1-1 – That’s how you play basketball
Four – Encouragement: Even by Toronto standards, this was an outstanding crowd, and they were determined to cheer on their point guard. Scotiabank Arena exploded with the excitement (decibel levels rivalled that of free pizza) when Lowry hit a free-throw in the first, and the night ended with Lowry getting a standing ovation as he checked out in the fourth.
“It wasn’t flipping the switch, it was more being locked in on every coverage, everything we wanted to do, just being on the same page and communication,” Kyle Lowry said. “We made sure we helped each other and making sure that if someone went to help that someone helped the helper, and helped the helper. And basically just making sure that we just play hard.”
It all started with Leonard, of course, who was masterful all night. Early in the quarter, he drew a switch against Vucevic and calmly drilled a three in his face. Shortly after, the Magic sent two to the ball to trap Leonard in the corner, and rather than force a tough pass he calmly pulled up for another jumper, this one a long two. When Leonard then found himself with D.J. Augustin guarding him, he signalled to his teammates. Pascal Siakam swung the ball to Marc Gasol and Gasol fed Leonard with a high-low feed. Leonard, impossibly, volleyed the pass in while being fouled to the floor.
That pass highlighted what the Gasol acquisition was designed to help with, too. After a Game 1 performance where he limited Vucevic inside but wasn’t quite at his best in space, Gasol turned in a stronger overall defensive performance, again limiting Vucevic and working well within the Raptors heavier pressure. Offensively, he went the entire first half without a field-goal attempt, instead working as a higher-usage screener and connector. The Magic eventually tried to trap Leonard high to cool him off, but that’s untenable with a playmaker like Gasol high on the floor, so long as Leonard can find him. He could, and Gasol picked out shooters or cutters, or moved right into dribble hand-offs for a fun, emerging two-man game with Lowry. It doesn’t hurt that the Magic dared Gasol to take threes and he stuck three in the quarter, either.
Gasol working as the connector the Raptors envisioned raises the ceiling on offence. It’s true that Gasol’s savvy play works with anyone, and that effect is exponential with better players around him. He and Lowry have found a sort of spiritual equal in each other, working a step ahead of the other pieces on the court. Even on a broken play, Lowry and Gasol found their way to a give-and-go for a baseline Lowry cut.
Though Leonard reveals virtually no emotion in his postgame remarks, his sparse comments offer insights into how he assembles the sort of performance that paced the Raptors on Tuesday night. Asked how he was able to exploit Orlando forward Aaron Gordon, Leonard replied that the effort wasn’t a mastery of a specific defender so much as a result of good judgment.
“Just playing within the offense,” Leonard said. “Just reading angles, reading the backside of the defense. Just trying to get into the paint. They’re a good defensive team. They help each other. Really, just trying to play team basketball, get to my spots, see if I draw two [defenders]. If I do — just pass it.”
In a series of sentence fragments with little expression, Leonard verbally sketched the tactical decision-tree that empowered him, and the Raptors, to maintain control of a game in which they never trailed.
Gasol is another case study in how the Raptors can dice up opponents this spring through smarts and precision. The Raptors’ veteran center, acquired midseason from the Memphis Grizzlies, posted a 3-for-5 shooting line in 22 minutes — every make was from deep — but that belied his overall net effect. As an example, Gasol orchestrated two gorgeous possessions from the top of the floor: the first when he darted a bounce pass to Lowry on a baseline basket cut for an easy layup in the second quarter, the next a fluttering lob to Leonard for an alley-oop and-1 just after intermission. Both were emotional touchstones Tuesday night.
With the arrival of Leonard and Gasol, the maturation of Pascal Siakam (19 points and 10 rebounds on Tuesday), the perpetual motion of Danny Green, the Raptors have, in a few short seasons, evolved from an iso-heavy outfit to one that can beat teams with the pass.
Kyle Lowry broke out of a mini one-game slump with 22 points in Toronto’s Game 2 win. Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
On the other end of the floor, Gasol effectively took Vucevic out of the game, leaving the Magic’s offense groping in the half court against a more physical Raptors defense.
“I got the ball in some decent spots in the post a few times and they double-teamed me early,” Vucevic said. “It makes it hard for me to create anything and they do a good job taking away a lot of my strengths. I’ve just gotta figure it out, find a way to be more aggressive and more efficient offensively.”
