Post-Game

Raptors smile in the face of former adversity, barometer LeBron James

So many Toronto Raptors stories against LeBron James have ended the same way.

Who can forget the time Chris Bosh’s ex-girlfriend heckled James for missing a breakaway dunk with Toronto seemingly cruising to victory in a game they led by as many as 20 (they led by 11 at the time of the incident). The then Cleveland Cavaliers superstar went off for 24 points in the fourth quarter to spark an astonishing rally (a 20-point lead back in 2008 a.k.a. the pre-splash era was worth considerably more than it is now) and has only extended the torture since.

LeBron’s individual numbers in Canada have been stellar even by his own high standards, and even the rare Raptors victories left fans in attendance going home with more than their money’s worth like the time he dropped 56 almost 14 years to this day. Losses were few and far between for James, each of his 10-game playoff win streak eating away at Toronto’s mental fortitude and eventually beating the franchise into submission. It forced Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster’s hands into orchestrating a fascinating retool that have brought on onlookers in droves, just like Thursday night in Toronto, one of several nationally televised games in the U.S. this season.

Making a visit for the first time in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, though, it just felt different. The Raptors jumped out to an early lead, and despite the past suggesting that doom was only one LeBron run away, it never came to fruition.

A 22-13 lead for Toronto held steady at 65-54 at the half. The traditional uneasiness in the stomach that usually would have crept in after James either scored or assisted on 10 straight points for the Lakers as part of a run that tied the game at 39 with 6:42 remaining in the first half didn’t. For the rest of the half, Pascal Siakam was the only “familiar” Raptor who scored and he added precisely two free-throws. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Marc Gasol, Patrick McCaw and Jeremy Lin combined to score the other 24 points. No Kyle Lowry or Serge Ibaka but the Raptors always felt in control of the situation. 26 points in just over six minutes without those two guys tells you just how explosive this team can me.

Jeremy Lin was starting in place of Lowry and Marc Gasol for the suspended Ibaka, and the assertiveness both displayed early aided the poise the Raptors showed over the course of the night. Striking the balance between fitting into a new team and being yourself can be a bit of a process, and the head coach Nick Nurse’s chopping and changing of lineups hasn’t made the transition any the easier.

Below, Gasol is ready to set a screen for Lin to go left, but the point guard rejects the option to catch Rajon Rondo on his heels and burst towards the basket and finish with a runner.

Lin must recognize that he belongs on this team. He’s never played for a title contender at the NBA level and his three playoff runs have all ended in first-round exits. Nurse mentioned a week ago that Lin needs to adjust to games being just that bit more competitive as the Raptors are the type of team who now always have a bullseye on their back, and that will only elevate once the playoffs begin. He’s shown grit defensively, but plays like these where he gets the ball knocked out of his hands need to become much more of a rare occurrence than they have been to date. The aggressiveness from opposing teams is only going to ramp up in the postseason.

Outside of that, when Lin first joined the Raptors, he said he felt like he almost didn’t deserve to be on this team. That in some way it was almost too good for him. The way he played in this game — missed shots aside — was far more in line with the Lin the Raptors hoped to acquire and he needs to maintain this flow when he returns to the bench.

Gasol, now guaranteed to start at least three games in a row, showed much more willingness to pop from distance in making two of his four 3-point attempts but he also made a few mid range shots as well.

After the game, Gasol told Raptors Republic he did feel he was getting more comfortable with finding the balance between seeking out his own offense and creating for his teammates.

“Yeah, and understanding the spacing and how teams try to prepare for us and what the defenders gonna do and without the ball as well,” Gasol said. “All those things, it takes a little time, it takes patience, it takes work and staying with it. Just because it doesn’t work right away or the way you wish, you gotta sail the wind that you get, not the one that you wish you had, so, you just have patience and keep working.”

When a 13-point third quarter lead was cut to six heading into the fourth, it would have been regular rush hour traffic to fear the worst with James set to start the final quarter on the court and Leonard on the bench.

But that’s when Nick Nurse threw caution to the wind and rolled with a lineup of Patrick McCaw, Norman Powell — who scored 12 in the first quarter and was excellent all game, Malcolm Miller, OG Anunoby, and Siakam. That unit was a plus-7 in a vital 4:25, extending the lead to 13 before Leonard checked in for Siakam to become the biggest man in a Raptors uniform. The Lakers couldn’t even get within single-digits thereafter, losing 111-98.

“It’s a group that can defend a little bit,” Nurse said after the game. “We weren’t super-organized on the offensive end but told ‘em to play some D, switch everything, we’ve got a bunch of 6-6, 6-7 guys, maybe their defense could create some offense for ‘em.”

There was no better example of it just a minute into the fourth, when James looked to attack Miller and Anunoby helped knock the ball away. McCaw picked up the loose ball and raced down the court, going so fast that even road runner Siakam didn’t bother to keep up. He was well positioned for a put-back on McCaw’s missed layup, but so was Powell who ended up collecting the two points.

It is still the regular season, a caveat that cannot be overlooked. And as unlikely as this unit is to play together in the postseason, the larger philosophical question of whether or not these players who may be called upon individually have the wherewithal to play so instinctively in an atmosphere that is known to create brain farts as emotion supersedes logic cannot be answered till those situations present themselves. Powell, to his credit, has done it before. So have Anunoby and McCaw in smaller sample sizes. There is reason to feel optimistic.

“They all bring something,” Nurse said post-game. “I think we need OG positionally, I think we need Norm offensively, I think we need McCaw as a specialist on defence. I think we need Jeremy as a backup … I think they’re all going to get their chances to see if they’ve got it going on the night.”

Must be nice to have options.

For over a decade now, James has been described as a freight train, his captivating 6-foot-8, 240-pound physique constantly bulldozing through opponents at will. His biggest team successes, though, wouldn’t be possible without the terrific stars around him validating his superhuman efforts with wins. His greatness has allowed for an anomalous run in 2007, but everything in between needed either a combination or one of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love in tow.

How many people truly bask in the glory of the 51 he dropped in Game 1 of the NBA Finals last year? Few, if any. It’s JR Smith’s baffling scoreboard confusion that still comes home to roost.

And so now the jokes pile on, about the cast of misfits hired to slot alongside James in purple and gold in Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee. About how the Anthony Davis pursuit went up in flames, and that the Lakers’ young stars are more name than game because of their storied franchise.

The King received a warm reception from the Scotiabank arena crowd when he joined his teammates late at the layup line, and again when he was introduced in the starting lineups. You couldn’t help but feel it was in celebration of James taking himself out of the conference, or that his team is on the verge of being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and thereby ruling out any possibility that the ghosts of playoffs past could be summoned.

You would have to see the Raptors inflict at least two playoff series worth of defeats on James to feel even a modicum of revenge, and that seems highly improbable at this juncture. But this isn’t supposed to be a story that extends from years past. This past summer, Toronto made it a point to turn the page.

This is a new book with new characters — there are some familiar ones to be sure — but, as mentioned before, the chief antagonist is all but guaranteed to take on a new face and the plot twists will surely be different as well. For once, with the king away from his eastern throne, Toronto is looking forward to telling its own tale, on its own terms.

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