We’re just better. By a lot.
“That was a gutsy performance by him,” Nurse said after his team took a 2-1 series lead.
“He didn’t practice the last couple of days, he hadn’t been feeling that well and for him to go out there and fight through that and still play 37 minutes, I look down at this thing and I’m most proud of his 10 rebounds.”
Only Pascal Siakam (42) and Kyle Lowry (40) surpassed Leonard’s time on the floor on Friday, and both of them recorded double-doubles as well.
In Game 2, Leonard exploded for 37 points on 15-of-22 shooting in a dominant 111-82 victory in Toronto. He’ll have until Sunday to rest up for Game 4.
“I think it showed some toughness for us,” coach Nick Nurse said afterward. “It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight. I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in. Again, this is a good team.”
Leonard said, despite not feeling great, he now feels great: “We won.”
“It’s the playoffs and we want to come out and win the game. That’s all I’m thinking about. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. This is the journey to become a champion and these are the things you’ve got to go through.”
The series should truly not be this close. The Toronto front office made two big trades, adding Leonard, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol to this lineup precisely because it wanted this group to be able to contend for an NBA title this season. The resulting roster is stacked with talent. The Raptors can scatter the floor with all-defence players, and thanks in large part to the emergence of Pascal Siakam, they have multiple ways to generate offence.
Here was Orlando coach Steve Clifford, talking before Game 3, about the difficulty of facing the Raptors: “Their defensive personnel is so good. They have two guys who are defensive players of the year. They have four guys who have been on the all-NBA defensive team a lot of the time. They are long, they are great with their hands, and they force turnovers.”
For years this was the franchise that spoke from the gospel of continuity, pointing to the progress that came with keeping the DeRozan-Lowry core together for years upon years. Until, that is, the summer of last year, when team president Masai Ujiri said goodbye to all that. Rebuilding his team in the off-season with the Kawhi Leonard trade and reconsidering it again at the deadline with the Marc Gasol acquisition, the Raptors have traded continuity for an all-in run at the first NBA final in franchise history. And it’s going OK so far, with Toronto holding a 2-1 lead in their first-round series against the Magic thanks to a 98-93 win on Friday night.
Still, given the relative unfamiliarity of key players — and that’s unfamiliarity as measured against the comparative roster stability of more established contenders — this is a team that’s still learning as it goes, even as it attempts to go deep into the playoffs. The Raptors lost Game 1 on a miscommunication in crunch-time coverage that left Kawhi Leonard out of position as Orlando’s D.J. Augustin buried the winning jump shot. And there were moments in Game 3 when it looked like Toronto’s stagnant, one-note offence might get them in more trouble, with the ailing Leonard running a merciless loop of isolation plays on a night when he managed just 16 points on 19 shots and six turnovers.
“I think, if I look at the game, there was probably about 10 possessions I’d like to have back,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said after it was over. “There was, like, six or seven in the first game. There was 10 (in Game 3). I thought we were on a rhythm and we were starting to break ’em down and then we’d come down and just take a silly, quick shot without exploring first.”
Hey, you learn as you go. And you take timely performances when they come. On Friday the saving grace was Pascal Siakam, whose 30 points and 11 rebounds on 13-for-20 shooting provided the antidote to Leonard’s struggles and Kyle Lowry’s just-OK 12 points and 10 assists on 4-for-10 shooting.
Of note tonight, this is Kyle Lowry's 52nd playoff game as a Raptor, a new franchise high. Passes DeMar DeRozan.
— Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) April 20, 2019
Three – Weathered: Kawhi Leonard followed up his 37-point explosion by shooting 5-of-19 from the field with six turnovers. He stubbornly charged into extra bodies in the lane, didn’t have his usual lift on the jumper, and still he insisted on monopolizing the ball down the stretch despite being ice-cold. Nick Nurse explained after the game that Leonard has been under the weather, and that he hasn’t practised over the last two days, which would explain the poor performance. The silver lining is that Leonard still chipped in with 10 rebounds, which spoke to his determination to impact the game on an otherwise miserable night.
Four – Heroic: As was the case in the regular season, Pascal Siakam stepped up in Leonard’s absence. Siakam led all scorers with 30 points, shot 13-of-20 from the field, and consistently answered Orlando’s runs with clutch baskets. Siakam logged 42 minutes tonight, and that arguably wasn’t enough. Siakam carried the team in the third quarter, and he delivered a clutch layup late in the fourth to stop the Magic’s comeback in its tracks.
Ibaka alluded to it when I caught up with him as he rested for the club’s final regular-season game in Minnesota last week.
“Playoff is about team. It’s no more about me or OG or about Marc,” Ibaka told the Toronto Sun unprompted.