The Raptors pretty much decided Game 2 in the first half of the third quarter as Toronto pulled away from the young Magic, who are game and not without talent but lack the kind of fire power to routinely overcome holes as big as the Raptors were digging for them.
A Kawhi Leonard steal and brute-force fastbreak, a wide-open Marc Gasol three as the Raptors whipped the ball faster than Orlando could recover and the Raptors were up by 24.
All hands were on deck. All cylinders were firing. This was the Raptors performing optimally in way they’ve shown at times since this version of the roster was bolted together at the trade deadline, but not for stretches this long or with this much at stake.
But make no mistake, the Raptors’ 111-82 win that evened their first-round series 1-1 as it shifts to Orlando for Game 3 on Friday was forged in the first five minutes of the game as Toronto went straight for the Magic’s neck.
It was as ferocious and complete a defensive effort as you’re likely to see on an NBA court. It will likely be held over the Raptors’ collective heads for the rest of the post season. As former Toronto head coach Dwane Casey used to say, “they told on themselves.”
For five full minutes every rotation was perfect. Second and third efforts were given. Plays were made. Fouls were hard.
“(It was) just all of us buying in. Just wanting to come out and win this game,” said Leonard. “We didn’t feel like we played our best basketball in Game 1, and just wanted to protect home court, really, that’s it.”
With two full days to stew on a Game 1 effort that fell short of their own expectations, the Raptors were on a mission in Game 2, and their mission was to vaporize Orlando. Victory wasn’t enough.
“That’s why I said for me it was good to watch because for me, when I get two fouls, I kind of get nervous,” said Pascal Siakam, who had another impressive night with 19 points and 10 rebounds. “I don’t know what to do. Just seeing him being himself and on offence, being smart, it was pretty impressive.”
In the third quarter, with the foul trouble not quite looming over Leonard in the same way, he plainly eviscerated the Magic and the long, athletic defenders who were supposed to be able to at least make Leonard work. He had 17 points in the quarter, at times dancing with a would-be defender before hitting a 3-pointer over him, and at many others driving to the bucket as if no one were there at all.
“He’s a talented basketball player,” said Lowry, who made 12 more shots, between field goals and free throws, than he hit on Saturday. “He’s been aggressive all series, the couple games so far, and tonight he was just in a groove, going downhill, getting to his spots. He’s a player where he knows where he wants to be on the floor, and when he gets to those spots he’s pretty tough to guard.
It was the type of display that perfectly crystallized why the Raptors were willing to take on the risk of acquiring Kawhi Leonard, and sacrificing all those regular season games to get him to the playoffs healthy. Through three quarters, he had missed just four of his 18 field goals, and was crucial in the Raptors flashing the defensive potential that they have talked about more than they have displayed.
“I took him out after a 12-minute stretch at the end of the third and I told him he’s got a two-minute rest and he’s going back in,” Nurse said. “He said he was ready now. I think he’s ready to play as many minutes as he can handle. And he can handle as many as the game calls for.”
In Game 1, 33 minutes was probably too few minutes; in Game 2, the same total might have qualified as overkill. If they are getting this version of Leonard, though, those minutes sure are going to count.
Orlando could only hang on for so long. And Leonard was going to make sure the Toronto Raptors did not have any repeat of their disappointing Game 1 performance. The Raptors would punch the Magic in the mouth and never let up.
By the third quarter, he put the Magic away and sent the series back to Orlando tied at one.
Aaron Gordon was doing his best to pressure and push Kawhi Leonard out toward midcourt. He started reading the play and got a screen from Marc Gasol. Nikola Vucevic started to overplay the drive, trying to keep Kawhi Leonard from the paint. He would have to recover quickly but that was not the main concern.
Kawhi Leonard got a rub off the screen to gain separation from Aaron Gordon and began heading downhill. Nikola Vucevic had good defensive position to slow Leonard down. But there was no slowing him down. He eased past him, Euro-stepping around Vucevic for a one-handed jam.
If that were the only big play, that would be one thing. But Leonard scored 17 of his 37 points in the third quarter, helping the Raptors stretch their lead out to beyond 30 points. Orlando’s offense never stood a chance against a physical and imposing Toronto defense in a 111-82 Game 2 loss at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday.
