Game 3 may not go down as the most memorable outing over the Toronto Raptors’ 21 game playoff run. It wasn’t a basketball masterpiece nor was it a last-second edge of your seat affair. In fact, the part that will be etched into viewer’s minds years from now will most likely be Stephen Curry’s herculean 47 point night.
Wednesday evening was a grit it out performance in which the Raptors unconvincingly held off a severely undermanned, but pesky, Golden State outfit. The game was begging to become a blowout from the get-go, but Toronto would not oblige. It took Fred VanVleet’s last-ditch fling from deep to drop for me to finally wipe the sweat from my brow.
But none of this matters. It ain’t about how, it’s about how many.
And how many wins away are the Toronto Raptors from securing a first ever NBA Championship? Two. Dos. Deux.
They could be out there beating Jackie Moon and the Flint Tropics for all I care. All that matters is the Larry O’Brien trophy.
With that being said, if the Golden State Warriors can piece together some semblance of their former selves, then Toronto must perform with more ruthlessness. They must execute with more precision. And they must focus on running their offence without relying on Kawhi Leonard as the sole on-ball presence.
“We just gotta keep playing in flow really. I feel like we don’t need to worry about me scoring the basketball. We can all score with the offence that we have, we just gotta keep moving it,” Leonard said after the game. “At times when I do have the ball the offence gets real stagnant and we just stay in one spot which is so easy to guard if you are defending us.”
Toronto’s lineup is littered with playmakers that can lessen the burden on Leonard’s shoulders. Kyle Lowry remains a versatile pick-and-roll wizard, Marc Gasol can make every pass in the book from the elbow and the low block, and Pascal Siakam is a sponge whose basketball IQ is rapidly evolving in his favourite fastbreak scenarios. Each of these players have shown their utility to varying degrees across the playoffs, but over the first two games of this series they were slowly reverting back to the habit of playing spectator to Leonard. Yet, Game 3 showed that the Raptors function far greater when Leonard’s counterparts initiate the offence.
Leonard has proven to be an overwhelming force with the ball in his hand. The Sixers had no answer for him as he clawed the series from them one pull-up at a time. Leonard foresaw the Bucks simplistic trapping techniques and crushed them. Now, the Warriors are throwing a myriad of disguised looks that are stifling Leonard and the Raptors’ entire offensive possession.
After getting a preferential switch onto Andrew Bogut off of the double screen, Leonard fails to capitalize on his mismatch, instead slowly backing the ball out far too deep and allowing Draymond Green to pressurize his outlet pass. In theory Leonard is trying to take would-be defenders out of the play by drawing them out so far, but his passing isn’t crisp enough and Green bluffed him by recovering back before the pass had been made. By the time the ball is hurried back into Leonard’s hands it is too late.
There have been far too many of these possessions. As Leonard mentioned, there is next to no guys moving off-ball. They are passengers waiting for something to happen. Players, like Siakam, cannot get into a rhythm as simply catch and shoot options.
This is not all Leonard’s fault. He is still somehow making many of his solo pick-and-roll missions work, laboured leg and all. He is irresistible at times no matter how many defenders are sprung on him. But, in those opening two games it simply did not feel sustainable as the consistent staple of the Raptors’ offence.
Thankfully, Lowry avoided foul trouble and finally brought his presence party. He put on a dazzling display of passes; sneaking into crevices, ‘nashing’ pick-and-rolls, and playing hot potato to get his teammates wide open shots.
(I couldn’t find my favourite, so I put damn near all of his assists in there. It’s like picking between your children.)
Lowry put on a virtuoso performance that is hopefully going to force some U.S media outlets to begrudgingly acknowledge that he is in fact a five time all-star.
As Lowry generated looks for others, Leonard was able to better pace himself and conserve energy for winning time. Leonard only had two field goals in the first half, and 5 of 7 makes in the second half were assisted as he took over late. In the first two games combined, Leonard was only assisted on seven made shots. Even when he brought the Raptors home in the second half, Leonard was receiving the ball in comfortable positions against a scrambling defence under duress rather than taking excruciatingly difficult contested shots.
Another sticky part of Toronto’s offence in the first two games was Leonard hitting Gasol outside for pick-and-pop looks. Gasol remained hesitant to shoot freely and Golden State’s off-ball defenders stuck to their man so that no pass was readily available. The ball would be frozen at the top of the key for an eternity.
In Game 3, Nick Nurse made a deft adjustment in making Gasol far more aggressive as a roller on screens. And Gasol was not shy about attacking as a scorer in those scenarios, causing DeMarcus Cousins to look more like his sluggish Game 1 self. The early eight points Gasol scored forced defenders to respect him, opening up outlet passes for wide open shooters. All four of his assists came in the second half.
Leonard avoided being the primary ball-handler for long stretches of the second half and was very selective in the moments that he did. For example, he brought Lowry in as a screener when Curry was forced to guard him due to Danny Green being off of the floor, and subsequently danced in the pick-and-roll to perfection with his partner. Once Lowry and he had unlocked the mismatch it was time to drop the shoulder and score against the lesser defender.
This is pure bliss. Leonard was so adept at blending in with his teammates — he picked his spots, empowered others to be more prominent, all while dropping 21 points in the second half. Ironically, his second half felt Tim Duncan-esque in the way that he quietly went about filling the stat sheet.
Leonard has an affinity for launching threes off of the dribble this postseason, half of his makes from deep have come unassisted. However, he simply isn’t offered the same space given Golden State’s array of blitzes, traps, and hedges. There has been the briefest of fleeting moments where Leonard is granted enough space to comfortably shoot from outside. That has to be frustrating. The solution? Team up with a trackstar from Douala, Cameroon who can get out and go:
These were Leonard’s only made shots from three on Wednesday, both coming from Siakam applying pressure on the defence early. Siakam’s blazing speed to leak out down court in transition and his sheer athleticism at the rim has been given much praise during the his Most Improved Player campaign. As such, he now possesses a Giannis-lite gravity that compacts a defence and leaves shooters open. Leonard is a knock-down shooter, and Siakam now has the skillset to find him for these easy opportunities.
Kawhi Leonard is the best player the Toronto Raptors have ever possessed. He has taken them to unforeseen heights. Now empowering his teammates to take the lead will bring him a second NBA title.