5-4, you know, so your coverages get long and complicated. And then he puts you in the post. [He] loves to pass the most. And then still he’s kind of the freight-train basketball is still the biggest thing. He gets it out and he comes rumbling down the floor and everybody bounces off him and he lays it in.
“A lot of that going on.”
In the first half, for example.
Just as the Raptors appeared to be putting some distance on Los Angeles, he sprinted past the field like he had hit turbo to fly in for a vintage slam; leaked out to score another transition basket (seriously, how do you lose LeBron James in transition?) and then flipped a left-handed no-look helper to Kuzma for a quick 6-0 run that pulled Los Angeles back within two. Another couple of helpers from James tied the score 39-39 with 6:30 left in the half, as in the space of two minutes James scored or assisted on 10 straight Lakers points. But with James on a leash – he played just 14 minutes in the first half – Walton put his best player on the bench and the Raptors were able to reel off an 11-2 run heading into halftime, sparked by a pair of Leonard threes, including a long-distance runner at the buzzer to give Toronto a 65-54 lead.
The Raptors were able to rely on Leonard, their all-purpose solution. Whether Leonard would have been the difference had James stayed in the East is a moot point. The Raptors’ goal is to play for an NBA championship, and they will have their hands full getting there.
“It’s fun to talk about and think about, but I’m not so sure that him leaving has helped us much,” said Nurse. “We aren’t gonna know that answer until a few months from now probably. It’s certainly made the East interesting in a different way. It was ‘oh you had to get through him’, now you’ve gotta get through a lot. A lot a lot.”
Thursday was an odd appearance for James. The Raptors had beat him in this arena before, memorably last January, a game that was also on American national television. That one, played without an injured Kyle Lowry and a suspended Serge Ibaka, felt like a statement of intent. This one, played without an injured Kyle Lowry and a suspended Serge Ibaka, was mere bookkeeping.
James was still downright mean to the Raptors at times. He hit a pair of turnaround baseline jumpers, one over Pascal Siakam and another over Jeremy Lin, that were very recognizable. He helped the Lakers close an early gap in the second quarter, dominating in transition. There was one two-handed dunk, vicious and elegant at the same time, that were a good reminder of the physical assets James still has, even at 34.
It just wasn’t the killer version of James we are used to in these parts, even if the buzz was unmistakable and the stat line — 29 points, six assists, four rebounds in 32 minutes — was formidable. He gave a courtesy ole to Norman Powell in the first quarter as the Raptors reserve zoomed to the rim in transition. In the fourth quarter, when James usually steps on the Raptors’ collective throat, he bricked free throws. And when you thought he might bury a 3-pointer in the face of Patrick McCaw, nervously repositioning himself again and again to wall off a drive, James lost the ball. A made bomb would have cut the lead to six points and given the Lakers a chance. Instead that, plus a few late turnovers, sealed it. When he checked out for good , there was no acknowledgement from the crowd. There was no revelling in his misery, save for the few Raptors fans who chanted “Kobe was better” at one point — unless those were actually Lakers fans.
These Lakers stink, the team is not intelligently built around James’ skill set and he only really engages for short stretches of time.
“Every year’s different, every year’s different, no matter if you’re winning or you’re losing, no matter if you’re being as successful as you want to be or you’re not,” James said, his voice monotone through his four-minute post-game press conference. “Every year has its own challenges.”
On Thursday night against LeBron James and the Lakers, Leonard played in just his 50th game of the season (out of a possible 69), and his performance was an encapsulation of what he’s been doing all season: He played efficiently in controlled minutes (finishing with 25 points in 32 minutes on 20 shots, with five made 3s, eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals) and did enough to lead Toronto to a 111-98 win. The Raptors are now 12-4 over the last 16 games, safely positioned as the East’s 2-seed, and just two and a half games back of the top-seeded Bucks.
Through all of this, it’s felt like Leonard has barely had to exert himself. Over those last 16 contests, he’s averaged 24.9 points on 31.7 minutes a game. It was fitting, then, to watch him put up efficient numbers again on Thursday against LeBron, who’s been averaging almost a triple-double this season (before the Lakers waved the white flag on their playoff chances) and still not getting the win. Leonard’s output also stands in stark contrast to that of James Harden, as Harden had to put together one of the best scoring stretches in NBA history in order to single-handedly keep the Rockets from capsizing early in the season.