The Magic knew they would get the Raptors’ best shot in this game. They all said as much, but they were not repaired for what that shot would look like.
Self-inflicted wounds early on led the Magic to miss their first nine shots. The Raptors used those misses to charge their transition game and race out to an 11-0 lead. Orlando never really recovered from that initial punch.
Sure, the Magic inched back in, closing to it as much as eight behind Terrence Ross‘ sudden burst. But there was no one scoring consistently or getting offense. Toronto blew up every pick and roll and forced Orlando into one-on-one plays.
That will not get the job done for the Magic. Orlando shot just 37.0 percent from the floor and just 13 of 24 from the foul line. Orlando made just 9 of 18 in the first half. The Magic were able to get to the line, but those missed opportunities came back to haunt.
So too did the 17 turnovers. That helped the game get out of hand in the second half.
Toronto came in with the desperation, energy and physicality it needed to dominate the game. The Magic were caught flat-footed and unable to answer.
The Raptors, who attacked the paint at will and led by as many as 16 in the second quarter, took a 51-39 lead into the break. Lowry, after being held scoreless in Game 1, had 15 first half points on 5-for-8 shooting. Leonard had 17 first half points on 7-for-9 shooting to lead the Raptors, who shot 50 percent in the half.
It was Game 1 hero, D.J. Augustin, who struggled with his shot in the opening half, missing all five of his attempts as the Magic shot just 33.3 percent in the half.
Leonard’s efficient shooting continued in the third as he scored 10 points in the opening four minutes of the second half, pushing the Raptors’ advantage to 66-47. Leonard scored 17 points in the third to bring his total to 34 to that point. The Magic, meanwhile, continued to play without any semblance of rhythm offensively, and committed turnover after turnover, sending Toronto into the fourth with a 90-66 lead.
It was much of the same in the fourth as the lead reached as many as 34.
The Raptors shot 48.8 percent from the field, made 11 threes, and also improved their percentage at the line after their 9-for-13 Game 1 performance, making 18 of 19 attempts.
Leonard finished with 37 points on 15-for-22 shooting, including 4 of 8 from three. Lowry had a strong bounce-back game with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting and seven assists Siakam added 19 points and 10 rebounds. Gasol had nine rebounds, five assists and three rebounds, but his biggest impact was on the defensive end where he helped shutdown Vucevic and also made the simple act of passing the basketball a challenge as he tallied four steals.
It was yet another quiet night for Vucevic, which will be the biggest concern moving forward for Orlando. He was held to just six points, committed four turnovers while struggling to pass around Gasol, and perhaps more alarming, attempted only seven shots as he was essentially immobilized by the Raptors defense.
OFTEN A TOUGH MATCHUP
Any playoff matchup was going to be a challenging one for Toronto, despite the team’s second-place finish in the Eastern Conference, but Orlando has had a knack for playing the Raptors well.
Two of Toronto’s worst offensive performances of the year came against the Magic and a so-so outing in the first meeting was only saved by Green’s buzzer-beating two-pointer.
Before the Raptors flipped the script by pounding the Magic 111-82, Raptors backup point guard Fred VanVleet, one of the team’s headiest players, was asked to weigh in on why Orlando had played so well against one of the NBA’s top teams.
“I mean they’re a good team. Maybe it’s just a matchup thing, maybe styles, who knows?” VanVleet told Postmedia inside Toronto’s locker room.
“They’ve got guys that match up well, they’ve got a veteran point guard (D.J. Augustin, the Game 1 hero) who can shoot the lights out. They’ve got a super athletic kid at the four (Jonathan Isaac), Aaron Gordon is pretty big and strong and matches up well with Kawhi (Leonard) and they’re well coached. They’re defence first,” VanVleet said.
And that wasn’t even mentioning Magic all-star centre Nikola Vucevic, who was one of the league’s most-improved players this year and had a 30 point, 19 rebound, eight assist masterpiece against the Raptors back in December.
Orlando likes to slow the game down, while Toronto loves to run. In most of their previous meetings, the Magic got the pace that it wanted.
