Endgame…let’s do this!
Remember that friend of mine from Saskatoon who came to Toronto just to stand in Jurassic Park? He sent me this.
RAPS PRESIDENT MASAI UJIRI JUST SHOWED UP
— Devin Heroux (@Devin_Heroux) June 10, 2019
KAWHI LEONARD IS not afraid to test himself against the best.
When he was working out at San Diego State in 2010, between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he got word that Ariza — then firmly entrenched as an NBA player, and already having won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers — would be working out on campus.
So Leonard sought out Ariza, who had come to work out with his trainer, former Aztecs guard Tony Bland, and asked to take part. Ariza agreed, and found himself immediately impressed with how Leonard handled himself.
“Man, my first impression of him was, ‘This kid is here to work, period,'” Ariza told ESPN with a laugh. “No matter what.”
That summer in San Diego, Ariza was putting in plenty of work. Every day, he would get in the gym twice — once early in the morning, and then again in the evening. It was a grueling schedule, one Ariza thought would put him above and beyond anyone else.
There was only one problem: Leonard.
“I prided myself on being there first person in all the time,” Ariza said. “And, when I got there, he was already there. He’d done everything he needed to do, and he was ready to work out again. … When I saw the work ethic he had, I knew he was going to be special.”
Leonard was motivated to show up early to test himself against an NBA player. And Ariza wasn’t just any NBA player. He was someone Leonard respected — but also someone who didn’t overwhelm the young forward on the court.
“Trevor was big for me in college,” Leonard said. “Playing against him, I just felt like I held my own at the time.
“I probably won a game. I don’t remember. … [but] I was fortunate he would let me work out with him.”
Leonard might not remember, but Ariza certainly did.
“He was winning one-on-one drills that we were playing. He didn’t win them all, but he wanted to,” Ariza said with a laugh. “He went as hard as he could every single time. … He has that edge to him that you need to be the caliber of player that he is.”
If Leonard enters any game with some kind of vendetta or personal agenda, he keeps it inside. His play makes a more powerful statement than his words or meme-worthy laughter. His “in the moment” mantra, which the Raptors have chosen to adapt throughout these playoffs, really is who he is. And it’s really what Toronto has become — a team that had to eat those LeBronto jokes and got mocked for being frauds (even while James made an entire conference suffer for nearly a decade). They don’t want to reduce what this journey has been about to some petty, payback, we-told-you-so session as it relates to this Finals match-up with Golden State.
“We’re all different players from different teams. Toronto has never played them in the playoffs. It’s different paths for different guys and I think we’re all just living in the moment and knowing and understanding the situation,” Green said as he headed out of the locker room Friday, “and knowing how good this team is. We’ve got to take it serious. Until the job is done.”
If the Raptors are able to finish off the Warriors, some will attempt to diminish the title because their opponent was at far from full strength and devoid of the “y’all know who I am” version of Durant. But that can’t be a worry for Toronto. Any attempt to toss an asterisk on the title should be countered by an explanation that luck favors the prepared.
Olajuwon is still known as a two-time champion, regardless of whether or not Jordan was retired for one of those seasons. Curry is a three-time champion despite claiming his first against a Cleveland team missing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. And Durant got the first of two titles when Leonard got hurt in a dominant first-half performance in Game 1 of the conference finals.
The Raptors ran the East the first season after James decided he couldn’t ignore the lure of Los Angeles. Now they haven’t had Durant, a two-time Finals MVP whose jumper spit flames on competitive balance. Stuff happens. If they didn’t take it, there’s no guarantee someone else would have (Portland and Houston couldn’t). But they still need to finish. No one needs to remind the destroyer of dreams. Leonard has never blown a 3-1 lead but he has seen a championship vanish with the swiftness of a Ray Allen corner 3. What he wants is in front of him.
“You got to be patient with it,” Leonard said. “It doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win. We just have to stay confident in ourselves. Be patient. Don’t rush things, and see how it plays out.”
It’s not all that difficult to find reasons for the Raptors’ scoring success: The Warriors are incredibly banged up. (And this year’s defense was not quite as good as it was in previous years to begin with.) Kevin Durant has not played a second in the series. Klay Thompson was clearly hobbled by his balky hamstring throughout this game. Kevon Looney — somehow playing through a fractured collarbone — looked like he could barely move. DeMarcus Cousins is still not 100 percent after tearing his quadricep earlier in the postseason. Livingston is slowing down. Quinn Cook is a subpar defender. Alfonzo McKinnie can only occasionally be trusted. Jonas Jerebko and Jordan Bell seemingly cannot be trusted at all. And Stephen Curry is not the world’s best defender when he’s carrying his usual offensive burden. His shot-creation workload has necessarily limited him even more than usual on defense, and he has compounded those limits by taking silly and often unnecessary risks away from the ball.