“Now it’s about team now. It’s more we all know you have to do the best you can to help your team to win because if your team lose, you go home and nobody wants to go home. At this point, we work so much, we work so hard to be here, to get in this point where, I just want to finish. I want to finish to the end. Don’t want to finish half, or early like last year (getting crushed with Cleveland, with Ibaka being benched). What happened, it’s over, so this year we have other mentality. We want to finish to the end.” That same evening Nurse discussed the competitions.
“I think it was small battles, it wasn’t fights. There were some battles going on,” Nurse said.
“Serge and J.V. both wanted to start. OG missing in and out, he wants to start. Marc wants to start. There was all kinds of little things, like it just wasn’t like holding hands and jumping rope all the time. But it’s good to face those (issues), look ’em in the eye, face them, deal with them, get used to ’em and then also get used to (being) ready to change if they change.” Before Toronto faced Orlando in Game 3 on Friday, Ibaka was asked about his tremendous statistical season. “It was a lot of fun,” right, asked a reporter.
“He’s unbelievable,” guard Kyle Lowry told reporters after the game when asked about Siakam. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s going to continue to get better. His personality is just to go play and have fun.”
It was a miserable start to the game for the Magic. Toronto ran out to an early 10-2 lead on the home team, taking advantage of four Orlando turnovers in the game’s first five minutes.
“Tonight, obviously our turnovers hurt us again,” Nikola Vucevic said after the game. “We had too many of those, which led to empty possessions for us. Against a team like them (Toronto), we can’t have that.”
Toronto made four of their first six three-point attempts, and their lead could have been significantly more if not for the heroics of Jonathan Isaac.
Isaac kept the Magic in the game early with his effort on the defensive end. The long and lanky forward was everywhere on the floor for Orlando, recording two steals and two blocks in the game’s opening period.
Isaac’s stellar defensive play aside, the Magic still began the game ice cold, missing 11 of their first 15 field goal attempts. Nothing came easy for the Magic in the first quarter, especially in the paint where Toronto was smothering Orlando’s offensive attack.
“We’ve got to figure out the beginning of halves,” Coach Clifford told reporters in his post-game conference. “Both games (Games 2 and 3), first five minutes of the first quarter, first five minutes of the third quarter.”
“There was a little consideration to leave him a little bit. We’ve been in a lot of foul trouble this season, I’m getting in some good practice at trying to mold these early-foul situations over,” Nurse said. “At that point, I thought we’d be OK and try to save him till late because Serge was playing so well. More consideration was to let Serge keep going, to be honest. We did let him go a long ways and maybe should have even a couple more minutes because he was really playing.”
None of those instances was a disaster on its own, save for the Vucevic stretch of dominance the Raptors promptly bounced back from. It’s the three situations in concert, though, that are a bit concerning. Say what you will about the officiating in this one — and the Magic crowd serenaded Tony Brothers and company with a “ref, you suck” chant despite a 13-free-throw attempt advantage in the game and 26 in the series — but the Raptors should be able to withstand foul trouble and going to their transitional lineups a little more often.
They did, in the big picture. How close the game ended up highlighted some trouble in terms of the team’s depth and its first-half rotation. Nurse went to a Siakam-and-bench group again to end the first, and it once again struggled. There’s certainly justification for using nine players to keep more players ready and involved, trusting energy and defence to hold water while the primary players are bought more rest. (Siakam has played outstanding under a heavy, heavy workload through three games.) Still, the Raptors know by now that groups with fewer than two starters tend to struggle, and they’re avoidable. Even small negatives in transition lineups matter despite not killing leads, because there’s an opportunity cost of having not taken better advantage of the Magic bench and, like the Gasol foul-trouble minutes showed, an advantage left on the table can increase the risk profile later in the game.
By the end of that run, Siakam had already surpassed his previous career playoff high of 24 points, which he set in Toronto’s disappointing Game 1 loss to Orlando. The 25-year-old Cameroonian totaled 30 points, adding 11 rebounds and four assists in a 98-93 win that gave the two-seeded Raptors a 2-1 edge in the series.
“It’s playoff time,” Siakam told ESPN’s Jorge Sedano afterwards. “It’s time to go.”
The Magic had no answer for Siakam, a 6-foot-9 stretch forward with the athleticism and skill to bounce around the halfcourt and score at every level. He made 13 of his 20 field-goal attempts, converting three of his four 3-point tries.
He was Toronto’s representative on our list of seven co-stars who could swing the 2019 NBA title, and he has shown no fear in his first playoffs as a central figure.
Siakam scored all of 66 points as a reserve on the Raptors that were swept out of the second round by Cleveland Cavaliers season. He has 73 through three games of this series, and Toronto has needed all of them to ward off another playoff scare.