“They make it hard on us, but I think the games we’ve had success we’ve kind of dictated the kind of game it’s going to be and our defensive intensity and pressure has trumped theirs and we’re able to get some more opportunities, but you let ’em feel good on offence you’ve got to have even more energy on defence and that’s kind of been a little bit of a problem for us,” VanVleet said.
On Tuesday, Toronto was able to change the results, creating chaos on defence, turning the Magic over, leading to fast breaks and easy buckets for the home side.
Toronto forced 17 turnovers, leading to a whopping 26 points and only committed seven.
But the performances of Toronto’s two best players weren’t the whole story. They also got a super-charged complementary outing from Pascal Siakam, who had 19 points (on more efficient 8-of-16 shooting) and 10 rebounds. The Raptors forward looked just as comfortable as he did in Game 1, and continued to find ways to contribute on both ends of the floor. Likewise, Marc Gasol eventually took his moment to shine too. Despite a scoreless first half, Gasol would finish with nine points (on three timely 3s) and five assists (including a couple of mind-warpers), while getting a hand in on four steals. His counterpart, Serge Ibaka, put together some quality minutes as well, chipping in with 13 points and eight rebounds. No one could really do wrong down there for Toronto.
The Raptors didn’t do as well on the perimeter as a team though. They shot 11-of-35 from deep altogether, with Danny Green and Fred VanVleet going a combined 0-for-5, Norman Powell tossing up a 1-for-6, and even Jodie Meeks managing an 0-for-3 on the evening. It’s another way to frame how good Kawhi and Lowry were tonight, though. Toronto didn’t get its usual production from their fifth and sixth best players (Green and FVV), and it didn’t matter either way. The Magic have to be looking at that stat and wondering what they could even do differently.
And just to round out the narrative: In the fourth, with the Raptors thoroughly crushing the Magic, Lowry got tangled up with Michael Carter-Williams, drew the foul, and got a chance to pump the lead up to 33 with a technical free throw. Lowry hit that one too, saying afterwards that what he did differently in this game was “make shots.” The Raps would finish with that aforementioned 29-point lead, the largest post-season margin of victory they’ve ever had as a franchise. The cheers for Lowry’s last point were more perfunctory — if no less appreciative — and decidedly more relaxed. The series is tied now 1-1, and it feels like the Raptors have remembered who they are.
More importantly, Leonard was every bit the player the Raptors sacrificed so much for during the offseason — not limited or hobbled or load-managed or coasting. “I took him out after a 12-minute stretch at the end of the third, and I told him he’s got a two-minute rest and he’s going back in. He said he was ready now,” Nurse said. “I think he’s ready to play as many minutes as he can handle, and he can handle as many as the game calls for.” Leonard finished with 37 points on 15-of-22 shooting.
The Raptors got Playoff Kawhi, the ace-in-the-hole who thrives — never cowers — under pressure from the jump, even after he picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, and then a third in the second. Who cares? Not him. Leonard can self-regulate mid-dribble. He looked pissed off, but never fazed, reacting to his second foul by coming off a screen, balanced like no Raptor before him, muscling his way to the middle of the paint, rising up and scoring over Nikola Vucevic’s outstretched arms. On the next trip, Leonard barreled into Jonathan Isaac, and respected by referees like no Raptor before him — especially with his arms flailing in disbelief after a few bad breaks — Leonard extracted a late whistle and nailed two free throws.
It was one of the few calls that went the Raptors’ way. The Magic drew three fouls on one possession. A “Refs, you suck!” chant broke out before the midpoint of the second quarter, possibly a Scotiabank Arena record. By the end of the half, Leonard, Danny Green and Marc Gasol were in foul trouble, and Toronto had only connected on 4-of-15 3-pointers. Yet they led by 11.
It was the Raptors like we have never seen them before, refusing to succumb to the whims of circumstances. For all the comebacks the Dwane Casey-era Raptors were known for, resiliency was a trait they usually shelved by April. “I guess I had a decision to make there, right? I think at that point, we were off to a good start and we were imposing our will on the game,” said Nurse about the decision to keep Leonard in the game despite foul trouble. “And I figured I’d roll the dice so our will could continue to be imposed.”