This, of course, is all a testament not just to Leonard’s ability to effortlessly put up sizeable numbers, but to the Raptors’ system and the talent development of the rest of their roster. Pascal Siakam’s leap, the exorbitant depth of the team’s bench (the unit scored 43 points Thursday), and the acquisition of Marc Gasol at the trade deadline has set up the ideal situation for a player like Leonard to do what he does best: score and play suffocating defense. And it goes beyond that. Kawhi also has enough support to flip an extra switch when needed; when it’s not, he can sit back and put together an average game because that will likely be good enough. It’s not a strategy per se—Leonard’s limited minutes are more of a precautionary measure (plus a way to stay in the good graces of a player the franchise is trying to keep) than a Nick Nurse scheme—but the fact that it’s working effectively is promising both now and for the postseason.
For most of the game, it seemed like the Raptors were incapable of missing from behind the arc, as they converted 39 percent of their 41 total 3-point attempts. Raptors All-Star Kawhi Leonard drained a game-high five 3-pointers for Toronto on his way to 25 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
The Lakers, on the other hand, couldn’t get anything to fall from behind the 3-point line and made just 22.6 percent of their 31 total 3-point attempts. Some of that blame should fall on head Luke Walton for not running an offense that gives his players the best looks possible, but the Lakers were also missing wide-open 3-point opportunities. There’s not a lot Walton can do about that, aside from maybe putting on a uniform himself.
There were a few bright spots for the Lakers, though, even in spite of how poorly they shot from distance. Alex Caruso scored a career-high 16 points on 5-7 shooting from the field, while LeBron James coasted to 29 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists.
Kyle Kuzma had less success from the field, but in his defense, he was being guarded by Pascal Siakam, who looks like the Whomping Willow from Harry Potter when his arms are extended. He’ll have the chance to bounce back against a few familiar faces in Detroit, Michigan, which is a few miles away from where he grew up in Flint.
Along with Powell, the Raptors got contributions from up and down the roster. That second quarter group saw Boucher put in a bucket, grab three boards, and challenge LeBron at the rim. Meanwhile, out on the perimeter OG Anunoby was a menace with seven points, four rebounds, and two steals; his partner in crime Patrick McCaw had a similar effect, chipping in six points and two boards and another steal. The Raptors had 15 steals on the night, which helped them get out to 19 fast break points. Sure, they also surrendered 17 turnovers and 23 fast break points to the Lakers — but that’s chaos, baby.
When things got too out of control, as when the Lakers managed to take back the lead in the second quarter and the game became something of a seesaw battle, Toronto knew it could lean back on Leonard, Marc Gasol, and their chaos champion, Pascal Siakam. On this night, Leonard’s shooting was solid — an 8-of-20 from the field, plus 5-of-8 from three — and he looked a touch more comfortable getting his teammates involved. Naturally, when Leonard decides to go solo, he can do that too, especially with the likes of the hapless non-LeBron Lakers guarding him.
In that communal spirit, Gasol had an improved line of 15 points (on 5-of-10 shooting, with two 3s), seven rebounds, and four assists. He too looked to get his teammates involved, but, as per coach Nick Nurse’s pre-game desire, also looked to get his own shot. (The little pass back-and-forth sequence Gasol had with Jeremy Lin in the third quarter was a touching moment. You could tell Gasol wanted to see Lin take and make a three — and Jeremy came through and hit it.) The Lakers went super small for long stretches of the second half which gradually raced Gasol out of the game, but he’d long since made his mark.
For Siakam’s part, it was not a good shooting night. The Raptors’ forward spent time at centre in this one, and also played point guard with the bench unit. Pascal would finish the night a mere 3-of-16, but he’d still have 16 points thanks to a 10-of-12 night at the free throw line. He also had five rebounds, a team-high six assists, and, so as to not be left out on the chaos energy of the contest, two steals too. “We just have guys that are ready to play hard,” said Siakam of his play with the second unit. “And they have length and all that, so definitely a good lineup to get stops and run a little bit.”
Siakam had six assists, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals, all without committing a single foul.