“I put in a lot of work,” added Siakam, who went from seminary student with limited basketball experience to NBA prospect at a Basketball Without Borders camp in 2012. “I’m just happy I’m here and a lot of African kids can look up to me and know that it’s possible. That’s why I’m here, and Most Improved Player will show that.”
Siakam Much More Than NBA’s Most Improved Player
Third-year forward Pascal Siakam appears to be the favorite for the 2018-19 Most Improved Player award following a breakout regular season. Now that the postseason has arrived, he is showing his true value.
Siakam entered 2018-19 with career averages of 6.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. He took a big step forward by establishing new career highs in scoring (16.9), rebounds (6.9) and assists (3.1).
John Schuhmann of NBA.com noted that Siakam had the third-biggest increase in points plus rebounds plus assists per game this season at 13.1.
Even those numbers don’t show how valuable he is to the Raptors. Game 3 did, though.
Siakam has been one of Toronto’s most consistent players this postseason, entering play Friday averaging 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. As Leonard struggled with his shot most of the night, Siakam guided the Raptors to victory.
The 6’9″, 230-pound big man made 13 of 20 shots (3-of-4 from beyond the arc) in recording a game-high 30 points in 42 minutes. He scored 12 in the opening quarter.
“(The assistants) were trying to sub and I said, ‘I ain’t subbin’. I ain’t ready to sub,’” Nurse said Friday.
Nurse acknowledged that he was at least mildly influenced by the shocking events of Monday night, when the Golden State Warriors coughed up a 31-point third-quarter lead and lost to the L.A. Clippers. The Clippers, by the way, came into the series at 100-to-1 Vegas odds to eliminate the Warriors, which made them the biggest NBA post-season underdogs in 30 years, according to ESPN.
“(Golden State’s loss) certainly crossed my mind,” Nurse said. “I didn’t say anything to the guys, but I had to say some stuff to my assistants about it. ‘Did you watch the (Warriors-Clippers) game (Monday) night?’ ”
So Nurse didn’t take out Kawhi Leonard, whose workload seems to be precisely measured to the droplet of sweat, until there were fewer than five minutes to play and the Raptors were up 31 points. He didn’t take out Kyle Lowry until there were fewer than four minutes to go.
Gasol wasn’t just the most important defensive component of Toronto’s to-that-point successful campaign to eliminate offence from Orlando, he initially looked like their only option.
In previous seasons this might have spelled disaster for the Raptors but not with the weapons this team has at its disposal as the Raptors didn’t just survive Gasol’s extended stay on the bench, they thrived in his absence on their way to a 98-93 win and their first series lead.
Serge Ibaka, who was sharing the credit over the first two games for doing such a thorough job on Vucevic, began the night looking nothing like that player from the first two games as he struggled before he was mercifully pulled after a short stint in the first.
But when Gasol had to come out of the game with two minutes gone in the second half it was back to Ibaka who hadn’t exactly instilled a lot of confidence in his play to that point.
Ibaka, though, rose to the challenge after Vucevic initially seemed to catch fire without Gasol there to hound him.
Toronto’s defence as a whole stepped up in the absence of their big centre and put the clamps down on Orlando’s offence.
Led by Pascal Siakam at the other end, they built themselves a lead they would not relinquish.
Over a four-minute span late in the third the Raptors put together an 18-2 run with half the points being accounted for by Siakam alone.
It opened up a double-digit lead for the Raptors and helped them to a 2-1 lead in the series.
Making a game about officiating feels like a losing proposition, since favour always makes its way back to you, but the Tony Brothers-led crew is definitely the first talking point from tonight. Both sides felt jilted, as “ref you suck” chants rained in Amway Center and both Leonard and Kyle Lowry had an extended discussion with Brothers after the game was over.
No matter who ended up on top, a shy whistle early on allowed two defensive-minded teams to become demonstratively physical, resulting in a slog of action — one more closely resembling the last era in which the Magic wore pinstripes in the post-season. The Raptors just did a better job of creating offence than the Magic (44.8 FG% vs. 36.3%), doing so despite a rough shooting night (5-for-19) from Leonard. Unable to get a call on multiple trips to the basket, Leonard needed help in order for the Raptors to get a win. That’s where Pascal Siakam came up huge.
Siakam finished the game with 30 points and 11 rebounds, the first Raptors player since Chris Bosh to put up a 30/10 game in the playoffs — who also did so against the Magic. He basically laughed in the faces of everyone (cough, me) who projected a difficult series against Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, as Siakam more often than not found himself with a smaller defender on him after help had collapsed. With the mismatches, he was poised and able to finish — ending with what would be the key bucket in the game, an eight-foot, gut check of a floater with 1:33 left that gave the Raptors a six-point lead.