Leonard was indeed a force of nature, the gleaming certainty that can break any opponent’s hope. Six years ago, you could draw parallels between the Raptors and the Magic: a tough, defensive-minded squad with a spate of almost stars, powered into the postseason by a late-season surprise run. Old for a first-time playoff team, but young enough to be excited at the prospect of whom they could turn into when the lights came on. DeMar DeRozan and Lowry eventually earned All-Star berths — as Vucevic has and Gordon might — but they perpetually fell short when faced with LeBron James, a series shifter whose talent allowed him to play with his food until he decided it was time for the next round.
In the two games he’s played in this series, Vucevic is averaging only 8.5 points and 7.0 rebounds, while shooting a dreadful 6-for-21 from the field.
Those numbers paint a dismal picture, but most concerning for the Magic is the number of attempts Vucevic has had in this series. Twenty-one total shots from the field isn’t a lot for a star player – particularly one who averaged close to 17 field-goal attempts per game in the regular season. This is probably the biggest reason why he hasn’t been able to get going offensively, and it’s because of how the Raptors have been defending him thus far.
Vucevic was always going to be a major focus for Nurse and his staff coming into the series. They’ve appeared to have found the solution by sending double-teams his way and forcing the ball out of his hands, a strategy that’s worked to devastating success in Game 2 in particular.
If you’re the Magic, how do you get your best player going? Clifford believes a lot will depend on Vucevic finding the solution himself.
“My experience in series is like this: The best players – and I believe he’s been our best player all year, he’s a very, very good player – there’s just certain things they figure out as the series goes on and sometimes there’s things you can help them with and sometimes they have to figure it out,” Clifford said. “He’s a bright guy, he’s a very good player and I think he’ll figure this out.”
The next time you’re watching a Raptors game, just iso cam Lowry. Watch him not only with the ball, but without it. Look at the way he finds space, the way he creates space for others. See the how he anticipates and sees the game playing out two steps before it does. Notice the little tugs, grabs, bumps into another player’s hip — not flagrant enough to draw attention, but effective enough to give a teammate the time and space they need.
The Magic grew so frustrated with those little impediments at one point Tuesday that Michael Carter-Williams threw a left elbow at the side of Lowry’s head. It was the fourth quarter, and the game was well within Toronto’s control. But Lowry never stopped competing, and subtly held onto Carter-Williams’ wrist beneath the basket as he tried to collect a rebound.
Even after taking that elbow behind the ear and a shove, Lowry barely reacted, letting Carter-Williams pick up a personal foul and a technical. Carter-Williams — who Lowry bloodied in Game 1 with an errant forearm — was incensed. Meanwhile, Lowry walked calmly down to the other end and drained his team’s free shot.
“He played well tonight,” said Kawhi Leonard, whose game was unbelievable. “I felt like he played hard in Game 1 — rebounded the ball well for a point guard, led us in assists. Tonight he made shots. He led us in intensity. He did a great job in bouncing back. He’s a pro. That’s what pros do. It’s one game, and they come into the next game ready to play.”
That much was evident from the beginning. It was only a minute after that unlikely, mid-free throw ovation that Lowry drew his first charge, scrambling from one side of the paint to the other to get in the way of a stampeding Aaron Gordon, whose hip drove straight into Lowry’s chest.
And it was only a couple minutes after that when Lowry used a subtle Serge Ibaka pick to get open beyond the arc, where Leonard found him already rotating into his shooting motion. As his first three-pointer of the night, his first of the playoffs, and his first in 10 days fell, Lowry held his follow-through for a perfect beat before turning back up-court. All he did at the other end was block a D.J. Augustine attempt at the rim after the zippy Magic guard blew by Leonard.
It was Leonard’s game in the end, but Lowry was the most significant development. Lowry’s greatness never resided in his limbs or his fast-twitch muscles so much as it resides in his heart and butt and brain, and at 33 it hasn’t gotten easier. After the free throw he lined up a three-pointer off a sharp, smart cut, and it went down for his first field goal of the series and the crowd roared again. Finally.
Lowry was present, in that outsized wilful way he can be. He snuck to the rim and took a charge and blocked a shot just below the rim. He snuck into the lane with bursts and played give-and-go and tied up seven-footer Nikola Vucevic for a jump ball that Lowry didn’t even contest, because the point of the tie-up was to make the big Magic star wonder when hands might unexpectedly claw at the ball.