Toronto’s offensive rating for the series now stands at 115.1, per NBA.com, better than any mark the Cavaliers posted against the Warriors during their four consecutive finals clashes. This is also not the only series this postseason in which Golden State’s defense has struggled.4 Their defensive rating for the postseason overall is no longer even in the top 10 among the 16 teams that made the tournament. That is a major departure from their previous four trips to this round, when they ranked first, seventh, second and first among playoff teams in defensive rating.
This Warriors team has overcome a whole lot during its time together. They have even overcome a 3-1 lead against an elite team. But no team in Golden State’s current position — down 3-1 and having lost both games at home — has ever come back to win a playoff series played under the current 2-2-1-1-1 format. That’s a lot of bad history to be working against.
It would be one thing if the Warriors were playing things close and just coming up short, but that’s not really been the case. The Raptors have won the scoring battle in 13 of the 16 quarters played in this series. What the Warriors appear to need right now is a miracle comeback. With doubts about Durant’s ability to return to the floor — and with the Warriors having already lost a game during this series where Steph went supernova — it’s difficult to fathom that miracle materializing.
Leonard and the Raptors have steadfastly said throughout the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA Finals that he’s fine, despite him occasionally limping at times throughout each of the past several games. But while Leonard has continued to say if he’s able to play it means he isn’t injured, he admitted it is taking extra time for him to get ready to play each game.
“Just go out and play,” Leonard said. “But I mean, you know, it takes a lot of, you know, pregame effort now. I’m seeing medical, warming it up, and, you know, going from there. That’s the big thing about when you do get an injury. And you can’t just run on the floor after you’re in shootaround — pregame shots. Gotta go back and do something with somebody until game time.”
Meanwhile, the specter of his upcoming free agency looms over both Leonard and the Raptors. The possibility exists that, no matter what happens over the final few games of this series, that Leonard could go elsewhere — likely to the LA Clippers, if he does leave — as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
For his part, though, Leonard maintains that the only thing he is thinking about right now is what is in front of him: trying to win a second NBA title. The Raptors lead the best-of-seven series 3-1. Game 5 is Monday night in Toronto.
“Not now,” Leonard said. “I mean, obviously — you know what you want. But I’m not thinking, like — just because of this and this, I’m gonna re-sign.
“I’m not even thinking about signing or what team I’m gonna go to, free agency, none of that. I’m just focused on what’s in front of me right now. And then, you know, once it’s over, then I’ll revisit everything.”
Champions aren’t built by blueprint. The Warriors proved that, actually: that 2015 championship team was absolutely bizarre and few believed they were capable of winning it all until they did it, even as they wrecked the league. (Look at the comments on this piece I wrote in January 2015 about the dynasty prospects of the team. And yes, that’s a humblebrag that I suggested a potential Warriors dynasty before their first title.) The 2014 champion Spurs were quite odd, as well, centered on a mix of old former stars playing out the string and young blood personified in Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers, Heat, and Cavaliers teams of the past decade are a bit more normal: put some All-Stars together, watch the magic.
The non-blueprint title team most like these Raptors are the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, and not because they are a shock to the system. Those Mavericks were centered on one pure superstar with really smart, really hardworking, really tough defenders and playmakers around him. That describes these Raptors to a tee: Leonard is otherworldly, Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka are all brilliant, strong, and tireless. (A coach willing to try unconventional methods helps, too.)
In some ways, Masai Ujiri’s blueprint for the Raptors looks traditional: he traded for the best player available on the market. Having a top-5 player is usually a requirement for winning a championship. The Raptors didn’t have one before. After the Kawhi trade, they did. Pretty basic.
“The way we laid out the schedule was good. I’m happy.”
The payoff for Leonard and the Raptors has exceeded expectations. The Raptors lead the Golden State Warriors 3-1 in the series and a home win on Monday would give the franchise its first NBA title. Leonard is averaging 30.8 points and 10.3 rebounds against the Warriors and is the favorite to win his second Finals MVP award. On Friday, he scored 36 points in Toronto’s 105-92 Game 4 victory and is now averaging 31.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 22 postseason games.