“The thing with me, I can miss shots, but there are other things I’m going to bring to the table that is going to have the coach have me out there,” Siakam said afterward.
“I’ve just got to do my best and do other things, not making shots, missing layups and all that, just do other things to help.”
LeBron James paced all with 27 points and seven assists in his lone visit north of the border of the season, but didn’t get much support from the injury-riddled young Lakers.
Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points, hitting a season-best five three-pointers.
“It’s always great to compete against the best,” James said of Leonard, his two-time NBA Finals foe.
“Kawhi and I have been doing it for a while now, so it’s always a pleasure, and it’s always fun.”
Raptors coach Nick Nurse had said for two days that he was going to use three Gasol starts — all courtesy of a suspension to Serge Ibaka — to give the seven-footer more chances to contribute.
“We’re going to look to go through him a little bit, throw him the ball,” Nurse said before the game. “I want him to bomb some more threes, maybe five or six a night, try to get that little part of his game back on track. Cut him loose a little bit.”
Gasol didn’t exactly go crazy on offence but he did play 26 minutes and take four three-pointers (making two) among his 10 field-goal attempts. He finished with 15 points while gathering seven rebounds and dishing out four assists.
“I thought there was a lot more opportunities for him than the 10 shots and the four threes,” Nurse said afterward. “Not that he turned them down, you can see those guys kind of winding up into their moves and if they ever need him back there, if they ever need him at the last second he’s going to back there on some kick-backs and be able to step into (three-point shots).
“(But) he was good, moving the ball, rebounded well, I thought. The group played good when he was in there.”
It was just another game against just another team or just another weeknight, except LeBron was there and playing and being LeBron. And it was funny and just a bit odd how the Toronto faithful greeted him when the game began at the Scotiabank Arena. He was introduced as part of the starting lineup of the Lakers, and he wasn’t booed, he wasn’t shrieked at, the applause was polite, strong, partial standing ovation – and maybe just a little relief. James can’t hurt them on a Thursday night in March. He can’t hurt them in April or May or even June, where he was strangled the life out of the Raptors in the past.
LeBron got Casey fired. Ujiri and Webster turned on their coach when he had no tangible answer against the Cavaliers. And they turned to Nurse, who has had Leonard missing as many games as James has missed this season. The difference in the 18 games: The Raptors have won 13 of 18 without Leonard. The Lakers are 6-12 without LeBron.
And in Nurse’s mind, and in Casey’s mind and probably in Ujiri’s mind, they can’t get that series opener from last spring out of their heads. What happened in Game 1? How did the Raptors let that game get away? And how and why did they not recover after that? Casey is now in Detroit, Nurse is now in charge of the bench, “We’ve talked about this a number of times,” said Nurse, not meaning he’s talked about it with Casey. “We really had that first game under control and how many times have we replayed that last possession? What was there, three or four tips? The damn thing just wouldn’t go in.”
The ball was in Jonas Valanciunas’ hands. He’s now in Memphis. Casey is in Detroit. DeMar DeRozan is in San Antonio. One game, one series, one set of circumstances and so many lives were affected by the loss to LeBron and the Cavs.
“The damn thing just wouldn’t go in,” said Nurse. “It really changed the whole complexion of the series, the season.” He speaks of it with some sadness even knowing it is why he is now head coach of the Raptors, his big break. He doesn’t get the job if the Raptors put up a better series against the Cavs.
At 34, he still had moments that left you shaking your head. A show. But Toronto won 111-98 without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka because the Lakers were outscored by 13 with him sitting, because the rest of L.A.’s production stinks. LeBron is probably going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
He has been the most consequential NBA player of his generation, the prime mover in the league, the guy. But now he’s talking with his head down about free agency, about this summer, listing the team’s injuries, saying that every year has different challenges. The Raptors are worried about the pending East playoff bloodbath, about making sure the practice facility is Drake-branded, about getting healthy and in sync. Nobody outside Los Angeles competitively worries about LeBron for much more than a day at a time anymore. It’s so strange.
“Obviously, we’ve lost a lot of hours of sleep over the years against this guy,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse.
Indeed, LeBron is one of the biggest reasons the Raptors are where they are now. But after winning one for Cleveland and losing twice to Golden State, LeBron semi-retired to California. He chose Hollywood and weather and a place to raise his kids, and a hope that the Lakers could add other stars in his sunset years.