Lowry and Leonard have not always meshed this season. Lowry’s best games were when Leonard was being told to rest; in Game 1 Lowry’s passivity meshed with his occasional playoff struggles. He has defended his playoff performance, and justly.
But of all the ways this team is still figuring out its fit, with Marc Gasol in his 28th Raptors game and Siakam rising, and a starting lineup that was playing it’s 11th game in Game 2, and the bench still finding its way … well, the Leonard-Lowry partnership is the foundational piece that has never felt truly at home.
In Game 2, it did. Leonard’s ability to create space and deliver precision is truly mesmerizing. You know how sometimes this year it looked like Kawhi was in an individual workout with nine other players on the court, probing for weaknesses, isolating and bullying, polishing his arsenal?
Well, this game was like that, because Leonard was comically precise. He was limited to 16 first-half minutes by foul trouble and finished with 37 points on 22 shots, all delivered with a rhythmic death stare. Quietly, the organization couldn’t wait to see how Leonard would play once the post-season hit. This is why you trade for him, and what he can do.
But you can expect that. Lowry, you can’t. And with few Raptors actually scoring — they hit 88 before a player other than Leonard, Lowry, Siakam, Gasol or Serge Ibaka dented the scoresheet — Lowry was needed. It’s been a weird year, with the ups and downs, the back injury, the rolled ankles in March, the trade whispers around the deadline that were quiet and brief, but real.
While Toronto benefitted from a gargantuan bounce back performance by Kyle Lowry (22 points, seven assists) and the latest game in which Pascal Siakam looks like a future star (19 points, 10 rebounds), Leonard was masterful. In addition to his scoring, Leonard picked up four rebounds, four assists, and a pair of steals.
It was the perfect Kawhi Leonard game. There wasn’t much pomp and circumstance to his performance, he just put on his hardhat, went to work, and made his opponent pay. Leonard is a special player, someone who is able to take over a game by meticulously breaking your will to live with a barrage of jumpers, drives, and suffocating defense.
He put forth a clinic in the third quarter, picking apart the Magic en route to 17 points in the frame.
Again, this sort of performance is why Toronto decided to part with perhaps the most popular player in franchise history, someone who made it clear he wanted to spend the rest of his career in the city, to get Leonard even though he could pack up and leave once July 1 rolls around. Leonard is a champion and an NBA Finals MVP who knows what it takes to win in the postseason, the kind of player who is capable of leading the Raptors to a place they’ve never been before. And who knows? If he plays the rest of the postseason like he did on Tuesday night, perhaps Toronto will be able to get there.
“Just seeing the type of shots that he was making and the way he was playing tonight — he was in foul trouble, too,” said Pascal Siakam. “The way he was playing with all of those fouls, and he’s still being himself and playing like he’s supposed to, it’s pretty impressive for me just to watch.”
The manner in which the Raptors won was the most impressive aspect of the evening. They bottled up Orlando shooters, forced four times as many turnovers as they did Saturday and turned those into 26 points, and got sublime performances from their best players.
Leonard was at his absolute best when the Raptors put the game away with a 30-27 burst in the third quarter. Playing all 12 minutes, Leonard was 7-for-9 from the floor and added an assist as Toronto took a 90-66 lead into the fourth.
He played until he left to a standing ovation with less than five minutes to go.
“Obviously the offence is sticking out with 37, but just a much more locked-in defensive approach,” Nurse said of Leonard. “But I think it was a team-wide thing defensively, so he was a big part of that, but about every guy who hit the floor was locked in as a team defence.”
In tying the series, the Raptors moved to 7-2 all-time in Game 2s at home, and 7-6 overall in the second game of any series.
They did it with a dominating defensive performance from the opening tip, taking Orlando guard D.J. Augustin (nine points) and centre Nikola Vucevic (six points) right out of the game while it was still in doubt.
It’s not that the veteran-laden Raptors roster played with more intensity than they did in Game 1. It’s that they played with more intensity for far longer on the evening.
In a game the Raptors had to win, their best players played like their best players. Kawhi Leonard led the way with a game-high 37 points, fourth most in franchise playoff history, and Kyle Lowry poured in 22 points after failing to score a bucket in Game 1. Josh Lewenberg has more on Kawhi and Lowry’s dominant performances.