“Obviously, he’s playing great,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said late Friday. “He’s lifted us a lot of times with big buckets or just that settling bucket when the place is going crazy and he’ll calmly sink one to kind of quiet the crowd.”
If the Warriors fail to bring the series back to Oakland it would mean that Leonard closed Oracle Arena with a win. (The Warriors are moving into a new arena in San Francisco in September.) It’s significant because Leonard’s career took a dramatic turn at Oracle Arena two years ago when he turned his ankle after landing on the foot of former Warriors center Zaza Pachulia in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Leonard missed the remainder of the series and then appeared in just nine games for the San Antonio Spurs the following season due to a quad injury. The fallout from the injury, notably the Spurs and Leonard disagreeing on how to treat the ailment, led to the All-Star forward asking to be traded.
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri jumped at the opportunity to acquire a transformative talent even though Leonard will become a free agent on July 1st and is rumored to want to join the LA Clippers. Still, Ujiri bet on himself that he could win with Leonard and convince him to sign a contract extension. Part of building trust with Leonard was creating a work schedule that would placate both the player and benefit the team.
With the Raptors successfully navigating the regular season with Leonard sidelined 22 games, he has rewarded their patience by bringing the team to within one win of lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy. He beat the Philadelphia 76ers with an iconic shot in Game 7, took four straight wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and presumptive league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and won two games at Oracle Arena against the two-time defending champions. At times, Leonard has appeared hobbled during the playoffs but he hasn’t missed a game.
“You do your warm up, get treatment before the game, off days and after the game whatever that can help speed your recovery up so you’re able to play the next day,” Leonard said.
To get this close to a title, you have to be a shapeshifter on both ends. A team that was once predictable and monotonous has proven itself as such even though its lead superstar is not known as a playmaker. They have toggled seamlessly from one variety of half-court set to another, and another, and another. When they sensed chances to run, they ran.
It all starts with Leonard — his ability to both start and finish possessions in a variety of ways and dictate pace. We spend a lot of time nitpicking stars who fail by some impossible Jordanian standard in the playoffs. Some of that is dumb noise — Damian Lillard hitting the second series-ending buzzer-beater of his career, and two rounds later facing questions about his viability as a postseason superstar.
Some of it is interesting and worthwhile: Is Chris Paul’s career proof of the difficulty in building around a 6-foot player? What does it mean that James Harden has underperformed his incredible regular-season standards by 5 or 10% in most postseasons? The playoffs are harder than the regular season. Perhaps some slippage should be expected. But the questions are legitimate.
Perhaps we have not spent enough time amid all of that calling Leonard what he now indisputably is: one of the greatest postseason performers in the history of the sport, the rare superstar who gets better in the playoffs.
Leonard won Finals MVP in 2014, a year after exploding as a 21-year-old in the 2013 Finals. He averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the 2017 playoffs — and locked up everyone on defense — before one false Zaza Pachulia step ended his season, and really his San Antonio career.
Welcome news for the Raptors who have relied on VanVleet’s timely and accurate shooting from deep throughout these Finals with the Golden State Warriors.
Better yet for Toronto, the worst-case scenario involving VanVleet was avoided.
“Nope, no symptoms, no concussion, so you guys can leave that alone,” he said. “We have great doctors and great staff and the NBA is great and they follow a protocol.”
This is a huge sigh of relief for the Raptors because of the job he’s done on Warriors superstar Stephen Curry.
Over the course of these Finals, no Raptors defender has seen Curry nearly as much as the 132 possessions VanVleet has and in that time VanVleet has given Curry fits, forcing him to 8-of-26 shooting overall and 3-for-14 from three-point range.
The scary potential of a concussion loomed large on VanVleet but thankfully for him and the Raptors that won’t be an issue anymore meaning Toronto will have no issues unleashing its pit bull against Golden State’s two-time MVP, and the only thing VanVleet will have to worry about is his new grin.
“I’m not gonna smile for you or show you, but I’m back to normal,” VanVleet said, adding that he got it fixed after receiving a CT scan to check for any additional bone damage as soon as he landed back in Toronto.
Who knows, but we do know that this injury has changed not only the Finals but potentially the entire NBA.
That begs the question: What’s really going on with Kevin Durant? Will he be back prior to the ending of the 2019 NBA Finals? Will he return to Golden State? Is he playing it safe, not wanting a DeMarcus Cousins-like injury to ruin free agency?
