Leonard’s Game 2 was equal parts delicate and brutal. The ruthlessness of the hot start took no prisoners, and once foul trouble surfaced, his offensive game became increasingly imaginative, briskly navigating away from Orlando’s feeble attempts at drawing charges. Through these stretches the defense was unrelenting. It is rare to see an athlete so focused on an outcome rise to the occasion with such precision. Pound-for-pound, he is the best Raptor player ever. If there was an example of a man leading with his actions more than words, it was this. There are many definitions of leadership. The Harvard Business Review defines it as such:
Leadership is the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants. The man who successfully marshals his human collaborators to achieve particular ends is a leader. A great leader is one who can do so day after day, and year after year, in a wide variety of circumstances.
This direction need not be verbal in nature, and manifesting in yourself what you expect of others is a subtle and powerful form of leadership that Kawhi Leonard excels at. If he is the physical exemplar, then Kyle Lowry must be the vocal evangelist. The combination of the two can be sufficient for the Raptors to reach new heights, and as a Day One Raptors fans, this combination is just as enjoyable, if not more, to watch as Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.
Game 2 was predictable much like the Sixers blowout win over Brooklyn. The shock first impression followed by the equal and opposite reaction. And then some. So fearful was Nick Nurse of giving any ground in Game 2 that he extended Kawhi Leonard with three fouls early in the second quarter. Fred VanVleet’s and Norman Powell’s poor performances compounded the risk of having the second unit “alone” out there. Despite having a double-digit lead, Nurse wasn’t having any. If you’re keeping track at home, the equation looks like this: as the trust in the second unit declines, Kawhi’s minutes increase. By extension this will have an impact on Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam as well, and though the Raptors may get away with that strategy against the Magic, downstream opponents pose more serious threats. The approach here is to wait and see if the bench regains any sort of composure after getting killed 32-19. And pray. Lots of prayer. As much as we hope that Jodi Meeks, Jeremy Lin or insert-whoever-else contributes at the margins, the two guys the Raptors need defensive and offensive production from are VanVleet and Powell, both absent in the first two games, with the former looking sluggish and out-of-shape. Patrick McCaw’s return should help on the defensive front along with OG’s, but there is a stretch where the bench has to put on their big boy pants and not rest on Kawhi’s lap.
The phrase “suffocating defense” is often used in a hyperbolic context in professional sports. This was not the case on Tuesday night. I have never seen a Raptors team employ the defense that they came out with to start the game. If it weren’t for some dubious calls, especially on three-point shots, the Raptors might’ve just kept the Magic to under 10 points in the first. Granting that it’s the Magic and not the Bucks, it is thoroughly encouraging that the capability of playing this level of defense exists on the team and can seemingly be turned on at the flick of a switch. Though human stamina limitations prevent that from happening for extended periods, having the luxury of throwing down a defensive gauntlet led by Leonard and Marc Gasol is something no other team can afford and one that is a distinct competitive advantage.
In a 1-1 series, Game 4 becomes pivotal because it would either make the series 3-1 (basically over) or 2-2 (brand new series). In hindsight as Siakam alluded to, Game 1 might have been the wake up call this team needed, and you would think they don’t need another in Game 3, so I’m picking the Raptors to win again. The Magic may have sensed that the Raptors’ defensive pressure and intensity leaves them exposed to picking up fouls, so you could see them force the issue more. They’ll also look to further exploit our bench weakness through their bigger guards, but Nurse has mentioned that he doesn’t plan to suffer like he did in Game 1 and is willing to switch to even up size much more quickly. There’s almost a sense that the Raptors have taken Orlando’s best punch and survived it, exposing a reality for the Magic: they remain an inexperienced playoff team much like the Raptors were earlier in the decade and are liable to make similar mistakes, e.g., not finishing quarters, poor shot selection in key moments.
One sidebar in the series is how well the Raptors have defended Nikola Vucevic. The center averaged 20.8 points in the regular season and is at 13.5 in the two games. Marc Gasol’s blanket coverage is one of the main reasons, specifically the angles he’s giving Vucevic, who remains reluctant or incapable of taking what’s on offer. More importantly, Vucevic serves as a good test in the event that Gasol finds himself matched up with Brook Lopez at some point. If there was ever a doubt whether this was the right acquisition at the right price, consider two things: 1) how well JV would have fared guarding perimeter-preferring big men, 2) if JV could supply the same defensive bursts that put away the Magic. Marc Gasol is the pass-first, reluctant-but-efficient shooter and sound defensive big man that the Raptors have always lacked. Not since Antonio Davis have we had a defensive center where you can rest easy.
To close, a little on the media. We live in the world of hot takes. It is far more economically viable to discuss what Kawhi’s real estate holdings are and whether he’s homesick than it is to discuss his on-court performances. The people clicking on a “Kawhi dominates Magic” headline are far fewer than ones who succumb to a “Kawhi longing for Clippers”. The media business is tough and even reputable hacks like Brian Windhorst have been reduced to discussing Kawhi’s exit plans rather than his hoops prowess. I understand it, but it doesn’t stop me from hating it. Then there’s Paul Pierce calling Kyle Lowry “a regular season player” when Lowry has a 0.453 winning percentage in the playoffs compared to Pierce’s 0.488. And Lowry didn’t play with Hall of Famers. I know it’s supposed to be entertaining, but it just reeks of bait to me. Not to say there isn’t good stuff out there – Kobe Bryant detailing Kawhi Leonard is the type of stuff that you love to see.
Let’s go Raptors.