“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” LeBron said to reporters in Boston, before the trade deadline. “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake … there’s nothing I’m chasing, or feel like I need to end my career on.”
Gasol’s passing has proven to be more valuable than what Valanciunas brought to the table but over the larger sample of the season, the Raptors have still scored much more efficiently with Ibaka on the floor. Part of the issue may be that Gasol hasn’t been shooting the ball particularly well in his short time in Toronto — just 28.6 percent on 3-pointers and 38.0 percent on all jumpers of any distance.
It would stand to reason then, that Gasol would be most valuable as a facilitator with a bench unit and complementary shooters where he can have the ball more often instead of creating any gravity collapse as an off-ball threat when players like Lowry and Leonard are working. However, this has actually been the exact opposite of what’s played out — Toronto has scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions in the 780 minutes Ibaka has played with Leonard and Lowry, and 117.6 points per 100 possessions in the 98 minutes Gasol has played with that duo.
The Raptors then find themselves in the weird situation of having both of their big men working best with the starting rotation. However, as the sample size grows the drop-off in effectiveness of bench units with Ibaka in the middle will probably be greater than Gasol and Toronto may be better off with Ibaka as the starter even if those groups score better with Gasol’s passing.
A lot of the team’s rotation in the playoffs will be dictated by specific matchups and the versatility and experience Gasol brings is unquestionably an upgrade over Valanciunas. But versatility means there are more variables to manage and more possibilities to explore. As important as playoff seeding will be for Toronto, the real mission of this last part of the season has to be exploring as many ways as possible to stagger and separate minutes for Gasol and Ibaka, looking for units that work in different ways and different contexts so that Nick Nurse knows what he’s getting when he starts pulling levers for postseason adjustments.
Moreland didn’t hear his name called in the 2014 NBA Draft, but he has played for the Sacramento Kings, Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns over the last five years and was in training camp with the Raptors prior to this season.
He’s played in a total of 79 regular season games in the NBA, posting 1.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 0.7 blocks in 10.9 minutes per contest. He showed off his full potential in the Pistons’ final game of the 2017-18 season, when he finished with 16 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, four steals and four blocks in a win over the Chicago Bulls.
Want to see more Toronto Raptors news?
Keep up to date with all of the latest Toronto Raptors news!
Sure Not Now
Moreland has logged significantly more minutes in the D-League in his professional career, where he’s suited up for the Reno Bighorns and Canton Charge. He was at his best in 2016-17, when he averaged 12.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 44 games with the Charge.
Moreland was rewarded at the end of the season by being named to the All-NBA D-League Third Team and the NBA D-League All-Defensive Team.
5. Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors
Ujiri had himself one heck of an offseason, trading shooting guard DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in a package for superstar forward Kawhi Leonard and shooting guard Danny Green. In value alone, the swap greatly benefited the Raptors. Getting a top 10 player in the league in Leonard for a good player whose impact peaked in Toronto was simultaneously shocking and exciting.
Toronto currently sits second in the East at 48-20 with a roster comprised of talented homegrown players (Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norm Powell, and OG Anunoby) and impact veterans (Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Green, and Leonard). Ujiri further bolstered the roster bringing in center Marc Gasol, point guard Jeremy Lin and shooting guard Patrick McCaw before the deadline for a serious playoff push. He has assembled a top tier roster that can evolve based on how the postseason plays out. If they don’t make a deep playoff run, transitioning to a rebuild will be relatively easy. However, Ujiri is hoping this version the Raptors can do what other Raps squads couldn’t do: win it all. He has given them the best chance in franchise history to do so.
“Drake and OVO are an important part of our city’s landscape, our team’s identity, and our plans to bring a championship to Toronto,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said via a team release. “With each step of our partnership over the last five and a half years, we have worked together to build a winning basketball program in Toronto and deliver for our fans and our community.”
“Sports are central to the culture of OVO and have the great quality of connecting people from all walks of life,” said OVO’s Oliver El-Khatib. “This facility represents our commitment to invest in the future of sports and young athletes in Toronto.”
Did I miss something? Send me any Raptors-related article/video to [email protected]