Clearly upset that he can’t be there for his team, Durant’s been involved in cheering on his team, hyping up his players, and most likely given counsel when asked. Either way, Durant hasn’t shied away from supporting his team.
From that angle, let’s be honest with ourselves. There’s no reading between the lines about free agency. This injury has devasted the Warriors and Durant. It may have been worse than first thought, but if he were capable of contributing, he would be.
In that Game 4 against the Warriors, Leonard out-inevitabled (not a word, but you understand) a seemingly inevitable Golden State team. The Raptors were getting crushed in the first quarter, so Kawhi matched their scoring, more than doubling any other player’s point total on both teams. Then in the third, with the Raptors searching for their first lead down four and the Warriors faithful getting antsy, he shot the gun right out of Golden State’s hand. In that frame, Leonard almost outscored his opponents by himself, putting up 17 points to the Warriors’ 21 by way of his complete scoring package (massive 3s, trips to the line, steady jumpers), plus five boards and a steal. Again, that was just in 12 minutes.
“You just got to be patient with it,” said Leonard when asked if it was difficult to stay in the moment now that the Raptors are one win away. “We were two games away, four games away, it doesn’t matter until you get that fourth win. We just have to stay confident in ourselves, be patient, don’t try to rush things, and see how it plays out.”
We’ll heed Kawhi’s words here, but it bears mentioning that the odds are now in Toronto’s favour. Only one team out of 33 has come back from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals (and, as we all know, it was against these Warriors). And while Leonard refuses to put words to it, everyone in Toronto knows how big of a deal that is. Still, Kawhi sets the tone, and his teammates would be remiss in letting themselves, or anyone else, get ahead of things here. Look no further than the Raptors’ veterans to see how far that sentiment has travelled.
“I like to think that there are always more levels, that we can always get better,” said Marc Gasol, who rounded into form as the game wore on, and continues to follow bad performances with good ones. “And I think we have to. Game 5 is going to be — every game gets a little harder and harder. So Game 5 is going to be really tough. We’ve got to come out with a lot of energy, discipline.”
The Warriors are good enough to make a series of this and maybe even come back to win, they’ve proven that. But Golden State doesn’t just need to come back from a 3-1 deficit, Toronto would also need to cough up its 3-1 lead. Given how well the Raptors have played and how unrelenting their best player is, it’s hard to see them squandering three opportunities to close this out.
Since the very start of these playoffs, Kawhi Leonard has been a man on a mission. He’s put up historic numbers, produced iconic moments, and has shown an incredible will to win. The Warriors have to beat this guy three times in three games.
“I mean obviously he’s a specimen, we all know [that],” said teammate Pascal Siakam. “To be able to use his length and athleticism, it’s incredible the way he does it, and obviously his hands. It’s amazing to watch.”
Leonard has only lost three straight games five times during his eight-year NBA career. However, two of them came in the playoffs – both to Durant and the Thunder.
Durant, who has been out for over a month with a calf injury, is listed as questionable for Game 5. He was finally cleared to practice on Sunday, and getting him back on the court and scrimmaging with his teammates was believed to be the next – and perhaps last – big hurdle in his return.
Even if he is able to play, it’s hard to know what we should expect from the Warriors superstar. He was playing some of his best basketball ever before going down in Game 5 of the Conference Semis against Houston. Still, he’s been out for a long time, was only recently able to get back on the court in any capacity, and is clearly far from full strength.
With all of that in mind, his return would certainly change things for both teams. The Raptors have to game plan and account for one of the best players in the league, while also worrying about the trio of Curry, Thompson and Green, which is precisely what’s made the Warriors so lethal since they signed Durant in 2016.
Meanwhile, Durant would also give Golden State a much-needed lift – both tangibly on the court and emotionally, in terms of the team’s confidence.
Whether Durant is able to return on Monday or not, the Raptors would be best served to stick with what’s been working for them. There’s little reason to believe they won’t. Following Leonard’s lead, the team has been unflappable. After big wins or following bad losses, their demeanour hasn’t changed. Now, they’re on the cusp of knocking off the Warriors and potentially breaking up one of the greatest dynasties the game has ever seen, and they’ve barely cracked a smile.
“Yeah, I got (the tooth) fixed yesterday. I got back home, went to the hospital, got a CT scan to make sure that no bones were broken in my face, and then went and made a visit to the dentist and went home and went to sleep,” VanVleet said on Sunday.