Lowry follows up goose egg with big Game 2
The veteran Raptors point guard bounced back from a scoreless Game 1 to post 22 points, seven assists and four rebounds in a game that he and the Raptors desperately needed.
Lowry, playing in his seventh season in Toronto, has been on the wrong end of too many disappointing playoff performances that don’t match his All-Star level of play during the regular season.
Those playoff letdowns alongside DeMar DeRozan, combined with the availability of Leonard from the Spurs last offseason, prompted the Raptors to retool the team around their new superstar.
When Lowry laid Saturday’s egg in a loss, it felt like old playoff times in Toronto.
For the record, I’m pretty sure that the Raptors have at least four wins in them this postseason. A team boasting two All-Stars, the favorite for the Most Improved Player award, and one of the deepest and most versatile rosters around is capable of battling back against an opponent that shot over its head (48 percent from 3) and still needed a miscommunication between Leonard and Marc Gasol—two signature defensive players of the past decade—to eke out a win. But even if Toronto does get its act together and escape the abject humiliation of a first-round exit, it’ll be hard to shake the overriding sense that these supposedly new-and-improved Raptors are actually just more of the same.
Loving this team means accepting that life is pain and also that time is a flat circle. These also happen to be prerequisites for loving the movies of David Lynch, which are all about thwarted desire—“you’ll never have me,” whispers Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway, which came out in 1997, in the nascent years of the Raptors franchise, and may or may not represent the elusive possibility of them ever sweeping a goddamned series. They’re also about repetition and recurrence, the realization that nothing ever really changes, no matter how much you want it to, or how much it seems like it will. I don’t speak French, but I know what that feeling is called: déjà vu.
“What year is this?” asks a disoriented Dale Cooper in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return. Stuck in some weird, purgatorial loop of time and space, our hero is unable to differentiate between past and present. I feel you, Coop.
When Toronto-based artist Joanne Tod attended her first Raptors game last November, she was impressed by the players’ agile movements, their seemingly effortless ability to leap through the air and, most of all their sheer magnitude. Even the shortest player, the six-foot point guard Fred VanVleet, seemed imposing.
Tod found the players to be undeniably dynamic, so she put them at the centre of her latest project, Organizing Principle. She painted proportional oil portraits of the entire roster, arranging them from tallest to shortest. Each piece took three days to draw and paint, and Tod used the players’ official team photos as her template. Here, she speaks about some of her favourite portraits from the series.
Washington Wizards Get: Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, 2020 first-round pick (lottery-protected through 2021, then converts to two seconds)
Toronto Raptors Get: Bradley Beal, Ian Mahinmi
The Wizards would be reluctant to trade Beal after they watched him prove his mettle as a primary option, but this deal facilitates a semi-rebuild while also adding flexibility to a cap sheet in need of exactly that. Ibaka and VanVleet provide leverage in upcoming free-agent negotiations with Tomas Satoransky and Bobby Portis; if the Wizards have proven options at those positions, they might avoid overspending to keep incumbents out of desperation.
Powell is a rotation wing who’d play significant minutes immediately, and Anunoby, coming off a down year, is the high-upside, buy-low asset who pairs nicely with a lottery-protected first. Washington also gets off Mahinmi’s expiring dead money, which leaves John Wall as the only sketchy long-term investment on the payroll.
Remember, though, that this is about helping Beal get to a better spot. And Toronto sure looks better than Washington.
Who’s not intrigued by a starting five comprised of Kyle Lowry, Beal, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol? Yes, this assumes Leonard is gone. And yes, the Raps would have to re-sign Green and Gasol (should he turn down a $25.6 million player option) to make that happen. But this group would be good enough to contend as long as the Raptors could find two or three decent rotation players on the market to create some depth.
Beal’s suspect defense would be minimized by the presences of Green and Siakam in this hypothetical, and the Raptors could stagger his minutes with Lowry’s to have a quality creator on the floor at all times. Though Leonard is the superior overall player, Beal’s game could fit into a free-flowing offense a bit better. He’s comfortable zipping around off the ball, while Leonard’s more isolation-based approach sometimes gummed things up for Toronto during the regular season.