“No symptoms, no concussion. You guys can leave that alone and we have great doctors and great staff. We followed the protocol and we made sure that we’re in a right state of mind before we go out there. So if anything, it will be on me to make sure that I report everything and tell them how I’m feeling,” he said.
VanVleet said he hates playing with a mouthguard, and though it cost him in this specific situation, he won’t stop going all out on the court, much like a few of his teammates.
“Yeah we got some tough guys. You’re not going to get knocked around like that, if you don’t stick your nose in there sometimes, and it was an unfortunate play but it happens, it’s basketball,” he said. “If you haven’t gotten your eye cut up or get hit in the mouth a couple times playing basketball, then you’re playing it the wrong way. It’s not something that I’m trying to do by any chance, but I was just trying to win the game. It was a fast-break, I was trying to get position, inside position for a rebound, Serge made a great play on the ball, they called a foul and Shaun came down and gave me a good hit. So it is what it is, we won the game. It would hurt a lot more if we had lost.” VanVleet said this playoff experience has taught him that the best make it far for a reason.
“It takes a little bit more (to win a closeout game),” he said. “It gets harder and harder and harder and that’s what makes the playoffs so tough, each round gets more difficult and these guys have been very difficult to play against, and it’s taken a lot of excellence on our part to try to get it done and nothing’s going to change that.
“We have to continue to take care of what we have been doing and really play at another gear, and we still got room to grow, which is great, this team can get better, we can play better and we look to do that (Monday) night.”
Kevin Durant, one of the best players in the league and the two-time reigning Finals MVP, returned to practice Sunday signalling his potential return for Game 5. With the Warriors down 3-1, Kawhi Leonard ‘in the zone’, and the Raps’ depth shining through, will Durant’s possible return make enough of a difference? NBA on TSN analyst Jack Armstrong joins James Duthie to discuss.
The blank-faced predator, indifferent to what you want. Durant has been one of the very few players who can deal with Kawhi as a primary defender, and even he has trouble. When Durant dropped 51 here in late November, he scored 21 points in 46 possessions where Kawhi was deemed the guy defending him by NBA.com’s matchup data, which against Kawhi is pretty good. But then, Durant scored the other 30 in 39 possessions against everybody else.
This is what the big show would have been, had Durant been healthy: two of the three or four players who can claim to be the best in the world, two free agents-to-be who have the power to reshape franchises and perhaps the league — Kawhi was asked about a report he had bought a house in Toronto and said, “No, it didn’t … it didn’t happen yet, no” — facing down under the brightest lights.
And even if Durant were to return for Game 5 — out of game shape, no on-court scrimmaging for a month, with a calf that still clearly isn’t 100 per cent and, again, is connected to his Achilles — the Raptors wouldn’t be scared because, Kawhi. Leonard has been the argument-ender already in these playoffs: He devoured Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler in Game 7, and in the final four games against Milwaukee, all Raptors wins, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 25 points on 141 possessions with Kawhi as the main man, versus 57 in 172 against the other Raptors.
For all of the Warriors, Kawhi awaits. He is averaging 30.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks in the Finals on .653 true shooting, which combines the efficiency of every shot plus free throws. In Durant’s three previous NBA Finals, he has averaged 31.7 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.6 blocks on .650 true shooting. But of course, Durant never faced Kawhi. He’s not going to be the one that saves them Monday night, if they can be saved.
“The hardest part about being an athlete is going through injuries, especially when your team is playing for a championship,” said Golden State’s Klay Thompson. “It sucks. I feel for Kevin … I think it’s pretty easy to realize we obviously miss him out there, and he’s propelled us to two championships in the last two years. So it would be pretty storybook if he could come back and help us do the same.”
VanVleet’s beat-up look was symbolic of the grittiness these Raptors have shown all season — a group that is one win away from its first championship and doesn’t have one lottery pick on the roster.
“I’m not trying to be a martyr — I just got my tooth back,’’ VanVleet said. “We got some tough guys. We’re not going to get knocked around. We’re going to stick our nose in there. It was an unfortunate play. If you don’t get cut up once in a while, you’re playing basketball the wrong way. This would hurt a lot more if we lost.”
VanVleet’s 3-point shooting and dogged defense on Curry are factors in the Raptors leading 3-1. Raptors first-year coach Nick Nurse even started VanVleet the second half in Game 3 alongside Kyle Lowry for his pesky defense on Curry.
“I know how important I am to this franchise,’’ VanVleet said.
Nurse called VanVleet “an ice-water-in-his-veins-type of guy.”
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